Can Celebrities Really Be Criminals?

Why Fame Is (Still) The New Innocent

PITNB’s NEW popCULTURE CLUB: theoretically putting the “culture” back in “pop culture,” one post at a time…

It’s been an interesting few weeks in terms of courtroom drama. Between the Jerry Sandusky verdict announcement and the Chris Brown/Drake drama that is still unfolding, we at PITNB have had a lot of discussion in our comments about public figures and what should and should not happen when they break the law. I saw a related conversation taking place on two posts that were also, seemingly unrelated. The Abercrombie and Fitch lawsuit prompted comments about industry life and what models do (and do not) sign up for in this line of work. Do young people, in fact, wave their  legal rights when they participate in certain exploitative practices? And when I posted the photos of Gisele Bundchen, I couldn’t help but bring up the history of the photographer; Terry Richardson’s sexual allegations introduced an interesting question about artists, celebrities, public figures and certain criminal behavior that we seem to ignore because of status, or because we like a particular style of work.

We as a pop culture seem reluctant to view our celebrities—even the ones we dislike—as actual criminals. There’s this adorable little phrase that we throw around (I use it to an obscene amount), and it goes something like this: “I love ((insert fave celebrity name here)) and he/she can do no wrong.” It’s funny, but aren’t we being serious, to a certain degree? Aren’t we admitting that we cannot imagine this person (i.e. Joan Smalls, who I recently referenced in that manner) doing bad—let alone criminal—things?

The movie Frost/Nixon comes to mind right now; there’s that powerful good scene (embedded below, for your viewing pleasure) where Frank Langella as former President Richard Nixon declares, “When the President does it, it’s not illegal.” And everyone goes into shock, but not because he said something that was entirely untrue. Rather, because he spoke to an idea that we all subscribe to, in some way. Isn’t that how we all (secretly or otherwise) feel about our celebrities and public figures? That when they break the law they’re doing it as a result of their celebrity status, rather than criminal tendencies?

This is probably not that big of a deal if it means got into a few clubs before she turned 18, but what about serious crimes? When we support an artist or a public figure by enjoying (and buying) their work, do we, in some way, support the crimes they have committed? And if so, why the hell do we do that?

One PITNBr commented on the Jerry Sandusky post and was honest enough to admit that, as a member of the Penn State University community it was difficult for her to believe that people she felt an affiliation towards would participate in covering up the child molestation scandal. That stuck with me because I realized that we all align ourselves with certain celebrities and public figures, and when they do something wrong it almost feels like a reflection of our own selves. On the Gisele Bundchen/Terry Richardson post I’d mentioned that Carnage was one of my favorite films, but I feel a certain guilt about this, knowing that Roman Polanski (the director) was convicted of raping a 13 year-old girl and has since fled the United States. I find it hard to completely divorce my love for his film from his other actions.

If Roman Polanski ever came back to the US and ended up in prison, the part of me that is a fan of his films would probably feel bad for him. And that’s a big part of me because I effin’ love Carnage! But when else would I mourn the imprisonment of somebody who forced a 13 year-old girl to have sex with him?

In that same postWoody Allen‘s name was brought up in the comments, in an effort to reference another iconic figure with extremely questionable morals (having had an affair with and then marrying his adopted step-daughter or daughter-figure) who still receives total love and support from the industry and the public.

In an interview to promote Midnight In Paris, Woody Allen was asked about the scandal. Allen, 75, replied, “What was the scandal? I fell in love with this girl, married her. We have been married for almost 15 years now.” [Source]

I wonder if this is partly because in admitting that they are wrong—or, more than wrong, that they are monsters of some sort—do we admit to something wrong and monstrous in ourselves (if we enjoy their work and see their films)?

A slightly less philosophical way of looking at it is to say that we’ve come to expect a certain element of criminal behavior in our celebrities; we just don’t call it criminal. We call it ‘celeb drama,’ or maybe we use the phrase ‘legal woes,’ because when the name John Travolta or Lindsay Lohan, or Chris Brown is in front of the word “crime” or “criminal” the idea is modified. I think it’s partly because we know they’re probably not gonna go to jail. Unless we’re talking about certain rappers. We kind of like our rappers—at least the so-called gangsta ones– to do a little time at some point in their life (sorry, it’s apart of the culture), but when the big, commercially successful ones actually go to jail (i.e. Lil Wayne), we’re still taken aback.

