Celebrity gossip culture is a gross waste of time, but much like an old David Foster Wallace joke about a fish asking some other fish “how’s the water,” it's inescapable. Sure, I’m outing myself as a curmudgeonly old man by openly disparaging celebrity gossip and referencing David Foster Wallace, but what I really despise is powerful people punching down and hurting people. So let's take a minute and give some villains a break, because whatever their perceived sins, they got a super raw deal.

Britney Spears And Janet Jackson Get Ruined While Justin Timberlake Went On Smirking

The initial incident:

By now, the numerous public abuses Britney Spears has suffered should be obvious, but here's a quick rehash. She was one of the biggest pop stars in the world at age 17, dated the other biggest pop star, married a dirt bag before Megan Fox and Khloe Kardashian made it cool, got so hounded by paparazzi she had a breakdown, and was completely controlled by her dad for the next decade and a half.

Oops I Did It Again

Battery

She also traveled to Mars, which should have gotten more attention 

Janet Jackson, meanwhile, is the second-biggest member of the Jackson family, a talented singer and actress whose career heyday spanned all the way from the '70s until 2004. What happened in 2004? Well, she was blacklisted for the crime of her breast existing, and it being sort of seen on television during the Super Bowl. 

The hidden villain:

Justin Timberlake. Let’s start by zeroing in on his role in Britney’s life: Spears began her career as a teenager and was grossly marketed on her purity, despite all of her music videos seemingly designed to test exactly how much skin MTV was willing to show on TRL at 3pm. She’d said publicly that she wanted to wait until marriage to have sex, yet she was a sex symbol. Her relationship with budding “King of Pop” Timberlake caused endless speculation about her virginity—two of the hottest celebrities in the world dating will do that. 

When they split up, accusations of infidelity cropped up, which Timberlake actively encouraged. The video for his breakthrough solo hit “Cry Me A River” featured him catching a Spears lookalike leaving a building with another man, and him singing menacingly direct-to-camera in the rain. 

All this led to increased tabloid/paparazzi attention for Spears, and can plausibly be said to be the beginning of her emotional breakdown. She continued to record, but became a major subject of scrutiny. The press treated Spears so atrociously that South Park took her side and did a whole episode where she got literally sacrificed. 

As far as Jackson, no radio station would play her, MTV wouldn’t show her videos. Oh, and the whole thing was organized by CBS CEO Les Moonves, one of the most powerful people in media. During her exile, she had to apologize over and over again for what outlets like Entertainment Weekly were breathlessly calling “Hootergate.” It seems ludicrous to write now, but there was real anger in the air about that halftime boob pop. All this even though Timberlake is the one who ripped her top. 

Timberlake, for his part, responded with a casual “we love giving you guys something to talk about.” He then went on to win his first Grammy for “Cry Me A River,” released the multi-platinum FutureSex/LoveSounds, and became a successful actor. He also disrespected Prince. All this while Spears and Jackson were struggling with the fallout from incidents he at least partially initiated. After nearly 20 years of endless bullshit, though, Timberlake would apologize in the most sincere format there is: an Instagram story.

Courtney Stodden And Chrissy Teigen Are A Media Tragedy

The initial incident:

Courtney Stodden is famous for having big boobs and marrying 51-year-old Doug Hutchinson at age 16. Somehow, during the early aughts, the first clause of that sentence was more pressworthy than the second. Crissey Teigen is a SI Swimsuit model-turned-cookbook author/game show host/Squid Game cosplayer.

The hidden villain:

The whole goddamn media, man. It came out recently that Teigen relentlessly bullied and harassed Stodden, even telling them to “kill yourself” at one point. Let me be clear: nothing in this entry is a defense of that. But focusing on that really misses the point. 

Hutchinson groomed a teenaged Stodden, a fact that they ("they" here refers to Stodden, who is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns) didn’t realize until years later. He had them in his hooks so hard that it didn’t take much to get Stodden’s parents to sign a marriage consent form. Since Hutchinson was fresh in the public’s mind as That Guy on Lost, this was news. Except the news wasn’t “That Guy From Lost Married A High School Girl Maybe Let’s Do Something About It,” the news was “Check Out The Big Juicy Naturals On This High School Chick That Guy From Lost Scored.” The couple tried to spin their criminal relationship into reality TV, which, looking back, seems more like Hutchinson realizing his mediocre career is over and he’s going to have to squeeze some cash out of his child wife. 

Reality Ex-Wives Courtney Stodden

E!

