Illustration of Madonna surrounded by photographers with her shadow extending towards a figure behind her and the figures face reflected in Madonna's shadow

Dialogue

Judge Not Celebrities!

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Cathleen Falsani

If you say a modern celebrity is an adulterer, a pervert and a drug addict, all it means is that you’ve read his autobiography. —P. J. O’Rourke

Perhaps I was naïve to think I could thank a celebrity publicly for something she did that was a source of epic blessings in my life. I had no idea a thank-you note could be so controversial or elicit such vitriol.

But that is precisely what happened earlier this year when I wrote a column thanking Madonna (the pop singer, not the Mother of God) for opening the door to United States families like mine to adopt from Malawi when she successfully appealed a Malawi court’s denial of her petition to adopt her daughter Chifundo (Mercy) last year.

When Madonna won on appeal and was able to bring her daughter home, it made case law that, a year later, allowed my husband and me to successfully petition Malawi authorities to adopt our son, Vasco. In our hearing June 1 in Blantyre, Malawi, the judge cited Mercy’s adoption as binding case law. Ours was the first U.S. adoption from Malawi approved since Madonna’s adoption of Mercy.

“A door swung open and a way had been made for us to become a legal family. It was a mitzvah created by many human (and divine) hands, including yours,” I wrote in part. “From the bottom of this new mother’s heart, thank you. . . . You have been a mighty vessel of chisomo—grace—in our lives. And in my heart, you will always be Vasco’s fairy godmother. God bless you, Madonna.”

Shortly after my column appeared on HuffingtonPost.com, the comments began rolling in. Some were affirming, but many were angry.

“Oh wow. Did you also thank Madonna for years of sinful messages? Messages of lust, blasphemy, fornication, adultery, new age, you name it?” one commentator, ironically named “Christian,” wrote. “You’re talking about God to [a woman] who never even apologized to society for her doings to God’s PEOPLE and influencing them and their CHILDREN while in pursuit of her wealth and fame.”

Yikes. Clearly, I’d touched a nerve.

After I got past my utter surprise at such responses, I began ruminating on the nature of celebrity and why we are so quick to judge public people harshly when we would not want to be judged that way ourselves.

As a culture, we place celebrities on pedestals and then take great delight in knocking them off. We tilt our pointy lances of judgment at the famous and infamous and feel somehow self-satisfied when they fall.

By the same token, though, we Americans in particular love nothing more than a good comeback story. When the glitterati stumble and descend into scandal or heartache, we cheer them on when they climb back up on their own two feet and once again ascend the pedestal. And the cycle repeats.

Forty years ago in The Image, the cultural historian Daniel Boorstin defined a celebrity as “a person who is known for his well-knownness.” Boorstin lamented a time when celebrities were also “great” people, well known because of their accomplishments and the cultural artifacts that they had created. In his view, the nouveau celebrity of the 1960s was hollow and shallow by comparison.

These days, celebrity and greatness are even less synonymous. There are different levels or kinds of celebrity, the most common of which are people who are celebrated—or vilified—for their personal lives, rather than their accomplishments.

Surely no one is a celebrity without being famous or infamous. But there are famous people who would not necessarily be labeled celebrities. Nobel Peace Prize winners. Scientists. Jurists. Some artists and professional athletes, and at least a couple of politicians.

Then there are people who are celebrated for what they have created or achieved whose biographies eventually obscure their accomplishments. They become better known (or infamous) for their personal intimacies—tragedies, triumphs, or misdeeds (real or imagined)—than they are for what introduced them to the public consciousness in the first place. Think Sandra Bullock, Mel Gibson, Lance Armstrong, or Tiger Woods.

Celebrity is big business and celebrity-toppling is a blood sport. There is even a popular web site—Deceiver.com—dedicated entirely to pointing out (with great glee and snark) celebrity hypocrisy.

Fame is also a kind of currency. Sometimes we praise those celebrities who spend theirs for the betterment of humanity through philanthropy or lobbying on behalf of the voiceless (see Bono of U2 or Angelina Jolie in recent years). Still, in the next breath many of us will condemn their “good works” as sheer opportunism or, even worse, hypocrisy.

If we admire a celebrity and value what they have contributed to society, we tend to laud them for their “goodness.” But if we don’t like them or their work, we’re skeptical of their motives.

What this tells me is that celebrity functions as a psychological (and, perhaps, spiritual) mirror. We see ourselves reflected, for better or for worse, in their glittery starlight. How we feel about or judge a celebrity says much more about us than it does about them.

I can sit back and watch poor Lindsay Lohan’s world unravel into chaos and judge her from a distance. It affords a safe and anonymous sense of superiority. I don’t know her and I can’t begin to imagine, really, what her life is like. But I can judge her and may do so harshly, with society’s permission.

Nothing raises our hackles more than perceived hypocrisy. Our fangs come out when we see someone talking the talk but not walking the walk. Yet hypocrisy is part of the human condition. We’re all guilty of saying or believing one thing and behaving in a polar opposite way. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. We are all capable of moral acrobatics. Each of us has split our psyche at some point in our lives. So why do we greet a celebrity’s alleged hypocrisy with such disdain?

Perhaps it is a matter of self-preservation or protection. It is too painful to recognize our own hypocrisy, so we channel our energy into damning it in someone else—especially in those strangers with familiar faces. We don’t actually know them but we feel like we do, so therefore we have permission to judge them with abandon.

The most pernicious manifestation of our unhealthy preoccupation with celebrity comes when we devalue or dismiss the cultural artifacts or accomplishments that a famous person has contributed to culture because of a personal (and private) misdeed.

Should Mel Gibson’s recent missteps and very public fall from grace negate the beauty of his work as an actor and director? Is it fair to dismiss former president Bill Clinton’s achievements, past and present, as a public servant because of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky?

If Lance Armstrong someday admits that he doped his way to the zenith of professional cycling, will that make his story of overcoming cancer any less inspirational? Should I not have thanked Madonna for her role in the adoption of my son because of her hypersexuality or diva-like tendencies?

If we were to answer “yes” to any of the above, it might be an indictment of ourselves rather than the celebrities in question. It might speak to a compassion deficiency, rabid self-righteousness, and spiritual myopia.

And if we assign, consciously or unconsciously, a certain divine imprimatur to our moral judgment of celebrities because we are people of faith, this could be even more egregious.

For true believers, the only celebrity that should matter and to whom we should worry about comparing ourselves is the Divine.

Cathleen Falsani is an award-winning religion columnist and author of nonfiction books, including the memoir Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace and The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers. Find more of Cathleen’s writing on her popular spirituality and pop culture site, The Dude Abides (cathleenfalsani.com).

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