Falling Stars: The Politics of Celebrities

Jeremy Clarkson recently caused uproar by allegedly both verbally and physically abusing a Top Gear producer at a hotel in Yorkshire. Witnesses state that Clarkson “ripped into” Oisin Tymon, threatening to have him fired before throwing a punch that required hospital attention. The incident was allegedly sparked by the fact that the hotel had stopped serving hot food, but more recent reports suggest that actually it was triggered by problems that developed earlier, during filming. Either way, it is indubitable that the repercussions have been extremely damaging to both Clarkson and Top Gear, and brings to attention questions about the status of ‘celebrity’, the responsibilities that come with it, and whether any bad behaviour is acceptable within this context.

The BBC has suffered significantly from the incident; having suspended Clarkson and cancelled the remaining episodes, they have lost over four million viewers and prompted an angry petition with over 900,000 signatures demanding Clarkson’s reinstatement. Common rationale agrees that his actions were unacceptable and the BBC’s decision was reasonable, especially considering Clarkson’s dubious past when it comes to causing public offence. As Will Wyatt, the former director of the BBC, states: “If people thump each other that makes making a programme quite difficult”. So why are so many viewers so blasé about the incident and so angry with the BBC? Why do people think that this is tolerable behaviour and that it shouldn’t be punished?

The answer to this lies in the status of the celebrity as a commercial product. Top Gear is broadcast in over 100 countries, with a global audience of over 350 million. It is the most illegally downloaded show on the planet and its presenters, put together, have a net worth of roughly £55 million. If the BBC actually did sack Jeremy Clarkson – and he seems confident that they will, dropping several hints in both his newspaper column and in public remarks – they would face extreme criticism, judging by the public response to his suspension. Jeremy Clarkson is perhaps the single most important aspect of Top Gear for innumerable people, and many would argue that the loss of the presenter would cause the quality of the show to dramatically decline. The presenter is an extremely valuable asset to the BBC, and a spectacularly popular public figure. Subsequently it could well be argued that, despite several warnings, he has up until now been able to get away with unacceptable behaviour where less venerated people would have been fired immediately, or even taken to court. Even if the BBC sack him, they will still face heavy criticism for their actions, and Clarkson, despite allegedly committing assault, will still receive vast public support.

The status of ‘celebrity’ comes with multiple responsibilities, especially for those with a younger and more malleable fan base. However, the obsession we have with celebrity means that these responsibilities are undermined countless times by media reports of incidents which should remain private. Last year’s disastrous leaked video of One Direction members Louis Tomlinson and Zayn Malik, for example, caused a national uproar. After being filmed smoking and openly discussing marijuana, Tomlinson and Malik were forced to make public apologies and engage in ‘peace talks’ with their families and the band’s management.

It was also revealed recently that they are being asked to send bonds of 200,000 pesos each for a special work permit before their upcoming concert in Manila. Concerned for the influence the band have on young Filipinos, the money will act as insurance in case the duo are caught using or promoting illegal drugs. This rather embarrassing precaution makes it very clear that in some cases the status of ‘celebrity’ is most definitely a hindrance rather than a help when it comes to bad behaviour.

The commercial aspect of celebrity culture sometimes means that bad behaviour is hailed as a selling point or trademark. Last year Madonna caused great controversy by shouting out, “Has anyone seen Molly?” to a crowd at the Ultra Music Festival in Miami, Florida, allegedly referring to MDMA. The electronic house DJ Deadmau5 publicly criticised her for it, accusing her of ‘pandering’ to EDM fans and “dredging up the shit that really held EDM down for years”. Madonna has faced similar criticism for the drug-related content and suggestive title of her 12th album, MDNA, despite claiming on the Jonathan Ross Show recently: “I am not a big fan of drugs… They just don’t suit me”. This directly contradicts her brazen references to drug usage, with the lyrics to “Devil Pray”, a song from her latest album, reading: “We can get high and we can get stoned, and we can sniff glue and we can do E and we can drop acid”.

Madonna has been accused on several occasions of indulging in bad or ‘wild’ behaviour to receive commercial attention, from her notorious kiss with Britney Spears at the 2003 VMA’s to her 1992 pornographic coffee table book, Sex. However, she has also been hailed as founding a remarkable brand of feminism, through this open embracement and expression of female sexuality. Either way, her famously unrestrained conduct highlights the fact that sometimes bad behaviour, in the context of a celebrity culture, is an asset.

This aspect of the celebrity culture, however, often has a seriously detrimental effect on fans. Admiring and emulating popular figures is a vital aspect of adolescent development; a study conducted by USA Weekend in 2006 confirms that over half of teens agree that their peers are more likely to drink or smoke, and over three quarters likely to diet, after seeing celebrities doing the same. Pop culture, the study claims, “Does more than glamorise damaging behaviours… It can also distort young adults’ world view”. Subsequently, it is vital that at least some celebrities act as decent role models.

Their constant presence in the public realm and the natural impulse humans have to admire means that celebrities have certain responsibilities when it comes to their behaviour, even in situations that should be private. In some cases, the ‘status’ of celebrity – their pure commercial value – means that they get away with murder, whereas in others their lack of privacy results in disaster; the images of Cara Delevingne chasing after a little bag of mysterious white powder comes to mind, and H&M have since confirmed that they won’t be using her again. Most importantly, ‘bad behaviour’ is, for many celebrities, just one of their marketable assets. This is certainly the case for Jeremy Clarkson, whose most recent contribution to the controversy surrounding him was to call the BBC “f*cking bastards’” Whether this really is the last straw or not remains to be seen.

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