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Ms. Crouse is a writer and producer in Opinion who focuses on gender, ambition and power.
“Boo! Where’s the money?”
That’s what angry protesters could be heard yelling at Amber Heard on a video of the actress exiting the courthouse last month, where she’d spent four days describing the abuse she says that she suffered at the hands of her ex-husband, Johnny Depp.
“Gold digger!” one woman, presumably a fan of Mr. Depp’s, bellowed.
Whatever you think of this week’s verdict in Mr. Depp’s defamation case against Ms. Heard and her countersuit — the jury awarded him more than $10 million in damages and her $2 million — that moment last month leaves one of the big questions of this six-week public spectacle unanswered: What drives a grown person to travel to a courthouse in Virginia to hurl insults at someone she has never met, about behavior she didn’t witness and money she is not owed?
Besotted and enraged fans are not a new phenomenon, but in the past those who violated boundaries to accost celebrities were generally seen as unhinged stalkers. Now the phenomenon has gone mainstream. The impulse of that woman yelling “gold digger” outside the courthouse — and the many others similarly incensed on behalf of Mr. Depp, online and in person — is a result of what psychologists have called “celebrity worship syndrome,” in which preoccupation with a public figure veers into obsession.
Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist and professor of social studies of science and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told me that fandom has changed dramatically over the years. “When people stormed the Beatles and just wanted to touch them, there was craziness in that, but people didn’t think they owned the Beatles,” she said. “The people who run to these courtrooms, run to Twitter to critique Amber Heard, they don’t feel that distance from the Beatle whose hand they wanted to touch; they feel a tremendous proximity. The gaze is still reverential, but it’s much more proprietary and unchained. It has all the passion, but the filters, the boundaries are gone.”
Social media and the massive volume of celebrity coverage has a lot to do with this. Now that we have watched the rich and famous working out or baking in their kitchens, now that we know the most intimate details of their love lives, our expectations of them have shifted, becoming more personal. Among those who didn’t believe Ms. Heard’s accusations against her ex-husband, many seemed to want to punish her for the perceived betrayal, the way they might someone they knew in real life.
Another factor in this phenomenon is the increasingly transactional nature of our relationship with celebrities on social media: We invest our attention in them, and they cash in on the business of attracting it.
It’s easy to see why celebrities would engage in this lucrative transaction. By performing their weddings, pregnancies, breakups — rather than simply living them — they have found that these milestones can be impressively monetized, whether through sponsorships, endorsements, or the general industry clout that accompanies social media popularity. Describing the wedding of Kourtney Kardashian to Travis Barker last month, The Times called the event a “branded marriage.” The wedding weekend earned more than $25 million in “Media Impact Value” for Dolce & Gabbana, reported Vanessa Friedman and Jessica Testa, “thanks in large part to Instagram posts from the Kardashian-Jenners.”
Fans are increasingly demanding a return for the precious resource of their attention, their clicks and eyeballs and adulation. We may call celebrities influencers, but we want to influence them too. We are the customers, and our gaze is money. “I pay your salary,” a Broadway theatergoer retorted recently when she was told from the stage by the actor Patti LuPone to wear her mask properly — articulating this sense of entitlement.
At times, the moral expectations of fans have the feeling of political activism, or of a constituent’s demands of a politician: The power of the celebrity’s influence is granted by an audience, after all, and can be revoked. As Jenny Odell wrote in her book “How to Do Nothing,” “attention may be the last resource we have left to withdraw.”
Protesting in a policymaker’s personal space is one thing, when that person’s decisions have direct impact on citizens’ daily lives. (That has certainly been happening frequently lately — protests at Supreme Court justices’ homes, for example, or Senator Ted Cruz being confronted over gun control while dining on sushi with his family.) But the events described in excruciating detail at the Heard-Depp trial involved a domestic dispute. What accountability do these figures owe the public?
All this lecturing, heckling and name-calling can also be seen as a way that the moral policing we see on social media is performed on the sidewalk. As that “gold digger” moment illustrates, in-person denunciations of celebrity behavior can have all the vitriol of a Twitter flame war. The normalizing of these fan reactions reveals the increasingly fraught intersection between the online and the real, where the actions of prominent people become parables for tenuous moral codes.
It’s also worth noting that we’re in an era in which fans exert unprecedented influence over our popular cultural narratives — bringing back canceled TV shows and even shifting plotlines based on fan theories. Just this year, the Academy Awards created a new award for a fan favorite film, infuriating some traditionalists. One can see how an audience that’s used to being able to resurrect a beloved character or inspire a spinoff show for a minor superhero might also expect to be able to criticize celebrities for what to do in their personal lives.
“People don’t simply want to gaze anymore,” Dr. Turkle said. “They want to act.”
What’s the effect of all this on the celebrities themselves? While it may be hard to muster sympathy for those who have plenty of money and power, the stakes are real, and the injury can be too. Ms. Heard spoke on the stand in court about the trauma of the harsh public attention she has received: “I am harassed, humiliated, threatened every single day,” Ms. Heard told the court during the trial. “People want to kill me, and they tell me so every day. People want to put my baby in the microwave, and they tell me that.”
Just as the celebrity benefits from her audience’s attention, she is also made captive by it. In her memoir “My Body,” the model and actor Emily Ratajkowski observed that complicated power dynamic. “In my early twenties, it had never occurred to me that the women who gained their power from beauty were indebted to the men whose desire granted them that power in the first place,” she wrote. “Those men were the ones in control, not the women the world fawned over.”
Being the object of intense fan fascination can be hard for male as well as female celebrities, to be sure, but the dynamics on display at the Heard-Depp trial seemed to mirror societal gender dynamics. Mr. Depp was able to mobilize his fans and so-called “stans” to his benefit, and many seemed to revel in Ms. Heard’s humiliation.
When Mr. Depp’s lawyers emerged from the courthouse following a verdict that was mostly in his favor, the crowd cheered them on like celebrities in their own right. Many of Mr. Depp’s supporters expressed relief at seeing their version of justice served. Maybe that’s understandable, in a world where our leaders seem unwilling or unable to solve problems, and political accountability is in short supply.
When most of the news is scary and depressing, investing time and attention in the marital dispute of complete strangers can be a welcome distraction, and it may feel like harmless fun. But entertaining as they are, one-sided relationships like those between celebrities and their fans are misleading and can be corrosive. Try as we might to make them so, the imagined communities of the 21st century are not real. The woman hurling insults at Amber Heard across the curb may feel genuinely aggrieved, but the actress has no idea who that woman is. We will never be friends with the celebrities we follow on our phones.
Entertainers will perform as long as we pay. But our expectations are misplaced. They owe us nothing.
Lindsay Crouse (@lindsaycrouse) is a writer and producer in Opinion who focuses on gender, ambition and power. She produced the Emmy-nominated Opinion Video series “Equal Play,” which brought widespread reform to women’s sports.
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