The show wasn't picked up, but they were later featured on Reality Ex-Wives, so jackpot

Anyway, Stodden was immediately sexualized by the press, with every interview focusing on the couple’s age gap and her aforementioned big honkin’ honkers. Here’s Jason Alexander in a sketch running a cell phone over her boobs and saying “come back when you’re 18.” The whole thing was extremely gross. 

On the other side is Teigen who began her career at 18 in a brutal industry that demands women both look like and be as disposable as toothpicks. Teigen managed to stay in the spotlight by marrying John Legend, conjuring a celebrity chef career, and being funny on Twitter. 

That last one was somehow newsworthy in the 2010s. Here’s an Esquire profile I’d like to re-headline “Can You Believe This Broad Is Funny?” Pieces like that were everywhere. As Vox put it, she was the epitome of “Cool Girl.” She claims she thought clapping back at dumb celebs online would make people think she was cool. In her Twitter apologies, she referred to herself as an “insecure, attention-seeking troll.” I am willing to bet harassing Stodden was reflexive self-defense and unhealthy competitiveness combined with the nasty nature of internet comedy in the early 2010s. The lesson society almost certainly won’t learn is that maybe we should put less pressure on celebs, especially pressure dealing with how their bodies are.

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Allen Iverson Inspires NBA Dress Code

The initial incident:

Allen Iverson is maybe the coolest person to ever play in the NBA. Being cool, he wore oversize white T-shirts and gold chains, kept his hair in long cornrows, and appeared on magazine covers looking like this:

Slam

We assume this is Slim magazine, a magazine for dieters. 

Despite this being a vibe, a lot of stuffy old people saw Iverson’s drip as an affront to polite society. Said old people included NBA commissioner David Stern, who implemented an off-court dress code in an attempt to get players to look more professional.

The hidden villain:

Race-based perceptions in fashion. Many NBA executives, head coaches, and white dads across America saw the dress code as a positive step towards getting NBA players to conduct themselves professionally. Others, like most of the players, saw it as racist.

That perception of the dress code being racist? It exists because dress codes are usually racist. Much like restaurant and club dress codes, the NBA’s rules explicitly targeted clothes associated with hip-hop culture, such as baggy shorts, chains, and jerseys. It even banned durags, which are functional pieces of clothing meant to protect hair. Black people’s hair, specifically.

Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson playing cards

reeb0k2008/Wiki Commons

It's sometimes spelled "do-rag"; the NBA banned both. 

Now, you might say that a private company has a right to want its employees dressed a certain way, and fine. That’s true. But in the corporate world, dress codes are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Companies looking to give off a “fun” vibe have been letting employees roll out of bed in sweats for years, and the pandemic has only accelerated this. Mark Zuckerberg, one of the most powerful people in the world, is famous for being a slovenly, sloppy schlub who has no idea how normal people look. But in 2005, it was suddenly important for superstar athletes—who spend their days working out, playing high-intensity games, and taking late flights across the country—to switch comfortable clothes for business casual.  

An NBA Failure Was Doomed By Michael Jordan

The initial incident:

Fresh out of high school, Kwame Brown was grabbed #1 overall in the 2001 NBA Draft. Usually, the #1 overall pick is expected to be a huge star, maybe someone who eventually leads a team to a championship. Kwame Brown, to be charitable, was perfectly average. But he also had the bad luck of having his first few seasons coincide with Michael Jordan—the greatest player of all time who also happened to be the man who drafted him—making a comeback from retirement.

Kwame Brown playing with the Detroit Pistons.

Keith Allison

Also, he had to spend a year with the Charlotte Bobcats, and no one deserves that. 

The hidden villain:

Systems of power (including dress code expectations), but mostly Michael Jordan. See, Brown grew up impoverished in rural Georgia, never having seen much of the world. Becoming an overnight millionaire with the expectations of an entire sports franchise on your back at age 18 is a bit of a shock to the system. Doubly so if you’re as unprepared for the world as Kwame was. Brown didn’t know how to do laundry—he’d wear suits once and then toss them on the floor. This made him late to a team event once because, as he told his agent, “I don’t have any clothes.” He once went to a French restaurant and was incredulous that they didn’t have French salad dressing. Oh, and he was very publicly was not ready to play NBA basketball. 

Brown spent years getting humiliated on the court and in every social interaction he had. Then he’d go to practice. If you saw The Last Dance, you know Jordan can be … tough on teammates:

And he’d bully Kwame till he cried. MJ also allegedly hurled homophobic slurs at him, though Brown now denies this happened. He’s still something of a punchline, and it clearly bothers him. He had a public beef with ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith in early 2021 when Smith said he “couldn’t play a lick of basketball.” Then there was a beef with former players Gilbert Arenas, Stephen Jackson, and Matt Barnes. All of this negativity stemmed from events nearly two decades ago. 

