The Anatomy of a Celebrity Apology

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Aaryn Gries from Big Brother 15/CBS
Aaryn Gries from Big Brother 15/CBS

Deadline Hollywood calls it slur summer.

Undoubtedly, you’ve heard about Paula Deen’s admission about a racial epithet. You may have even read Lisa T. Jackson’s lawsuit against the food giant, alleging racial and sexual discrimination. It was hard to avoid Deen’s subsequent apologies on You Tube (heavily edited) or her excruciating Today Show appearance.

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Then there’s Alec Baldwin’s disturbing tweets against George Stark, a UK Daily Mail reporter. Stark reported that Hilaria, Baldwin’s wife, tweeted while attending a funeral for James Gandolfini. Baldwin’s outraged tweets included calling Stark a “toxic little queen.” He also invited his Twitter followers to “straighten out this fucking little bitch.”

Author Joyce Carol Oates found herself embroiled in controversy on July 5 after tweeting: “Where 99.3% of women report having been sexually harassed & rape is epidemic–Egypt–natural to inquire: what’s the predominant religion?” Critics accused her of Islamophobia and bigotry.

Finally, two residents of CBS‘s reality show “Big Brother” household this summer will soon discover they’ve been fired from their day jobs for racist, sexist or homophobic statements made against other contestants. Aaryn Gries was dropped from her talent agency after she made slurs over the 24-hour game feed. Fellow contestant GinaMarie Zimmerman lost her job with East Coast USA Pageant, Inc. for similar reasons.

Viewers of the 24-hour feed on the game show’s site have also observed other contestants making racist, sexist and homophobic comments. In a statement to the media, CBS said that it would not broadcast offensive comments from contestants because it “did not meet the network’s standards.’ Ragan Fox, a contestant from season 12 of the show, used his blog to challenge the network:

What’s the point of casting racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities if production’s going to edit out the racism, ethnic discrimination, and homophobia that these people encounter inside the house? Moreover, why do historically marginalized players have the exclusive burden of narrating past acts of racial, ethnic, and sexual brutalization when we see this sort of discrimination enacted INSIDE THE HOUSE?

Capitalize on the Paula Deen controversy! Hate speech is currently a hot topic in the United States.

Is hate speech just a hot topic? Are celebrities making more mistakes or are we just noticing them more? Once a celebrity apologizes, should we forgive and forget? Or is it just one big manipulation?

Let’s examine the anatomy of a celebrity apology.

The Incident

A commenter on Jezebel.com wrote.

If you like something that’s kind of racist, or do something that’s kind of racist, or think something that’s kind of racist, and someone explains it to you that this is the case, there is a simple and easy way to prove you’re not racist: STOP DOING THE RACIST THING.

You don’t need to put on a hair shirt and flagellate yourself or have a fit of white guilt and cry in the shower. Just check yourself and don’t do it again.

Contrary to the above quote, racism isn’t treated lightly. Public accusations can kill a career. Do reactions differ according to age? Baby Boomers still remember how Klansman attacked the Civil Rights Movement. Say the word “Bombingham” in central Alabama and older residents visibly wince. Likewise, many Generation Xers also have a similar visceral reaction. In the 1970s, adults often told children to ignore racial differences. As a result, many issues remained unspoken. One thing is certain: Millennials are more aware and willing to discuss racial issues.

But do other offensive comments carry the same weight? Or is it simply a question of which celebrity makes the comment?

William Thornton, a reporter for the Alabama Media Group, believes it has a lot to do with how much we like the celebrity. His two books, “Brilliant Disguises” and “The Uncanny Valley” examine the theme of identity.

“The bottom line is, how much slack are you willing to cut a celebrity?” he says.

The Company Fallout

When a company drops a celebrity after a mistake, it probably isn’t because they are taking a moral stand. “Now, in a way, a company may feel like they are getting positive publicity by distancing themselves from this person. Whereas in the past, they might’ve just kind of let it go and not said anything,” Thornton says.

It’s true that the celebrity may have to leave public life for a time; however a bankable celebrity will always find a way back to the public eye. Certainly that’s what Deen’s literary agent knows. “I am confident that these books will be published and that we will have a new publisher,” said Janis Donnaud to the media.

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A media time-out gives the public time to forget about the incident. That is, until the next celebrity says or does something similar.

The Rest of the News

U.S. Representative Gary Condit from California
U.S. Representative Gary Condit from California

“If nothing else is going on in the news, then it remains a story out there. And the longer it goes on, the potential there is for damage to a career. However, if something else comes along, it drowns that out. Then you don’t even remember it after a while,” says Thornton.

The media loves a celebrity in trouble since it usually leads to bigger ratings and mouse clicks. It is common for people to tune out celebrity news and gossip. But entertainment is one of America’s biggest exports. A celebrity’s broken image can result in a Fortune 500 company losing millions of dollars.

But if a terror strike happens on US soil, the media will go to round the clock coverage and forget about celebrity scandals. Just ask the former US Representative from California Gary Condit. The politician worked alongside intern Chandra Levy before her disappearance that summer. Condit admitted to having an extramarital affair with Levy. Although it dominated the news, the September 11 attacks quenched the media’s thirst for information about Condit and Levy. The political scandal seemed lightweight on September 12, 2001.

The Chronic Case

You cannot talk about chronic celebrity apologies without bringing up Alec Baldwin. Many pundits wonder why Baldwin seems to get a free pass for his latest controversy. The actor contacted GLAAD to apologize for the language he used in addressing George Stark.

As someone who fights against homophobia, I apologize.

I have worked, periodically, with numerous marriage equality organizations, especially over the past couple of years, to achieve the very rights that gay couples are earning by recent court decisions. I would not advocate violence against someone for being gay and I hope that my friends at GLAAD and the gay community understand that my attack on Mr. Stark in no way was the result of homophobia.

GLAAD’s statement noted that the apology was “a first step.” But it also documented Baldwin’s history with LGBTQH activism. It led entertainment outlets, such as TMZ to wonder if Baldwin’s political involvement gave him a free pass. If the person making the offensive comment is a progressive, does that make the offensive comment any different?

“He doesn’t seem to suffer for it because we like him. I mean, he’s everywhere. He’s on commercials and television. For some people, he’s abrasive. Even I don’t necessarily like Alec Baldwin as a person, but he’s a brilliant actor. And he’s funny. And he’s good-looking… You just wonder how long he can continue to do this,” Thornton says.

Forgiveness

A lot of factors determine how long a celebrity will wait before we forgive and forget. It may depend on how often we see the incident replayed on TV.

Not many people remember that John Mayer used the N-word in a 2010 Playboy magazine interview. But you can certainly see “Seinfeld” actor Michael Richards use it repeatedly at a heckler during a 2006 comedy appearance. Richards also referred to lynching during the confrontation. The incident was captured on video and uploaded to the Internet. Richards was horrified at his own behavior. He retired from stand-up comedy a year later because of the incident.

Bankability also plays a role. “Athletes can get away with a lot more, Thornton notes, if they are successful. “If they cease to be that, they cease to get away with it,” he says.

Which makes you wonder how much progress we’re making when it comes to hate speech.