Naomi Osaka and the Language of Fame

by Msnbctv news staff

Who lost what, exactly, when Naomi Osaka announced she wouldn’t participate in news conferences at the French Open last week, citing her mental health?

The fans lost a few minutes of potentially vulnerable but generally formal interviews with Ms. Osaka. Ms. Osaka was unburdened of what she felt was an irrelevant obligation, but also burdened with potentially tens of thousands of dollars in fines.

The French Tennis Federation lost control over a tradition, and the public narrative. (On Twitter, an account for the French Open posted — and then deleted — photos of tennis stars engaging with the media, with a withering caption: “They understood the assignment.”)

The press, however, stood to lose the most, and not just a scheduled chance to ask a few questions. As Jonathan Liew, writing for The Guardian, put it: “The great conceit of the press conference is that it is basically a direct line from the athlete to the public at large.”

But “hard as it is to believe, Ms. Osaka’s function as an entertainer and corporate billboard is contingent on her playing tennis at an appointed hour, rather than being forced to sit in a windowless room explaining herself to a roomful of middle-aged men,” he wrote.

That particular practice of access journalism, Mr. Liew suggested, hadn’t produced much in the way of illuminating results for a while. Ms. Osaka, in a statement posted to social media, described the experience as “being subjected to people who doubt me” and recalled seeing numerous other athletes “breaking down” in the midst of a scheduled spectacle. “I don’t understand the reasoning behind it,” she said.

And it was that, combined with Ms. Osaka’s decision to leave the tournament entirely, that revealed a much broader, and largely already complete, loss of stature and relevance.

A profession full of practiced questioners was thwarted by a singular subject with a question of her own, and plenty of other places to ask it: What’s the idea here, exactly?

It’s no longer a requirement of the job of being famous to trust other people to construct your public persona, which is surely, in some obvious ways, a relief. (To Ms. Osaka, an athlete born in 1997, the notion may seem absurd in the first place.) This obligation, however, has been replaced by one that’s easy to underestimate, and even harder to avoid: Once a celebrity has taken control of her story, it’s up to her to keep telling it. The demand remains unyielding. It’s just coming directly from the public.

In professional tennis, a conspicuously tradition-bound sport where even small breaks with superficial norms are assigned suffocating meaning, the press’s post-match ritual wasn’t just a relic — it had been actively protected through regulations. (Tennis, to be sure, is not the only sport where athletes are expected to face the news media postgame.)

The rules for appearing at news conferences, which are set up by the tournaments and the men’s and women’s tours, are considered part of the deal for getting paid to be in the tournament. Ms. Osaka recast this as an irrelevant distraction, a source of anxiety and as damaging to the well-being of athletes.

Some critics have paid particular attention to the language Ms. Osaka used in her explanations, in which she invoked the need to protect her mental health, identified as an introvert and described coping with her depression. Where fans saw a rare example of honestly and candor, some critics saw the use of therapeutic language as a conversation-ending shield, or an example of weakness incompatible with the demands of the job of being an athlete, of being famous or of greatness in general.

This is less an argument about the conditions of being famous — Ms. Osaka’s detractors and supporters seem to agree that it’s an enormous psychological burden — than it is a suggestion that these conditions are an unavoidable and necessary cost, either to be handled cheerfully or understood, miserably, as a fair exchange for wealth and celebrity. (Celebrities of many types have talked openly about mental health in recent years, many on their own social media channels.)

Some retired tennis greats weighed in to agree. “While it’s 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 posted on Twitter.

“Once you become a professional athlete, you decide to play by certain rules of the game,” Patrick McEnroe said in an interview on “Good Morning America.”

This discussion can 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’ll be adored by millions, who will have sympathy for you but perhaps not empathy. A surprisingly high number of strangers will revile you. Everyone else will feel the need to have an opinion about you.

It’s not unreasonable to suspect powerful people of hiding behind carefully chosen words, of course. (It’s probably unreasonable, however, to believe that a post-match Q. and A. is the tool for piercing the veil of secrecy.) But the sudden rise of therapeutic concepts and language in celebrity communication can also be understood as a predictable result of the new demands of the job.

Consider how famous people told their own stories before social media. They could flatter, manipulate or go to war with the press on a regular basis, participating in a storytelling process over which they had real but ultimately limited control.

Under duress, they might have submitted to tell-all interviews. To construct images, they could have granted access to friendly press in hopes of a gauzy portrait. Mutated forms of celebrities, like politicians, had their own native ways of appearing to “go direct,” such as speeches. If people cared about you long enough, you might have been able to cap your career with a score-settling memoir.

Now, however, everyone can just post online. And so that’s what they do. This transition has been extensively described by the press as a loss of its power to hold public figures accountable — a zero-sum trade-off that has mostly been liberating for the people who need liberation the least.

There is some truth to this. (See: electoral politics!) Posting on social media, however, 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 preternaturally good at telling their own stories. Some people who are famous for other things have this talent as well. 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; giving a good quotation; being charming, or game, or otherwise compelling when you were asked to participate in, for example, a post-match news conference.

Instagram, on the other hand, provides an open if not yawning prompt for a famous person. There, people have not stopped asking you things. Millions of people have millions of questions. They also have critiques, expectations, and their own small demands of you — once distant and mediated, now much more nearby.

You have more control over how and when you’d like to engage, but it’s still a condition of fame that you engage somehow. Pointed interviews have been replaced with a general prompt: explain yourself.

Put another way, reporters were once tasked with humanizing celebrities through the media, and now celebrities have to humanize themselves through social media. In both situations, however, the storyteller begins from the natural state of celebrity: near-total dehumanization.

So, how is a famous person — particularly one who did not become famous though careful cross-platform narrative construction, but rather by being one of the most talented tennis players ever to live — supposed to address this near infinite demand that she explain herself or tell her story?

You lend support to things that you care about, that you see as bigger than your sport; you try, and maybe fail, to ignore the things that bother you. You get sponsorships. (And Ms. Osaka has done plenty of that.) You talk to the press when you want to, with lots of conditions.

Most of all, you figure out how to post. Either enthusiastically or out of necessity, you end up running a media empire of your own, large and consuming enough that the outside media is recast — perhaps healthily, for them! — as interrupters and interlopers.

Some celebrities may relish the opportunity to construct narratives on social media day in and day out, but even the most devoted posters end up talking about it like it’s a burden. Some take breaks from certain social platforms or become obsessed with their critics. Many others experience it as a form of obligation that, like conventional press engagements, is something that they’ve been told they can’t not do.

Absent a contrived persona or deliberate plan, modern celebrities are left to process their fame in public, and to attempt to assert boundaries where there are none. It’s no wonder they sound like they’re in treatment.

Naomi Osaka did not, in declining to submit to a particular form of media interaction that was waning in relevance before she was born, opt for actual privacy. That’s rarely a choice for a celebrity, and besides, she ultimately did share her intimate thoughts, or something that sounded like them, on Instagram for public consumption, celebration and ridicule. Nor did she demand sympathy.

What Ms. Osaka really did was, from her peculiar vantage point, and in the best way she knew how, explain what her job really is, updating its description to bring it in line with her actual peers: the other most famous people on earth, who, regardless of how they got there, spend their lives in a new sort of press room that they’re not allowed to leave.

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