Late Wednesday night, Olivia Munn published “a short essay on the ugly behaviors of the @fuggirls,” in what appears to be a PDF she took a screenshot of and then posted on Twitter. The essay is about Jessica Morgan and Heather Cocks, the two women who run the massively popular fashion blog Go Fug Yourself, which had recently published back-to-back negative reviews of Munn outfits.
Munn decides — based on a rubric she does not share — that Cocks and Morgan are neither fans nor “legitimate critics,” and therefore aren’t allowed to talk about her clothes. Her basic argument is that fashion criticism is not a real thing, and that criticizing an outfit is the same thing as criticizing a body. She references the #MeToo movement, writing that the past two years have taught us “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.”
She also coins a new idiom playing off “boys will be boys,” which is “blogs will be blogs,” and vows to be a “target” who will not stay silent.
Munn’s essay is far from the first time a celebrity has taken to Twitter to explain why they should be immune to critique, and to insinuate that all criticism is bullying, and that all critics are jealous losers who have nothing of their own to live for. It’s not even the first time this week.
And it is maybe already obvious to you that equating fashion criticism with rape culture is one of the more senseless recent uses of the English language, but what’s odder about Munn’s post is its lack of any acknowledgment of the disparity between her cultural position and the one held by an (albeit widely beloved!) pair of bloggers. She put this essay on Twitter, where fans who care deeply about specific celebrities already have a crisp protocol for ganging up and harassing “haters” for hours, days, or weeks at a time, making it nearly impossible for them to say anything or use the platform in any kind of normal way without being shouted into oblivion.
Did she know she was doing it? Probably.
Last month, when Ariana Grande partnered with Starbucks to launch a new drink called the Cloud Macchiato and a playlist inspired by International Women’s Day, and writer Rachel Millman tweeted a joke about “doing feminism with the coffee,” Grande replied to it coolly but snarkily. Either her fans had told her about it or she’d been searching Twitter for her own name, as she wasn’t tagged in the original tweet. By replying, Grande blithely gave her followers permission to continue engaging on her behalf. That response was liked 12,000 times, and Millman was mentioned in hundreds of angry tweets from Grande fans.
It’s structurally similar to — if tonally different from — an incident in the summer of 2018, when music blogger Wanna Thompson tweeted a fairly mild criticism of Nicki Minaj, saying that some of her recent songs had been “silly” and that “a new direction is needed.” After Minaj’s fans found it and called her attention to it, Minaj sent Thompson a lengthy and vicious direct message that, among other things, called her “ugly” and told her to “eat a dick.” Thompson told the New York Times that she received thousands of angry and derogatory messages — including several suggestions that she kill herself — from Minaj fans on Twitter, Facebook, email, and text. Some of the messages included photos of her 4-year-old daughter.
“Her fans mimic her behavior,” Thompson told the Times.
Defending the Fug Girls, celebrity fashion bloggers Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez summed it up best, writing:
“This appears to be the week celebrities with enormous social media following punch down and single out their critics for harassment. Let’s not be coy. Olivia Munn knows exactly what kind of week the @FugGirls are going to have thanks to this.”
And Munn does show her hand at the end of the post, writing that Cocks and Morgan will “just have to learn that when you come for anyone publicly, you’ve now entered the public domain and you’ve chosen your opponent.
The playbook these celebs are using, whether they explicitly acknowledge it or not, is also familiar to anyone who paid attention to or was caught up in Gamergate. In 2016, when fans of the alt-right media figure Milo Yiannopoulos harassed actress Leslie Jones with racist vitriol for days on end, The Verge’s Adi Robertson described a basic functionality of Twitter:
Popular Twitter users can direct thousands of reactions toward someone just by mentioning their Twitter handle, so people like Yiannopoulos can consciously cultivate a following of hateful trolls, post their target’s name, and sit back with technically clean hands, knowing that their fans will handle the harassment for them. Unlike an explicit threat, this isn’t illegal, and it might even sound innocuous to anyone who’s not familiar with Twitter. But it’s one of the worst flaws of the platform, and it’s much harder to consistently identify and combat.
Last year, MIT media researchers Michael Trice and Liza Potts wrote about the “dark patterns” of Twitter that Gamergate found and made use of, turning “the Twitter experience into an inescapable Gamergate experience”:
When one member sent a message, that message became a signal to [a] highly connected community that had been instructed to echo one another and to target a wide, loosely defined array of others.
While celebrity stan Twitter typically stops short of the violent rhetoric of Gamergate and isn’t known for the real-world threats (doxxing, swatting) that made that movement so sinister, it has flashes of something really menacing. If you criticize Ariana Grande — or Olivia Munn or Nicki Minaj or Justin Bieber or any pop culture figure above a certain follower count — you can, for a time, experience Twitter as an inescapable stan experience. And while celebrities are generally willing to spread light and positivity, they don’t necessarily ask their fans to do the same.
All this allows famous people to keep their brands clean and their messaging bright.
On Wednesday, Grande came to Bieber’s aid as he defended himself from a tossed-off criticism of his Coachella performance by E! Nightly Pop host Morgan Stewart. In a since-deleted tweet, Grande wrote, “people are so lost. one day everybody that works at all them blogs will realize how unfulfilled they are and purposeless what they’re doing is and hopefully shift their focus elsewhere. that’s gonna be a beautiful ass day for them! i can’t wait for them to feel lit inside.” She added a sparkle emoji, a cloudy sky emoji, and a dark moon emoji.
This response — faux-warm, not correct about what a blog is — is emblematic of the modern celebrity’s conflation of criticism and cruelty, people who disagree with them and “trolls.” It brings to mind former Gawker editor Tom Scocca’s famous 2013 essay “On Smarm,” which quotes the extremely wealthy novelist and screenwriter Dave Eggers who — after he became extremely rich — gave an interview in which he apologized for ever criticizing anyone else’s art at any stage. “I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one,” Eggers wrote. Scocca annotates it, writing, “Here we have the major themes or attitudes of smarm: the scolding, the gestures at inclusiveness, the appeal to virtue and maturity.”
And rather than being positive you belittle people. Think about how awesome it felt for me to be on that stage after being away for so long the excitement and joy it gave me doing the thing i love the most, i sang to to backtrack like most cameos do this is a normal thing,
— Justin Bieber (@justinbieber) April 24, 2019
In another since-deleted tweet posted on Wednesday, the singer Lizzo responded to her first — largely positive — Pitchfork review writing, “PEOPLE WHO ‘REVIEW’ ALBUMS AND DON’T MAKE MUSIC THEMSELVES SHOULD BE UNEMPLOYED.” You can see how she might think she’s right about this, as thousands of her fans reacted positively. You can see how Olivia Munn might think the 5,000 likes on her essay might be proof that she is right. These endorsements are provided by sizable followings that are, unfortunately, a type of capital.
“What defines smarm, as it functions in our culture?” Scocca asks. “Smarm aspires to smother opposition or criticism, to cover everything over with an artificial, oily gloss.”
Though Munn uses the language of body positivity and empowerment feminism to defend herself from even the lightest (and very funny!) criticism, she also puts a photo of herself at the top of the essay, side by side with a photo of Morgan and Cocks, a not-so-subtle invitation for readers to acknowledge that she is an obscenely beautiful celebrity and they are normal women who have no right to talk about red-carpet fashion or the glamorous people who wear it. It’s exactly the sort of hypocrisy that doesn’t hold up under critique.
Want more stories from The Goods by Vox? Sign up for our newsletter here.