‘Yes, yes my dear sir and I do know your name Mr. Bilbo Baggins. And you do know my name, though you don’t remember that I belong to it. I am Gandalf, and Gandalf means me.”
Whilst J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit was famously written, in the first instance, for said writer’s children, it has been famously described as being ‘a children’s book’, a coded criticism in many respects, meaning that because it has been marketed for primarily children, it is devoid of substance, nuance and meaning that more intelligent and world-wise adults are able to discern. It is for that reason that my first opinion of Peter Jackson’s three films of the same name, released in 2012, 2013 and 2014, was low and, as I discovered recently, severely limited. I remember vividly, going to the cinema to see ‘An Unexpected Journey’ at the ripe age of 20, immediately welling up at the ‘Concerning Hobbits’ refrain that accompanied the film’s opening titles, before launching into an internal criticism of everything I perceived to by divergent from the original text. ‘How could a short book, for children, be strung out into three long films’, was my main point of contention. Oh the irony, when I had spent the past couple of years challenging the sanctity of texts so voraciously, unable to witness the way in which I was clinging so unconsciously to this one! This essay is in part a mea culpa but also a celebration of what I now regard to be a film that bridged The Hobbit to the rest of Tolkein’s legendarium with, perhaps, more consciousness and success than by Tolkien himself.
This is not to say that The Hobbit films were and are perfect. Even after my most recent re-watch, there are still some significant issues that have persisted over time: the films have the visual aspect of a video game, thanks to the choice to film using 3D Red Epic Cameras at 48 frames per second. Where so much of the deeply immersive storytelling in The Lord of The Rings films was borne from the physical prosthetic, make-up, costuming and set-design work, so successful in that they enabled audiences to feel as though the characters, races and cultures of Middle Earth were in some way real, the reliance on technology and digital design in The Hobbit creates more of a visual and, hence, emotional distance from the characters and the world they inhabit. This is not to say that video games are not deeply immersive, they evidently are and this is because we are able to take action and actively inhabit those worlds. In the medium of film, however, where we are able to become engrossed in the worlds of films, we are, whilst observers and critics too, experientially more passive and in a position of surrender to the camera. No amount of good acting or writing in The Hobbit films allows them to land with as much impact as Jackson’s predecessors as a result of this overemphasis of a frame ratio and visual effects that take from the story more than they give. This was and still is, with all the merit I would give Jackson for experimenting with this cinematic technology, disappointing.
Equally disappointing are the ‘wink-wink-nudge-nudge’ moments of shoehorned nostalgia, for example when the One Ring falls onto Bilbo’s finger in the exact same way it falls on Frodo’s in The Fellowship of the Ring. Furthermore, I think the relationship between Tauriel and Kili is hopelessly contrived and whilst I am appreciative of the filmmakers’ efforts to include a female character, where there are a grand total of zero in the book, it is somewhat frustrating that her only narrative significance revolves around an ill-fated and yet remarkably lacklustre romance plot.
Yet, from this re-watch, I was able to discern that Jackson put in more work than I previously was even aware of to expand The Hobbit story into its rightful context within Tolkien’s mythology, in particular in its temporal position as a precursor to The Lord of The Rings. It is in this where I think The Hobbit films showcase some narrative brilliance on the part of its director. My opinion of this was enabled by my reading of The Silmarillion last year, a dense and remarkably realised mythology of the First Age of Middle Earth that Tolkien wrote prior to and, perhaps according to Christopher Tolkien, concurrently with The Hobbit in the 1930s. In a letter, Tolkien wrote that ‘The Hobbit was not intended to have anything to do with [The Silmarillion] […] It has no necessary connexion with the ‘mythology’, but naturally became attracted towards this dominant construction in my mind, causing the tale to become larger and more heroic as it proceeded’.He suggests here that the progressive adventurous sensibility of The Hobbit came about in its tangential relationship with The Silmarillion: almost that The Hobbit couldn’t help but become more epic as a result of its exposure, in his imagination and writing, to the truly sweeping and awesome aspect of The Silmarillion. However, he is clear that there was no over-lap between the two: however much The Hobbit was influenced by The Silmarillion in terms of narrative grandiosity, the narratives themselves were quite separate. Only in Tolkien’s own retrospect and re-jigging post-Hobbit and aided by The Lord of The Rings do we see an intersection begin to merge between what were previously disparate texts. It is here where I argue Jackson, with the benefit of Tolkien’s retrospect and the extensive appendices that accompany the legendarium, was able to successfully bridge some of the gaps left behind by Tolkien’s source texts. In short, Jackson and his team did their research, it shows, and The Hobbit films deserve much more credit than I believe they have received for this.
