They’ll Always Be Trapped

We feel guilty about celebrity culture, but are we doing anything to change it?

image via Harpo Productions

“That’s a loaded piece of toast,” Meghan Markle noted during her interview with Oprah Winfrey that aired Sunday, referring to the UK tabloid that accused her of perpetuating environmental destruction by eating her “beloved” avocados. It was just one example Winfrey cited of the UK tabloids vilifying Markle for doing the same things for which they had earlier praised Kate Middleton: holding her baby bump too much; not spending Christmas with the Queen; choosing scented candles for her wedding ceremony; etc. The list is pretty long.

The point by that stage of the conversation was already clear: the UK tabloid press set an unreasonable standard for Markle, and as they set about attacking her for not clearing it, she said, the Palace did nothing to protect her. This, Harry explained later, was largely due to what he described as a mutually beneficial relationship between the two institutions. The Palace works the press to its advantage, planting stories to strategically distract or protect the Royal Family. The press needs the Palace for profits. It’s simple. At least, until it’s not, which is where we may be now.

Sunday’s interview helped to fill important gaps in Harry and Meghan’s story, including their flight from the UK to Canada, and then again from Canada to Los Angeles. In short, according to them, it came down to security — namely, their ability to escape the celebrity industrial complex, the star-making and star-breaking gyre of press coverage and consumption, before it drowned them.

“Almost 18 years later, our culture is different.” Oh, really?

And while their overarching desire to escape the relentless media hounding isn’t new, saying it again now, in early 2021, recontextualizes it. As it happens, this is a year shaping up to be one of celebrity reexamination, thanks to a series of high-profile streaming specials. Already this year, HBO’s Tiger documentary and the New York Times-Hulu project Framing Britney Spears, have prompted a reexamination of celebrity culture of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Demi Lovato’s Dancing With the Devil, due out later this month, will likely cover similar ground. It’s impossible to walk away from these programs without considering the demands the celebrity system places on its subjects and the brutal results.

But what kind of reexamination will they collectively create? Already there are hints. After it was resurfaced in Framing Britney, Diane Sawyer apologized for her 2003 interview with Spears in which she blamed Spears for her breakup with Justin Timberlake — a sexist framing that for viewers now was cringe-inducing in retrospect. She would never ask that now. “The Diane Sawyer–Britney Spears interview really is a microcosm for the way the media treated young women in the early aughts,” Christopher Rosa and Emily Tannenbaum wrote at Glamour. “Almost 18 years later, our culture is different.”

Oh, really? Or have the interview questions just changed?

The weeks leading to the Oprah interview — full of strategic leaks and preemptive pushback, allegation and insinuation — and the days since, with further exclusive clips and the breathless backlash blanketing the UK press, social media saturation and endless opinion pieces (like this one) haven’t felt all that different.

“It’s only been ten months since Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced they were leaving the British royal family in search of ‘privacy,’ — yet they have never been so much in our faces,” New York Post columnist Maureen Callahan complained in October. It’s been a common refrain ever since Harry and Meghan declared they were stepping away from their Royal duties — one that was revived as their interview with Oprah Winfrey loomed. That is, if they want to be left alone, they should just disappear.

But isn’t this just the point — that they can’t? That even if, as Meghan revealed to Oprah, they do hide away in their palace, unseen and unheard by anyone for months, they appear in public nonetheless, on the pages of the tabloids, haunting our TV and computer screens, the subject of our gossip and opinions and commentary.

In fact, since their interview aired, neither Harry nor Meghan has said anything or been seen publicly anywhere. And yet, they’re everywhere still. It’s little wonder that, trapped in the celebrity machine, Meghan felt that she might as well be dead. For it doesn’t matter to the celebrity-media complex whether she’s alive or not. With their physical forms gone, we will still eviscerate their ghosts. Just like we have done to everyone else. Nothing has really changed.


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