Conflating criticism with hate is dangerous. Criticism is how we encourage growth and positive change, while shame and hatred serve to stifle both.
Late last week, I had the misfortune of learning who Sarah Dessen is. One of her tweets was circulating my timeline, where she commented on a screenshot of what she painted as a harsh review. “Authors are real people,” she reminded her followers. “I’m having a hard time right now and this is just mean and cruel.”
Though Dessen blacked out the reviewer’s name and didn’t link to the article in question, it was easy to find the excerpt from her screenshot. A quick Google search turned up a recent interview celebrating the 10th anniversary of South Dakota’s Northern State University Common Read program. Alumna Brooke Nelson told the Aberdeen News that she joined the program’s selection committee to “stop them from ever choosing Sarah Dessen” because she’s “not up to the level of Common Read.” Instead, she was happy that they chose Just Mercy, American lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson’s memoir on racism in the criminal justice system.
Of course, Dessen omitted this important context entirely, and her supporters were quick to hop on their soapbox in her defence. Authors like Jodi Piccoult, Jennifer Weiner, Siobhan Vivian, Jenny Han, Roxane Gay, and Celeste Ng rallied around Dessen and condemned Nelson without knowing who she was. Vivian tweeted, “Fuck that fucking bitch.” (Dessen replied, “I love you,” and fellow YA author Dhonielle Clayton added, “Fuck that RAGGEDY ASS fucking bitch.”) Gay commented on Nelson’s “strange and inflated” taste, labelling her Dessen’s “nemesis.” Piccoult and Weiner speculated on Nelson’s internalized misogyny, and how the comment perpetuated a culture that silences teen girls.
While most of these authors later apologized for their gross oversight, the damage was done. Nelson told Slate that she deleted her social media in the wake of Dessen’s fans piling on her, and was hesitant to speak to journalists after her original quote was taken out of context. I empathize completely with Nelson—facing mass online harassment is no joke. It’s isolating and dehumanizing to have hordes of total strangers take the time to judge and insult your very character, especially in the name of a celebrity.
Whether intentional or not, this isn’t the first time that a person with a large following has weaponized their massive platform against critics, and it, unfortunately, will not be the last. Within the past year, I’ve noticed it happening much more frequently with celebrity creatives in response to completely innocuous cultural commentary and criticism by journalists. Feeling stung in the wake of a bad review is completely valid, but what celebrities fail to understand is how their followers often interpret their public venting as a call-to-arms. When we see someone we love or admire hurting, it’s natural to want to protect and support them. But a journalist calling out or criticizing your celebrity fave will never be an acceptable excuse to harass, insult, or threaten them.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about my personal experience with criticism and harassment. Ariana Grande took to Twitter last spring to call “everybody that works at all them blogs… unfulfilled and purposeless.” She advised them to “create something… and lift people up instead,” hoping for the “beautiful ass day” that they would “feel lit inside.” I wasn’t in the mood to simply ignore a young, white pop star misrepresenting all journalism as antagonistic clickbait and dismissing its creative value. I quoted her tweets with my own criticism and, tired of her microaggressions, called her a bitchass, spoiled white girl.
I was shocked when Grande slid into my DMs, first apologizing for belittling my craft, then shaming me for my “hostile” tone. She publicly replied to one Stan in my mentions, saying there was “no need” for them to “handle me,” effectively making me a mark for her millions of followers by leaving me tagged in her tweet. The harassment was bad enough already, but from there it got worse. Hundreds of strangers clogged my inboxes for a week calling me an ugly, irrelevant bitch, also hurling racist and misogynistic comments that triggered my C-PTSD, and made me ill in real life. To this day, I get heart palpitations when I find a random Stan tweeting something like, “Y’all remember that Roslyn bitch?”