Fittingly, it would seem that the main mechanisms that Jackson uses to help bridge these narrative gaps are the wizards Gandalf the Grey and Radagast. In saying this, I do not aim to reduce their roles to mere plot devices: on the contrary, in some way I see it as nigh on poetic that these characters, who are so well-loved and revered by both characters in the stories and by readers and audiences too, who have so much power, wisdom and benevolence, should be the ones to ensure the successful metaphysical narrative weaving across the media of novel and film between The Hobbit and The Silmarillion. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised. Whilst Radagast is elusive throughout Tolkien’s texts, Gandalf is presented as a character whose wizardry extends beyond telekinesis and otherworldly intuition to his ability to construct and affirm meaning for the characters around him. Indeed, when we first meet him in the very first chapter of The Hobbit, he engages an unwitting Bilbo into something of a verbal sparring match, after the latter has wished him a ‘Good morning!’. Looking at Bilbo ‘from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat’, Gandalf asks him:
‘“What do you mean?” he said. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?”’
In his interrogation of the exclamation ‘Good morning!’ is a playfulness with which Gandalf employs and perceives language, pointing to the number of different ways in which Bilbo’s deceptively simplistic phrase could be used and interpreted. Gandalf’s questions expose the realms of meaning that underlie even the most apparently obvious of statements and, as such, successfully and wittily deconstructs both the phrase Bilbo has used and, importantly, the complacency with which he used it. As a result, along with the play, is an assertion of dominance, expressed through the performed uncertainty around what Bilbo means: in his questioning he demonstrates his own command of and ability to wield language, and therefore his ability to construct meaning. By questioning Bilbo in this way and subtly asserting his own dominance over language and its multiplicity of meanings, Gandalf’s introduction is none too reminiscent of ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’, yet perhaps with more of a knowing wink and a glint in the eye from underneath those bushy eyebrows. Although Saruman is described as ‘subtle in speech’, I would argue that it is Gandalf’s playfulness with language that marks him out as more flexible in his thinking and the more compelling to those around him. This linguistic dominance is developed later on in the novel where Gandalf uses narrative to convince the shape-shifter Beorn to allow Thorin’s Company of dwarves and Bilbo to stay in his hall having been pursued by goblins through and from the Misty Mountains. Aware of Beorn’s reticence for opening his home to strangers, and with a particular dislike for dwarves, Gandalf weaves the tale of the Company’s adventures with hints at their number and regular interruptions by the arriving dwarves at such a pace as to not offend Beorn. We are told towards the episode’s end that,
‘Bilbo saw then how clever Gandalf had been. The interruptions had really made Beorn more interested in the story, and the story had kept his from sending the dwarves off at once like suspicious beggars […] “A very good tale!” said [Beorn]. “The best I have heard for a long while. If all beggars could tell such a good one, they might find me kinder.”’
Gandalf successfully uses language and, slightly differently to his first encounter with Bilbo, the delay and deferral of meaning to ensure he is able to get what he wants and needs. Even though he and the Company are in a vulnerable enough position so as to rely on Beorn’s hospitality, Gandalf is able to use his, again, playful and ‘clever’ control of language and meaning to endear himself and the others. In particular, Tolkien emphasises that it is ‘the story’ and the means by which it is told that secures safety and, therefore, it is clear that the ability to use language in this way is as powerful a weapon for Gandalf as any of the other magic he may be able to perform. This is confirmed through the echo of the description of the dwarves as ‘beggars’: the story does not prevent Beorn from seeing the dwarves as ‘beggars’, yet the power of the narrative seems to enable Beorn to move past his preconceived distrust and disdain for the dwarves, even conceding that he might be more open in general if each story he met was ‘good’ enough. By ‘good’ we don’t necessarily mean that plot points of the narrative, although they help, but the way in which Gandalf has adeptly guided Beorn through what is essentially a carefully constructed unfolding of the truth. The irony of which is that perhaps Beorn’s distrust is not entirely misplaced, given Gandalf’s masterful yet creatively tentative handling of what actually happened and how many they are. Nevertheless, what is clear is that Gandalf the Grey occupies an important role in Tolkien’s work as a conduit and creator of meaning, which makes it all the more appropriate that his character is one of two wizards used by Jackson, in this same vein, to bridge the narrative gaps between The Silmarillion, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. These narrative bridges revolve around the shadowy figure of The Necromancer.
