The petition to keep him out of ‘Wicked’ is just the latest sign that people are tired.
Young people can smell disingenuousness. And much like a baby recoils from an eager adult trying too hard to make nice with it, Gen Zers and Millennials have decided they’ve had enough of James Corden’s ill-advised queer pantomiming, niceness as a transaction, overwrought theater kid thing. Earnestness as a brand turns sour like milk left in the sun, and it seems to mostly plague theater-turned-film stars, but also translates to people with a kind of megalomaniacal energy like Taylor Swift. Something about the passion and panache required of the stage eventually feels mocking and trite when it’s not finessed into a more nuanced persona on screen or in real life. And for that reason, at the time of this writing, nearly 80,000 people and counting have signed a Change.org petition to keep Corden off of the cast for the upcoming film adaptation of beloved musical Wicked.
It’s a fascinating case study in pop culture, and it’s not the first time this particular flavor of resistance to a star has happened. Many remember the great Anne Hathaway banishment circa 2013, after an insufferable Oscar-courting press cycle promoting the film adaptation of Les Miserables left us all never again wanting to see rich people sing aloud with the fake muck of industrial revolution smeared on their faces. After some time off, Hathaway had the correct response, admitting when she reemerged, “My impression is that people needed a break from me.” She read the room, something that Corden — who has now appeared as a singing rodent, a singing cat, a singing non-gay gay person and a singing baker — is not doing.
Perhaps Corden believes that singing is his brand after the success of his Youtube sensation Carpool Karaoke, beloved by moms everywhere. Maybe with the blind encouragement of stars courting the free, endearing press of riding around in a car belting their hits alongside him, Corden feels that if there’s a character that sings, it is his duty to step into whatever shoes that character wears, whether they fit or not. And that seems to be part of the rub — in all of the big screen musicals Corden has appeared in, he is more Corden than character. He just does his faux queer, overly excitable, body positive big guy in costume schtick, and expects it to stick.
There’s also the issue of who Corden really is as a person. Much like the public bristle against Ellen DeGeneres and Lin-Manuel Miranda after their prolific careers of selling saccharine entertainment for the betterment of humanity proved both hypocritical and advantageous, people might be against Corden now because he’s secretly an asshole too. And if people love to love celebrities for being nice, they also love to hate celebrities for being fake. A 2019 Reddit AMA turned nasty for Corden when the top comments posted were from entertainment industry folks accusing the creator of showing up to a Writer’s Guild meeting for television writers to specifically advocate for lower pay, and other stories of him being rude to production crew, hard to work with on set and aloof to fans when cameras aren’t on. Another story that circulated Twitter was about people on a transatlantic flight seeing Corden ignore his wife as she struggled to gather luggage and hold their baby as they exited the plane.
There is some social science around celebrity backlash. Sharon Marcus, Columbia University professor and author of The Drama of Celebrity told USA Today, “In fantasy, what we love and what we hate can get very, very close, because it's just about strong, intense feelings that don't really have much of a frame around them.” Jeffrey Brown, professor and chair of the Department of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University continued, “Celebrities signify things. They stand for certain values, certain assumptions that we make about them as people, and when we don't like what those celebrities signify, that's when we inherently blame the celebrity themselves and say, 'oh I hate that person because they don't align with my values.’”
Both professors make strong points, but I find that dislike for Corden is fair. Beyond our sociological mind fuck around celebrity, there’s just something inherently icky when you can feel that a certain celebrity is insisting on cornering a market. We may love someone for a particular performance, but that doesn’t mean that we only want to see them in that type of role moving forward. We want to see our favorite actors utilized well and celebrated for what they bring to a project, not just inserted because they have some kind of divine claim on a niche archetype. If the ever-growing anti-Corden petition proves anything, it’s that he has pervasive BDE right now — but unfortunately for Corden, that big dick energy is not sexual, it’s the aura that surrounds his personality.