Words by Stephanie d’Arc Taylor.
In the pantheon of fun days to be online, leaked celebrity sexts rank right up there. A famous man—it’s almost always a man—is brought low in the face of a beautiful stranger’s mirror selfie, reduced to lusty babbling over text.
Titans of their fields, from Tiger Woods to Jeff Bezos to Salman Rushdie, have been caught—and mocked for—sending messages ranging from flirty to filthy.1 But the most recent rash of leaks exist in a media ecosystem that seems designed to stoke discord and widespread condemnation over even relatively minor transgressions. A future historian poring over the online archives of fall 2022 might conclude that American society in the 21st century was more prurient than it had been in the one prior.
In September 2022, Adam Levine, a California pop star and judge of a televised singing competition, was caught sending carnally appreciative direct messages (DMs) to attractive young women other than his pregnant wife. If the screenshots are to be believed, “I may need to see the booty” was one of the sweet nothings he tapped out on his smartphone before hitting send. Days later, the online personality Ned Fulmer, known for being one of Buzzfeed’s “Try Guys” and for his gushy social media posts about his wife and family, admitted to an extramarital affair with an employee. With these two revelations, the internet meme machine went into overdrive. “It’s truly unreal how fucking hot you are”—Levine’s reaction to a picture of a model in a bikini—was superimposed over images as varied as Danny DeVito wearing a dress and the Star Wars character Jar Jar Binks.2
“That leads to a much more complicated
question: Is having an affair the same
thing as being a misogynist?”
But the hilarity was tempered with reproach, aimed squarely at Levine. “I don’t understand why we continue to blame women for men’s mistakes,” model Emily Ratajkowski weighed in. “If you’re the one in the relationship, you’re the one who’s obligated to be loyal.” The colleagues with whom Fulmer made his video content, the other “Try Guys,” posted a scolding, scandalized video and edited Fulmer out of content they had already shot.
The gleeful or righteous reactions to such revelations are understandable impulses. It’s a “stars, they’re just like us” moment. What’s more, according to media scholar Claire Sisco King, scandalized (and faux-scandalized) reactions to famous men cheating is a tale as old as celebrity itself. “When tabloid magazines were first created in the 1950s [they focused on] allegations of sex scandals of famous people, from extramarital affairs to allegations of same-sex relationships,” says King, who is chair of the cinema and media arts program at Vanderbilt University. What is new, she says, are responses to celebrity sex scandals in the age of “digital intermediation”—which those of us outside the academy might refer to as the age of TikTok.
Stars are closer to us than ever. Gone are the days when you’d find out what color was in vogue for the season by standing for hours at the castle walls hoping for a glimpse of the king’s raiment, or when only an exclusive magazine interview would shed light on an actor’s diet regimen. Now, with smartphones and reality television, celebrities are—and are expected to be—constantly accessible, warts and all. “What social media has done,” says King, “is exaggerate these expectations between famous people and their fans. When celebrities share with us their personal struggles, it amplifies the sense among audience members that they have an intimate relationship.”3 On top of that, social media famously confers confidence in its users to say things online they might not say to someone face-to-face. People feel that speaking their most extreme opinions online is their right.
But this isn’t just the age of TikTok. In the US, where the majority of this discourse is taking place, it’s also the age of a great reckoning of gender-based violence, discrimination and exploitation. There is a movement of “bottom-up shaming as a mechanism for holding powerful figures accountable,” says Henry Jenkins, a media scholar at the University of Southern California.
“When celebrities share their
personal struggles, it amplifies the
sense among audience members that
they have an intimate relationship.”
According to Jessica Calvanico, a feminist scholar at Rutgers University, canceling a pop personality for sending a sexy DM—frankly no more or less cringey than any other sexy DM seen out of context—may feel like justice in a world where “actual consequences for the people who really deserve them are not manifesting.” But “people wrongly equate those things,” Calvanico argues. Editing a co-star out of your TikTok videos because he had a consensual relationship with someone other than his wife doesn’t do a thing to combat the very real misogyny running rampant throughout the highest echelons of our society.4 “It’s a performative way of combating misogyny. To me that leads to a much more complicated question: Is having an affair the same thing as being a misogynist? While some forms of womanizing are a form of misogyny, I don’t think those are necessarily the same thing,” Calvanico says.
“We’re witnessing a shift in how we think about gender and sexuality,” she continues. “That’s evidenced by #MeToo, and also by a newfound acceptance of different forms of gender identities and sexual configurations and lifestyles. As a feminist, that’s exciting to me.” The outrage and mockery of Levine and Fulmer are part of a process of “deciding what’s okay and what’s not okay” for modern ideas of sexuality and relationships. “I think these are growing pains,” she says. Perhaps we’ve gone too far in some cases—interpreting garden-variety relationship misbehavior as abuses of power. Distracting someone to the point of slack-jawed unintelligibility is arguably the very aim of sexting in the first place.
But making a mockery of celebrities’ minor transgressions may have some larger value, says Calvanico. Part of what lets politicians, film producers and other celebrities get away with sexual harassment or violence is the power society grants them due to their elevated status. We buy into celebrities’ “performance of an authentic self,” as Calvanico puts it, which isn’t actually very authentic at all. That’s why it’s newsworthy when celebrities do anything remotely relatable, whether that’s embarrassing themselves in a DM or picking up a coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts.5
“I think tearing down and dismantling the facade [of celebrity] is always a worthwhile endeavor,” says Calvanico. “In these relatively harmless examples, particularly the Levine one—which is not the same as a female celebrity being doxed or her nudes being leaked—this minimal jesting is interesting because it helps to chip away at the pedestal that celebrity culture has assumed in this moment.” By eroding the barriers that have traditionally protected celebrities from being held to normal standards, perhaps we’ll begin to see them—and ourselves—more clearly.