How We Love To Watch Them Fall: What Does Our Celebrity Schadenfreude Say About Us?
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How We Love To Watch Them Fall: What Does Our Celebrity Schadenfreude Say About Us?

By Courtney Enlow | Think Pieces | June 19, 2012 | Comments ()


As you've no doubt heard, Rock of Ages flopped this weekend. The subsequent press was about fifty/fifty either blaming Tom Cruise or asking if Tom Cruise was to blame.

This is often the case when a high-profile star appears in a film that fails, regardless of the size of that person's role in said film. Which is odd, really. Movies flop and underperform all the time, and logic would dictate that would have more to do with plot, cast as a whole, marketing, cultural trends or simply a movie that could not generate the interest it wanted (I, personally, had no interest in paying to see a cheesy movie based on a shitty musical from a valley in the timeline of Broadway quality. That's why the good lord invented basic cable). But, more often than not, the blame falls on one individual, one who had little to no creative input into the project, and there comes a strange celebration when it doesn't work out--when it stops being "Rock of Ages failed" and becomes "Tom Cruise failed."

This of course is not limited to film performance. Rather, most of this misfortunate glee falls toward personal failures. The trials and tribulations of Charlie Sheen's 2011, or Lindsay Lohan's life in general for the past eight years, or, of course, Tom Cruise, his marriage and his "Small Wonder"-esque offspring are officially entertainment.

I'm not judging. I literally cannot. But, even I, someone who does this completely unprofessionally, wonders why. Why are we so stoked on the personal and professional implosions of strangers?

I'll be completely honest, without snarky jokes masking it: I actually get excited when there's a new "Tom Cruise is fucking crazy" story. Or, when Lindsay Lohan kidnaps some guys and goes on a high-speed joyride. Like, I enjoy it. It makes me laugh, at least internally if not externally. I laugh at something that causes at the very least an interruption in the lives of people I don't know. And I'm clearly not the only one, otherwise blogs and tabloids and the HLN network would not exist.

So, why do we do that? And when I say "we" I'm not referring to everyone, so don't worry, sanctimonious people who always remind me that they are perfect and without such mindless proclivities as "celebrity" or "television" or "the internet." I'm referring to those of us who have some ugly in our minds and souls, whether we admit it or not.

The obvious possibility is jealousy. The pretty rich people have bad things happen to them and it makes us feel better about our own tiny lives. And that's probably a big part of it. I'll never have their millions, beauty and fame; you probably will never have their millions, beauty and fame, and when they have even a relatively small hiccup, it makes us feel better about that.

Another possibility? We're all Batman. We love to see some perceived justice in this world, even though we are the ones assigning the reasons this person would need to be brought to justice. We think Tom Cruise is weird and strange and has beliefs that have potentially harmed people--so, when his movie does poorly or a story is released that could potentially embarrass him, that's the tiny retribution for his sins. It's not exactly a good thing, and as excuses go, it's weirder than volcano aliens, but there it is.

And I'm probably not going to stop. I'm probably going to keep secretly (although, the secret is officially out) enjoying it when famous people do stupid things or when they don't do well with something. But it's weird that I do that, that we do that.

Again, except for you, superior people. Good for you.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • ShermanOaks

    Nobody is superior. We all have "a little bit of ugly", whether we admit it or not...

  • ,


    More Courtney, please. Lots more Courtney.

    Thank you.

  • Morgan_LaFai

    This was in interesting piece, but i thought it was going in a completely different direction.

    I was thinking more along the lines of:
    1. If you like actors being labelled box office poison then you have an artistic personality but no talent.
    2. If you like stories about actors doing stupid but harmless stuff then you are five at heart.
    3. If you like stories about actors putting themselves and others in harms way then you were probably abused at some point and should seek professional help.
    4. If you like stories about actors getting married, divorced, having children, and other standard family stuff then you are trying to live vicariously through the lives of others and aren't living your own life.

    I can't do it as well as any of the pajiba writing staff (or even half the commenters) but that was the list I was expecting when I clicked on. The thought piece was good too.


  • A. Smith

    These are all reasons why I tend to avoid gossip media unless its info
    on a movie, show or any media. Getting into the private lives of people
    just makes me feel uneasy. It's like the idea judge unless ye be
    judged plus it takes me away from any performance I see of them. It
    becomes more of I see the personality not the actor's performance and
    takes me away from what the intent the media's message was intended, if
    that makes sense.

    I never root for a celebrity to fail, go away absolutely. Folk like
    reality tv personalities or performers known for their exploits than
    their talent, if they have any. I just wish they go away. As for folk like your scientologists or folk LiLo I think the best bet for them is get of LA. It's not helping.

  • Jezzer

    Most of these people would have private lives if they could A) Let go of the need for delicious attention, and/or B) Stop doing stupid shit in the public eye that is impossible to ignore. For every celebrity that is hounded by paparazzi and gossip sites, there are probably five more that are courting them.

  • David Sorenson

    Why do I root for certain celebrities to fail? Because I'm an asshole and I think it's funny.