The Necromancer is only named four times in The Hobbit text, and the gift that Jackson gives a film audience is a cinematic expansion of these short hints given, of course, by Gandalf both about him and his fortress at Dol Guldur, thereby building something of a narrative bridge from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings. One hint appears in the very first chapter of the novel, where Gandalf describes his adventure to retrieve Thror’s map: ‘I was finding things out, as usual; and a nasty business it was. Even I, Gandalf, only just escaped’; and one, satisfyingly cyclical, in the final chapter, ‘Gandalf had been to a great council of white wizards […] they had at last driven the Necromancer from his dark hold in the south of Mirkwood. Furthermore, the episode is given reference to, again with little expansion in The Silmarillion: ‘Mithrandir [the Elvish name for Gandalf] at great peril went again to Dol Guldur and the pits of the Sorcerer, and he discovered the truth of his fears [that the Necromancer was ‘the first shadow of Sauron returning’], and escaped’. Moreover, Jackson, I would argue, successfully interleaves the council meeting and Gandalf’s investigation of Dol Guldur mentioned here into The Hobbit narrative, with the council, attended by Gandalf, Galadriel, Elrond and Saruman the White, taking place during the Company’s sojourn at Rivendell early on in the first film of the trilogy, and then the investigation of Dol Guldur after the Company enter Mirkwood in the second film. This latter interleaving is particularly poignant narratively because as the Company encounters the corruption of the old Greenwood forest, we see Gandalf explore the root of that corruption, which I think works seamlessly. The expansion of these moments in the films serve to build important narrative connections that Tolkien either hints at or simply misses. The revelation that The Necromancer is the spirit of Sauron beginning to re-take form in the final film in The Hobbit trilogy is an important set-up for what happens sixty years later in The Lord of the Rings, plus is an excellent opportunity to see Galadriel in all her power. What was, perhaps, a missed opportunity was Jackson’s lack of emphasis as to why the council does nothing to organise against Sauron once it is revealed that he has returned. Saruman clearly underestimates Sauron’s ability to fully amass power, as described very late on in the appendices of The Silmarillion, but I think, what should be, an extremely pertinent moment becomes slightly lost within the narrative of the Company. In truth, there is a lot of action in this film: it begins with Smaug’s destruction of Lake Town and his killing at the hands of Bard, then the confrontation at Dol Guldur, Thorin’s antagonism and obsession with the Arkenstone, followed by the Battle of the Five Armies. There is a lot of action and huge visuals to be swept along with. The decision to not challenge Sauron comes thirty minutes into the film and, most unfortunately, is not particularly circled back to. Gandalf’s last lines in the film seem like a particular waste, even though they replicate those in the novel: ‘You’re a very fine person, Mr Baggins, and I’m very fond of you; but you’re only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all’. In the novel, these words are delivered as Balin, Bilbo and Gandalf discuss the prosperity of the Men of the Lake after the Battle of the Five Armies and Bilbo’s hand in helping to ensure that peace.  Jackson’s use of them almost sentimentally, however, as almost a parting caution to Bilbo about the power of his magic ring is slightly too cryptic to ensure the sort of foreshadowing that could have been used to more explicitly weave the end of The Hobbit films to the larger narrative of The Lord of the Rings. However, as I said at the beginning of this essay, whilst true merits of these films have emerged with time and further investigation, they are by no means perfect.