And that’s the thing. Kwame Brown’s entire life was decided when he was 18. And look, he didn’t have the greatest NBA career, but he still played 12 seasons as a serviceable role player. It’s hard not to wonder how he’d have turned out under a different set of expectations … and also not having the greatest player ever screaming at him all the time.

Kristen Stewart Didn’t Deserve All That Backlash

The initial incident:

Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattison played the central couple in one of the biggest movie franchises ever. In a fairy tale twist, they started dating in real life. Sure, it’s rarely a good idea to date someone at work, but when your job is to pretend you’re insatiably in love, plus you’re a hormonal 20-year-old, can you be blamed for hooking up? It all came crashing down when Stewart cheated on Pattinson and got screamed at on Twitter by the future president of the United States.

Snow White and the Huntsman

Universal Pictures.

And she didn't even cheat with Chris Hemsworth. Real missed opportunity there. 

The hidden villain:

Much like the Courtney Stodden/Doug Hutchinson thing, the conversation around the scandal completely ignored the power dynamics at play. See, Stewart cheated with the director of the film she was working on at the time, Snow White and the Huntsman. I had to look up the married father of three who happened to be Stewart’s boss at the time’s name like six times just to write this sentence and I’ve already forgotten it. Rupert Sanders, apparently. Stewart hasn’t said that there was any coercion, but it’s still a director/actor twenty-year-age gap situation. 

Rupert Sanders at the Snow White and the Huntsman movie premiere in Sydney, Australia.

Eva Rinaldi

Here's a picture of ... uh, who was this again? 

Sure, Pattinson’s pain matters, too. Cheating is bad, and who knows? Maybe that pain is why he microwaves pasta. But much like Britney Spears allegedly cheating on Justin Timberlake, there was so much anger directed at Stewart that it started to feel disproportionate. Fairy tales are fun, but fictional characters aren’t real people, celebrities aren’t your friends, and maybe let’s all go take a walk?

Gawker Wrote Some Indefensible Stuff, But Peter Thiel Is Way Worse

The initial incident:

Gawker is a publication that, to put it lightly, does not shy away from controversy. The website was founded on gossip and mocking elites, with a tricky balance between “revealing newsworthy secrets while punching up” and “being super gross while invading people’s privacy.” On one hand, they were on the Jeffrey Epstein beat earlier than most and maybe inspired Hannibal Burress to remind everyone that Bill Cosby is a rapist. On the other hand, they did revolting things like outing people for no reason and subjecting the world to Hulk Hogan’s sex tape. You might remember that last one as the reason Gawker didn’t exist for a while.

World Wrestling Entertainment star Hulk Hogan

Kristin Fitzsimmons

The tape was out there. If you wanted to see it, you didn't need Gawker to show it to you. 

The hidden villain:

It didn’t come out until later that corporate vampire (and maybe literal vampire) Peter Thiel was bankrolling Hogan’s suit, and had a personal vendetta against Gawker because … they said he was gay? Which he openly is? In an article that’s actually pretty positive? 

For whatever reason, Gawker’s outing of Thiel made him vow vengeance like some tech dork version of The Count of Monte Cristo. Maybe it was all the pervasive homophobia in VC culture, maybe it was the fact that you really shouldn’t out people against their will, maybe a little Column A/Column B. But the end result was a billionaire funding a lawsuit that bankrupted at least two people—founder Nick Denton and editor A.J. Daulerio—and an entire media company. It also sent a clear message to journalists: Say something a rich person doesn’t like, and you can be ended. 

Thiel speaking at the 2016 Republican National Convention

Voice of America

It's why we dare say nothing bad about Thiel, who is a vampire. 

Look, the original Gawker had a nasty side. I don’t want to live in a world where Jimmy Kimmel’s intoxication levels are the subject of cable news debate. But a world where a media company can do okay most of the time and issue corrections/retractions when they get it wrong is a better world than one where billionaires can destroy journalists on a whim. Even if said billionaire has done the hard work of becoming a gay vampire like some sort of tech bro Anne Rice character. I mean, what else are you gonna do with a billion dollars? Hang out with Hulk Hogan? No thanks.

Chris Corlew wrote this article under a poster of Allen Iverson. You can find him on Twitter.

Top image: Universal Pictures.

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