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When celebrities hit back at their critics - is it ever a fair fight?

Jameela Jamil, the former T4 presenter turned American TV star and outspoken activist tackles her critics head-on: but is it a fair fight with the power of Hollywood behind you?

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Jameela Jamil at the 2019 Emmys

Jameela Jamil at the 2019 Emmys

British actress Jameela Jamil arrives for the 71st Emmy Awards at the Microsoft Theatre in Los Angeles on September 22, 2019. (Photo by VALERIE MACON / AFP)VALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images

British actress Jameela Jamil arrives for the 71st Emmy Awards at the Microsoft Theatre in Los Angeles on September 22, 2019. (Photo by VALERIE MACON / AFP)VALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images

Jameela Jamil attends Glamour x Tory Burch Women To Watch Lunch at Tory Burch Rodeo on September 20, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Glamour x Tory Burch)

Jameela Jamil attends Glamour x Tory Burch Women To Watch Lunch at Tory Burch Rodeo on September 20, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Glamour x Tory Burch)

Olivia Munn wrote a lengthy essay in response to a criticism about her outfit

Olivia Munn wrote a lengthy essay in response to a criticism about her outfit

Lizzo performs on stage at the MTV Video Music Awards (PA)

Lizzo performs on stage at the MTV Video Music Awards (PA)

James Blake (L) and Jameela Jamil attend the 2019 MTV Movie and TV Awards at Barker Hangar on June 15, 2019 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for MTV)

James Blake (L) and Jameela Jamil attend the 2019 MTV Movie and TV Awards at Barker Hangar on June 15, 2019 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for MTV)

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Jameela Jamil at the 2019 Emmys

On Saturday, Jameela Jamil, an activist and actress best known for Netflix’s The Good Place, took to Twitter to issue a salvo: “I understand that I have a big following, so challenging me (often with abuse), and me responding, can result in you being piled onto by my big following. So here is my warning and declaration; so you know what you’re getting yourself into. Otherwise don’t bother trying me.”

In case that wasn’t clear, she updated her bio on the site to include: “I respond publicly, so don’t start fights with me that you can’t finish.” It was a startling shot, suggesting that anyone who dares to criticise her can expect to be singled out for harassment from her 945,000 followers.

Jamil, a self-described “feminist-in-progress”, has been praised for speaking out on her experience with eating disorders, impossible beauty standards for women and mental health issues. And she has every right to call out criticisms rooted in sexism, racism or other prejudiced perspectives, but she warns that any “challenge”, abusive or not, will be targeted by her supporters.

She was quick to clarify that she couldn’t possibly be blamed for the actions of her fervent fan base: “I’m not in any way condoning or encouraging dog piling. But it is an unfortunate consequence of picking a fight with someone with a large following. And that person can’t control it.”

She may feel she “can’t control it”, but acknowledging that her followers will read such interactions as a call to arms, and still choosing to bring a critic to their attention, could be seen as irresponsible, and even more irresponsible in light of these tweets, which may serve to galvanise her fans to take up her cause.

But Jamil is just the latest in a long line of celebrities who can’t take criticism. The most famous example is, obviously, the US President, who routinely calls the press “the enemy of the people”, but this year we’ve seen the likes of Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande and Lana del Rey firing back at their critics.

There’s no question that artists are entitled to disagree with critical assessments, but turning to social media to air your grievances can have toxic repercussions.

Platforms like Twitter and Instagram have eroded barriers between stars, fans and critics, facilitating direct communication between the A-list and the masses, many of whom came of age with social media. All of which has led to the rise of the ‘pile-on’, where fiercely protective fans (or ‘stans’) leap to their idol’s defence — charged Twitter exchanges between a celebrity and a critic commonly lead to a storm of hate and personal threats of violence for the lesser-known party.

Olivia Munn even included side-by-side pictures of the critics she took issue with, for her 820,000 followers to see. Munn’s complaint was that Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, the creators of the long-running celebrity fashion criticism blog Go Fug Yourself, had described a suit she wore to an event as “kinda like she got roped into making a sequel to American Hustle that ended up going straight to on-demand. Things could be worse.”

