When it comes to America’s celebrity culture, some celebrities are embraced despite their moral failures while others remain in the hot seat and never regain public adoration.
By David Todd McCarty | Thursday, October 17, 2019
Public shaming has been a part of culture since the beginning of time, and was seen as a critical means of keeping everyone in line with a society’s moral code. Celebrity culture can sometimes turn that on its head as we seem to have different rules for famous people than we do for normal civilians. Sometimes that means they get away with more and sometimes it means they are judged more harshly than your average Joe would be.
America has forgiven celebrities for criminal behavior, but usually when they’ve been personal or moral failings, rather than serious crimes with real victims. Martha Stewart, Tim Allen, Ice T, Robert Downey, Jr., and even Mike Tyson did time in jail for fairly serious crimes, but were allowed to redeem themselves and re-enter Hollywood celebrity culture.
On the other hand, you have people like Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson, Linsday Lohan, Kevin Spacey, Lance Armstrong, and Michael Richards who don’t seem to have been able to recover. There are of course criminal acts that aren’t likely to ever be forgiven by the public such those perpetrated by Bill Cosby, OJ. Simpson, and R. Kelly. And then there are people who have suffered becoming outcasts for their failings, and that the jury is still out on, such as comedian Louis C.K. and ex-Today Show host Matt Lauer, who have both struggled to regain any good will from the general public.
Michael Vick went to prison for his part in a dog-fighting scheme, but was eventually welcomed back as a successful Quarterback in the NFL, even if not everyone embraced him. Paula Deen, the famous southern foodie, hasn’t ever really regained her place in the spotlight.
So why do we forgive some sins, and not others? Certainly the severity of the offense is part of the equation. Personal failings like substance abuse is usually deemed pretty harmless, if not at least personally reckless. Crimes against others, not so much.
Another aspect of redemption that can be critical is contrition. Are they actually sorry about what they did if there were victims of their offenses? Did they redeem themselves? Plenty of famous people with dark pasts that rose above it to become different people. There are those who did tremendous damage and won’t likely ever recover. Ego is a defining characteristic, because while we like second chances, and success stories, we expect humility, not always an easy thing for anyone who was once rich and powerful.
A parasocial relationship is one where the relationship is completely one-sided, such as in the case of celebrities that an individual might know a lot about and feel a certain affinity or intimacy with, but that is in reality, completely one-sided. The stronger the parasocial bond, the more likely we are to forgive certain types of behaviors, especially if are able to empathize with the motivations and rationalize the bad behavior on the part of the celebrity.
Bill Cosby is accused of drugging and raping more than 60 women over the course of decades, so despite all the good will he had built up in the course of his career, what he did was so unforgivable that we are unable to either rationalize his behavior, or empathize with his motives.
Robert Downey, Jr. struggled with addiction, but they were personal issues and he was mainly harming himself. He was able to recover and show humility and was able to regain his status as a movie star. We could understand his behavior and be empathetic of his struggles, even if we couldn’t entirely rationalize his behavior.
In the MeToo era, we have seen a lot of powerful men fall for offenses that might not have even risen to the level of a criminal act, but were powerful enough to cause public disgrace. Congressman Al Franken comes to mind.
The thing about culture is that it’s always evolving and changing. What was deemed acceptable a decade or two ago, wouldn’t be considered acceptable today and what we find okay today might not hold up to future criticism.
Celebrity culture and the attitudes of the public at large are fickle and you don’t always know what will stick and what will be forgiven.