Phoebe Waller-Bridge after her Emmys success - she has enjoyed meteoric success and media exposure this year.twitter/rachel_is_here

For a spell, you would be forgiven for thinking Phoebe Waller-Bridge had it all: not one, but two critically acclaimed and enormously popular television shows (Killing Eve and Fleabag), winning at seemingly every awards show, and profiles in Vogue. But the spell wanes, and cracks appear.

This is a cycle. A celebrity will rocket into the public eye, sweeping up accolades, charming us in interviews and presenting her talent unapologetically. For a while, she is a media darling – and then we start to sour. Even though she may remain popular or successful, she becomes hateable.

This cycle happens particularly to white women, while their white male colleagues seem to skate by unscathed. I can rattle off the offences of any number of white women without pause. Jennifer Lawrence’s particular brand of “realness” became grating, to the point where her comments about liking fried foods were torn to shreds. Taylor Swift became notorious for dating and writing about her exes too much, something that, in my memory, has never been said about a male singer-songwriter.

But Chris Evans? Chris Pine? Chris Hemsworth? Chris Pratt? Not hateable.

I’m sure all of these men have shortcomings, but other than a vague memory of rumours that Chris Pratt voted for Trump, any potential divisiveness doesn’t seem to have permeated public consciousness.

That’s not to say there isn’t validity in critiques of white women. Recent discussions of Waller-Bridge are a good example. She has taken some heat for her SNL sketch making fun of Love Island. Huck writer Aimee Cliff asks: why is wealthy, beautiful Fleabag allowed to drink, date, have sex, make mistakes and cut loose when those on Love Island are mocked for it? It’s a good question.

PWB might be problematic, but then why are we happily forgetting the Hot Priest?twitter/nocontextpwb

More are now discussing the limits of Fleabag, a show about a well-off white woman who is allowed to make mistakes by virtue of her privilege. Not exactly the win for women in general claimed by some media outlets. In fact, the show’s whiteness is astounding; people of colour are almost nonexistent. Surely in modern Britain there was an actor of colour available for a role. On the same page, why is someone like Waller-Bridge an instant media darling when equally talented Issa Rae and her HBO show Insecure get a fraction of the attention?

Waller-Bridge’s positioning today thus encapsulates the situation for famous white women. Their race (and, in Waller-Bridge’s and many others’ case, class) clears the way for mega-success that their equally as talented and hardworking colleagues of colour can’t as easily reach. The ensuing visibility makes them a media magnet, but their gender makes them vulnerable to critique on any and every limitation of themselves and their work. Maddeningly, male celebrities enjoy untarnished reputations through slip up after slip up.

"Waller-Bridge or Fleabag could never have been the “everywoman” – and they shouldn’t have to be."

After seeing a seemingly endless river of praise for her since Fleabag and Killing Eve hit full force, I knew our infatuation with Waller-Bridge would wane, and I predict it will get worse for her yet. Our popular mass media is increasingly polarized into celebrity clickbait, rather than investing the time and space to treat the most famous amongst us with any degree of nuance. White, female celebrities are talented favourites, then they are problematic and everything that’s wrong with white women, and the cycle goes on.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s start at the beginning: the media need to be better about who they shoot into the A-list stratosphere and how they do it. We’re lucky to live in a time where more and more voices are being represented, but there’s still a definitive gap between how eager we are to welcome white celebrities in comparison to celebrities of colour. There’s room for everyone at the table.

Then, we must stop pretending newly-minted celebs, especially women, can do no wrong, because they can and they will. Celebrities are people with strengths and weaknesses, triumphs and baggage like everyone else. And dreaming that any one person is the shining star we all need is nonsensical. Waller-Bridge or Fleabag could never have been the “everywoman” – and they shouldn’t have to be.


Mountain View

A beginner's guide to camp on screen

Finally, media outlets need to be better about holding people accountable for their wrongdoings. All celebrities (including white women) should be critiqued when they when they go out of bounds; nobody should get a free pass. In the past few years, movements such as #MeToo have shown that holding the famous and powerful to account is long overdue.

But fairness, nuance and reasonable treatment of famous people are not the cornerstones of mass media. They don’t sell like celebrity drama does, and they probably never will. Rather than waiting for culture to change, step away from this cycle when you feel it happening. Expect flaws to surface for every celebrity and show.

Enjoy celebrity culture, television, movies and music for what they are – don’t get so excited you refuse to see faults, or so annoyed you pile on. And challenge yourself seek out media creators and critics that aren’t being endlessly praised, or endlessly praising. After all, everyone, even Phoebe Waller-Bridge, has more to learn.

Sponsored links

Partner links