Munn responded with a lengthy attack, claiming that the critics need to “wake up and acknowledge the part they’ve played in the suppression of women”. She even compared fashion criticism to #MeToo: “If there’s anything we’ve been able to glean from the past two years, it’s that girls and women have been emotionally and physically targeted and abused for years yet have remained silent because collectively we all believed that our voices, our pain, our existence only mattered with conditions attached.”

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Olivia Munn wrote a lengthy essay in response to a criticism about her outfit

Olivia Munn wrote a lengthy essay in response to a criticism about her outfit

Olivia Munn wrote a lengthy essay in response to a criticism about her outfit

Like Jamil, Munn closed her essay with an aggressively worded warning: “They’ll just have to learn that when you come for anyone publicly, you’ve now entered the public domain and you’ve chosen your opponent.”

Fans love to applaud celebrities for taking on their ‘haters’, but there’s a marked power imbalance between Munn, with her 820,000 followers, and the Go Fug Yourself creators, with 110,000. In this case, it’s not ‘clapping back’, it’s punching down.

Last month, Lana del Rey released her latest album, Norman F****** Rockwell, to almost universal acclaim. But like the rest of us, all of the positivity was overshadowed by one less-than-glowing review.

Del Rey chose to reply to NPR’s music critic Ann Powers on Twitter: “Here’s a little sidenote on your piece. I don’t even relate to one observation you made about the music. There’s nothing uncooked about me. To write about me is nothing like it is to be with me. Never had a persona. Never needed one. Never will.”

Powers was soon flooded with trolls attacking her appearance and calling for Del Rey to “end her career”, which came as a surprise to those who read the piece in question, a deeply engaged and largely positive review of Del Rey’s work and career to date.

In April, Justin Bieber joined Ariana Grande on stage at Coachella for a surprise performance, during which he was caught lip-synching. “I did not realise it was going to be that bad,” joked Morgan Stewart, one of the hosts of E!’s pop culture show Nightly Pop, before making a dig about his skin.

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But it wasn’t the nasty comment Bieber took issue with, it was the charge of lip-synching, which he bizarrely confirmed before going on to tweet to his 107 million followers: “Regardless, why spend your time tearing people down? It’s people like you that are bullies at school that are making kids suicidal.” He made sure to tag Stewart, too, inviting thousands of tweets from his followers.

Grande chimed in to defend their performance, and continued in a string of now-deleted tweets.

“People are so lost,” she tweeted to her 66 million followers. “One day everybody that works at all them blogs will realise how unfulfilled they are and purposeless what they’re doing is and hopefully shift their focus elsewhere.”

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In another tweet, she wrote: “Create something instead. Lift people up instead,” suggesting that critics don’t “create” real art like musicians and artists do, but simply tear others down.

It’s a view shared by 2019’s breakout pop star Lizzo, who complained about one mixed review of her debut album from Pitchfork this spring, which noted that “some of the album’s 11 songs are burdened with overwrought production, awkward turns of phrase, and ham-handed rapping”.

Lizzo responded in a tweet reading: “PEOPLE WHO ‘REVIEW’ ALBUMS AND DON’T MAKE MUSIC THEMSELVES SHOULD BE UNEMPLOYED.”

She later walked back the Tweet and apologised, but the disparity between the criticism and her reaction to it is reflective of a culture in which any informed critique is deemed an attack, and a personal one at that.

It follows a notable shift in celebrity PR: much press coverage now hedges closer to publicity than journalism, with effusive profiles or worse, sanitised interviews between celebrity pals. And thanks to social media, stars can bypass traditional news media and speak directly to their followers. Add to that the wash of constant praise from fans, and you’ll find today’s celebrities have a much thinner skin for criticism.

Many of them, it seems, would rather that media functioned as a promotional tool than an objective news source, which makes thoughtful, insightful, measured criticism all the more important.

Criticism can move the conversation forward, and rather than trying to clamp down on it and weaponising their followers so they can luxuriate in a social media bubble of praise, celebrities should recognise its value — or log off altogether.

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