On Wednesday’s “Morning Joe,” Joe Scarborough mourned Britney Spears, who died on Thursday at the age of 36, “the easiest target for tabloid gossip.” Britney Spears was an inevitable victim of the “toxic celebrity” era, said Scarborough. She was the public face of a lechishly vocal generation, he argued, including many millions of young fans who were complicit in mocking her—because many of them believed she deserved it. It was an awful legacy of cruelty toward ordinary people. “Who among us hasn’t at some point been unable to take a joke when someone in the celebrity sphere comes along and makes a fool of themselves?” Scarborough asked. “What if she had been a decent person, and she did something heinous, that eventually became someone’s tabloid headline and that used to be her? I would be a hundred times more outraged than I am at what she became.”
Schadenfreude—revenge on the target of one’s own scorn, at the other’s expense—has been much enjoyed over the years, and Britney Spears is not without fault, but that is not the point of this post. It is also not to put this on Britney’s shoulders. Celebrities and their insatiable need for attention—whether it is on her personal behalf or another’s—has become the central feature of almost every celebrity story over the past half-century. “The celebrity we recognize has become the norm,” wrote Don T. Ryan at New York Magazine last year. “The celebrity we want to be is not the same one we expect.” That is not something anyone should like. I’m thrilled about Britney Spears’s death, but I worry for the next generation of famous human beings who will be condemned on celebrity gossip sites like I’m Guilty and Sweetest Girl in Show, or in tabloids that superimpose images of suffering celebrities over those of actual suffering people, ready to bathe in tabloid absurdity, with everything from online dating sites to conniving game show contestants to polyester socks.