Social Media Is Enabling Fans to Manufacture Celeb ‘Catfights’ Based on Likes, Follows
With only likes, views, and follows to rely on as evidence, netizens have played a part in actively feeding a flame that may not even exist.
Over the past few days, the alleged feud between singer-actor Selena Gomez and model Hailey Bieber has captured the attention of news portals and netizens alike — trending on social media platforms across countries. But there’s a pressing question that arises here: did anything actually happen between the two?
In the age of Instagram, Twitter — and now, TikTok — acting as archives of a celebrity’s every move, celeb drama has taken on a manufactured quality. Rather than being mere passive spectators to tangible celebrity feuds in the form of exchanged words and direct confrontation, netizens have begun playing an active part in nebulous feuds, feeding a flame borne out of almost nothing. Hinging on a narrative based entirely on scrutinizing every like, every comment, every retweet, and every Instagram and TikTok post by the celebrities — often taken out of context to support fan theories — the alleged feud almost appears imaginary.
Ever since Hailey Bieber’s marriage to singer Justin Bieber in 2018, fans and haters of the couple have concocted a chronicle of conflict between the women — suggesting that they have little else to do than compete with each other for the attention of a man. Further, tweets like, “Hailey Bieber has some nerve throwing shade knowing Selena could end her marriage with an ‘I miss us’ text,” only serve to tie female celebrities’ public personas to the men at the heart of the alleged feud.
In India, too, within the deep underbelly of Bollywood fan wars, likes and retweets by celebrities are meticulously monitored — followed by screenshots that are, then, circulated to back up conjectures of rivalries between female celebrities. A screengrab of Anushka Sharma viewing a story of an Instagram page throwing shade at Deepika Padukone manifests itself into a thread about Sharma “stalking” a page “shaming” Padukone; this is, then, presented as evidence of discord between the two.
In the wake of the alleged feud between Gomez and Bieber, moreover, a post comparing Alia Bhatt with Bieber popped up on a Bollywood gossip subreddit. Accusing Bhatt of obsessing over her now-husband Ranbir Kapoor’s relationships with his ex-girlfriends, Padukone and Katrina Kaif, the post went on to call her “nasty, insecure, and manipulative.” Not only that, but it also attributed Bhatt’s success and ambitions to her “obsession” with Kapoor, stating: “Ranbir only likes top actresses. So, maybe, [that’s what drives] Alia.”
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There might just be bad blood between Padukone, Kaif, Bhatt, and Sharma. Gomez and Bieber, too, might hate each other for all we know. But the fact that people across the globe are invested in alleged feuds based solely on speculations and the oft-innocuous acts of liking and viewing content on the internet, paints the affair with much bluster, but without much substance to back it up. Alleged feuds like the one between Gomez and Bieber garnering the reach they did, also speak to the misogyny entrenched in most of us, even if we may not be aware of it.
“Women have always been pitted against one [an]other, whether it be in the public eye, or in private settings. Female rivalry is an incredibly powerful tool for those who wish to keep the patriarchy thriving and manufacturing alleged catfights — particularly when the point of contention is presumed to be a man’s affections — perpetuates the stereotype that women are overly emotional, immature, and dramatic,” Charlie Sawyer noted in Screenshot this week. While making female celebrities appear unhinged and jealous, downplaying their achievements, and reducing them to mere love interests of male celebrities even in real life, the gossip surrounding catfights also paint the men as catches of the decade.
“Gomez and Bieber are asking fans to give it a rest, so what’s actually driving our urge to pick a side?” asks journalist Lucy Morgan in her article for Glamor magazine. “The narrative that Hailey and Selena are sworn enemies has already been created — and it’s irresistible, not to mention incredibly problematic. Our appetite for salacious celebrity gossip has clearly never been stronger – regardless of the impact it has on said celebrities’ well-being… [I]s something darker fuelling our obsession with female celebrity feuds?” According to Morgan, the “something darker,” here, is that the alleged feud has tapped into our preoccupations with and anxieties about “mean girls.”
For Morgan — who is, by her own admission, “invested” in the “rabid social media drama” — the alleged feud appealed to her “pre-teen insecurities” about being bullied by girls from the popular clique at her school, and triggered her by transporting her back to those years. With the male gaze being a determinant of popularity when it comes to teenage girls, it’s safe to say that sexism is somewhere at the root of society’s obsession with alleged feuds between women celebrities, in this context, too.
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Moreover, the scrutiny that the online behavior of female celebrities is routinely subjected to — alongside the vitriol that follows in its aftermath — isn’t something male celebrities are exposed to. “There’s no playful #TeamEdward or #TeamJacob when it comes to women — it’s cutthroat and it’s devastatingly harsh,” Sawyer added. “[W]hen the internet decides that a certain alleged feud amuses or interests them, they’ll find it increasingly difficult to ever let it go.”
Indeed, despite Bieber and Hailey clearing the air by posing for a picture together last October, there’s no end in sight to the fan wars.
For many others, the alleged feud is akin to watching a “Regina George vs. Cady Heron”-esque drama playing out in real life, bolstered by our propensity to consume celebrity gossip. “They can get invested in a feud because there is something fun about getting gossip — to know the inside scoop,” noted Louie Dean Valencia, an associate professor of digital history at the Texas State University, commenting on the alleged feud.
Then, of course, there is the fact that catfights are born out of a straight male fantasy, described in Seinfeld as: “[M]en think that if women are grabbing and clawing at each other, there’s a chance they might somehow, you know… kiss.” In fact, there’s an entire category of porn dedicated to catfights. To add to that, the fact that there’s no male equivalent for the term “catfights,” indicates the sexism buried deep within the phrase.
And now, social media has made running with theories around catfights even simpler.
Devrupa Rakshit is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, a painter by shaukh, and autistic by birth. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.