We live in the Snowden Age—a world devoid of privacy, where one’s most intimate secrets are open to public scrutiny. This goes doubly for celebrities. In the never-ending race for gossip supremacy, the tabloid media will stop at nothing to mine new pieces of headline-ready information, excavating deeper and deeper until they hit pay dirt. One of the more Machiavellian ways to extract said gossip, aside from outright hacking (see: News of the World, The Fappening) or the infamous super telephoto lens, is to badger a famous person’s parent—a poor, innocent soul from the pre-TMZ generation who doesn’t fully grasp the savagery of celebrity coverage. A recent victim was Esther Jenner, the elderly mother of Caitlyn, who was sabotaged by Radar back in February about her then-son’s transition to womanhood. And the latest to fall prey to this mercenary tactic is Jules Stewart, 55-year-old mother of Kristen, who was reportedly asked by UK’s The Mirror about her daughter’s alleged relationship with a young woman named Alicia Cargile, who’s been credited as her personal assistant (Jules denies speaking about her daughter’s private life to the paper.)
“What’s not to be accepting about her now having a girlfriend? She’s happy,” Jules said. “She’s my daughter, I’m just her mom so she knows I would accept her choices. I’ve met Kristen’s new girlfriend, I like her. What’s not to accept? She’s a lovely girl.”
Actors occupy the lowest rung of the media food chain, and they are put in intimate contact with every layer of the system that feeds on them, all the way down to the bottom feeding paparazzi. Working as a paparazzo is competitive work made even more aggressive by the potential for astronomical payouts, which is why there are stories of photographers provoking fights or cursing at kids. If a photographer’s aggression manages to provoke a personal reaction, the value of the ensuing photos skyrockets and may, if they’re lucky, result in a valuable out-of-court settlement.
Most of the time, however, paparazzi shots are lucky to make their way to a single publication, as the usual grabs of a starlet running to get coffee aren’t exactly awe-inspiring. But when paparazzi pictures are juicy enough, the feeding system continues its march. What might have just been a single click in a gallery becomes a gossip article that then circulates through social media until it’s picked up for commentary by a larger publication—Gawker or Vanity Fair maybe, or yes, The Daily Beast.
Practically, what this means is that every story about Kristen Stewart’s personal life that goes viral is a free boost in visibility for any film that features her, and perversely (due to lack of resources) it’s the smaller films—the passion projects and the experiments—that benefit most from invasions of their stars’ privacy. There’s no advertising budget big enough to buy the intimacy that audiences feel they get from stories that are circulated without the star’s consent.
This is why despite the occasional protest, there has been so little movement to actually change the nature of tabloid coverage. However indirectly, gossip generates revenue. When you add it up, thousands of jobs and millions of dollars depend upon the interest generated by invasions of Kristen Stewart’s privacy and the privacy of other artists like her. Such is the nature of the celebrity-industrial complex.
(This is of course, why stars like Stewart are so well-paid, and why lifestyle stars like the Kardashians are invaluable—their desire for publicity responds to a direct need for content. Regardless of the perceptions of their depth, the public interest that’s generated by their active pursuit of media attention takes some pressure off of those for whom public life is a means, not an end.)
For months now, publications have been running stories and intrusive photographs that wink about Stewart and her “gal-pal” Alicia Cargile, and now that it appears that Stewart’s mother has (perhaps unwittingly?) confirmed what was already assumed, it can only be expected that the coverage will expand—regardless of the fact that Stewart herself has yet to make any kind of public statement.
But beyond media industries themselves, who does this kind of scrutiny help? The coverage around queer celebrities tends to defend itself by claiming it’s a way of finding examples for gay kids out there who need to be reminded that “it gets better”—as if anyone thinks that being hounded by strangers for details of your sex life is an example of how things have gotten better. We don’t live in Harvey Milk’s America—the average person does not need to be reminded of the existence of gay people. There are millions of openly and happily gay people out there who can (and do!) act as willing role models for those who are afraid of the consequences of coming out. The current media practice of pushing people into making their private romantic preferences public is an act of violence against individual autonomy. The entertainment ecosystem is tenuous, prone to toxicity and abuse to begin with. Let’s try not to make it any more parasitic than it already is.
For her end, Kristen Stewart is obviously aware of her obligations. If for a time, she and her ex-beau Robert Pattinson were notorious for their discomfort with the attention that came along with being in-demand creative talent, by now she seems to have a more developed sense of which battles she chooses to fight. She’s abandoned her ragamuffin ways and become a spokesperson for Chanel, her interviews are both candid and focused, and most importantly, the projects that she has chosen to devote her time to are specific to her interests. Over the last five years or so, she has quietly managed to balance her filmography between big budget franchises like Twilight and Snow White, mid-budget crowd-pleasers like the upcoming stoner action-comedy American Ultra, and riskier independent fare like the trio of features that came out last year—the Julianne Moore showcase Still Alice, the Guantanamo drama Camp X-Ray, and the showbiz satire Clouds of Sils Maria.
While there is some tendency to label strategies like this as “one for them, one for me”, with Stewart there is a sense that every project she tackles is for her. Regardless of the budget, in all of her films there run themes of alienation and loneliness, and her characters often possess a striking individualism that is unusual for women to get a chance to explore onscreen.
Stewart’s skills as an actress remain persistently underrated, despite the fact that she is and has been one of the most interesting performers of her generation since her first big film appearance, as Jodie Foster’s daughter in David Fincher’s Panic Room. What was derided in her teen years as fidgeting has blossomed with experience into a keen gestural style akin to early method acting acolytes like Montgomery Clift, James Dean, and Marlon Brando.
There is a moment in her film for Olivier Assayas, The Clouds of Sils Maria, where her character is expressing frustrations with her friend and boss—a great French actress played by the great French actress Juliette Binoche—who can’t see the value of playing a vulnerable, aging character. Assayas’s script is ornately written (sometimes to its detriment) but in her biggest scene, Stewart’s voice suddenly trails off. It only lasts a moment, she’s been saying something about how Binoche is welcome to dismiss her if their partnership is no longer useful, but her silence—like words got stuck up in the back of her throat—is somehow more complex than any of Assayas’s fancy jabber. In the next scene Stewart’s character will disappear from the film just as abruptly as her voice disappeared in that tiny moment. It feels right.
Stewart’s gift as a performer reveals itself in scenes like this, in her ability to express emotions that are external to the dialogue through the way she pauses or touches her hair or purses her lips. How she moves and when are often more important to a Kristen Stewart performance than what she’s saying.
For her work in Sils Maria, Stewart became the first American actress to win a César award for acting—the French equivalent of the Oscar. That she’s been embraced by the French film industry in such an enthusiastic manner feels both hilariously revealing of the French taste for iconoclasts, and less hilariously, revealing of the personal nature of Stewart’s work. She is not an actor who disappears into her character, forgetting the camera along the way—in her own words, she “can’t perform.” Instead, she confesses.
Contrary to the intimate, confessional nature of her performances, Stewart hasn’t chosen to partake in the media frenzy regarding her sexuality—a byproduct both of the media and public’s general state of confusion over how to handle bisexuality, and the way she was mistreated by the tabloids following the Rupert Sanders episode, coverage so vitriolic it forced her to issue a public apology to her then-boyfriend Pattinson.
“If you think about the source of it, which is really the big, big, big green monster of cash, there’s just no way that that’s stopping,” Stewart’s said of celebrity gossip. “It’s a new industry—celebrity news is a whole new form of entertainment—and it’s a huge, booming, fucking money-making industry, so why would it stop?”