The Deen controversy also had the unfortunate side effect of obscuring another celebrity scandal, this time centered on tennis star Serena Williams. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Williams offered her opinion on the Steubenville, Ohio rape trial — an opinion that sounded an awful lot like callous victim blaming: “I’m not blaming the girl, but if you’re a 16-year-old and you’re drunk like that, your parents should teach you — don’t take drinks from other people. She’s 16, why was she that drunk where she doesn’t remember? …Obviously I don’t know, maybe she wasn’t a virgin, but she shouldn’t have put herself in that position, unless they slipped her something, then that’s different.” Cue collective face-palm.
As with Deen, there’s a standard procedure Williams could have followed: hold a press conference, recite the necessary stock phrases, and get back to tennis. And just like Deen, Williams opted to voice her opinion before her scheduled public appearance, this time via her website. The original post feels distinctly unpolished; Williams begins, “What happened in Steubenville was a real shock for me. I was deeply saddened. For someone to be raped, and at only 16, is such a horrible tragedy!” She apologizes, describing herself as “deeply sorry,” but also refers to her comments as “what I supposedly said” (emphasis mine).
Within 24 hours, the original post was nowhere to be found, replaced by a dramatically more formal statement apologizing for her “insensitive and misinformed comments… Sexual assault perpetrated against men and women is never acceptable and *never* the fault of the victim.” The newer post scrubs any ambiguity from Williams’s apology, but replaces it with language that verges on antiseptic. The first statement, meanwhile, remains on sites such as Jezebel for all to see (and compare with the revised version).
Of course, both Deen and Williams followed the standard procedure eventually. Williams gave a press conference yesterday where she reiterated her apology (“I feel like, you know, you say things without having all the information”), and Deen is scheduled to finally appear on The Today Show this Wednesday. But as an audience, we already know what disgraced celebrities are going to say in official settings. What’s interesting, and relatively new, is the opportunity celebrities have to show us what they really think — or at least a different version of their thoughts than the airbrushed one that makes it through an army of publicists and managers.
Like most other cultural sea changes of the last decade and a half, this shift in how the public interacts with celebrities and their mistakes comes straight from the Internet. Much has been made of how media like YouTube, Twitter, and personal blogs allow public figures to “connect” with their fans, but it’s typically unclear what that connection amounts to beyond announcing TV appearances or dispatching a few one-liners a week. But scandals, and celebrities’ efforts to recover from them, give that connection a tangible meaning: an unfiltered, or at least less filtered, look at the denial, introspection, and self-adjustment that follow from being called out, loudly, by millions of people at once.
For those of us who pay attention to the fallout of celebrity screw-ups, dispatches like Paula Deen’s videos or Serena Williams’s blog post offer an alternative to the formulaic responses we’ve grown accustomed to over the years. It’s a more realistic glimpse at how people deal with the possibility that long-unquestioned views or impulsive actions could be genuinely wrong, and how that realization changes the way they think of themselves and their relationships. And as public figures with a certain level of influence over their audience, celebrities present an opportunity for their fans to undergo the same experience by proxy. The more we see Paula Deen genuinely grapple with her own racism and its consequences, or Serena Williams with internalized sexism and its impact, the more we’re prompted to do the same — meaning something more might come out of this week’s headlines than just #PaulasBestDishes.