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It was an ordinary Saturday night when, Love-Island style, I got the ‘ping’ of a news update on my phone. I expected it to be something clickbait-y, that I would swipe away and ignore, but this was different: ‘Television presenter Caroline Flack found dead, age 40’.
The reaction on Twitter was what you might expect when a celebrity dies: shock, sadness, mourning, emotional tributes from friends and fans. What I didn’t expect was anger. An immense wave of criticism and blame was unfolding, directed towards various targets in the media. The tabloid press for hounding her about her personal life; reality TV for its lack of aftercare and calls for Love Island to be cancelled; social media trolls for their relentless abuse; other celebrities for making jokes about her career.
I don’t know what factors led to Caroline’s death and it’s not up to us to draw any conclusions, but the fallout reveals a shift in the way we relate to celebrities. Her death has prompted renewed discussions about media intrusion, online bullying, and mental health awareness. It has made ordinary people turn their scrutiny towards the ultimate scrutinisers: the tabloid press. The treatment of Caroline in tabloid media and social media has been linked to a wider culture of bullying, with comparisons drawn to other female celebrities like Meghan Markle and Jameela Jamil, who have been the targets of similar smear campaigns. It is not an overstatement to say that Caroline’s death is perhaps one of the most impactful celebrity deaths of the 21st century in terms of the questions it has raised about tabloid culture, social media, and our relationship with celebrities.
The news of Caroline’s death has brought to light the familiar narrative of women being hounded by the media. There has been a resurgence of this topic in recent years due to the scrutiny faced by Meghan Markle, with frequent comparisons to Princess Diana. This is nothing new and the sad reality is that we only seem to take notice of it when it ends tragically. Caroline was often criticised in the tabloid media, from her choice of partners to issues in her personal life, which escalated leading up to her death due to an assault case involving her boyfriend. Yet, the tabloid media also offered her a platform to talk about her mental health. In a 2018 interview with The Sun, she talked openly about her year-long battle with depression. The outrageous irony here is that while appearing to have a compassionate interest in the wellbeing of celebrities, the tabloid media also vilifies celebrities to an invasive degree, particularly women.
The treatment of celebrities in the mainstream media has a ripple effect on social media. When tabloids mock celebrities, it permits ordinary people to do so. Tabloid media has always been a key source of information about celebrities and the way they are depicted in tabloids guides our own views of these individuals. However, these disparaging narratives about celebrities are no longer confined to the glossy pages. In the age of social media, anyone can say anything they like about – and directly to -celebrities with no real consequences, regardless of how abusive it is.
Social media has changed the landscape of celebrity culture, for better and for worse. On the one hand, it has given celebrities more control over their images and a closer relationship with their fans, but on the other hand, it means they can receive an unregulated amount of criticism, even to the severity of death threats. The fact that social media is largely accessed on smartphones means that we have an intimate relationship with these online platforms. Scrolling through Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram is often the first thing we do in the morning and the last thing we do at night. We are so invested in social media that it becomes part of our daily routine, which means that online abuse becomes inescapable for someone on the receiving end of it – celebrity or otherwise. Before social media, a celebrity might be able to avoid negative press by turning off the television and radio and avoiding newspapers for a couple of days, but social media means 24/7 exposure to criticism. Celebrity in the digital age is so bound up with social media, it is how people build their brands and connect with audiences. Celebrities can’t simply ‘come off of it’, as is often suggested.
There is an outpouring of emotion when a celebrity dies, especially when they have taken their own life, but this is often disproportionate to the
All of this begs the question: why is there such an extreme lack of empathy towards celebrities? There seems to be a perception that celebrities ‘have it easy’ purely because of material things, as though the wealthy and the privileged are exempt from being unhappy. There is also the attitude that celebrities should expect criticism because they have chosen to live in the public eye, which does nothing to tackle this culture of bullying and simply accepts that this is the way things are. Perhaps our experience of celebrities has become so digitised that we forget they are real people. Perhaps our intimate access to celebrities on social media provokes resentment and jealousy towards their lifestyles. There may be no simple answers and it shouldn’t take the death of a celebrity to make us question our empathy towards them. The more pressing question is: how can we do better?