It was never going to be easy being Harry Styles’ girlfriend.
We’ve seen what happens to women in the public eye who dare to date an international heartthrob over the past few decades and little has changed. Still, nobody would blame Olivia Wilde for being surprised by the absolute viciousness of certain subsets of the internet when it was revealed that she’d paired up with Styles following the shooting of their film Don’t Worry Darling. The actress-director, who was previously in a long-term relationship with Jason Sudeikis, has been thoroughly lambasted on social media and conspiracy-adjacent gossip blogs for her romance.
Take a gander on social media and you’ll see a fascinating and exhaustive barrage of anger towards Wilde that veers from the petty to the outright dangerous.
When the news first emerged in January of last year, Wilde was forced to limit comments on her Instagram page after she was overwhelmed with negative messages. As noted by BuzzFeed, Wilde was told she should be “ashamed” of herself for “stealing” Styles and that their relationship was “embarrassing.” Some especially vocal Styles fans accuse her of being a bad mother who abandoned her children for a new boyfriend. The Tumblr tag #fauxlivia is home to much of this, as well as accusations that Wilde is “fake,” a “leech,” and only with Styles for attention.
Nudes were repeatedly posted with further body- and slut-shaming remarks. An intimate video showing a woman who appeared to be Wilde (the authenticity of which was never confirmed) went viral on social media, shared by Styles obsessives. She’s faced immense ageism and been accused of grooming him because of their 10-year age gap (forgetting the fact that Styles isn’t a child and is now pushing 30.)
Threads have been put together offering exhaustively detailed “evidence” of Wilde’s various misdeeds, listing everything from old dodgy tweets to “blackface for looking very tanned in a photoshoot. She was also criticized for wearing a James Brown T-shirt, as he had been accused of domestic violence against his wife.
One blog claimed she “attracts offenders” because she has either worked with or been photographed near the likes of Kevin Spacey and Brett Ratner. An especially cruel viral tweet smarmily declared that Wilde “gives the same vibes as Amber Heard,” evoking the recent hate campaign against the latter as reason to be suspicious of their latest target.
A 2015 Defamer article about Harvey Weinstein claimed that Weinstein “proposed a threesome” with a model “between the two of them and Olivia Wilde” in exchange for acting work. This was weaponized by many Styles fans as evidence that Wilde either collaborated with Weinstein or was a predator on the same scale as him. The hashtag #timesupolivia has been used to spread the most insidious of the hatred, including repeatedly comparing Wilde to a sexual predator and positioning Styles as her victim. It is preferable for these people to imagine their idol as a traumatized prisoner rather than as an autonomous being.
It is worth noting that many Styles fans have spoken out in support of Wilde, calling out the abuse and condemning the tactics used to hurt her. The anger that this subset represents is not indicative of the entire fandom’s beliefs. Often, they are a minority, albeit an extremely loud and well-organized one that hogs up most of the attention. Still, that such responses exist at all speaks volumes to how people in the public eye are engaged in a fan battle where the goalposts are always moving.
For her part, Wilde hasn’t directly discussed these attacks and has kept her romance with Styles, unsurprisingly, pretty low-key. What she’s experiencing is, alas, not a new phenomenon. Name a famous couple from the past century of Hollywood lore and it’ll take you no time at all to find excessive amounts of bullying directed at one of them, usually the woman, from Elizabeth Taylor to Cybill Shepherd to Angelina Jolie and beyond. Wilde, in this sense, joins a “proud” lineage of shamed women. But in the age of social media and the ever-blurring lines between celebrity and fans, it’s hard to overlook the specific volume of what she faces.
The hostility directed towards Wilde is a two-pronged demonstration of how celebrity relationships inspire certain kinds of fan anger: first, there is the typical misogyny of a woman daring to date a male star who is adored by a majority female fanbase; and then there are the conspiracies that surround said star insisting he is actually in a secret relationship with someone else. In this case, Styles has been the subject of many baseless claims that he’s in a long-term partnership with former One Direction co-member Louis Tomlinson.