Early this fall, Lana Del Rey stans forced music critic Ann Powers off Twitter after the singer directly replied to her review of Norman Fucking Rockwell!. The review itself was positive all around, but Del Rey made it seem otherwise, seemingly taking offence at Powers commenting on her persona. “To write about me is nothing like it is to be with me. Never had a persona… Never will,” Del Rey replied, “So don’t call yourself a fan.” In a later interview with the Los Angeles Times, she clarified that she was hitting back at Powers’ assumption that she’d survived childhood trauma. I’m personally skeptical of the accuracy of this, considering I couldn’t find the passage that she was referring to.
By misrepresenting and stripping critique of its full context, celebrities purposefully weaponize their platforms to soothe their bruised egos. When it comes to white women like Dessen, Grande, and Del Rey, it’s especially egregious watching them use their white tears to position themselves as the ultimate victims. But given that non-white celebrities often incite harassment against critics too, it’s apparently their class and status that seem to empower them to sicc their followers on those of us below them in the hierarchy.
Lizzo and Jameela Jamil have both faced backlash for abusing their platforms multiple times this year. Pitchfork confirmed a few days ago that a former Postmates driver, Tiffany Wells, filed a lawsuit against Lizzo for libel and invasion of privacy. In yet another instance of a celebrity misrepresenting facts, Lizzo tweeted Wells’ photo, first name, and initial and accused her of stealing her food. According to TMZ, Postmates later confirmed that Wells did her due diligence, and that Lizzo was unavailable for the delivery. Yet Lizzo’s negligence led her fans to publicly threaten to stomp Wells, causing emotional duress that affected her ability to do her customer service job.
Jamil notoriously takes up space in conversations she has no business being in and uses her platform to be unabashedly loud and wrong. In mid-October, she changed her Twitter bio to include “I respond to abuse publicly, so don’t start fights that you can’t finish,” announcing the change in a tweet that acknowledges her big following and reminds people not to try her. Jamil is taking advantage of having close to 1 million followers to discourage people from criticizing her. Yet just this week, when CupcakKe returned to social media after experiencing what seemed like a mental crisis, Jamil was quick to shame the rapper for her weight loss, calling her a danger to children, outright refusing to extend her compassion. It is absolutely bonkers that Jamil wants to dole out criticism while hiding behind abusive trolls to silence any criticism of her.
My colleague Clarkisha Kent wrote a heartbreaking piece articulating the violent misogynoir behind Jamil’s shaming and how we don’t allow Black women the space to be fragile. Kent writes: “The public calling-out of CupcakKe was never about genuine concern for her well-being. It was an opportunity for people to whip out their metaphorical dicks and jack off to being what they see as morally superior to a down-on-her-luck Black girl.” She’s right and I’m glad she fucking said it.
At the end of the day, celebrities weaponizing their platform comes down to a matter of re-establishing their superiority. Whether it be famous authors over college students, white pop stars over Asian journalists, celebrities over service workers, or non-Black “body positivity activists” over dark-skinned Black women, these people use their large follower count to remind us of our place in the hierarchy. It’s a mark of their enormous class privilege and high social status that they can post a single tweet, utterly decimating a person’s mental health and safety, then simply move on with their day.
Conflating constructive criticism with hatred is not only wrong, but extremely dangerous and damaging. Criticism is how we encourage growth and positive change, while shame and hatred serve to stifle both. It’s irresponsible for celebrities to use their platforms to perpetuate the idea that any and all criticism is nothing but a personal attack that serves no value. This goes for everyone: when someone criticizes you, try listening. Sit with the discomfort for a moment, take what you need, then leave the rest. I promise you’ll survive and you’ll be better for it. And for fuck’s sake, celebrities, save your venting for your group chat or journal instead of siccing your hundreds of thousands, if not millions of followers, on people just trying to make ends meet.
Roslyn Talusan is a Canadian freelance culture writer and anti-rape activist. Represented by The Bent Agency, she’s working on a memoir documenting her experience with workplace sexual violence. Her writing aims to critique media and dismantle societal beliefs that uphold rape culture. You can find more of her work on her website or follow her on Twitter.