“your review was great, maybe if you \\ took your eyes off my boobs you could \\ watch the movie!”
Three lines, 19 words. Poetry, probably at its best 21st century form: Instagram DM. Stenberg power he could have written Hamlet, but Shakespeare certainly could not have written this. Just a syllable or two shorter than a haiku, but with a clear intention embedded in the distinct stanzas: innocent openness; the shocking and abrupt turn in the second line; the feeling of closure that kills me every time. As a film critic, perhaps if he had actually “seen the movie,” none of this would have happened. The real kicker is that he knew exactly how it was going to play out—he just didn’t know he would backfire so gloriously.
Said film critic it is Lena Wilson, a writer for the esteemed New York Times, maybe you’ve heard of it? Well, before a month ago, you definitely hadn’t heard of her. After a scathing review of A24’s comedy-horror film’Bodies Bodies Bodies,” Wilson took to Twitter in a now-deleted-for-release post this infamous private message by actress Amandla Stenberg, star of the film. Shock! Indignation! Inevitable controversy ensued! But let’s see a little more context. By itself, Stenberg’s baffling message doesn’t make much sense, reading like a sudden and overly offended response to a critic just trying to do their job — something Wilson evidently capitalized on. If you haven’t read her paid review of hers, you may not be aware of the specific line that Stenberg clearly objected to and which she was directly alluding to: the line in which Wilson defined the film “a 95-minute commercial for Charli XCX’s cleavage and latest single.” Not a good look, to say the least (and to say the least, Charli XCX’s single “Hot Girl” is a bop and she responded to the drama about the best possible way).
This is where things start to get messy. Wilson tweeted that screenshot with the assumption that, taken out of context, the internet would blindly sympathize with her. Wilson, who is gay, framed the DM as mean-spirited, homophobic retaliation from a privileged actress unhappy with a less-than-great review. She acted as if the reason she sent a private message to an extremely public forum was that Stenberg had “more social powerabout her, and that it just wasn’t okay for them to do something like that. The fallacy in Wilson’s strategy here is that, contrary to how online audiences may try to appear, no one is an absolute empath, especially when it comes to petty controversies between celebrities and the lives of the elite. They may seem easily manipulated and often blindly misled, but Wilson had no substantial credibility or established camaraderie with the Twitter masses to inspire them to act on his behalf.
And so the Internet quickly doomed Wilson. Like any good Twitter drama, the incident caused people to dig up all sorts of nasty evidence from internet dredgers, including this rather incriminating one Tick tock which pretty much speaks for itself. In it, Wilson offers viewers advice on what makes her a skilled art writer, and before you ask, no, this isn’t satire, though I sincerely wish it were. I could rationalize this being done in rash defense of the heat she was getting online, but that’s from seven months ago and has absolutely nothing to do with the “Bodies Bodies Bodies” drama (which somehow makes it even worse). But that and a revealing character portrait of who we are dealing with here. The final nail in the coffin came when Wilson credited his New York Times stance to “I’m just talented, I guess,” conveniently leaving out the fact that his father is a publisher there. Ah, nepotism, the cardinal artistic sin. So now we’ve gone from the lesbian film critic getting an unsolicited homophobic DM from the actress to the nepo-baby getting unwarranted attention for an interaction with a celebrity she probably should have laughed about with her friends instead of posting about Twitter.
It sounds like a cybersecurity parable that anyone under 25 should have been given in grade school. The things you post on the internet stay there forever. Like forever, forever. A basic rule of the web here, folks. There’s no real erasure of anything, and if it has even the slightest bit of comedic value, people will never let you live. The internet simply never forgets. Ask any celebrity who attended that “To imaginevideo – I guess it still haunts them today. I certainly hope so.
