As we enter the second week of Jeremy Strong profile discourse, I find myself growing ever wearier with how tediously predictable this fallout has become. Michael Schulman’s piercing, evocative, and often prickly portrait of the Succession star for The New Yorker quickly went viral in ways that pieces of celebrity-oriented writing seldom do. Everyone had their thoughts but mostly Twitter engaged in some light ribbing of what seemed like a very committed if self-serious actor, and some surrounding conversations on topics like method acting. It wasn’t really all that dramatic until some people suddenly got furious at the article.
Jessica Chastain, an actress who I would have imagined as a person too busy for Twitter, spent days letting everyone know how wonderful Strong is and how undeserving he was of a hit-job from the notorious clickbait-seeking hacks at The New Yorker. She then shared a letter of support for Strong from Aaron Sorkin that compared his intensity to that of Dustin Hoffman, an accused sexual harasser who was notoriously nasty to his colleagues in the name of actorly craft. Adam McKay got all self-righteous about it, and so did Anne Hathaway. It was the prestigious version of that time all the Marvel actors got indignant about Chris Pratt being the subject of Twitter jokes. If only all of these folks were so vocal when their marginalized colleagues are being subjected to online abuse.
I’m stunned that we even need to talk about this mess. Are people so truly devoid of media literacy that the idea of a celebrity profile that isn’t a fawning piece of PR fluff is immediately declared to be a callous piece of character assassination? Did anyone really buy the idea that The New Yorker of all publications would want or even need to engage in tabloid-esque nonsense? It seemed like the Streisand effect was destined to come into play once stars with way bigger marquee power than Strong himself decided to act as Twitter police. Maybe you didn’t think he was all that bad in the profile but once everyone had to start yelling about how wonderful he was, it was hard not to wonder if the protests were too much.
It was Sorkin’s self-aggrandizing letter that did it for me and reminded me of a painful reality of this part of our job: for most celebrities, all they want journalists to do is provide good and unpaid PR. They don’t want to be asked interesting or in-depth questions. They’re not interested in discussing their work or themselves with any sort of substance beyond buzzwords and meme moments. So, when a skilled writer is able to get the access, the interviews, and the editorial guidance to craft a piece that does more than discuss IMDb credits and what their subject ate for lunch, it cannot help but come across as some sort of attack.
Once again, Michael Schulman did a good job: his profile is layered and paints a striking portrait of a complicated figure who seems to simultaneously inspire awe and concern among his colleagues. Strong seems intense and committed to his work, sometimes to a fault, but there’s no point in the profile where Schulman damns him as a bad guy or some sort of Hollywood monster. It may not be the most flattering piece of celebrity writing but to show the abrasive side of a public figure is not to slam them.
I get it. In 2021, there’s zero incentive for even the most minor celebrities to engage with this narrative, not when there are other options that will allow them greater control over their image and messaging. This mutually beneficial relationship is no longer one with a balanced dynamic. If you don’t want to allow a journalist several days or even weeks of access into your life, asking potentially probing questions to your colleagues and loved ones, then you get to dictate those terms. Oh, a major magazine wants to do a cover piece on you? Give them a 30-minute chat in your dressing room or a Skype call with pre-approved topics to discuss. The chances are, if you’re a big enough deal, that the publication will adhere to your rules. And if they don’t? Then it’s no skin off your back. You can just do Instagram posts or play children’s party games with Jimmy Fallon. If you’re Beyonce then you just write the cover piece yourself. There’s a reason very few truly penetrating profiles of the Kardashian-Jenner clan exist.
You’re allowed to set some boundaries, after all. I don’t buy that nonsense that celebrities owe people anything or should engage in public acts of self-flagellation for our amusement. We’ve seen how the press treats vulnerable and marginalized people at the best and worst of times. In this current age of cultural re-examination of wronged and harassed famous women of the past few decades, we’ve seen a lot of extremely creepy and inappropriate interviews pop up online. Who wouldn’t want to avoid yet another leering weirdo eagerly asking questions about your sex appeal (alas, read any profile of a hot woman these days and you still see this crap.)
I wonder how much such interviews and profiles really matter not only to the stars but the fans they’re appealing to. Strong’s fans seemed aghast that a profile would ever position him as something other than blindingly wonderful. Stan culture’s impact on entertainment journalism as a whole is a thesis waiting to be written and a tangent, I don’t have the time or energy to go off on right now. I’ve never written a celebrity profile, but I can attest to the genuine terror one feels when writing vaguely critical work about someone, only to be besieged by their most zealous fans. Getting death threats isn’t fun, my friends, and I couldn’t blame any writer who wanted to forego substance in favor of safety. Frankly, few publications have the means or real understanding required to prepare for such online onslaught.
That’s also something that I think a lot of the celebrities rushing to defend Strong are missing. They seem to be reacting less to the profile than the online reaction to it, and trying to dictate the disparate responses to a piece that asks you to come to your own conclusions seems like a futile endeavor.
As someone who really enjoys and appreciates strong writing on topics like celebrities, a field that reveals so much about our world yet remains widely dismissed by our peers, it’s sad to see the celebrity profile in this period of decline. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, thanks to incredible writers like Taffy Brodesser-Akner, E. Alex Jung, Caity Weaver, and Allison P. Davis, to name but a few. Still, it feels like we’re in an era of such carefully manicured banality with this form. Do we really need another piece where a celebrity’s BFF interviews them then only asks softballs about why they’re so awesome? Celebrity requires a lot of labor and I’m interested in hearing about that. I want to read about an actor’s process and their inspirations. I’m excited to hear about how a wildly famous person plays the game. I don’t find anything especially interesting about the illusion of perfection being maintained with no self-awareness about the work required.
That seems to be the real answer at the bottom of the pile with this issue: I think the people in the upper echelons of power have no desire to interrogate that and they don’t feel especially excited by the prospect of someone else doing so either. Frankly, celebrity isn’t seen as real power or something worth understanding. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve written about this topic and had someone needlessly interject to tell me that I’m thinking too much about things that don’t matter. Celebrity is all about the magic. Thinking about it beyond the glitz is typically discouraged. Pay no attention to what’s behind the curtain and just enjoy the glamorous accompanying photoshoot. Plenty of other people do, after all.
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