A good male friend of mine Gchatted me soon thereafter, essentially asking about my interest in Williams and Segel. To summarize, “I don’t understand: you and Lainey Gossip both love posting links to this stuff — but it seems like it’s always just pictures of her and Segel….walking on the street? And he dresses worse than I do, and I work from home?”
But it did highlight a practice in which I didn’t (fully, consciously) know I was engaging, namely, celebrating any evidence of Michelle Williams’ domestic happiness/peace. We all “want” things for various celebrities — some people really, really want Jennifer Aniston to get married/have babies, for instance, whereas I really, really wanted Leonardo DiCaprio to not be dating Blake Lively. And don’t even get me started on how excited I was at the rumors that Mulder and Scully were together at last.
Those wants generally have little to do with the celebrity him/herself — and much more to do with how we feel about what women deserve after being cheated on, etc. etc. And the way we care about Michelle Williams really isn’t that different, even though her situation is very quite unique.
But here’s the thing about my friend’s confusion: he had no idea about the “uniqueness” of her Williams’ situation. No idea that she was with Ledger, that Matilda was Ledger’s daughter. No idea why the pictures of all three of them together would make people happy, no matter how ostensibly boring. And this is a guy who’s quite culturally savvy — but just didn’t read gossip until somewhat recently.
And here’s where the backstory — the gossip narrative, if you will — becomes so crucial. No sad break-up; no Heath Ledger overdose; no even sadder pictures of Williams and Baby Matilda trying to avoid paparazzi in Brooklyn = no desire to see quotidian photos of Williams and Segel. Seriously: they’re demi-stars. I love them both, I love them so much — but no one’s taking dozens of pictures of, say, Amy Poehler and Will Arnett and their babies. A few, sure, but no one’s posting pictures just to say “I’m so glad Poehler is happy!” ”Look, they’re holding hands!” ”The kid is there, that’s so great!”
That’s what most of my comments on these photos have amounted to: I love that she is with someone who seems as loving and loveable as Jason Segel. Even though I don’t know Jason Segel; I don’t know what he’s actually like with kids. I don’t know how he’s working the difficult maneuver of dating a mom with an early-elementary age kid who’s never known her father. But his image makes me think that he’s pretty awesome at it.
And that’s what amazes me: that my knowledge of him, culled from his interactions with Terri Gross on Fresh Air, his devotion to The Muppets, his vampire musical theater act, his drum playing on Freaks and Geeks, plus all his other roles, makes me think that he’s a decent guy who’s very patient and loving and playful and perfect for someone as seemingly wounded as Williams.
BUT AGAIN: I don’t know Williams. But I do know the fragility of her characters, her interviews, and first-hand anecdotes of her trauma following Ledger’s death. My heart wants his image to help heal her image, which is really another way of saying that “woman grieving, accosted by press deserves solid man.”
Of course, there’s a paradox, as there is to most gossip. My own investment in this situation — my desire to see pictures like these, your desire to see pictures like these — fuels the market for pictures like these. Fuels the continued surveillance, the very thing that fueled the perceived discontent in the first place. We want what’s “best,” what’s “happy,” what’s “peaceful” for celebrities, but we want to see it documented — we want to experience and endorse it.
And therein lies the rub. Celebrities are actual people, experiencing the commodity demands created by their images. The problem with someone like Michelle Williams is that she should, by all rights, simply be an actor, experiencing the same sort of attention devoted to Joan Allen, even Jennifer Lawrence. But her association with “scandal” (meaning: unexpected, not-totally-explained death) makes her gossip-worthy. Makes her a star — someone whose on-screen and off-screen parts attract equal interest — despite her desires.
I don’t feel “bad” for the celebrity lifestyle. It’s a hard one, but so are many, many “lifestyles,” especially those with far less money. The academic lifestyle is hard, but you know what’s really, really hard? Being a member of the working poor. Just sayin’. But as a consumer and cultural critic of gossip, I do feel conflicted about the way that attention and investment in situations like Williams’ work. Do you? Should we?