Why? Because we think they don’t commit crimes? No. We know rappers—like other celebrities– sometimes do bad things or break the law. But we still expect them to be treated differently or to buy their way out of things. When a celebrity gets sued, there’s a big part of us that also assumes that someone is after his/her money. And we assume that because it’s happened before, or because victims have settled out of court and dropped charges. All of these factors affect the guilty/innocent victim/criminal dynamic to a great degree.

But I think we also don’t really want our celebrities to go to jail. And if Jerry Sandusky had been more of a celebrity, a more familiar face to those of us not a part of the PSU community, I believe our reactions would have been slightly different.

It’s no secret that there are major double standards when it comes to celebrities. Physically we expect them to be perfect, but does that mean we lower our standards for their behavior? If they’re pretty enough, if their music is good enough, if their movies are good enough, or their numbers on the field are good enough, does that outweigh any possible bad? With each achievement they make, do we expect less of them?

In a way, I think we take on this familial love for celebrities, and while I think this makes sense, I’m wondering if an element of it is dangerous. I have family members in jail for horrible crimes right now; but if you ask my biased ass, they’re all good kids who got caught up with bad people! Similarly, my best friend once told me that, at my graduation celebration, one of the men in my family made her a bit uncomfortable. In that way. I kind of waived her off, casually mentioning that he used to be a pimp, so it kind of wasn’t his fault. [Sad, but] true story.

In the same way that I don’t want to believe that the people I love do bad things—criminal things—I don’t want to admit that the celebrities and filmmakers I admire are guilty of criminal or morally questionable acts as well. I once stumbled upon a link that read ‘David Boreanaz affair’ (not to imply that an affair is criminal, but it’s a pretty bad thing, usually) and I X’d out of that ish so fast! I was like, No! Not Angel! And I was right; not Angel. David Boreanaz. There’s a difference, Shannon.

Bu what I’m curious about is whether or not any of this could or should change. Some of us wonder why actors still work with directors like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, considering everything we know about them. Others say that it’s about the art and personal lives should be kept separate—Woody Allen the director is not exactly the same guy who screws his step-daughter, and Roman Polanski the filmmaker is something different from the man who sexually assaulted a little girl.

But are they different people? Or do we just want them to be so we can enjoy their brilliant movies, guilt-free? The same goes for artists like Drake (who many of you wanted to believe had nothing to do with the club brawl); is he innocent because he’s innocent or because we need him to be?

What I’m really asking you guys is, should I or should I not go see To Rome With Love? It comes out July 6th so make your moral position known in the comments.

Just kidding. I’ll decide on my own. But I still, as always, want to hear your thoughts.
Does fame change the way we understand criminal behavior, and will we ever be able to see celebrities as ‘just people’?

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  1. fmx

    Since you put CB & Drake in the picture, as far as CB goes I think some fans have resigned to forgiving him, not accounting for whether he has changed or not. Drake, I’m not sure if he’s quite a criminal but I think he sets a terrible example coming off of Degrassi with his brawls. Terri Richardson, I don’t even think is that great of a photographer but his scandals and notoriety seem to give his career a step up from all the other talented reputable photographers. When someone goes to jail, for say, getting caught with weed then it makes no difference to me. I think that because it makes headlines, it’s all sensationalism that we can’t separate from other daily news like Muslim Brotherhood president winning, and I’m sure you know celebrities gets news/bloggers hits, so they keep writing about them, people keep hiring them because they’re “good” for publicity, and the cycle continues. By the way I like this blog because of all the in-depth stuff instead of *octomom gif here* news.

  2. Andi

    I think that much of the general public lives vicariously through their most loved, or most love-to-hate, celebs. We, following PITNB, are no different. I think as a society we are sort of obsessed with celebs because they are constantly doing things that we could never afford: wearing designer clothes, eating expensive meals, having scores of fans, going on lavish vacations, etc. I think that their bad behaviour attracts us as much as their “good” behaviour. We are fascinated because we will never be able to do those types of things, or at least we wouldn’t be able to get away with doing those types of things. That’s just my opinion though…

    • Andi, thanks for sharing your thoughts. And yes, we absolutely live vicariously through celebs, in a lot of ways. It sounds like you’re saying when they behave badly, we kind of get to do it too, but without consequences. And somehow, there’s a thrill in that!

  3. Darcy

    I have a really hard time not associating the crime with the celebrity, and it definitely shapes my opinion. Like fmx said, if someone gets caught with weed, I really don’t care (because c’mon – it should be decriminilized anyway) or any drug for that matter. But if someone commits a crime that hurts another person, and they’re found guilty or I strong feel they are guilty (ie OJ), I’ll stop supporting them as an artist. Roman Polanski is the hardest, because I loved his films. I think Chris Brown is scum and I won’t even listen to his music on the radio. Same for Woody Allen (even though his wasn’t a crime, just shady and squicky).

