Caroline Flack died over the weekend, and in her wake there’s been a flurry of crocodile tears from the tabloids that hounded her, memorials from the people who knew and worked with her, and the unanswered questions that inevitably follow when a celebrity dies suddenly and relatively young.
To complicate matters further, there is the outstanding issue of her arrest for domestic violence in December, where it is alleged that she threw a lamp at her sleeping boyfriend in her apartment and subsequently called the police. She was to stand trial in early March for the offense.
I liked Caroline Flack, but I didn’t know Caroline Flack. None of us did, but I had an opinion of her. I had an opinion on her actions, and I had a complicated opinion on what happened in December, which I’m still not entirely sure I know how to write about ethically and responsibly. So I didn’t. When I wrote about how the media bullied her this weekend, I brought up the incident in one paragraph, vaguely, and probably a little clunkily, linked out to a newspaper (which was also vague, and a bit clunky) and moved on. That didn’t go unnoticed.
The fact of the matter is, I felt sadness for a woman who just died, who was clearly struggling, and I didn’t want to pile on the negative shit that was heaped around her name by bringing up an incident that had not gone to trial and was used to hound her mercilessly before the courts could determine what happened that night. To make the matter even murkier, would I have done the same if a man was in the same position? I think I would have, but I’m not sure.
Like I said, I didn’t know Caroline Flack. I don’t know any celebrities, but I have opinions of them. We all do. Celebrities are ciphers that we project our own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs on to. When we like them, we give them the benefit of the doubt. When they f*ck up, it messes with our perceptions of them and our own internal code, because it’s a one-sided relationship. It’s up to us to reconcile what they said or did that we don’t agree with and decide whether to forgive them or not. Since they’re not our friends, it’s not like we can call them up and hash it out.
However, celebrities have never been more accessible to us in the post-social media age. There’s even a new caliber of famous, where celebrities are created entirely from social media platforms, never once having been on TV. We can interact with them, share our thoughts, feelings, and opinions about them, to them, and sometimes they engage.
When they don’t engage, however, is where it gets complicated. We’re used to candid confessionals now. They talk to us, the faceless masses, like we’re their friends. It feels intimate, and when the true nature of that relationship gets exposed—when we need it to not be one-sided in order for our own thoughts and feelings to be heard, it gets very messy.
A therapist friend once said to me that silence is an answer, which I’ve been thinking about since Caroline Flack died.
The night before she died, she posted on social media that she was about to share her thoughts about what happened in December. She did not, posting instead pictures of her with her dog. Her family has since released the note she intended to publish, which I’ve excerpted for you below, per The Daily Eastern:
I’ve been pressing the snooze button on many stresses in my life - for my whole life. I’ve accepted shame and toxic opinions on my life for over 10 years and yet told myself it’s all part of my job. No complaining.
The problem with brushing things under the carpet is …. they are still there and one day someone is going to lift that carpet up and all you are going to feel is shame and embarrassment.
The reason I am talking today is because my family can’t take anymore. I’ve lost my job. My home. My ability to speak. And the truth has been taken out of my hands and used as entertainment.
I can’t spend every day hidden away being told not to say or speak to anyone. I’m so sorry to my family for what I have brought upon them and for what my friends have had to go through.
I’m not thinking about ‘how I’m going to get my career back.’ I’m thinking about how I’m going to get mine and my family’s life back. I can’t say anymore than that.”
There’s this idea behind silence that it implies lack of caring about how someone is perceived or complicity, and that meaning can certainly be there, but there are so many other reasons for silence, especially when it is coming from a source that doesn’t know you personally.
I’ve remained silent when I didn’t think speaking up would do any good, when I didn’t want to keep telling someone “no” because it made me feel uncomfortable, when I was asked to remain silent by people I care about and respect, when the act of responding was too much emotional effort to make because I was dealing with something that was deeply affecting me that the other person had no idea was going on.
