Why We’re Invested in Courtroom Drama
The fashion. The Treats. The lawyer. The… Mention of Taylor Swift?
The Gwyneth Paltrow ski test has the internet drooling for more. The Oscar-winner has been in court in Utah for the past two weeks after Terry Sanderson, a retired optometrist, sued her over a skiing accident in 2016. Sanderson claimed she injured him in a fall, but Paltrow says it was Sanderson who skied into her (and counters).
But people didn’t really care who hit who. You’ve taken note of Paltrow’s nonchalant reaction to her feelings about the fall: “Well, I lost half a day of skiing.” And how she offered treats to bailiffs. And about her relationship with Taylor Swift, since she and Swift are both celebrities who have claimed $1 in court cases. And did we mention Paltrow’s sleek, ethereal, and probably expensive courtroom looks?
But why are we so invested in the kerfuffle? It comes down to our fascination with the rich and when they fly (or ski) too close to the sun.
“The question is: Why shouldn’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 are so many elements in this story that make it positive (theatrical).”
Gwyneth Paltrow Ski Trial is “a front row seat” for celebrities
We rarely see celebrities off the cuff. Every talk show appearance, every Instagram post is perfectly curated. On the stand? Not as much. So when Paltrow’s comments are just as outlandish as some of her lifestyle tips, people can’t help but tune in.
“Gwyneth Paltrow fascinates people because she’s unabashedly out of touch with everything from her Goop products to her comments about the sun or how she can’t pretend to be someone who makes less money,” says Erica Chito Childs , Professor of Sociology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. “This trial gives us a front row seat for Paltrow and while standing in the stands she displays that attitude and claims she suffered from the skiing incident because she lost ‘half a day of skiing.'”
Also for Paltrow, 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 were self-inflicted, usually in the form of her often insane health and lifestyle advice,” says David Schmid, associate professor of English at the University at Buffalo.
It serves as a form of entertainment removed from the reality of the average person. With the deadly school shooting in Nashville and Philadelphia’s lack of safe drinking water, it was a particularly welcome form of respite this week.
“It plays out like an ‘SNL’ skit with various characters delivering outrageous lines,” adds Chito Childs. “Like many reality TV shows, we don’t watch because we like someone or even care about the outcome, but because we enjoy seeing the absurdity of the rich.”
Of course, Sanderson has talked about injuries that can’t be ignored. But that won’t stop people from looking the other way and missing opportunities to laugh, either.
“I certainly don’t want to downplay the possible seriousness of Mr. Sanderson’s alleged injuries, but for the ordinary follower of the case, it was quite comical burlesque,” adds Thompson. “The collision itself seems straight out of an Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck cartoon.”
What the trial means for celebrity culture
On the one hand, the trial serves as a victory for opponents of celebrity culture.
“Even her token $1 in damages reminds us how badly she doesn’t need money,” says Chito Childs.
To counter this, “She needs to avoid and denounce in her legal defense the class and cultural privilege (her fame) that generates that visibility,” says Melvin Williams, associate professor of communications and media studies at Pace University.
When all is said and done, surely we’ll move on to the next big celebrity scandal, and Paltrow will still rock it.
When it comes to celebrity culture, Chito Childs advises that people should focus their energies on positive messages rather than negative ones.
But she knows that the next celebrity scandal will come and interest will be great: “Our lust and hunger for it will never end.”
More about the Gwyneth Paltrow ski test
The newest:Terry Sanderson testifies that he was “flying” in Gwyneth Paltrow’s ski collision and sustained concussion.
‘I absolutely froze’:Gwyneth Paltrow testifies in Utah skiing accident
And more:Gwyneth Paltrow testifies Terry Sanderson “categorically beat me” in the ski collision trial.
What we know:Gwyneth Paltrow in court over 2016 ski collision: what we know of the trial, eyewitness testimonies