The Larry Stylinson theory has fueled much fanfiction, with videos micro-analyzed for proof of their secret love, which was being kept in the dark by the insidious powers of Simon Cowell, their record label, and the shady force known only as “PR.” Despite the fact that One Direction is on an indefinite hiatus and Tomlinson has a son with an ex-partner, the conspiracy has never died off. Tomlinson even lamented way back in 2012 that such paranoia put a strain on his and Styles’ friendship, but his plea for fans to stop only further fueled their fantasy.
Any woman who dares to come between this imaginary love faces harsh consequences. And again, this isn’t unique to Olivia Wilde, who has been accused of being the latest beard or cruel woman he’s been forced into a public romance with. Such conspiracies are now shockingly commonplace in many fandoms.
And again, the lion’s share of this cruelty is directed towards the woman in the relationship. Consider how Benedict Cumberbatch’s wife, director Sophie Hunter, has been the subject of ludicrous conspiracies claiming she has trapped her famous husband in a loveless marriage with children that are either not his or are realistic dolls. Singer FKA Twigs talked candidly on social media about the racism and misogyny she endured while dating Robert Pattinson from fans who believed him to be married to Twilight co-star Kristen Stewart. Amelia Warner, the composer wife of 50 Shades of Grey star Jamie Dornan, has faced similarly vile treatment from his fans and those convinced his true love is co-star Dakota Johnson. Look up a straight celebrity couple of any kind and the chances are the woman is the one getting all the hate.
There are rare exceptions to this. Recently, images of actress Florence Pugh enjoying a vacation with former Midsommar co-star Will Poulter led to a frenzy of excitement from her fans who theorized that she had left her partner Zach Braff for the future Adam Warlock. Pugh had already called out her fans for “hurling abuse, being horrid, and basically bullying someone” on her Instagram page, and she was forced to respond once more to deny the Poulter claims. That hasn't stopped people from making cruel comments about Braff, even as Pugh declared, “Regardless of your opinion on who I should or shouldn’t be with, at the end of the day if you’re complimenting someone by trolling another person… you’re just bullying.”
The attack tactics faced by these celebrities are remarkably similar across the board. The same arguments are used over and over again: look at the body language that’s obviously uncomfortable and hiding the truth; this is all a nefarious plan forced upon them by an evil PR company; their true loves are waiting for the right time to reveal everything; and all of this is extremely complicated and secretive stuff that only a handful of fans are smart enough to see through. It’s certainly a more artful justification for garden variety hatred than just admitting you don’t like the person’s partner.
Nowadays, it doesn’t seem satisfying to fans to simply say that they don’t like someone’s other half. Instead, they offer justifications that are dependent on declaring their target to be “problematic.”
Wilde and Braff are positioned as predators for dating younger people. She has to secretly be the worst person in the world, a callous manipulator keeping Styles away from his true love. Her “crimes,” whether they be genuine or brewed from totally bad-faith conjecture, are listed and shared like a rap sheet, and anyone who questions this tactic must totally support every horrible thing to ever happen. In this kind of hostile atmosphere, there’s no way for Wilde to simply be herself, let alone Harry Styles’ girlfriend. Women like her are morphed into almighty villains capable of anything by this hatred, while their favorites are infantilized into lifeless toys defined by near-parodic levels of pain.
Celebrities unfortunately have to view the most astonishing acts of cruelty as an occupational hazard. Part of being famous is being forced to have total strangers view every aspect of your life as fair game for smears, misunderstandings, and fictions of the most inexplicable kind. The entire concept of celebrity encourages the public to project its own ideas, concerns, and fantasies onto others, until they are less people than they are vessels for discourse. When the fantasy is broken, a lot of people get angry at the one who forced them back into reality.
Olivia Wilde is but one of many to have experienced this fury, and it seems unlikely that it will end any time soon. The faces may change but the cycle will go on.