Louis Tomlinson. KSI. Harry and Meghan. And now Ed Sheeran. We’ve been treated to (or subjected to?) a new breed of fly-on-the-wall documentary that promises to bare all. But are we seeing an authentic peeled-back celebrity’s life, or a manufactured preening of emotion, cashing in on modern society’s compulsion to open up about mental health?
Archie Brydon HATES intimate fly-on-the-wall docs
The names, faces and tribulations change, but the storyline can broadly be boiled down to the same idea: behind the scenes with a mega-rich superstar as they move through the ups and inevitable downs of life, resulting in an “unflinching and intimate” 90-minute affair, showing said star at their most “authentic, vulnerable and raw”. God forbid, we might even get a chance to see them at “their most human yet”.
The buzzwords applied to this genre of television make my skin crawl. Invariably, these documentaries hold none of the virtues they espouse. The challenges faced are real, and the artists’ intentions might be noble. Still, these projects are, at their very core, as manufactured and controlled as every other aspect of modern celebrity culture.
Manufacturing vulnerability has become increasingly prevalent in recent years as society talks more openly about mental health. This open dialogue has been a tremendous development – perhaps one of the few undeniably positive changes in recent years – but it is worth highlighting that ulterior, typically monetary, motives corrupt this positive dialogue.
Nowadays, mental health sells. Male vulnerability sells. An ostensibly popular, handsome, successful bloke talking about their feelings sells. Rather than letting people have personal conversations in personal settings, all involved seem to sense the opportunity afoot to contrive these moments and broadcast them on screen.
Everybody wins. The risk – intrinsic and necessary to any genuine vulnerability – is non-existent. Celebrities and their managers have complete control over the project and can depict adversity through a desirable, palatable lens.
I’m not arguing it’s easy being in the limelight, nor that all documentaries focusing on celebrities’ mental health are soulless cash grabs.
But, while it might not be fictional, it’s still deliberate, carefully considered and, in all likelihood, largely scripted.