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Celebrities vs. Critics: Why This Battle Has No Winners (Column)

Confusing thoughtful criticism for personal attacks helps no one.

When actor Olivia Munn tweeted a “short essay on…ugly behaviors” late Wednesday night, she insisted that a blog had been unfairly maligning her for years. She wrote that she wanted to confront the idea that baseless critiques, particularly those aimed at women, are never okay no matter how famous the target may be. On the face of it, this is an eminently reasonable statement and the kind of “you go girl!” clapback the internet loves — or at least it would be, if she hadn’t picked entirely the wrong targets.

In trying to call out “blogs…with their snarkiness and hypocrisy on full display,” Munn highlighted a site — “Go Fug Yourself, founded by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan” — that has consistently proved itself to be anything but. Despite its cheeky title, “Go Fug Yourself” is not, and has never been, akin to Perez Hilton annotating unflattering paparazzi photos with obscene squiggles. Cocks and Morgan are thoughtful writers who know the fashion industry and take its context into consideration when dissecting how, when, and why a celebrity makes an appearance in his or her carefully selected clothing. They are critics who understand their chosen subject matter, inject their analysis with self-aware jokes, and express their expertise without ever (as Munn insists) “spewing whatever vitriol they want.”

This all makes for an especially bizarre disconnect given that Munn began her “short essay” by acknowledging that achieving a certain level of fame means receiving a certain level of attention from critics “with the understanding that their job is to review and critique; sometimes positively, sometimes not.” In framing her discomfort with Cocks and Morgan disliking a pantsuit as a vicious smear, Munn only proves that she does not, in fact, understand their job at all.

Maybe the weirdest part of all this, though, is the fact that this is far from the only example of a famous person conflating informed criticism with personal attacks this past week. On April 19,  “Saturday Night Live” co-head writer Michael Che took to his Instagram stories to fire back at “Uproxx” writer Steven Hyden, whose crime was a piece on Che’s “Weekend Update” partner Colin Jost’s comedy stylings and place within “SNL” history. Che’s response was to post a series of context-less “jokes” about the writer having “a secret life where he was rescuing dogs and sucking them off.” LOL(?)!

On Monday, rising pop sensation Lizzo tweeted an all-caps missive: “PEOPLE WHO ‘REVIEW’ ALBUMS AND DONT MAKE MUSIC THEMSELVES SHOULD BE UNEMPLOYED.” It was startling, both because Lizzo’s new album “Cuz I Love You” has been getting almost entirely rave reviews, and because the tweet seemed to be aimed at a mixed Pitchfork review rather than the bad faith takedown her tweet suggested. (She later tweeted some vague disclaimers about wanting journalists to better understand the craft that goes into making albums, but they have since been deleted; the original tweet remains.) On Wednesday, Ariana Grande came to Justin Bieber’s defense after E! host Morgan Stewart sneered at his Coachella appearance by conflating Stewart’s snide remarks with “all them blogs.” (Grande later tweeted that she believes “there’s a big difference between journalism and what was happening in that [E!] video,” but not why she failed to recognize as such when calling out “them blogs,” before deleting the clarification altogether.)

In all these instances, the celebrities in question weaponized their bruised feelings to argue that any criticism of them or their art amounts to unfair personal attacks — and in all instances, they confused analysis for sarcasm (or, in Grande’s case, vice versa). They also failed to recognize that while critics do have some power in how they frame and share critiques, celebrities still have way more when it comes to reach, influence, and resources. A post examining why and how Jost became a popular internet punching bag is not, despite Che’s insistence otherwise, equivalent to the co-head writer of a hugely influential TV show suggesting that a writer is into bestiality. (But given Che’s keen eye for any piece saying as much, I look forward* to my inevitable appearance in his Instagram stories.) (*Okay, now that was sarcasm.)

I don’t know what was in the water this week, but honestly, none of this is particularly surprising. At a time when celebrity press is almost entirely reserved for glowing PR, gushing profiles, and interviews between celebrities lest some pesky reporter prod a sensitive area, the idea and function of criticism itself has never been more in question. But this climate is also exactly what makes it so important to distinguish truly noxious jerks — whom I, a woman who’s worked on the internet for years, would never deny exist — from actual, thoughtful criticism. Real critics want to move a conversation forward; trying to shut it down says more about you than them. 

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