It apparently bears reiterating: celebrities are human beings, and should be treated accordingly. Those who behave well should be lauded and those who behave badly should be rebuked. Simple, right?
Unfortunately, the nature of celebrity means that both of those reactions tend to be wildly disproportionate, and when someone who has previously been disproportionately lauded stumbles, the pendulum swing in the opposite direction can be brutal. Celebrity can often protect people from reasonable consequences for truly bad acts, but it also can act as its own weapon, offering a bandwagon on which the public can jump when a darling becomes a demon.
Most recent case in point: Benedict Cumberbatch.
You can find the exact details of this elsewhere, but the gist is that he voiced some opinions (with somewhat legitimate bases) and unfortunately did so in a way that made him sound like an arrogant prat (that his comments were also taken out of context and spun into tornadolike proportions by a so-called newspaper didn’t help.)
Now, did he make an ass of himself by mouthing off in an ill-advised way? Sure. But was the content–not delivery–of his opinions invalid? Not entirely, no. Frankly, the second series of Downton Abbey was under par (the lost heir thing? Seriously?) and actors with posh accents and bearing do get typecast–much as Northerners get typecast as rough-edged lowlifes or working-class heroes. (For U.S. equivalents, see urbane New Yorker v. redneck Southerner.) Exactly how he delivered those opinions was rude, yes, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong, nor that he had no right to express those opinions in the first place.
The sum total of Benedict’s words and actions in public life so far have been, on balance, pretty decent. Though I don’t know him personally and don’t particularly follow his career, he generally seems like someone who’s well-intentioned but whose execution of those intentions often misses the mark. This seems a bit like his most-famous character, but where Sherlock is a sociopath (no ability for empathy), Benedict just seems like someone who’s somewhat awkward, and has yet to adjust to the new social expectations of his sudden celebrity. And let’s be perfect frank: it is sudden. Two years ago, the only people outside of his personal circle who had the slightest clue who he is were those who closely follow the work of a certain crop of rising U.K. and Irish actors. The moment the world saw Sherlock, his life changed drastically, and he’s undoubtedly still scrambling to catch up.
Which brings me to an important side point: The culture surrounding the performing arts in the U.K. and Ireland is drastically different from what Americans are used to. Here, we have a handful of A-listers making fortunes, a sizeable crop of working character actors making a living, and a whole lot of broke nobodies with SAG cards. Many young folks get into the field not because they truly love the craft and would be happy to make enough to pay the bills, but because they think they can parlay a pretty face into fame and fortune. In the U.K. and Ireland, though they do have a few famous-for-being-famous types, and an upper echelon of lauded masters, most working actors are just that. The top tier of them make only about what we might expect from a doctor or lawyer, and the vast majority are getting by on a typical middle-management salary. They act because they love the work, and they’re good enough at it to get a paycheck from it. Indeed, it’s very rare for them to make a lot of money at all until/unless they cross into the U.S. market somehow. Truly, the British already have royalty; they don’t need to make kings and queens out of people who did well in drama school. (They’re far more likely to make pointless celebrities out of classless pop and reality stars behaving badly–on that, the two regions are truly equal.)
So, given that, Cumberbatch was basically just going about his business, making a decent living, though not zillions, from talent and steady work, when he managed to stumble into the right project at the right time to catapult him into international stardom. I can basically guarantee that anyone who has that happen–much less someone who by most reports is a bit on the strange and awkward side–is going to have a hard time adjusting. What we’ve been watching from him, publicly speaking, for the last two years is a bewildered fawn trying to get its legs while dodging a forest fire. Of course he’s going to fall on his ass sometimes. Does he deserve criticism when he does? Of course. But only that which is proportionate to the fall. The kind of hatred and vitriol–really, making fun of his name?–I’ve seen thrown at him is absolutely deplorable, and completely out of proportion to his (very) minor crimes.
And that’s the crux of the issue. Just because more people know who he is and pay attention to what he says doesn’t mean he’s any different, at base, from most other people. Indeed, as I’ve said before, famous folks have a responsibility to recognize that they have a bigger soapbox than most, and thus behave accordingly, but beyond that, they shouldn’t be expected to be superhuman just because we the audience slap a big S on their chests.
Celebrity should neither be a shield from legitimate consequences for bad behavior (see: the fact that Charlie Sheen still has a career) nor an excuse to bludgeon someone half to death when they do something boneheaded. They are just people doing a job, not gods. Entertainment does attract more than its fair share of assgaskets, but simply being employed in the industry doesn’t make a person fair game for canonization or public flogging. We can’t hold these people to an unreasonably high standard if we’re the ones who created that standard in the first place.