Imagine, if you will, that a pop star is releasing a long-awaited album. The pop star announces the project with the kind of fanfare usually reserved for a royal baby or the arrival of a new year; the pop star does a television special and starts showing up everywhere, Jay-Z in tow, like some sort of repatriated music monarch. The pop star lands a major corporate endorsement. The pop star makes a few jokes about ex-bandmates. The pop star seems a little self-congratulatory and then under-delivers on the artistic front. How do you respond?
It's a trick question. There's one answer (“enthusiastically”) for Justin Timberlake, and there's another answer for Beyoncé, who recently got raked over the coals for following the same promotional instincts (minus the snide jokes, because she’d never) that we've excused in JT these past months. More to the point: There's an answer for male celebrities, who get a hall pass in the Likable Celebrity Wars, and another for female celebrities, who must humble themselves (physically) before the public, lest they end up crying in the Oscars bathroom like Anne Hathaway.
Consider the recent female hate outbursts: There was Beyoncé, who dared to be successful and then celebrate it, and poor Hathaway, loathed because her Oscars acceptance speech wasn't as "real girl" as Jennifer Lawrence's. Lena Dunham was called a narcissist, an anti-feminist, and a racist, all because her excellent television show reflects a very personal set of experiences and skills. And even Taylor Swift — who never should have brought Tina Fey and Amy Poehler into this and who should learn to take a joke — gets unfairly massacred for mentioning her past relationships in song.
If we held the omnipresent Justin Timberlake to the same standard as these women, he'd be a pariah — a self-aggrandizing sell-out like Beyoncé (Bud Light Platinum, anyone), a cloying fake like Hathaway (Serious Actor glasses? Instagram filter? Check), a self-indulgent nuisance like Dunham (an album of seven-minute space jam sessions and a love song about himself?), and a vengeful brat like Swift (that Joey Fatone joke had nothing on the Britney sketch. Also: "Cry Me a River"). Instead, we call him charming. We enjoy his talents — SNL, the first half of most of the songs on The 20/20 Experience — and skip over his flaws. We do not mention the all-denim suit of 2001.
This extends beyond JT, of course; it’s hard to think of a male celebrity who has been subjected to the kind of treatment we’ve put the aforementioned women through in the past few months. We forgive James Franco his spaciness and dilettantism, as it’s part of his multitasking stoner appeal. Justin Bieber’s bad behavior is written about with concern; other artists step in to defend him. Kanye rants are a creative tradition at this point, and we treasure them. (That was said earnestly.) To find a genuinely hated male celebrity, you’d have to reach all the way to Chris Brown, a terrible and unrepentant human being who beat up his girlfriend.
It is no great revelation to state that male celebrities have it easier than female celebrities, or that famous women are not often judged on the merits of their work. This is the Internet, not Happy Make-a-Friend Fantasyland. But if we are going to dissect the minute personality details of every celebrity who seeks our good graces — and by the looks of 2013, we really are — then it is time to start applying that obsessive attention equally. At the very least, we could remember that “likability” is an entirely subjective quality, and that women could have it if we’d just allow it in them. Or we could all take a cue from Amy Poehler and just cut the Taylor Swifts of the world some slack. Would it be too much to ask for all three?