Taylor Swift. Anne Hathaway. Two women at the heights of their respective careers. One is love obsessed with a revolving door of men and the other — well, how do I say this nicely? — no one likes her, everyone finds her annoying, and she’s Hollywood’s least popular actress. But the problem is that none of that is true. At least not completely true. The media has exaggerated the personal narratives of both Swift and Hathaway, turning them into characters that are not actually a true reflection of who these two women are.
Since rising to popularity in 2006, Taylor has been one of the most successful female artists of all time thanks to her diary-esque songs on her favorite topic: love. From confessionals to butterflies-in-the-stomach excitement to break-ups, Swift is not afraid to express the trials, tribulations, and joys of her love life. But what are to be taken as extreme moments in Taylor’s life are attributed to her everyday existence, as if with the dawning of each new day includes another man and another heartbreak to be angry about. Taylor addressed this media-contrived characterization of her in a Vanity Fair interview last week:
If you want some big revelation, since 2010 I have dated exactly two people… The fact that there are slide shows of a dozen guys that I either hugged on a red carpet or met for lunch or wrote a song with… it’s just kind of ridiculous. It’s why I have to avoid the tabloid part of our culture, because they turn you into a fictional character.
For a female to write about her feelings, and then be portrayed as some clingy, insane, desperate girlfriend in need of making you marry her and have kids with her, I think that’s taking something that potentially should be celebrated — a woman writing about her feelings in a confessional way — that’s taking it and turning it and twisting it into something that is frankly a little sexist.
Hathaway began in Disney films and went on to star in a number of popular and critically acclaimed films. In 2012 alone, she portrayed Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises and Fantine in the film rendition of Les Misérables, winning an Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role for the latter film. But curiously, she has been dubbed by many respected news outlets as the least popular film actress based on people’s Twitter reactions to her Oscar speech. New York Times writer Ross Douthat thinks not only is this unfair but unfounded:
[P]eople can hate whichever movie stars they like… But being old fashioned, I’d generally assumed that for a star to be considered tarnished with the public, they needed to have something significant happen in their career — a drug problem or a sex scandal, a personality issue that made them persona non grata on movie sets, or just a string of notable flops — to justify the claim that America had actually turned on them.
But apparently not anymore. Instead, thanks to Twitter’s influence, pop culture pundits have persuaded themselves that one of the most successful movie stars of her generation occupies a role in the public’s imagination “not unlike Lindsay Lohan’s … [as a] punching bag on which we project our resentment of celebrities, generally speaking.” Which would be a completely plausible bit of cultural analysis, if Lohan were coming off two monster hits and basically writing her own ticket in Hollywood while Hathaway was sharing top billing with a porn star in a desperate attempt to jump-start her career.
Since the reverse is true, it’s safe to assume that Hathaway’s career will survive the press’s recent elevation of her online haters. But that elevation is still an indicator of a media that’s at ease in the Twitterverse’s various echo chambers, and prone to forget that there’s a wider world outside.
Through those “echo chambers” of traditional and social media, Swift and Hathaway become women who are desperate for love and irritating, when truly they are more complex than that. Our grossly inflated perceptions of celebrities as one-dimensional figures are really questions about identity: Are we who people say we are or are we who we say we are? I would argue that for Swift and Hathaway — and all of us collectively — we are neither able to define our identity nor have one thrust upon us by others.
This is a struggle for those in the spotlight as they meander through the complex relationship between self-definition and imposed stereotype but not unlike any of us searching for our own identity. We will protest, like Swift, against the misreading of our identity or embrace defeatism, embodying the “that’s just the way I am” ethic. This is why each one of us needs a redefinition of our identity. Our personal narrative must be renewed, reworked and grounded in the Grand Narrative of redemption through Christ. Only then will our true identify, as founded on Christ, be fully realized in His expansive love and not limited to our faulty human perceptions of self.