Something that cements Jackson’s attempt at narrative restructuring with, I argue, some great degree of success comes courtesy of the elusive and reclusive wizard Radagast. Whilst having scant mention anywhere in Tolkien’s books, his inclusion in these films was a brilliant, heartful choice which I think shows true warmth for the text on the part of the filmmakers. Not only does Jackson use Radagast to root The Hobbit films more securely into Tolkien’s context of Middle Earth, but he uses the wizard to bridge The Hobbit to some of the earliest events in the Elder days of the High Elves in The Silmarillion. In the first Hobbit film, when describing the corruption of Greenwood, Radagast describes the giant spiders in the forest as ‘some kind of spawn of Ungoliant’. In doing so, the filmmakers reference one of the most destructive and shocking moments in the early history of the Elves, where the first Dark Lord Morgoth, Sauron’s original master, uses a great, ravenous, corrupted spider called Ungoliant to destroy the sacred trees of light in Valinor, where she ‘belched forth black vapours as she drank, and swelled to a shape so vast and hideous that Melkor [precursor to the nomenclature Morgoth] was afraid’. Whilst the film only makes a small reference to this early and haunting moment of the mythology, so grotesque that even a character as epically vengeful and envious in the history of literature as Morgoth is rendered frightened, this connection built by Jackson through Radagast between the current condition of the Greenwood and the originators of decay and destruction at the very beginning of Tolkien’s world, shows how much thought has gone into what these Hobbit films could serve. They are not mere adaptations of one novel, but offer an explicit narrative bridge across the legendarium. These films are then, perhaps, more faithful adaptations of the legendarium than audiences claiming The Hobbit to be a children’s book are even aware of. We can see that the two wizards help to create this greater sense of meaning across the texts: Gandalf is used to enable The Hobbit to look forward to the later The Lord of the Rings, whilst Radagast is used to root The Hobbit in the legendarium, looking back to the past as he does to The Silmarillion, where previously The Hobbit was almost adrift between the bigger epic narratives.
All this to say: perhaps making The Hobbit into a film was never going to be as simple as the reductive mindset of ‘it’s a children’s book’ would allow. I may have been dismissive of these films when they first came out, arguing that so short a book could hardly require a three-film adaptation; but I am convinced as a result of this recent re-watch that, in making these films, Jackson undertook a bigger project, enfolding The Hobbit into the rest of the legendarium, enlarging its prospects rather than keeping it a stand-alone novel, whilst simultaneously paying homage to the warmth and good humour that has made it such a beloved narrative since 1937. With all of the richness embedded in the text, even and especially unconsciously done, The Hobbit appears, like its namesake protagonist, to have more to it than what meets the eye. There are faults with the films, it cannot be denied; but I do not think that this cinematic trilogy should be so easily discarded either. It makes sense that the novel, surprisingly dense as it is with the range and length of adventures contained within it and, as we have seen, extending beyond it, could not fit an average feature-length running time. My lasting thought upon writing this is that perhaps it would have been more suited to a television series format so that the barrage of episodic action could have been more evenly placed alongside the intricate narrative weaving that, it has become evident, is also required.
I wrote this poem in a passion of clear, hot anger upon reading about the atrocities committed against Ukrainian women and girls by Russian soldiers. It is becoming clear that like virtually all conflicts that precede this one, rape and sexual violence are being used as weapons of war and that horrific war crimes are being committed. News that leaves me cold, sickened, frightened and horrified, as it always does.
When writing this, I had Ukrainian women and girls in mind. I also had in mind the Yazidi women of northern Iraq and Kurdistan who were systematically raped by Daesh militants; I had in mind the unknown thousands of black enslaved women in Britain, the Caribbean and the USA who were raped by their enslavers; I had in mind the unknown thousands of indigenous women who were raped by colonial oppressors; I had in mind the 61,158 sexual assault offences recorded in England and Wales at year end June 2021; I had in mind the students raped whilst I was at university in Manchester between 2010 and 2014; I had in mind Jyoti Singh, the woman a group of men gang-raped and killed in Delhi in 2012; I had in mind Grace Millane killed in New Zealand; I had in mind Sarah Everard, abducted, raped and killed by Wayne Couzens in 2021; I had in mind Sabina Nessa, Ashling Murphy, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman; I had in mind the unknown numbers of transwomen raped and murdered across the world. All acts of terror and violence committed by men.
