From threatening physical violence, spreading rumors to the press, leaking “private” information, and releasing not-so-subtle diss tracks — celebrity feuds come in all forms. And no matter the seriousness or scope of the drama, as a society we love it. At least I know I do.
When Kim took to Twitter and released those grainy videos of Kanye on the phone with Taylor, getting her permission for her somewhat crude mention in his 2016 release “Famous,” I was about to go to bed. When I saw snake emojis and subtweets taking up my timeline I just had to stay up — way past my self imposed bedtime — to see how the story unfolded. I was even getting texts from my friends about what was going down. In that moment, Taylor Swift fans, Kim K fans, and just about anyone with a Twitter account was tuning in to see what shots would be fired next.
I thrive off knowing who commented what on whose Instagram photo, or which costar a tweet was about, or what one petty line in a song was in reference to. And the thing is, I’m not alone. I’ll text my friends when one of my favorite celebrities calls out another A-lister and we’ll form our own conspiracies about what went down behind the scenes of these headlining celebrity feuds.
The Allure of Alphas
Media outlets dedicated almost exclusively to celebrity beef develop cult-like followings which is further proof as to how much celebrity news is sought out in our culture. TMZ, founded in 2005, is a staple in celebrity news, and almost always the first to find out who was punched in an elevator or who’s subtweeting who. The website has a “Fights and Feuds” filter, which makes it even easier to fall down the rabbit hole of celebrity beef. Even the show Fashion Police, which ran for seven seasons, had its entire premise based on stars roasting each other on their appearance. It became the show we loved to hate and hated to love.
Our intrigue when it comes to which celebrities are fighting and over what, stems from the overall attitude we have toward celebrities and the relevance that we give them. In a way, following the actions of celebrities is programmed into us. “What’s in our DNA, as a social animal, is the interest in looking at alpha males and females; the ones who are important in the pack,” said Stuart Fischoff, PhD, a spokesman for the American Psychological Association, in a WebMD piece about celebrity worship.
It makes sense, if these people successfully reached stardom, there has to be something extraordinary about them that lead them there. I always say that I wish I was famous, but not too famous. As in, famous enough to walk red carpets and get free things sent to me, but not famous enough to have the paparazzi following me when I go grocery shopping. Maybe a child star that fizzles out by adulthood but remains somewhat relevant, like Molly Ringwald or Amanda Bynes pre-breakdown, for example.
I’ve wondered how people my age, or even younger than me, seem to be talented enough or just plain lucky enough to reach star status while I live a life of normalcy. While I was in high school, Lorde was touring the world. While I write this, that yodeling kid from Walmart is probably cashing a check. Celebrities appear to be unlike us, better than us, so we want to follow their lives out of curiosity and maybe even a bit of envy stemming from the question: “Why not me?”
Celebrity Worship Syndrome
In fact, our society’s obsession with celebrities has reached such new heights that the term “celebrity worship syndrome” has been coined to refer to this infatuation.
Considered an obsessive-addictive disorder, the origin of this syndrome actually goes back to legitimate research studies that were conducted to try and explain society’s pervasive interest in the life of celebrities. This 2011 study by John Maltby, Lynn E. McCutcheon, and Robert Jay Lowinger considered celebrity worship a behavior that could be separated into three categories: entertainment-social, intense-personal, and borderline pathological.
Entertainment-social behaviors explain the way celebrities interest us because they entertain us and they act as a topic for our own social interactions. This category describes normal behaviors; it’s typical for us to find entertainment from celebrities compared to our own boring lives. And according to Psychology Today it’s also normal for us to want to talk to like-minded individuals about celebrities if it helps us relate to them.
The latter two categories are where this celebrity worship can become problematic. Intense-personal feelings toward a celebrity happen when a fan begins to lose touch with reality. Examples are thoughts like “I consider my favorite celebrity to be my soulmate,” and “I have frequent thoughts about my celebrity, even when I don’t want to,” said Donna Rockwell, PsyD, who studied celebrity worship for her doctoral dissertation in HuffPost. Rockwell isn’t referring to the typical “Harry Styles is my soulmate” feeling that most teen girls have had at one point, she’s talking about thoughts that reach warp a fan’s reality.
Borderline-pathological feelings toward a celebrity take it a step further and are characterized by uncontrollable fantasies about the celebrity. An example, according to Rockwell, being: “If I were lucky enough to meet my favorite celebrity, and he/she asked me to do something illegal as a favor I would probably do it.”
These patterns of thinking are way past the typical morning scroll through the People or ENews Instagram feed or the teenage obsession with a dreamy band member and actually begin to affect the fan’s daily life and social relationships. When it gets to this point, it’s obviously a problem, but the fact that an actual psychological phenomenon has emerged because of our obsession with the social elite says a lot about us and our cultural values.
Just as we are drawn to following celebrities, human nature is also to credit for the way we can’t seem to look away when people fight. Whether it’s a simulated video game or a ridiculous World Star Hip Hop fight video in a school cafeteria, or even fighting for sport like boxing or MMA, we tune in. Maybe it helps us release our own pent-up negative energies watching other people release theirs, or maybe it’s a natural behavior to enjoy when others butt heads, both literally and figuratively.
Watching a fight from a safe distance where we aren’t in danger of the cross-fire, just like celebrity news, is entertainment to us. I mean, remember how much money you paid to watch that Mayweather versus McGregor fight last summer?
The appeal of violence and fighting is not only explained by the rush we get from watching Sammi and Ronnie go at it yet again on old Jersey Shore reruns, but is actually supported by the makeup of our brain. An article on LiveScience.com explains that the cluster of brain cells that acts as our reward system — for things like sex, food, even drugs — is the same part of the brain that assists in violence, so we see violence as a sort of reward.
Pacific Standard Magazine also explained the results of a 2008 experiment that discovered just seeing violent images activates an individual’s fight or flight response in their brain, even when they aren’t directly in danger. This fight or flight response works off of adrenaline, meaning we really do get a rush when watching other people throw down.
Now mix two of our subconscious favorite things together: celebrities and fighting, and the result is the perfect guilty pleasure. We already have preconceived notions about our favorite celebrities — the type of people they are, the good qualities they probably have, their midnight snack food of choice.
So when they get in a debacle with another star, we play our own mental game of choosing sides, deciding who was in the wrong, and adding to the dialogue about these high profile fights in our own social circles or on social media. We stream the diss tracks to try and make sense of the beef (do we know if Drake actually has a kid yet?) and we follow hashtags (#TaylorSwiftIsOverParty) to see what other people are saying. All of these things further sensationalizing the entire idea of celebrity feuds.
But any press is good press for the rich and famous, right? And making it to such social standing means they’re fair game for the media and for us to dissect, even when it comes to petty quarrels. So long as your following of celebrity beef isn’t infiltrating your mind at all hours of the day and affect your own interpersonal relationships, how wrong could it be?