Why we are invested in the court drama
The fashion. The treats. The attorney. The … Taylor Swift mention?
The Gwyneth Paltrow ski trial has left the internet salivating for more. The Oscar-winning actress has been in a Utah court for the last two weeks after Terry Sanderson, a retired optometrist, sued her over a ski crash in 2016. Sanderson claimed she injured him during a crash, but Paltrow says it was Sanderson who skied into her (and is countersuing).
But people haven’t really cared about who hit who. They’ve cared about Paltrow’s nonchalant response to how she felt about the crash: “Well, I lost half a day of skiing.” And about how she offered treats to courtroom bailiffs. And about her relationship with Taylor Swift, given she and Swift are both celebrities who have sought $1 in lawsuits. And have we mentioned Paltrow’s elegant, ethereal and likely expensive courtroom looks?
But why are we so invested in the kerfuffle? It comes down to our fascination with the wealthy and when they fly (or ski) too close to the sun.
“The question is: why wouldn’t we be fascinated?” says Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. “There’re so many elements to this story that make it positively (theatrical).”
Gwyneth Paltrow ski trial is ‘a front row seat’ to celebrity
We rarely get to see celebrities be off the cuff. Every talk show appearance, every Instagram post is perfectly curated. On the stand? Not so much. So when Paltrow’s comments are just as off-base as some of her lifestyle tips, people can’t help but tune in.
“Gwyneth Paltrow fascinates people because she is unabashedly out of touch – from her Goop products to her comments about the sun or not being able to pretend she is someone who makes less money,” says Erica Chito Childs, a professor of sociology at Hunter College and The Graduate Center, CUNY. “This trial gives us a front row seat to Paltrow, and while on the stand she displays this attitude, claiming she suffered as a result of the ski incident because she lost ‘a half day of skiing.'”
For Paltrow in particular, too, her “image has taken one hit after another and the interesting thing about the damage done to her reputation is that most of the hits have been self-inflicted, usually in the form of her frequently wacky health and lifestyle advice,” says David Schmid, associate professor of English at the University at Buffalo.
It serves as a form of entertainment distant from the average person’s reality. It’s been a particularly welcome form of respite this week, given the deadly school shooting in Nashville and lack of clean drinking water in Philadelphia.
“It plays out like a ‘SNL’ skit with different characters delivering outrageous lines,” Chito Childs adds. “Like many reality TV shows, we watch not because we find anyone likable or even care about the outcome, but we enjoy watching the absurdity of the wealthy.”
Of course, Sanderson has discussed injuries that can’t be ignored. But that won’t stop people from looking away and missing opportunities to laugh, either.
“I don’t, of course, want to downplay the possible seriousness of Mr. Sanderson’s alleged injuries, but to the ordinary follower of the case, it’s been a real comic burlesque,” Thompson adds. “The collision itself seems to come right out of a cartoon from Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck.”
What the trial means for celebrity culture
On one hand, the trial serves as a victory for opponents of celebrity culture.
“Even her symbolic $1 in damages reminds us just how much she does not need money,” Chito Childs says.
To counter that, “She must avoid and denounce the class and cultural privileges (her fame) this visibility evokes in her legal defense,” says Melvin Williams, associate professor of communication and media studies at Pace University.
When all is said and done, we will surely move on to the next big celebrity scandal and Paltrow will still Goop it up.
When it comes to celebrity culture, people are better off focusing their energy on positive rather than negative messaging, Chito Childs advises.
But she knows come the next celebrity scandal, interest will be high: “Our desire and hunger for it never ends.”
More on Gwyneth Paltrow ski trial
The latest:Terry Sanderson testifies he went ‘flying’ in Gwyneth Paltrow ski collision, sustained concussion
‘I absolutely froze’:Gwyneth Paltrow testifies in Utah ski crash accident
And more:Gwyneth Paltrow testifies Terry Sanderson ‘categorically hit me’ in ski collision trial
What we know:Gwyneth Paltrow in court for 2016 ski collision: What we know about the trial, testimony