I am heartened by news that, as of 2021, the UN has begun to impose sanctions for rape as a human rights abuse. But the anger, sorrow and fear I feel is still so profound. I was unsure as to whether to even publish this poem for fear of it being ‘too much’. But having typed out all of the suffering above, my worry dissolved by my wrath.
I want to live in a world where perpetrators of sexual violence are held accountable. Where I don’t have to worry that a walk to the park on my own could be my last; where my husband and I don’t feel the need to escort teenage girls home at night because they are scared of the men who touched them on the bus; where I don’t live in perpetual fear that such an act of violence could be committed against me and my body, and those of the women in my life.
This poem was inspired by all of the stories above, by my love for my sister, family, friends and beyond. It was also written in response to the tale of ‘The Loss of the Voices of the Wells’, written down by Sharon Blackie in her book If Women Rose Rooted. I am forever inspired by Women Who Run With The Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. I found writing this poem extremely comforting, connecting and powerful: I hope it speaks to you too.
My 2021 began hideously hungover. I wept at a BBC Four documentary about the cultural history of the poem ‘Auld Lang Syne’, wolfed down serving after serving of tomato pasta (the only thing I can stomach in such a condition) and winced at empty bottles of Corona lying around all over the place, the playful irony of twelve hours previous now seeming exceedingly gauche. In between the dollops of pesto and wailing, I stumbled upon a four-part documentary series on BBC iPlayer called ‘Celebrity: A 21st Century Story’. I watched the series compulsively and found that it immediately forced me to re-assess and reflect upon my own relationship with celebrity culture, particularly as a member of the ‘tween’ market targeted during those unchartered rampant days of celebrity consumerism in the Noughties.
What began as a New Year’s essay in response to that single series has turned into a year-long retrospective project: in the past twelve months I have found myself constantly musing upon and internally pickling the issues of fame, celebrity and the power structures and dynamics that shaped the beginning of this millennium, as well as my relationship with them. My grappling with personal feelings and thoughts about this aspect of popular culture has been both mirrored in and fuelled by what became a wider societal re-appraisal of the Noughties that only gathered momentum throughout the year. From the New York Times’ ‘Framing Britney Spears’ in February and her unprecedented address of the court in June regarding her experience living under a conservatorship; to Mischa Barton’s compelling interview with the Guardian also in June; to the article in British Vogue’s July 2021 issue about the resurgence in ‘vintage’ Noughties trends like Blink 182 T-shirts, Fendi ‘bag-ettes’ and low-rise jeans and more; to Beyoncé and Adele speaking to their experiences with fame in Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue respectively; and the climactic ending of Spears’ conservatorship in November, the stories of the women harassed and demonised during the Noughties are, rightly, coming centre stage. What was confined and repressed is finally being given air to breathe.
Absorbing and horrifying in equal measure, ‘Celebrity: A 21st Century Story’ charted the Western obsession with fame and celebrity culture from Channel 4’s ‘Big Brother’ to Instagram, through the cultural intersections of gender, class and politics. The documentary is nigh-on academic in its scope, covering reality television, print media, the treatment of young women like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Amy Winehouse, the ‘WAGs’, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, the Kardashians, Perez Hilton, TOWIE, the casts of Love Island and, of course, Britney Spears (in, I would argue, an even more gut-wrenching way than the New York Times’ ‘Framing Britney’ documentary, simply because her story is told within a four-hour wider context of misogyny and exploitation), and more.
Amidst the laying bare of the gross misogyny that many, particularly young women of my generation, consumed on a weekly basis in magazines like ‘Heat’, the documentary gave a platform for the likes of Kerry Katona, Charlotte Church and many others to speak about the hell that their lives were, so preyed upon they became by paparazzi and photographers. Who, however, to blame for this nauseating mess is ambiguous. Figures in the media industry pointed to an insatiable public appetite for such coverage, whilst the case is also made that the public’s desire for more was (and is) constructed and manufactured by those who claim they are just giving people ‘what they want’. Do we level the blame for aggressive, intrusive celebrity-baiting at the armies of paparazzi trying to earn a living, or the people who employed them? The magazine editors, the media conglomerates who published the images? The celebrities for making a choice to live a life that in the glare of public judgment? It is very unclear and maybe there doesn’t need to be a definitive answer: the point is, and well-articulated by YouTuber Broey Deschanel in her video essay ‘The Systemic Abuse of Celebrities’, is that a life lived in the spotlight as a ‘celebrity’, whether as an A-List actress or as a YouTube vlogger and influencer, becomes, perhaps inevitably, a form of abuse.
