In an age where our attention spans are narrowing down as the sea of content to consume keeps expanding, one of the hot topics to have emerged of recent is the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial. From live streams from the courtroom to 30-second tidbits of Depp’s “savage comebacks” and Heard’s “poker face”, the trial has generated ample content. Social media users have been quick to organize themselves into “Team Johnny” and “Team Amber”, ready with analyses, opinions and unsurprisingly, trolling. With the blurring of boundaries between personal and public lives of celebrities, the boundaries between reality and reality TV seem to have become hazy, too. It does not seem too outlandish an opinion that sensitive news such as concerning issues of addiction and domestic violence must not be treated with the same parameters as that of Kardarshian-esque reality shows, but more on that later.
Even before the discourse on ethics and consequences begins, it is important to understand why celebrity gossip intrigues people. The simplest explanation for this ravenous consumption of celebrity news can be attributed to the ease of access to such information coupled with the public’s fascination about the bigwigs’ seemingly glamorous lives. Current media environment makes it easy for the average fan to be a fly on the wall to witness the most personal aspects of celebrities’ day to day beyond the glitz and glamour. Becoming privy to the person’s vulnerabilities – in spite of their public lives appearing to be perfect and put together – establishes familiarity. Realizing that we may have shared or similar experiences with a certain high-profile individual also builds a sense of relatability and an albeit false sense of proximity.
Evolutionary psychology suggests that this curiosity may be innate – our ancestors’ nosiness regarding the way of life of the dominating group may have actually aided in their survival many years ago. Thus, while knowledge about Depp and Heard’s relationship dynamics has no evolutionary utility in the present time, it may nonetheless intrigue us. It is certainly not keeping us alive, but it is keeping many fans awake. Such curiosity, however, may exist on a continuum ranging from harmless and possibly even empathetic to outright voyeuristic. If one is to go by the recent social media trends, there are ample examples of unhealthy obsession and intrusive reporting that may not only be a blatant violation of an individual’s privacy, but may also aid in making the environment hostile and unsafe for public figures and their loved ones. An example of the same happened to be the very recent public reaction and subsequent threats in response to the spite between Kanye West and Pete Davidson, or closer home, the invasive and unethical media reporting of a celebrity suicide.
In a research study published in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, it was found that voyeurism as a personality trait positively correlated with viewership of reality TV. Such findings imply that public interest in private lives of others is often a way of deriving pleasure from being privy to other people’s moments of pain or intimacy, often without their knowledge. Not long ago, I had a conversation with a friend about the ever-present seasons and versions of Big Brother and Bigg Boss across the globe. “Most people are on the show to get famous, that’s plain”, my friend said, “and the spectators kind of just project themselves onto these people, choosing and defending their favorites as if that’s going to do anything for them”. It was simultaneously bewildering and obvious to see how such shows not only had dedicated viewers, but the fights and games inside the house regularly became topics of dinner-table discussions. “People want conflict, and they want their favorites to win so bad – anything, really, for a sense of excitement!”, my friend vented his frustration. Thrill-seeking, and being able to live and experience these celebrity lives vicariously plays a huge role in holding people’s attention. Similar sensationalism and trend can sadly be seen in the Depp-Heard trial as well.
Hot takes regarding the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial are certainly intriguing, but the realization that at the crux of such content is the intense vulnerability of the people involved makes the clickbait-y content less than palatable. It is unsettling to see content that makes light of serious issues such as substance abuse and domestic violence, no matter how suave the person on the stand may appear. It raises many questions regarding the intrusion of privacy of those involved and the added emotional strain of an inescapable ‘social-media trial’. One might argue that such immense public attention is a part and parcel of fame. While that is true, one cannot absolve the public of the moral responsibility to handle the information with sensitivity and discretion. Consumers of such content, too, need to exercise restraint in what they set trending and what eventually gets flagged off as violating community guidelines.
The trial is generating a lot of dialogue, but at what cost? The mere media attention that it has garnered could serve constructive purposes by creating a discourse of violence, justice and help-seeking. While reality TV makes for good dinner-time entertainment, sensitive news needs to be handled with the dual forces of responsible reporting and mindful consumption.