Can You Bully a Celebrity?

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Photo: Getty Images

In the last decade, bullying has taken on grave and legal connotations in the wake of high-profile high school suicides. On the flip side, it’s also become a staple of celebrity creation myths: Megan Fox was bullied. Kate Winslet was bullied. Eva Mendes was a “victim” of two bullies who “tortured” her “consistently” for three years. Winona Ryder was pulled out of junior high school for homeschooling after just three days of bullying. Jennifer Lawrence had to change schools a lot because girls were mean.

These anecdotes make the celebrity seem relatable at a low cost of embarrassment while creating a mini-narrative of adversity and perseverance. They can also affirm the celebrity’s advocacy on behalf of bullied kids unlikely to overcome so glamorously. But in the past couple weeks, the notion has emerged that some celebrities might actually still be suffering at the hands of no-name adolescents.

Jada Pinkett Smith was the first to test the waters, with a public Facebook message last month. “This last week, I had to really evaluate the communication in regard to our young artists in the media,” she wrote. She was referring to news reports about Justin Bieber’s meltdown, Taylor Swift’s romantic life, Anne Hathaway’s ... problem, and that unspeakable, albeit satirical, thing that was said about tiny national treasure Quvenzhané Wallis. “I was trying to differentiate cyber-bullying from how we attack and ridicule our young stars through media and social networks.”

It’s not hard to imagine where Smith might be coming from. At the tender age of 14, her son Jaden is leaving the sanctimonious playgrounds of Über-privilege for the wilds of celebrity in his own, nepotistic right. (The crossing involved a meal at Nobu with a minor Kardashian.) I wouldn’t be surprised if Jaden had already felt the mighty wrath of the Beliebers after he allegedly ruined Justin Bieber’s birthday party. But once he’s arrived, can mom still march into the principal’s office and cry bully?

If the shoe fits, says the New York Times. In the umpteenth take on Hathahating, the paper reported that piling on Hathaway was a virtual mob. “The psychological dynamics at work are, at least in part, the ones at work in cyberbullying,” said Dr. P.M. Forni, professor and founder of Johns Hopkins University’s Civility Initiative (“aimed at assessing the significance of civility, manners and politeness in contemporary society”).

Last month, the Cut consulted Slate editor Emily Bazelon, who wrote the book on bullying, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. “Bullying is such a common trope right now,” she said. “We’re picking up all kinds of aggression and problematic speech and shoving it into the bullying category.”                                                 

She had recently taken a stab at narrowing down the definition in the New York Times "Opinion" pages. Psychologists who study its impact on children define bullying as physical or verbal abuse that is repeated over time and demonstrates a power imbalance. “It’s about one person with more social status lording it over another person, over and over again, to make him miserable,” she wrote.

So until President Obama starts cracking wise about Taylor Swift’s romantic history, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which any of the bloggers, tweeters, or even famous comedians in the cyberbully chorus could be considered more powerful than the victim, the third-highest-paid woman in the entertainment industry. A good rule of thumb might be that if you can afford to pay someone to manage your media presence — and that’s a full-time job — you can’t be bullied on the Internet. It’s called being trolled.

Facebook seems to agree. The company has taken some responsibility for its role as the host of bullying — and its less abusive cousin, “drama” — with social reporting tools, anti-bullying PSAs, and a dedicated Hate and Harassment team. But celebrities are not on its radar. In the Atlantic last month, Bazelon reported that when Facebook tries to determine whether the complaints they receive constitute bullying, they take the victim’s word for it — unless they’re a celebrity. “If the content is about you, and you’re not famous, we don’t try to decide whether it’s actually mean,” Facebook’s content manager Dave Willner told her. “We just take it down.”

But in a media environment prone to flashes in pans, there’s a growing gray area between famous and not-famous. In February, a young Canadian tennis player named Rebecca Marino abruptly quit following her quick rise in the professional circuit. In a conference call, Marino told reporters of her desire to return to “normal” life, and the depression that prevented her from getting out of bed some days. She also mentioned that her social media accounts had been “distracting.”

Marino wasn’t famous enough to reap the prize money and endorsement deals that come with a public life of professional tennis. She sought a bakery job during her hiatus, and would have gotten it if the manager hadn’t recognized her from youth tennis. But she suffered some of fame’s consequences.

Although her depression reportedly began “way before the so-called cyberbullying,” she struggled to stay out of the “rabbit hole” of comments sections and message boards. Worse were the tweets from betters who’d lost money on her matches, telling her to “go die” and “burn in hell.”

“With professional athletes, people put them on a pedestal sometimes,” she told the Times, “and they forget they’re actually a person still.”

The conflation of the person and the product goes both ways. According to Jada Pinkett Smith, our national inability to simply thank and congratulate Justin Bieber for his prodigious ability to “deliver products” that keep him “on top” is a sign of our jealousy. “We WISH we could have had the capacity to accomplish HALF of what they have accomplished along with ALL these challenges they face,” she wrote.

“Public figures can feel like they’re being bullied by people who are their audience when they get inundated with a lot of negative feedback” Bazelon explained. Speaking from personal experience, she added, “I think the web can be a really harsh place. But it’s not the kind of bullying that we should be the most concerned about.”

We may, however, want to consider bullying by celebrities, who could leverage their influence in retaliation against their perceived bullies. Imagine the hell Bieber could unleash on some poor mortal with one Twitter directive! In fact, it’s already begun. Unhappy with the actions taken by his daughter’s school in response to her claims of bullying, Charlie Sheen asked his fans to spell the alleged bully’s name in dog feces on the front door of her school.