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Expert opinion: What were they thinking? No. Seriously. What were they thinking? It’s an important question

Understanding the Depp-Heard and Vardy-Rooney Trials through social theory, by Dr Colin Alexander

A generic shot of paparazzi photographers

Understanding the Depp-Heard and Vardy-Rooney Trials through Social Theory

Whether it is Jonny Depp and Amber Heard deciding to publicly discuss the dynamics of what was, by most measures, a dysfunctional relationship between two complex characters in a televised courtroom or the so-called ‘Wagatha Christie’ legal action involving Rebekah Vardy and Colleen Rooney at the High Court this week, in both cases the option to quietly settle matters in private arbitration has been relinquished in favour of a public trial that they knew would attract a media frenzy. Maybe that was the aim of the plaintiffs though.

For me then, two questions come to mind that can help us better understand these trials, and the answers to both involve the utilisation of arguments from celebrity studies, social theory and psychology. First, what is a celebrity? Second, why would an individual actively pursue fame?

According to a host of academics who study the rich and famous including Dan Brockington, Andrew Cooper, Ilan Kapoor, Lisa Ann Richey and Mark Wheeler, celebrity concerns the manufacture of fame. Plenty of people are famous but do little to proactively enhance the brightness of their star. Sportsmen and women are famous but often fade from public view when their playing careers are over unless they move into management or punditry or diversify into other market areas and thus becoming celebrities. The same can be said for musicians, actors, models, politicians, perhaps even serial killers and other people given public attention for a time. Fame is, for the most part, a by-product of their actions and it is often unwanted on account of its intrusiveness with the people concerned going to significant lengths to keep parts of their lives private.

Celebrities then are defined as those who desire to be famous, not necessarily in consequence to a skill or talent (although they may still have some in one field or another), but for the sake of fame itself. In short, celebrity, or "wannabe" celebrity has a specific political economy attached to it. Moreover, those individuals often use the pursuit of notoriety as a way of managing difficult emotions surrounding self-doubt and insecurity. This is the crucial psychological element of celebrity that is sometimes overlooked. Indeed, as Professor Leo Braudy states, ‘the desire for fame often emerges from the belief that the achievement of fame will lead to a lifetime of acceptance by others.'

Herein, the actions of Rebekah Vardy, as revealed by her own testimony, epitomise 'celebrity'. Someone with no discernible talent, but who has used her marriage to someone with talent to elevate herself to public attention and then collaborated with her management team to further develop her fame. This is in contrast to Jonny Depp who has spent most of his adult life famous for his talent and was thus not classified as a celebrity at first. Indeed, during the 1990s and early 2000s (until he began his portrayal of Jack Sparrow) Depp worked mainly in independent films and spent his downtime at his property in rural France seemingly disinterested in cultivating fame for the sake of it – although he still admittedly courted controversy from time-to-time. This trial then, and particularly the televising of it, appears to be a crescendo of sorts for Depp’s departure from his previous worldview and into the world of celebrity.

Celebrities thus usually take the path of least resistance to achieve their fame goal. They promote consumer goods (usually fashion, beauty or food and drink). They try to maintain a significant social media presence. They endorse popular social causes (children’s charities are a particular favourite because of the emotions attached) and try to avoid controversial political issues – although they may say and do controversial things to attract attention to themselves. Katie Hopkins being a particular case-in-point here.

Furthermore, they usually encourage the media into their private lives (or a consumable version of their private life), set-up psuedo-events for the press, and within all this they employ agents and publicists who know how to navigate the media world and whose job it is to keep that star shining brightly for as long as possible. Indeed, sometimes celebrities with no discernible "talent" at all just continue to exist in the public eye and it is difficult to put one’s finger on why they remain there.

Fame is ultimately a misguided pursuit though -- the chances of it leading to the inner peace, security, acceptance or validation that the individual desires are slim. It can give people a temporary buzz much like a drug may do. However, as the psychologist Gabor Maté argues, the inclination is then to want more and more, which can lead to a spiral of dissatisfaction and further damage to the psyche. Doing or saying more controversial things. Endorsing whatever product is offered – moral consciousness out the window. Perhaps even taking someone to court and, despite the likelihood of legal teams pulling all kinds of skeletons out of closets, revelling in the attention that it brings. Fame essentially becomes comparable to substance addiction and sometimes goes alongside it of course.

It should be recognised that we all require validation though. However, the fundamentals of psychological health tell us that this is best achieved externally through no more than a handful of trusted others providing well-meaning feedback and internally within the self often as a component of one’s nurtured self-esteem and capacity for honest self-reflection and pondering. Those studying the effects of abuse and neglect in childhood would thus posit that a subsequent pursuit of fame in adolescence and adulthood can be explained as the pursuit of external validation in a dysfunctional way. This desire, the expert in complex PTSD Pete Walker would argue, has manifested itself within the individual largely on account of the person's inability to self-validate – often due to difficult early life experiences – and a lack of understanding of what healthy consistent intimate relationships with trusted others are meant to look like, or, therein, a lack of ability or will to maintain such trusted bonds.

The extent to which celebrities or wannabes are aware of their psychology is debatable. These behaviours around validation mainly emerge from the sub-conscious mind as greater awareness of ourselves and why we do the things we do usually encourages positive behavioural alterations including healthier coping strategies where necessary. Simply 'knowing' isn’t all that needs to happen though.

To this end, regardless of the outcome of their cases, for most of us it has been excruciating to follow Vardy's testimony where her seemingly shameless desperation to be in the public eye – and the strategies that she has employed – has been laid bare. Whereas for Depp, we see a once reputed actor now rather tragically operating publicly beyond the talent that he so clearly has. Nevertheless, it may be that both will consider it a victory of sorts within their pursuit of public attention regardless of the outcome. Vardy, in particular, is a lot more famous now than she was before all this started.

Dr Colin Alexander is a Senior Lecturer in Political Communications at Nottingham Trent University

Expert opinion: What were they thinking? No. Seriously. What were they thinking? It’s an important question

Published on 19 May 2022
  • Category: Press office; Research; School of Arts and Humanities

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