To round out the whole debacle, let’s hear it from Stenberg’s TikTok account. To clear the air, Stenberg posted a video explaining that his intentions with the DM were mostly humorous (he could barely recite it without laughing) and assumed that since both were gay Wilson would find it funny too. Misinterpretations of the spoken cryptic message aside, it is apparent that Stenberg was unfazed by Wilson’s criticism of the film, but that Wilson chose to reduce both the film and her review to a rather superficial objectification of the film’s cast. Whether or not it was a throwaway joke, belittling the film as – let’s hear it again folks – “a 95-minute commercial for cleavage” says more about Wilson’s superficial analysis than “the over-sexualization and exploitation of A24 of his largely young woman’s cast” angle that seemed to take. For reference, these I am the do you live the characters wear for almost the entirety of the film. Stenberg, pictured at left in the green tank top, is the only one wearing anything even slightly revealing, which makes Wilson’s comment all the more focused and Stenberg’s subsequent reaction all the more justified.
I’m not sure how much more meta this situation could get. Wilson spends much of his review repeatedly admonishing the film for its deeply self-absorbed characters representative of a superficial representation of leftist internet culture, only to end up engaging within that same internet culture in a mindless, selfish way and attention seeking. Regardless of sides Wilson has consciously sought to manipulate a tenuous online system that routinely thrives on conflict and explodes into utter chaos over the smallest celebrity mishaps. When seeds of discord are planted, all it takes is the simplest voice, the tiniest hint of doubt to precipitate utter destruction, every answer and answer acting like an endless telephone game in that digital void of a chamber of the ‘echo. “Mean Girls” warned us long before the power of the internet reached its full realization, as did “Gossip Girl,” the reigning champion of ruining lives one little gossipy post at a time.
In all fairness, the public reaction here was never going to be quite nuanced, because that requires critical thinking, something everyone is quite capable of but the internet loves to ignore in favor of the next new gossip piece. Celebrity arguments from popular online talks maintain their relevance not by providing people with all the facts and letting them come to their rational, well-thought-out conclusions, but by providing them with shocking snippets of information that actively induce and encourage knee-jerk reactions. These answers are based on nothing more than our own biases and the ever-changing tide of digital influence. Who was right matters little when the internet as a whole could have easily sided either way.
What if Wilson’s review came from a less reputable publication, or no one took a screenshot and posted his tweet? Or if Stenberg was a little less well known, or had even the slightest pre-existing online stigma against her (think of the visceral reaction you get when you hear names Jamela Jamil or Camila Cabello)? The details of either side’s criticisms or legitimate concerns become irrelevant as they become muddled by the drama’s disproportionate reach and impact on the otherwise extremely niche internet. Maybe people will think twice the next time a celebrity private message leaks, or maybe they’ll get a laugh from the Wilson-worthy incriminating TikTok every now and then. But when we allow art criticism to be diluted by the dominant Internet orthodoxy of the subject and attempt to employ the easily swayed masses to ignore the substance in favor of something that aligns with whatever current relevant position everyone clings to, it is rendered void of meaning outside the online context.
It’s hardly groundbreaking for me to say that we the public, the users of Twitter and TikTok and the like, are constantly wanting to love or hate a new celebrity. Someone to be dethroned on the basis of their petty crimes, assisted by the parasocial nature of the internet and the highly policed reporting environment that has become a hallmark of social media as we know it. Perhaps it reminds us that celebrities are human, just as flawed as the rest of us, or it just satiates a long-held desire that there is a sense of taxation, a price to pay for all that privilege and power. As the slogan of “Bodies Bodies Bodies” says, “this is not a safe space”. It never was and I doubt it ever will be.
Time and time again, regardless of its validity or intent, art criticism gets lost in a sea of scandal and rumour, manipulated by agendas far less focused on a work’s artistic merit or the artist’s talent than on the potential for ruin. In this case, that internet gossip was covered up under the guise of pseudo-intellectual criticism of the film, A24, and even the situation at hand. Perhaps this article itself is exemplary, but who am I to say? Subconsciously or not, Wilson has tapped into that potential and engaged with an online system that promises no loyalty and knows no bounds just for the potential for attention and brief acclaim on the Internet. He’s gotten the internet warning, but he’s probably not the type that anyone hopes for.
So how did it all turn out?
Wilson deleted all of her social media, “Bodies Bodies Bodies” briefly received a huge amount of attention that she likely wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, and Charli XCX emerged from the bloodbath unscathed and remains a no-fuss queen. Now stream “Hot Girl”, everyone!
Daily art writer Serena Irani can be reached at email@example.com.