(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: why have people embraced the troubled musician in A Star is Born, but not the troubled musician in Vox Lux?)

The story goes like this: A world-famous musician who can’t get out from under their traumatic past struggles with an addiction that threatens to destroy their relationships. Their narcissism and recklessness are crudely exacerbated by drugs and alcohol. They are perhaps only, as the narration might inform us, marginally talented, and yet they endure. That unnamable something – the “it” factor, that sparkle, that je ne sais quois – has kept their fans adoring long past a reasonable expiration date.

That description could be attributed to prominent characters in two films released this year; while one of them has drawn near-consistent praise, the other has been criticized as being aggressively unlikable. The biggest difference between the two is, perhaps unsurprisingly, their gender.

The two films are, of course, A Star Is Born and Vox Lux. The performers, respectively: Bradley Cooper as Jackson Maine, an alcoholic rock musician on the verge of has-been status. And Natalie Portman as Celeste, a complex pop icon struggling with addiction and the indelible shadow that’s been cast by a past trauma. While critics (and audiences) fawn over Cooper’s leathery, gin-soaked downward spiral, Portman’s similarly flawed character is largely condemned as awful.  Despite the actress’ stellar performance, many feel as though Celeste’s “despicable” behavior is a detriment to a film that is, by design, hard to love. The differences between the two films are as obvious as their similarities: One is a schmaltzy crowd-pleaser that’s a shoo-in for Oscar gold; the other is a deliberately abrasive indie that criticizes the society that spawns and enables pop icons like the one depicted in A Star Is Born – and the actual pop icon that portrays her.

To say that the discrepancy in the response to these two characters comes down to a difference in gender would be reductive when examining two films with such opposing styles and motives. But it might also be ignorant to suggest that gender has nothing to do with it, even (and maybe especially) for those viewers who think themselves especially woke. It is odd to hear men in particular criticize Vox Lux for an unlikable character who, on a very basic level, isn’t all that different from Bradley Cooper’s washed-up shitshow in A Star Is Born. Why is it that viewers love Jackson Maine and hate Celeste? Maybe we should look to a word I have yet to deploy: Difficult.

There is an agonizing redundancy to this idea that a talented man can be praised for his exasperating behavior, but should a woman of equal or even greater talent behave in a similar manner, she is labeled “difficult.” Perhaps there is a subconscious reaction to Celeste, who isn’t amenable and pliable, who refuses to pose for a pretty photo with a fan who approaches her at an inopportune time, and who says whatever absurd thoughts come to mind. Despite filmmaker Brady Corbet’s attempt to illuminate the past that informed Celeste’s present, viewers still find her cold and inaccessible.

Following a montage of Celeste’s young life as a “marginally talented” kid – narrated by Willem Dafoe in peak Lars Von Trier mode – Vox Lux opens with a horrific high school mass shooting that leaves the future pop icon gravely injured. Spurred by her experience, Celeste collaborates with her sister on a song to pay tribute to the victims and survivors. It’s not a great song. Celeste isn’t an especially remarkable singer. But the circumstances leading up to and surrounding the performance have colored the public response; maybe if Celeste hadn’t survived as school shooting, she wouldn’t have become an overnight pop sensation. The juxtaposition of these two events – and the subsequent exploration of her subsequent teen success during the 9/11 era – isn’t intended as an insult to survivors of mass shootings; it’s designed to reflect the American culture of celebrity and the process by which we decide who is deemed worthy of fame and why.

Vox Lux is plainly divided into two parts: The first, which examines the life of a young Celeste recovering from a school shooting and becoming an international pop star, and the second, which serves as a portrait of the adult artist some 15 or 16 years later. It’s this second half that many viewers struggle to connect with; the grown Celeste is tempestuous and narcissistic, with a reckless selfishness that speaks to a young woman whose emotional development was arrested – that it came to an abrupt halt around the time she entered into fame. It is not all that different from the Britneys and the Lindseys, who came of age under a fickle microscope in world that demanded perfection; a society that demanded too much from them, too soon; a culture that asked for them to behave like virgins and look like Lolita. They were insulated from the typical, banal heartbreaks and realizations associated with a normal coming-of-age. And when they dared to act out like regular teenage fuck-ups, we condemned and mocked them. When they developed substance abuse problems, we acted surprised and disgusted. We clicked through paparazzi photos on gossip sites and laughed at their pain.

And so the woman Celeste has become by the second half of Vox Lux is a reasonable facsimile of the modern pop star and an uncanny – if troubling – reflection of the American culture of celebrity. If Celeste – or any deeply flawed and “unlikable” – female film character makes you feel uncomfortable, I would argue that this is the point. You are not meant to find the Celestes of the world pleasant and cozy; they are not merely a reflection of the flaws in broader society, but of the flaws in each of us – male or female. These moments are potential prompts to interrogate the reasons why we find Celeste so unlikable and so, as per one industry friend’s repeated description, “awful.” She is not designed to be awful (though her music, deliberately written by pop genius Sia, is another matter entirely) or hated.

It’s unlikely that Bradley Cooper was designed this way in A Star Is Born, either, and yet there is an overwhelming mountain of sympathy for this fading alcoholic star – even as he drunkenly interrupts his more successful wife’s Grammy acceptance speech and pisses his pants on live television. Like Celeste, Jackson Maine has a troubled past that he can’t seem to shake: An alcoholic and abusive father, a brother who reminds him of his failings, and a young lover whose talent reminds him of his shortcomings. It’s not that Jackson is not worthy of empathy, but there is an evident double standard that prevents viewers from connecting with Celeste in Vox Lux in any meaningful way, while praising Cooper for his depiction of a similarly flawed person in A Star Is Born. (One might also argue that the music in the latter, save for “Shallow,” is every bit as obnoxiously generic as the songs in Vox Lux – the difference being that this is a deliberate choice Brady Corbet’s film.)

It is not impossible to appreciate Vox Lux if you liked A Star Is Born, and vice versa. But those who heap praise on Cooper and his devastating arc while denigrating Portman’s Celeste and reducing her achingly complex character to “unlikable” might consider what has led them to this conclusion – why is the male worthy of our acclaim, while the woman receives scorn? Perhaps it’s because each of these characters are a reflection of the style and tone of their respective films. Cooper’s performance is suitably mawkish in a film that is designed for easy, broad access. Portman is aptly inhabiting the raw nerve of a woman whose performative and provocative nature speaks to the themes of Corbet’s film and its criticisms of celebrity culture. Perhaps viewers find those criticisms unsavory in comparison to a vanity project which indulges that very culture – one defined by archaic ideals, gender inequity, and double standards.

Maybe – to borrow a line from this year’s preferred fictional musician – it’s time to let the old ways die.

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