    I think we as consumers of the art should be held accountable for supporting artists. It’s up to every consumer on what they’re willing to tolerate with their artists and I have my own set of morals that I live/judge on. I’m not going to hate the person – or be unkind if I ever met them – but I’m certainly not going to condone their behavior with my money.

    • karen

      I’m with you, Darcy. Everything you wrote!

      (And, for the record, I did not share Shannon’s reaction to that moment in Frost/Nixon. Maybe I was naive, but my shock was that Nixon could have such hubris to believe that and the obliviousness to admit it; I did not feel it was — or should be — true. The people around presidents tend to protect them from legal accountability, so there’s rarely enough evidence, but that’s a separate issue…)

    • karen, thanks for commenting. And I admit, my interpretation of that scene is challenged by the fact that the whole Frost/Nixon thing happened because people were unwilling to accept that mentality (that when the president does it, it’s not illegal). But even in admitting that, he was never convicted of a crime!

    • Darcy, thanks for commenting. And I think I feel similar– about audience accountability. I suppose I’m trying to figure out how much we participate in all of this as fans, viewers, bloggers, etc.
      LOL at “shady and squicky” regarding Woody Allen! Exactly.

  4. Krissy

    Bill Maher brought up an interesting point: When you have large organizations that contain mostly men, things go bad. Penn State, Catholic Church, Al Qaueda, etc. Instead of running to the POLICE when a crime is committed, they run to the head of the organization. I think men and women compliment each other. Too much testosterone, and things get crazy. (I think too many women in one group can lead to craziness as well!)

    With celebs, I think the fact that media companies are SO POWERFUL, and so far reaching, that everyone has so much invested in a “star” by the time they become a star, they can’t harm that investment. A news organization that is owned by a parent company that has a movie studio that is producing a movie staring a “trouble star”…well that news channel will NOT be fully vetting the story. Radio/TV News/Record Labels/Network and Cable channels, they are all interlinked.

    • Krissy, I hadn’t even thought of a gender component here– thanks for throwing that into the discussion. Of course it’s not just about a group of men, but a group of like-minded men than I suppose can create a problem. We saw this when Bush was in office and had this totally diverse-looking cabinet (women, blacks, etc) but they were all of similar minds, so it was only diverse in appearance.
      And yes, we are ‘married’ to the media and the media is married to the stars so we can only disconnect and scrutinize so much, if we also want to participate in it all.

  5. Jade

    Just the other day, I saw something about the new Woody Allen movie, and thought to myself: why is allowed to freely live his life and make movies and nobody cares that he married his step-daughter, yet Roman Polanski will be arrested the moment he sets foot in the USA? I realize that Polanski committed a true crime, and Allen is just squicky like Darcy said, but I do enjoy Polanski films and I’m not a fan of Woody Allen’s. I guess I’m proving your point!!

    • Jade, ha! What an honest comment, lol! But we can’t help it, can we? It’s hard not to be biased when we feel close to an artist or his work, so I feel where’ you’re coming from.

  6. Jai

    I never comment on this blog simply because I prefer to read the post and comments and keep my opinions to myself, however, Shannon I truly adore these, “PITNB’s NEW popCULTURE CLUB: theoretically putting the “culture” back in “pop culture,” one post at a time.” It’s nice to hear a different perspective on celebrities – not just what they’ve done now, but what our role as readers, fans, and supporters are (despite some of the nefarious acts they commit).

    As for the question of, “Can Celebrities Really Be Criminals?” I personally don’t believe so. Even when celebrities come out of prison, we don’t associate them as or attach labels like “convicted felon,” or “ex-convict” like we do to non-celebrities. In some cases (cough *Lindsay Lohan* cough) the law seems almost like a recommendation.

    • Jai, I’m so glad you’re liking the posts! I’d like to think of blogging as a group effort, so I really appreciate getting honest feedback from everyone who wants to share. And I agree, that the star is often bigger than any crime they have committed; it’s hard for us to see beyond those pretty faces! But I think there’s good reason for that and if nothing else, it makes for an interesting conversation. I’m so glad you decided to join in on this one. Indeed, “the law seems almost like a recommendation.”

  7. Ashstar

    Most rappers comes from criminal background (drug dealers, gang affiliation etc) which explains why they are always getting shot and have fake names/aliases. Then you have the one pretending to be criminal to get streetcreds from the dumb culture they are promoting.

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