The opening notes of the 21st century are undoubtedly sour and sobering. In light of how amazing human beings can be, I couldn’t help asking: what the hell were we thinking? The opening of a new century, a new millennium, has been completely marred and defined by cruelty, excess, mass produced objectification and vilification as sport. The Faustian exchange that celebrity life encapsulates undoubtedly causes a huge amount of suffering for the human beings at the centre, which we may have always known deep-down but has all too frequently, perhaps, been forgotten in the mass-produced heady dopamine rush of alighting upon the latest mishap or scandal. These human beings, in their nuance and multiplicities, have been dehumanised and objectified, rendered symbols and screens for the shadow of the collective unconscious- everything we cannot accept and embrace within ourselves- and held to impossible standards of perfection in a game they can never win. For me personally, one of the most sobering moments was listening to footage of Keira Knightley on the BBC Radio 4 podcast series ‘Pieces of Britney’, another longform exploration of the treatment of young female celebrities during the Noughties. The clip, taken from an interview with Jonathon Ross in 2007, shows Knightley at the tender age of 22 beginning to shake as she describes relentless paparazzi intrusion into her life. It’s hard to believe that such a candid admission on national television was never taken seriously enough beyond Ross’ platitudes, and that no cultural conversation emerged around the terror facing young women on a regular basis. I cannot believe we were all, myself included, blind to it.
And, of course, it goes even deeper than this. What I think is important to analyse, along with the gender and class undertones of the abuse suffered by Spears, Lohan, Barton, Winehouse and Knightley etc., are the very obvious racial dynamics at play: there is a lot to learn about the inner psychology of white supremacy from looking at the ways in which these women were treated. Primarily, as brilliantly critiqued by Simran Hans in ‘Pieces of Britney’, the ‘white trash’ criticism levelled at Spears in particular was a deeply racially coded term, employed to shame her for her behaviour’s perceived proximity to blackness. Young white women were effectively punished by media outlets, acting as bastions for white supremacy, for acting in a way that was indicative of a betrayal of their race. As a result, this systemic punishing of white young women, bears all the classic hallmarks of breathtaking misogyny, with their bodies and whiteness being fetishized and objectified to the extent that their humanity is purposefully forgotten. It also demonstrates the sicknesses of self-loathing and self-hatred embedded within white supremacy. Ibram X Kendi describes white supremacy as a rain that we are all drenched in: white people believe they are safe from it because they are holding an umbrella, but that umbrella too is a structure of white supremacy. There is no escaping it. Similarly, writer and activist Rachel Cargle argues that white supremacy and racism are sicknesses that poison each generation: not just black people who are brutalised with it, but for white people who enact and espouse this violence, consciously and unconsciously. Perhaps the predatory behaviour of a culture that created a trap for preying on this group of white women is an example of this self-inflicted sickness. The seeming pleasure taken at torturing and brutalising these women, through paparazzi-hounding and endless abuse in print and internet media, is an offshoot of white supremacy, symptomatic of its paranoia in maintaining and perpetuating itself, punishing those who did not conform to its standards.
