Reese Witherspoon and Ashton Kutcher may be starring in the new Netflix romantic comedy “Your Place or Mine” – but their latest red carpet appearance generated more buzz about the stars’ level of comfort with one another than it did about the actual film, so much so that they needed to publicly address their friendship.
Meanwhile on Sunday at the Grammys, Ben Affleck’s facial reactions during the show earned more online chatter than Jennifer Lopez‘s stunning Gucci gown.
How did we get here?
Chalk it up to human nature and our inherent curiosity in other people, coupled with the fact that celebrities are well-known enough that they make for easy conversation-starters. And you wind up with a barrage of headlines about body language, social media reactions and speculation.
“You and I can talk about something weird that your uncle did, but I don’t know who your uncle is so it’s meaningless to me,” says Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. “We could talk about something awkward that Reese Witherspoon did, and we all know her in some way.”
What our response to Ashton Kutcher, Reese Witherspoon awkwardness teaches us
Think about how much we talk about others in our daily lives. That inappropriate outfit someone wore to work. The wedding toast that went on just a little too long.
“Generally as human beings we’re designed to be curious and look for cues – nonverbal cues, there’s a whole field of communication studies about that,” Thompson says.
Scrolling through Instagram gives people a curated glimpse into celebrity lives. Red carpets and awards show moments, not to mention paparazzi photos, offer a seemingly unvarnished look into their lives. “It reminds us that they’re ordinary people too,” says Erica Chito Childs, a professor of sociology at Hunter College and The Graduate Center, CUNY.
Whether that gives license for endless speculation about relationship happiness, that’s another story.
But it happens anyway – and celebrities know that. Kutcher lamented if he got too touchy-feely with Witherspoon, it would’ve sparked infidelity rumors. (Both he and Witherspoon are married to other people, actress Mila Kunis and Jim Toth, respectively.)
“If I put my arm around (Witherspoon), and was like all friendly with her, I’d be having an affair with her,” Kutcher said on the “Chicks in the Office” podcast. This type of analysis isn’t new, but social media has emboldened it further.
Even Kunis joked about the awkwardness of the red carpet moment, according to a “Today” interview with Witherspoon.
“Most of the time as fans we feel good when the celebrities we like do well – just like supporting the winning football team,” says W. Keith Campbell, an expert on narcissism, personality, and cultural change. “But sometimes we can boost our self-esteem by putting celebrities down.”
When silly gossip becomes harmful
Everyone spends part of their day being unproductive – it’s OK if yours involves gossiping about celebrities.
“Making fun of the awkwardness gives us a fun angle we can run with because it runs counter to the romantic vibe we expect these celebrities to perform for us, whether the relationship is fictional or real,” says Kadian Pow, lecturer in sociology and Black studies at Birmingham City University in England.
The harm comes, as Affleck has said before, when the rumors negatively impact these stars. Affleck previously spoke about the way the viral “Sad Affleck” meme impacted his kids. The same could be said for paparazzi, media and the general public fueling chatter about younger stars early in their careers. Consider how the tabloids contributed to Britney Spears‘ struggles with mental health.
‘Our desire’ for celebrity news
When it comes to celebrity culture, “our desire and hunger for it never ends,” Chito Childs adds. But people are better off focusing their energy on positive rather than negative messaging.
“When you’re engaging more of this hypercritical speculation on people’s lives, who you don’t even know, whether it’s celebrities, or it’s your neighbors, it’s having the same impact,” Chito Childs says. “It’s a negative thing.”
This type of speculation won’t stop as long as celebrity culture remains intact.
“Being a celebrity means carrying a giant target on your back for people’s psychological projections,” Campbell says. “Sometimes those can be great but sometimes those can be really negative.”
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