Falling down is funny. According to the “benign violation theory” of humor, watching someone fall down makes us laugh because it violates the normal order of things and doesn’t really hurt anyone. (Usually.) The “violation” part of the benign violation theory is especially shocking when the person falling down is someone who is normally very poised, dignified, or controlled—someone, for instance, like a runway model, a head of state, a professional athlete, or an Oscar winner.
Or Madonna. The pop legend fell down a short staircase during her performance at the Brit Awards this week, and GIFs and guffaws quickly spread across the Internet. More often than not, the jokes were tinged with Schadenfreude, or satisfaction that a consummate professional had shown her weakness. “Ambulance for Granny, please,” tweeted foot-in-mouth-prone television personality Piers Morgan, who gleefully reposted the Vine of Madonna’s fall three times in two hours. “The Queen of Pop is human after all—if you prick her does she not bleed?” teased Monica Tan of the Guardian. Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams diagnosed the widespread joking as a symptom of ageism and sexism but concluded that she liked “seeing this larger than life creature become, for a few seconds, vulnerable.”
These responses varied in tone but agreed on one thing: The fall had exposed Madonna as flawed, as fallible. (No pun intended.) But is that right? Madonna’s fall at the Brit Awards was different from other celebrity stumbles. Unlike, say, Taylor Swift’s slip as she descended a stage in Times Square this New Year’s, or Jennifer Lawrence’s nosedive when she ascended the steps at the Dolby Theatre to accept her Academy Award in 2013, Madonna’s fall was not the result of inattention or clumsiness on her part. In fact, she didn’t take any missteps at all. The immediate precipitant of the fall was a tug on her cape, which was supposed to come off seamlessly, by one of her backup dancers. The reason for the fall, as Madonna explained on Instagram, was that “My beautiful cape was tied too tight!” Yes, this was an error, but it wasn’t Madonna’s error—it was an error on the part of the costume designer, or the choreographer, or whoever’s job it was to make sure the cape came off when it was supposed to come off.
So why are people treating this like a secret glimpse at Madonna’s personal fallibility, instead of like the production blunder that it was? Probably because we like to pretend that celebrities are solely responsible for the art that they produce, even though it usually requires a huge amount of labor from tens or hundreds of other people. And most of the time, celebrities participate in this charade—in order to be likeable, a star’s image needs to seem like a personality instead of a product.
This backfires on celebrities when something goes terribly wrong—hence TMZ mocking Jennifer Lopez when the audio cut out during one of her concerts in 2011, and Piers Morgan laughing at Madonna when her fall was someone else’s fault. Luckily, there are limits to the extent we seem willing to hold celebrities responsible for other people’s foibles—when Pink’s harness came apart during a concert in Nuremberg, the press chalked it up to a freak accident, not a failure on Pink’s part. The difference? She went to the hospital. Perhaps it was the benign violation theory at work once again: We’re happy to blame the star, but only as long as no one is seriously hurt.