Celebrity open letters and essays are becoming more and more common these days, with stars getting airtime and space on the page to talk about their passion politics or address the media directly. Could you even imagine if this were standard practice in the days of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford?
Occasionally, it’s difficult to tell if the celebrity actually wrote the words or if they’ve been filtered first through a publicist or a whole publicity team. Angelina Jolie’s essay about cancer and breast removal had to hit just the right tone not to offend her fan base; Maria Bello’s beautiful coming-out story in the New York Times’ Modern Love section needed to convey the kind of vulnerability that would lay to rest any questions that might linger about wealth privilege; and Jennifer Aniston’s letter about those ridiculous and incessant pregnancy rumors had to avoid any condemnation of those who actually did want to be mothers. These are the kinds of things celebrities have to anticipate in the gauntlet of the star system.
Just a few days ago, Renee Zellweger took to the Huffington Post to pen an open letter to her detractors in the media, including Owen Gleiberman, who wrote a tone-deaf article for Variety further questioning whether she’d had plastic surgery. It’s heartening to see Zellweger stepping up to set the record straight herself, but as a paid, trained writer who approached Zellweger about doing a cover article on her after the Gleiberman article hit the web, it’s a little disheartening to see Zellweger’s essay end up on a site that infamously doesn't pay its writers. The essay’s not not written well, but it’s also eerily similar to much other writing you might find copied and pasted from any feminist website. Which begs the question: Is Zellweger really getting to express her own thoughts or were those filtered out along the way?
I can’t blame Zellweger for being wary of someone like me, especially when it’s more and more difficult to tell the difference between tabloid and journalism. But when you are a real, credible journalist, whose job it is to use a craft you’ve been developing for decades to put into words the thoughts of others who are less practiced, it hurts a little to see yourself bypassed. But, again, the blame doesn’t really lie with Zellweger but with those who’ve valued page views over authenticity and credibility.
And now we have the powerhouse Rose McGowan, who’s building a career, it seems, out of penning open letters about everything from movies to Zika to Donald Trump. Her outcry yesterday was over the media’s coverage of Trump, which has continually given him more exposure than any of his opponents and treated him as a credible candidate before realizing they had built a monster. Now we can’t not report on Trump. And McGowan is rightly telling us we fucked up. But shouldn’t we — the real writers — have stepped up first? Did we really need a celebrity to tell us this?
I, for one, actually hope the open letters and essays begin to dwindle, letting the writers do what they do best without publicists acting as filters. But I also hope journalists can rebuild a mutual respect with their subjects. Celebrities and their stories aren’t objects we journalists own, but we do have a unique and important job to do: to contextualize and add a universal truth to the story. Now it’s just our responsibility to earn back the trust. But, celebs, not all of us are bad. And even if sometimes we may write things that you don’t like, the good ones among us are beholden to causes greater than our page views. Give us a chance again.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said that Zellweger's essay was “not written well” due to an editor's error. The piece now correctly reads that Zellweger's essay was “not not written well.”