Of course, this coded abuse of white women walks in tandem with both the coded and overt abuse of BIPOC stars by the media. Whilst there was a predatory paparazzi focus on Spears, Hilton and Lohan in the Noughties, black artists and celebrities, then and now, have seen their lives, bodies and work unduly criticised, eradicated, appropriated and underappreciated by a white supremacist media culture. BIPOC stars face systemic racism that prevents them from being in the spotlight in the first place and then, once there, targeted with gaslighting, abuse and criticism from mainstream media as well as armies of social media trolls. As such, what I have observed is how boundaried some black muscians have been and become over this period of time, both preventatively and as a result of white supremacy’s toxic double standards and hypocrisies. Whilst none of these people have been strangers to racially coded criticism, it is clear that the likes of Beyoncé, Rihanna, Frank Ocean, Childish Gambino/Donald Glover, Tyler The Creator and others have combined vigilance and artistic ambiguity to stave off unhealthy media attention, working hard to keep themselves at arm’s length from the media woodchipper. Perhaps this is a self-protective proactive response in light of the ways in which black women like Nina Simone and Billie Holliday were torturously celebrated and reviled with equal measure. Be it through surprise album drops, hints and easter eggs on social media posts or downright disorientation- Frank Ocean’s green baby at the Met Gala in 2021 was genius- these black stars have refused to play the media game and, in so doing, have carved out truly experimental and industry redefining modes of work, art and being. Of course, the secrecy and vigilance is an additional, expensive layer of work and comes at many costs. Beyoncé talked about this explicitly in her rare interview with Harper’s Bazaar:
‘I’ve been intentional about setting boundaries between my stage persona and my personal life […] I’ve fought to protect my sanity and my privacy because the quality of my life depended on it’.
In a world of media gaslighting and wars over whose narrative succeeds, Beyoncé has painstakingly prioritised her cognitive and emotional clarity, setting down multiple lines that cannot be crossed in order to keep her and her family safe. She is emphatic about the importance for her boundaries, stating that:
‘those who don’t know me and have never met me might interpret that as being closed off. Trust – the reason those folks don’t see certain things about me is because my Virgo ass does not want them to see it… it’s not because it doesn’t exist!’
Beyoncé’s attention to detail in her art is legendary; the fact that this is also required to an astronomical extent to maintain her privacy and safety is an additional layer of work and effort that, whilst seemingly non-negotiable, requires a huge amount of energy and resources. But that emphatic, imperative ‘trust-’ is unequivocal: white supremacy may condemn her actions as ‘closed off’ but, ultimately, she is protecting herself. It’s a power move.
Whilst these high-profile black artists have been able to establish and assert boundaries through a consciously constructed ambiguity artistically and through heavily controlled and managed PR, white supremacy, of course, still manages to openly violate famous black people in the media. Whilst it may have become more difficult to smear the likes of Beyonce et al., who have become increasingly adept at wielding their own narrativizing power, there are groups of famous black people who are still incredibly vulnerable to targeted attacks. In recent years, racists and trolls have openly abused Leslie Jones and Lizzo: both powerful women in the own rights but, upon entering mainstream awareness, perhaps did not yet have enough cultural ubiquity or capital to secure their boundaries and safety. Concurrently, black successful sportswomen are hideously exposed to the forces of white supremacy to police and abuse them: Serena Williams, Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka have all faced systemic and spectatorial abuse online. Unlike the musicians, who are, perhaps, more able to obscure themselves behind veils of artistic expression, sport is, by its very nature, unfiltered and exposing. White supremacy is almost granted more access to these women, and, therefore, they are perhaps more vulnerable to its violence. The derision that white supremacy levels at these women, with a whole host of stereotypes, criticism and condescension thrown in, is particularly potent and widespread. Visibility seems to walk hand-in-hand with media abuse, so it would be impossible to critique the targeting of BIPOC women without mentioning Meghan Markle in the same breath. As a royal, one of her jobs was to be professionally watched and looked it, open to constant judgment, evaluation and criticism, much like the sportswomen. This made her vulnerable to intrusive levels of scrutiny and abuse, perhaps most pervasively when she was pregnant and undergoing a hugely significant physical transformation. This is not a coincidence.
