Social Media High: Why We’re So Mean To Renee Zellweger

21st Annual ELLE Women In Hollywood Awards

“Renee Zellweger looks like she just got back from a long trip to a Cold Mountain.”

I thought that comment was mildly amusing, so I tweeted and put it on Facebook.

Less than a minute later, I deleted both.

I started thinking of the wave of negativity Renee Zellweger is experiencing right now. Not because she gave a bad performance in a movie, or said something in an interview she’d later regret. Simply because she walked out of the house and attended an event — ironically, Elle‘s Women In Hollywood, a night that is meant to empower females.

Yes, when you walk out onto a red carpet, and you’re a woman, you know you’re subjecting yourself to all kinds of scrutiny. For actresses in Hollywood, it is a (probably unfortunate) part of their job. It takes a lot of tenacity and a fair amount of confidence to even do such a thing. But we don’t think about that when we see the pictures. We just judge.

I’m not here to judge anyone who made a snarky comment about Renee Zellweger. I did it, too. Whoever first wrote a Renee Zellweger-specific post about the event obviously knew that people would freak out at the sight of her — because it’s been so long since we’ve seen her, and because she looks so different than when we last saw her. And there the bandwagon was formed. It is human nature to jump on.

When we tweet, Facebook, or otherwise post about a celebrity on the internet, we don’t think that celebrity will actually see it, and most of the time, we’re right. Celebrities have so many comments flying at them from all directions, it would be impossible to view them all. Our one little joke will be seen by, at best, however many of our couple hundred followers on Twitter happen to be reading tweets right now, or however many friends actually see what we post on Facebook. And that’s that. Done.

But the thing about the internet is you never know for sure who will see it. It is, in fact, possible that Renee Zellweger could stumble upon what I tweeted about her, and if she did, she’d no doubt feel really bad about it, the same way I’d feel awful if she tweeted the same thing about how I looked last night. And in the more likely event that she does not see it, I’m still contributing to the huge storm of bad press she’s getting right now just for having her picture taken.

Did Renee Zellweger get plastic surgery? Probably. And I imagine it must feel pretty lousy to go through all that trouble, then step out in public and still have people saying mean things about how you look. Paradoxically, people who change the way they look tend to receive more flack their appearance rather than less. If Renee Zellweger had not had plastic surgery, and aged naturally, many people would have made snarky comments about that, too. Why did Renee Zellweger get plastic surgery in the first place? Probably because, even at the height of her success, people made fun of the way she looked — the squinty eyes, the chipmunk cheeks. Basically, there’s not much Renee Zellweger could have done that would have avoided bad press at this point.

But Renee is far from the only celebrity to ever prompt the “did she or didn’t she?” discussion. Whether she did or didn’t is irrelevant, unless she also had surgery to make her immune to mean jokes. Most of us are not talking about Renee Zellweger because she looks different than she used to, or because she looks bad, or because she looks old, or anything like that at all. We’re talking about her because other people are talking about her. We saw someone else post about it, so we posted about it, too. We want to partake in the hot topic, gather around the virtual watercooler. We want to be like the cool kids. And today, the cool kids are making fun of Renee Zellweger.renee-zellweger-goodbye

Twitter and Facebook comprise different wings of a worldwide high school. We’re all attending Social Media High, and like most actual high school students, we can’t be so easily divided into camps like “nerds” and “bullies.” Because the nerds have snarky things to say about the jocks sometimes, too.

At Social Media High, negativity is rewarded. You can turn in all your assignments on time, have perfect attendance, and say a thousand nice things to the other kids in your class on a daily basis. But that one moment when the popular girl trips and falls on her face, and you make just the right joke with just the right timing, and everybody laughs? That’s when you’ll be rewarded.

Why did I post a moderately amusing but not terribly funny Renee Zellweger zinger? Simple. I wanted to be rewteeted. I wanted “likes” and comments that would validate how funny I was. Not because my comment was all that hilarious, but it was the first decent joke I came up with, hastily written and thoughtlessly posted. I could have come up with a dozen more.

We get a high off of positive reinforcement, but that’s hard to come by. More often, we’re told we’re too late, not quite there, not enough. We aren’t often rewarded for the good things we do, except internally. Break no laws, and nothing happens; break a law and go to jail. Retweets and “likes” of a disparaging remark are a fleeting, virtual version of positive reinforcement that might briefly feel like the real thing. But the high we get off that is nothing compared to the low feeling the person it’s about will experience when they read it.

I’d rather be retweeted for something positive, but that doesn’t happen as often. I’ve written several movie reviews and articles over the past week, and more often than not, they’re ignored. Like everyone else, I crave good feedback on what I do, especially when I put a lot of effort forth. But I don’t always get it. And it leaves this empty void in me that wants to be filled.

Then Renee Zellweger shows up to the Women in Hollywood gala, and it’s all over my Facebook. She’s trending. It’s a hashtag. I know, as we all know, that taking a quick swipe at a celebrity who has the bad luck to be the day’s top story is the fastest way to gain notoriety in social media — some favorites and likes, a few retweets, perhaps a new follower.

Or, more likely, that tweet still goes ignored, as most tweets do when you’re not a social media “presence.” Like a snide comment mumbled under your breath when everyone around you is pointing and laughing at someone else, it just vanishes into the ether, unheard. But the promise that someone might hear it, and love it, and repeat to everyone how hilarious you are, is reason enough to mutter it at all.

We don’t think celebrities will hear us way down here amongst the masses. And if they do, we don’t believe they’ll care. But it can’t ever feel good to read something mean that people are saying about you, and when you put that comment in public, there is a chance they will. And so, when we post a negative comment about somebody famous, we should always think about that moment. Image them stumbling upon it and guess at what their reaction would be. Can they take it? Is it worth it? If so, click “Post.”

Renee Zellweger showed up to school wearing something different today. And because she’s been out of town for a while, she made an easy target. I briefly joined everyone else in roasting her, but then I stopped to think about it. My deleted tweet will hardly be the last jab I take at a celebrity, and I think that’s okay, because there’s a time and a place to make fun of people. You have to put it in context.

But I decided that making fun of the way Renee Zellweger looked on that red carpet last night was neither the time nor place to be cruel to her. She’s far from one of Hollywood’s top starlets these days, and she was at an event celebrating women that ended up doing just the opposite for her. Renee Zellweger probably missed thousands or millions of horrible individual comments made about her, but I’ll sure as hell bet she got the gist. Thanks to us all, Renee Zellweger is probably having a pretty bad day today.

So, in the unlikely event that she does stumble upon my not-so-popular Twitter, or Facebook, or blog, I offer up an apology. Renee Zellweger, I’m sorry.

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