    Oddly though, I can't think of a celebrity whose failures I root for. Tom Cruise is a nutbag and Lindsay is a train wreck, but I don't take any enjoyment from their failures. Sure I wanted Rock of Ages to fail, but that's because I thought it looked like crap.

    The closest thing I can think of is LeBron James. I don't hate him. Even the pompous douchery of "The Decision" and the subsequent pep rally where he talked about all the championships they would win didn't make me hate him. It just made it funny when he failed. Bugs Bunny flexing his bicep only to have it sag. Margaret Dumont getting burned by Groucho. A balloon deflating with a tremendous fart noise. I had no idea that Oklahoma City had a basketball franchise (which should tell you exactly how much attention I pay to the NBA), but I am rooting for them simply because seeing LeBron making a sad face as someone else celebrates will make me cackle with evil glee like Eric Cartman.

    I know it's probably not healthy for my karma to laugh at the failings of another no matter how big of a douche they may be, but I don't care.

  • Yeah, I'm probably a horrible person, but I LOVE when humiliating things happen to horrible celebrities. Your Paris Hiltons, the Gosselins, the fucking Kardashians. People who have done nothing at all to earn everything they have. Because it's not fair, and because they're horrible. So yeah, those bitches can fall in vomit nightly and I will laugh.

  • mona_sterling

    Good grief, the Gosselins. I hate those two idiots more than all the Kardashians combined. If it weren't for those poor kids, I'd love to see them panhandling for spare change and eating out of trash cans.

  • guest

    The more Lindsay Lohan's parents were in the press, the more I felt sorry for her. I feel like she is what her parents made her. When you're 18 and your mom is taking you to a club and encouraging a see-and-be-seen lifestyle, that's hard to get out of. I don't think she has anyone in her life who is normal. THe usual people celebs might rely on- parents or family or friends from way back- are most of the problem.
    Celebs like Tom Cruise or John Travolta, on the other hand, don't seem sad and pathetic because they've had a hard childhood or abusive parents. They just seem like they think they're better than everyone else. THey're weird-ass religion makes me hate them all the more. I would wish ill on no one because of their religion. Believe what you want. But, dmn, those scientologists. I just can't do it. They're awful. As soon as I find out that someone is a scientologist, it's over. I'm done.

  • Bert_McGurt

    Like you said, a lot of it DOES boil down to wanting to see justice, or maybe more accurately karma take a bite out of those who deserve it. Then we all get to make up our own reason for WHY that retribution is deserved. Whether their crimes be unearned fame, wasted talent, crazy cultery, criminal/unethical actions or just general douchebaggery, we love to see that retribution doled out.
    But I'd argue that it's not because of jealousy, but because it's reassuring to see some sort of logic and order in the world. That actions have consequences, be they legal. social, political, or economical. And also, that the "Grand Order of Things" agrees with our internal assessment of said celebrity. To that point, I think it's just as important to note that we also (to maybe a lesser extent) revel in the triumphs of those celebrities that we feel deserve to be rewarded by karma as well. Heck, we just saw that with the success of The Avengers, where many Pajiba favourites, Whedon in particular, got a level of recognition we felt long overdue to them.
    Humans LOVE to defy the second law of thermodynamics, if only on a local scale. What we really get off on is finding (or even better, creating) order out of chaos, and of course finding out that we were right all along.

  • TheEmpress

    I for one, get no pleasure from Tom Cruise's (or Rock of Ages') failure. I love me some crazy Tom, but I also like when he's the quintessential movie star. There are so few of them left.

    Kardashians, Lohans, Lebron James and Chris Brown, however? I wouldn't say I necessarily wish bad things on them, because I'm the kind of person who believes in karma. I am, however, super super entertained when they fail. Because they're assholes.

  • NateMan

    I think it's like a math equation: If we subtract a performer's ego\idiocy from their subjective talent\charm, and we end up with a positive number, we can feel bad for them. If the solution is negative, then we can cheer on their self destruction.

    For example, Robert Downey Jr. had an ego estimated at 3 Mt. Washingtons, subjectively speaking. His talent, however, can be estimated at around 4 Everests, plus another 6 for his charm, and so when he went on his downward spiral we still often felt bad for him.

    Charlie Sheen, on the other hand, has an ego approximately the mass of 3 Sols, while his combination of talent and charm is about the size of the first hill you rode your sled down. The solution is so far into the negative that he actually takes good-spirited people and drives them to hate. Ditto for anyone with the last name Kardashian, Lohan, Spears, etc.

    The other thing is that cumulatively people are assholes, and the more of us get into one space the worse we get. So every time one of idols - and dear god does that word barely mean anything any more - fails, we all get together to cheer it. The face of the American public is an ugly, ugly thing. `

  • space_oddity

    When Robert Downey Jr went on a downward spiral, he was contrite about it. Drugs made me do stupid things. Part of it, and others have mentioned this, is the steadfast refusal of many to even act like they're normal people, That they are above it all (and this applies to other public figures as well), with ZERO self-awareness about how they may be just as fucked up as the rest of us. It's not helped by what people see to be a complete double standard for these people in the justice system, etc. So people revel in things like the 24/7 trainwreck that is LiLo. It's not pretty, no. But I totally understand it.