Perhaps it is unsurprising then that, now, so many famous people are not only asserting their boundaries but also reclaiming their lives and narratives. Noticeably, over the past couple of years, there has been something of an uptick in the number of celebrity-produced documentaries that aim to offer a form of insight into the personal, private lives of celebrities. It may be easy to be dismissive when embarking upon a viewing of these documentaries about how constructed and constrained these forms of storytelling are, but there is no denying the chillingly dead looks in the eyes of young people, in particular, who are exhausted and have been nigh-on tortured by the circumstances their fame has brought them. To date, I have watched self-produced documentaries of and by Taylor Swift (Miss Americana, Netflix, 2020); Paris Hilton(This Is Paris, YouTube,2020); Billie Eilish (The World’s A Little Blurry, Apple TV,2021); Demi Lovato (Dancing With The Devil, YouTube,2021); and Justin Bieber (Seasons, YouTube, 2020). With Mischa Barton also stating this year in The Guardian that she wanted to produce a documentary about her life and experiences during the Noughties, perhaps we cannot blame these people from wanting to reclaim some of the agency, self-worth and power that seems to have be routinely and, often, catastrophically denied them. A lengthy comparison could be made of the aforementioned docs: some opt for a fly-on-the-wall format; some give lengthy insight into the artistic process of song writing and music production; some form a personal and musical retrospective. Even if the claims to candidness, authenticity and ‘truth’ telling are awkwardly performative, and require a healthy pinch of salt for the cynical, there is no doubting the catharsis on show when these figures are in control of their own narrative and it is oddly relieving and emotional to watch. Of course, however, they are not all unproblematic.
Justin Bieber and Demi Lovato, in particular, have centred Scooter Braun in their recovery narratives, as much a friend and a mentor as he is their manager. Yet, this nurturing sage-like presence on their documentaries simultaneously functions as a redemption platform for Braun who has, seemingly and allegedly, gone out of his way to undermine the authority and self-determination of Taylor Swift. Famously, Braun sold the rights and master recordings of her first six albums to an investment fund for $300 million, without her consent, playing the game of music’s industrial capitalism to reap huge financial rewards for himself and leaving an artist with little sense of control or ownership over her own songs. His presence on Lovato’s documentary in particular, whilst important to Lovato’s recovery from addiction, feels uncomfortable when he is an active part in a system that has undermined the personal and professional wellbeing of another talented young woman.
It would be grossly naïve to think that as a result of this cultural moment of reflection that there will be an overnight rejection of celebrity culture. Fame may still be an enticing prospect for many, but I think it is increasingly clear that it is a double-edged sword. As with many areas of our lives, for example with regards to our relationship with the climate crisis, there is, I would argue, an increasing onus on personal responsibility and accountability to ensure the safety of the collective. We need to be conscious and honest with ourselves when we get dragged into having startlingly impassioned opinions and conversations about people we do not know anything about. Why do I care about looking at Jennifer Lawrence with a baby bump? What am I being distracted from? Where does our desire to stew in negativity and delight in other people’s pain come from? How is the language we use causing harm? Even if we never take the steps to actually target celebrities with viciousness, the dehumanising and objectifying language we use to talk about them infects the way we see and speak to ourselves, as well as everyone around us. As a public, we have to acknowledge how infantile it is to obsess over other people and their lives when we could so better serve ourselves by training that spotlight back onto our own shit.
What I think is different, however, now compared to twenty years ago is that a culture of activism has flourished through social media. Whilst the abuse of celebrities will shapeshift and morph into a new means of expression, there are legions of people online ready to resist. We are all better off in a world with Jameela Jamil in it, for example, whose modelling of honesty and criticality on social media is exemplary. She cuts through bullshit like no one else, and is able to use her influence to affect change and empower others to do so, whether its advocating for Britney Spears and vulnerable demographics like trans and disabled people, or taking the fight for eating disorder prevention right to politicians and lawmakers in the US. The key is to remind people of the power they do have: it may not be overt embodied power that they feel on a daily basis, thanks to capitalism, but we all have the power to observe and challenge our own patterns and behaviours in this. Ironically, for many people this may mean abandoning social media all together: whilst there is much to gain from social media’s potential for connecting people and causes, it is also an aggressive, manipulative place that actively causes harm.
And for the already famous? I think we are going to see increasingly controlled and boundaried behaviour. Stars have always reflected on whether the bargains made for fame have been worth it and I think we will see more and more reflections on this in the years to come, including retreats from visibility: symbolic of this, for example, is that Pamela Anderson left social media behind in January 2021, before this year’s reappraisal of celebrity culture even began. Whilst I don’t think we’ll see a mass exodus in her wake, because personal photos posted to social media will always be more valuable than paparazzi shots and the power this enables celebrities to retain is significant, celebrities will undoubtedly assert new means and methods of control to undermine and undercut the role of traditional media in abusing them. They have every right to do so and I believe we will all benefit as a result.