Which leads me to my next point: There’s another form of silence. It’s remaining silent from the things that are going on in your life, opting to present something else. I can’t speak for Caroline, but I can tell you that in the past year and a half I’ve written for Pajiba both of my grandmothers have died; my beloved cat Buster became terminally ill, I went into thousands of dollars of debt to save him only to have him succumb to his illness after he initially made a miraculous recovery; my own family had health scares that required immediate medical intervention; I got my heart ripped out of me and basically shown to me still beating by someone I very much loved—and I’m pretty sure up until now (with the notable exception of writing about my Buster after he died) none of that would be apparent in my writing. I bring this up because, and I say this with love, with the exception of a few of my friends who read this site, none of you reading right now really know me. That’s OK! I don’t know you either—I have no idea what’s going on with your life outside of what you post here (I want good things for you, though!) But we still have opinions of each other based on the very limited things we share or write here—and that’s my point.
The reasons why we remain silent are numerous—and when it comes to public figures, when the relationship is so one-sided, it can drive us, the public, bonkers when a public figure opts to be silent. In some way, their silence gets construed as complicity because up until now, they’ve been an open book, right?! At least that’s how it seems on the outside… They’ve shared details of their thoughts and their work (work that may have had a profoundly personal impact on us, making it seem even more intimate,) they want us to consume their product, but when they violate our own personal values and need to be held accountable, they say nothing to us.
Our relationships with celebrities are transactional in nature. They offer something up, via a social media post, an interview, a song, or a performance, and we consume it. That’s it. However, in order to keep the transactions coming, they have to present themselves as accessible to us. We don’t know them, but we feel like we do. When they f*ck up, and when they don’t own up to that f*ck up in a way that satisfies us, it makes us angry. It makes us want to shit on them in social media. Come after them on other platforms. Click on the nasty articles the tabloids put out. Point out their shortcomings until we feel that they’ve had their nose rubbed into their mistakes enough and we can forgive them and resume our “intimate” yet purely transactional relationship, or we finally have enough and walk away from them, their product, and engaging with them.
I don’t have an answer here. I engage in this process, too. I don’t think there’s a right answer, which irritates me, because I like things to get resolved.
That’s not really how life is though, is it? I’m a messy, complicated person who f*cks up occasionally, just like you are, just like Caroline Flack was. Only I probably don’t know you, and I definitely didn’t know Caroline Flack—so what do we all owe to each other?
I think if there’s anything to be taken away from this sad situation, it’s a reminder that even though we may be removed from people we don’t physically interact with, they’re still people. They’re complicated, nuanced, and feel things, too—and even if they don’t share their inner thoughts with us, it doesn’t mean they’re not there. That sounds so clichéd, but it’s something I need to remind myself from time to time while writing for this site. I liked Caroline Flack because of how she presented herself to me via her shows and her interviews, not because I knew her. Ultimately, she owed me nothing, and that’s hard to reconcile when celebrities’ images rely so much on us feeling positively towards them and creating a false sense of intimacy that was never there to begin with. Because what happens when that sense of intimacy is violated, is ugly, and the vultures come out to pick apart the carcass of someone’s public reputation until there’s nothing left of it?
This is not to say that we shouldn’t hold public figures accountable. We should—but celebrities aren’t public servants, even though they rely on us in order to maintain their status. They’re asking you to consume their product so they can continue to make it, and part and parcel of that deal is making their lives available to us in order to sell their product and themselves. Ultimately the strongest statement you can make when a celebrity violates the sense of trust is to walk away from them and break the transactional relationship. There’s no need to contribute to a pile-on or relitigate what they’ve done in the past, especially if you feel they’ve not atoned for what you want them to. Walking away from them is hard, because breakups are hard—and everything about how celebrities present themselves promotes a 1:1 relationship with them that doesn’t actually exist.
Caroline Flack was in a bad situation and wasn’t given the space or the grace to come to terms with that outside of a public pile-on. To the public, she was silent—although as it turns out, not by choice, but the result was the same.
There’s no easy answer here. No hard and fast rule about who to come out against, and to whom to give space—the best we can do is use our best judgment, and remember that silence works both ways, too. Sometimes it’s better to walk away than engage.
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