  • Tinkerville

    I won't pretend to be superior. I get tons of enjoyment from reading about the downfalls of celebrities I don't like.

    But like others have mentioned, my enjoyment doesn't extend to all celebrities and sometimes I'm confused about why I feel that way towards some and not others. Lindsay Lohan strikes me as so entitled and smug that I get loads of enjoyment whenever I read about a new arrest. But when it comes to Taylor Swift for example, whose music I don't even like and comes off as so spoiled and princessy, I would never wish ill on. When I read she was dating John Mayer I just wanted to give her hot cocoa and tell her to stay far away.

    I guess my muddled point is that it's an interesting question and it's hard to pinpoint exact reasons for this kind of thinking.

  • Jezzer

    I don't know. I wouldn't want to see anything bad happen to any of the "nice" (or, arguably, low-profile) celebrities, and I've stated elsewhere that I actually feel bad for Tom Cruise because he seems like such a nice person under all the crazy. But when it comes to hateful, entitled, "Don't you know who I am?" celebutards like Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, and Kim Kardashian, I say BRING ON THE KARMA.

  • guest

    If only Cruise were still with Nicole Kidman. Doesn't Katie Holmes seem like such a robot? I just can't look at her as a normal person.

  • Groundloop

    I completely agree about the Celebutards, but I'm not sure about your assessment of Cruise. I'm increasingly of the opinion that the crazy goes all the way down.

  • Jezzer

    Oh, I think the crazy goes all the way down, too. I'm just saying that I think there's a nice guy in there somewhere too, and he makes me feel bad.

  • Guest

    You hit on a couple of reasons (and there are probably, as you suggest, several at play); I'd add Mean Girl tendencies to the class resentment and poetic justice impulses you already outlined, or crowd-bullying.

    I think a few commenters have mentioned this in Lohan threads already. People love a collective emotion that makes them feel part of a crowd, whether it's patriotism, worship, lust, or snark. People also a love a scape-goat--"look at that fool so you won't look at ME and judge." I see little difference between piling on Lohan and piling on a girl or boy in high school--a lot of the same rhetoric is used, anyway, and a lot of the same emotional rewards are gained. The only difference is that the subject may or may not be aware of the piling-on in the case of distant celebs.

    I stopped piling on the Lohans etc a while back when I realized it said more about me than them--and nothing good--but man if I can't resist a good jab at the Cruises and the Travoltas. I just..hate their smug faces so. A totally wise and mature person would get over that. I have a ways to go. I don't get any glee in slut-shaming or mocking addicts or the mentally ill, but I still have a weakness for hypocrites and egos of epic dimensions (epic--since we all have a bit of that in us to begin with).

    Yes, it's always been around. I see it all the time in the 17C and 18C
    essays, op-eds, satiric poetry, etc. that I read for work. We are a judgey

  • poguemahone

    I didn't want this movie to fail because I want bad things to happen to Tom Cruise. I wanted this movie to fail because musicals suck, especially the corporate kind that try to cash in on nostalgia, and that's doubly so when it's nostalgia for butt rock.

  • Wednesday

    I don't hate musicals, but I do hate the instant-mythologizing of our recent past, so I was ready for Rock of Ages not so much to fail as to drop off the radar. I see nothing awesome about pretending that strutting around to Pour Some Sugar On Me was a meaningful and memorable experience. Fun? Sure, if you were into it back then. But not anything that future generations need to look at and whistle and think, man, those were the good old days. They weren't. They were no better or worse than any other era, and the big hair and shoulder pads of the '80s were no sillier than the leisure suits of the '70s or the mini skirts of the '60s. It's just history, and if it was *your* history, that only makes it special to *you.*

  • maybe they thought they could recreate the mythologising of the sixties that was very successfully accomplished in the 80's--and that was barely a 20 year gap from peak to nostalgia, whereas this is closer to 30. but then, hair rock isn't quite equivalent to the british invasion.

  • Kolby

    I saw one trailer for this movie on my TV. One. And I forgot about it again as soon as it was over. Did they advertise it as poorly elsewhere?

    I don't think people enjoy witnessing the pain and failures of ALL celebrities. It seems like it's always the ones who've publicly - at one point or another, and not always in so many words - told us that they're better than us. That they're somehow above reproach, and in some cases the law. So, yeah, I'm going with your "we are all Batman" theory.

  • NateMan

    You saw more than I have. I've yet to see a single trailer for the film anywhere on TV. And I do watch a number of shows in prime time and on the major networks. I don't think I even fast forwarded through one on DVR.

  • Fredo

    The fact that there's an actual term for this condition -- albeit a German word -- tells you that this is a human condition. Not just an American/Westerner/Millenial thing but something that's always been with us, probably since Fianka, that caveman hussy, was found making the wildebeest with chieftain Glort in their cave by his partner, High Priestess To That Shiny Thing in the Sky, Aaki.

    We all revel in the mighty being brought down a peg or two.

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