Naomi Osaka and the language of fame
Who lost what, exactly, when Naomi Osaka announced she would not be attending press conferences at Roland Garros last week, citing her sanity?
Fans wereted a few minutes of potentially vulnerable but generally formal interviews with Ms Osaka. Ms Osaka was released from what she considered an irrelevant obligation, but also subject to fines of up to tens of thousands of dollars.
The French Tennis Federation has lost control of a tradition, and of the public narrative. (On Twitter, a Roland-Garros account posted – then deleted – photos of tennis stars engaging with the media, with a heart-wrenching caption: “They got the mission.”)
The press, however, were the losers, and not just a scheduled opportunity to ask a few questions. Like Jonathan Liew, written for The Guardian, said: “The great vanity of the press conference is that it is essentially a direct line between the athlete and the general public.”
But “also hard to believe, Ms. Osaka’s function as an artist and corporate billboard hinges on playing tennis at a specific time, rather than being forced to sit in. a windowless room to explain in front of a room filled with middle-aged men., “he wrote.
This particular practice of access journalism, suggested Mr Liew, had not produced many enlightening results for some time. Ms Osaka, in a statement posted to social media, described the experience as “being subjected to people who doubt me” and recalled seeing many other athletes “collapsing” in the middle of a scheduled show. âI don’t understand the reasoning behind this,â she said.
And that’s it, combined with Ms Osaka’s decision to leave the tournament altogether, which revealed a much broader and largely already complete loss of stature and relevance.
A profession full of experienced questioners has been thwarted by a singular subject with a question of its own, and plenty of other places to ask it: what is the idea here, exactly?
It’s no longer a job requirement to be famous to trust other people to build your public personality, which is surely in some obvious ways a relief. (To Ms. Osaka, an athlete born in 1997, the notion may seem absurd at first.) This obligation has been replaced, however, by an obligation that is easy to underestimate, and even more difficult to avoid: once a celebrity has took control of her story, it’s up to her to keep telling it. Demand remains inflexible. It just comes from the public.
Rules of engagement
In professional tennis, a sport clearly linked to tradition where even small breaks from superficial norms are given a suffocating meaning, the post-match press ritual was not just a relic – it had been actively protected by regulations. (Tennis, of course, isn’t the only sport where athletes are supposed to face the media after the game.)
The rules for appearing at press conferences, which are established by the men’s and women’s tournaments and circuits, are considered part of the agreement to be paid to participate in the tournament. Ms Osaka called this an irrelevant distraction, a source of anxiety and damage to the well-being of the athletes.
Some critics have paid particular attention to the language used by Ms. Osaka in her explanations, in which she cited the need to protect her sanity, identified herself as introverted and described dealing with her depression. Where fans saw a rare example of honesty and candor, some critics saw the use of therapeutic language as an end-of-conversation shield, or an example of weakness incompatible with the demands of the job of an athlete, d ‘to be famous or of greatness in general.
This is less of an argument about the conditions of being famous – detractors and supporters of Ms. Osaka seem to agree that this is a huge psychological burden – than a suggestion that these conditions are. an inevitable and necessary cost, either to be managed happily or to be understood, miserably, as a fair trade for wealth and fame. (Celebrities of all kinds have spoken openly about mental health in recent years, many on their own social media.)
Some retired tennis greats have agreed. “While it is important that everyone has the right to speak their truth, I have always believed that as professional athletes we have a responsibility to make ourselves available to the media,” Billie Jean King said on Twitter.
âOnce you become a professional athlete, you decide to play by certain rules of the game,â Patrick McEnroe said in an interview on âGood Morning Americaâ.
This discussion may sound like a disagreement over a job description. The pay is great. It might destroy your brain, as decades of celebrity wreckage can attest, but you will be adored by millions of people, who will have sympathy for you but maybe not empathy. A surprisingly large number of foreigners will insult you. Everyone will feel the need to have an opinion about you.
It is not unreasonable to suspect powerful people of hiding behind carefully chosen words, of course. (However, it’s probably unreasonable to believe that a post-game Q&A is the tool to pierce the veil of secrecy.) But the sudden rise in therapeutic concepts and language in celebrity communication can also be understood as a predictable outcome. new demands of the profession.
Consider how famous people have told their own stories before social media. They could flatter, manipulate, or wage war on the press on a regular basis, participating in a storytelling process over which they had real but ultimately limited control.
Under duress, they could have submitted to revealing interviews. To construct images, they could have given access to a friendly press in the hope of a vaporous portrait. Mutated forms of celebrities, like politicians, had their own native ways of appearing “to go straight”, like speeches. If people cared about you long enough, you might have been able to cap your career with memories that will help you settle your scores.
Now, however, anyone can just post online. And that’s what they do. This transition has been widely described by the press as a loss of its power to hold public figures to account – a zero-sum compromise that has above all been liberating for those who need release the least.
There is some truth to this. (See: electoral politics!) However, posting on social media is never just posting. You have to tell a story, and you have to figure out how to tell it. Celebrities who are said to be famous for being famous have always, in truth, been people who are supernaturally good at telling their own stories. Some people who are famous for other things also have this talent. And whether it comes naturally or not, it’s always work.
Previously, this part of the job was largely about presenting yourself in media-centric contexts: being a good interview; give a good quote; be charming, playful, or in some other way convincing when asked to attend, for example, a post-match press conference.
Instagram, on the other hand, provides an open if not yawning invite for a famous person. There, people kept asking you things. Millions of people have millions of questions. They also have criticisms, expectations, and their own small demands on you – once distant and high-profile, now much closer.
You have more control over how and when you want to engage, but it is always a condition of glory that you engage in some way. Sharp talks have been replaced by a general prompt: explain yourself.
In other words, journalists were once responsible for humanizing celebrities through media, and now celebrities have to humanize themselves through social media. In both situations, however, the storyteller starts from the natural state of celebrity: near-total dehumanization.
Post as remedy
So how is a famous person – especially one who didn’t become famous through careful cross-platform storytelling, but rather by being one of the most talented tennis players to ever live – supposed to answer? to this almost infinite demand that she explain herself or tell her story?
You support things that are important to you, that you consider to be more important than your sport; you try, and maybe fail, to ignore the things that bother you. You get referrals. (And Ms. Osaka has done a lot.) You talk to the press whenever you want, with a lot of conditions.
Most importantly, you know how to post. Whether enthusiastically or out of necessity, you end up running your own media empire, big enough and consuming enough that outside media is overhauled – perhaps in a healthy way, for them! – as switches and intruders.
Some celebrities may appreciate the opportunity to build social media stories day in and day out, but even the most dedicated posters end up talking about it as if it were a burden. Some take breaks on certain social platforms or become obsessed with their detractors. Many others experience it as a form of obligation which, like conventional press engagements, is something they have been told they cannot do.
In the absence of an artificial persona or a deliberate plan, modern celebrities have to deal with their fame in public and attempt to set limits where there are none. It’s no wonder they sound like they’re in treatment.
Naomi Osaka did not, by refusing to submit to a particular form of media interaction that lost its relevance before her birth, opted for real confidentiality. It’s rarely a choice for a celebrity, and for that matter, she ultimately shared her intimate thoughts, or something resembling them, on Instagram for public consumption, celebration, and ridicule. She did not demand sympathy either.
What Ms. Osaka really did was, from her particular perspective, and in the best way she knew how, explain what her job really is, update her description to align with her real peers: the other most famous people on earth, who, no matter how they got there, spend their lives in a new kind of newsroom they are not allowed to leave.