“Would you rather be rich or famous?” It’s one of those meaningless questions you ask when you’re trying to crack open the person you’re all smitten and warm and stupid over, when you’re trying to figure out their capacity. And maybe he has the capability to be both, but you want a value system. You want to know who he is and who he will be in 10 years because you maybe want to saddle up next to him.
- A Short History of Celebrity by Fred Inglis. 322 pages. Princeton University Press. $29.95.
“Famous.” That was an answer I had to deal with. He thinks Cary Grant when he thinks famous. I think of Jensen Ackles, a heartthrobbish TV actor from Supernatural who is being stalked by a seriously unhinged 19-year-old girl. She has gone online and posted fake interviews by Ackles in which he claims the two are married and deeply in love. I think of the bizarre, sinister, and letterless package I received recently. It made me feel as if I were being watched through a pair of binoculars. I figure fame would be like that feeling I got opening the package, only happening every second of the day.
I also think of Jessica Slaughter, another unhinged teenage girl who tells YouTube audiences to “suck my non-existing dick and die.” She became the object of a harassment campaign by one website, which caused a second website to come to her defense, only to have the second website’s commenters declare the young girl needed to be put in her place.
Celebrity is a weird gig. It used to be the place of well scrubbed, heavily managed stars. Now the barriers are down, anyone can be famous for a little while if they are OK with being outrageously idiotic, and people confuse notoriety with fame, or at the very least, are happy with either. This is quite a change from the moment celebrity was born, at least according to Fred Inglis in his new book A Short History of Celebrity, with the construction of Elizabeth I as the Virgin Queen, the untouchable monarch who was as much a metaphor as a human. Celebrity used to be performance. Now if you’re found out to be performing, if any insincerity is sensed, the knives come out.
There’s a difference between renown, fame, and celebrity. Renown requires you to do something, and do it well, and we don’t really have much place for that anymore. Who won the Nobel Prize for Economics three years ago? Exactly. Fame has more to do with wealth and power, a long-term strategy. Madonna is famous, an icon flexible enough to hold the public’s eye through decades of transformation. Celebrity, though, is cheap. Inglis declares celebrity is “either won or conferred by the mere fact of a person’s being popularly acknowledged, familiarly recognised, attended to, selected as a topic for gossip, speculation, emulation, envy, groundless affection, or dislike.” If you can judge an era by its celebrities, then you can say ours is a spiteful, bitter, cynical age in which intelligence and fortitude are poorly valued, but filling a house with an inappropriate number of children is celebrated.
We no longer even allow our celebrities to present a flattering thigh angle. Now we want cellulite, we want frailty and despair, we want her husband to leave her for a crazy Nazi porn star so that we can feign sympathy while we pour over the lurid details. We don’t even bother to smooth out contradictions — we will rail against the dangers and sickness of modern paparazzi while simultaneously, sometimes in the same sentence, reference a picture of Julia Roberts leaving a Starbucks without any makeup.
Yet it’s still a game everyone wants in on. People are desperate to be torn to shreds by the masses. If they don’t have it in themselves, they’ll turn the spotlight on their own children. Take the freak show that is TLC’s reality show about the child beauty pageant world, Toddlers and Tiaras. I would love for a former beauty pageant pawn to stand up, turn around to her overbearing stage mom, and recite the speech in Dickens’s Dombey and Son, given by a woman paraded around in the hopes of changing their family’s fortunes:
Is it not so? Have I been made the bye-word of all kinds of men? Have fools, have profligates, have boys, have dotards, dangled after me, and one by one rejected me, and fallen off, because you were too plain with all your cunning: yes, and too true, with all those false pretences: until we have almost come to be notorious? The licence of look and touch… have I submitted to it, in half the places of resort upon the map of England? Have I been hawked and vended here and there, until the last grain of self-respect is dead within me, and I loathe myself?
But it seems more likely that everyone on that show will follow the former minor celebrity path of booze, pills, and Dr. Drew rehab.
Envy has always been a major player in the complex way we feel about celebrities, but never has it been quite so dominant. And, as Inglis writes, “Envy is a tense, psychotic passion.” We have no new Cary Grant or Marilyn Monroe — no matter how many rakish men or voluptuous women are declared to be so — because they would never survive today’s vicious brand of envy. With Grant’s five marriages, the gay rumors, and the chronic unhappiness, he could only exist in an era that allowed him to hide all of that behind the perfect hair, the perfect suit, the perfect smile. Monroe absorbed everything that floated in the air around her, “the X-rays of longing, desire, admiration, envy which thousands of eyes have poured into her… She is ready to explode with the forces of attention she has absorbed. She must smile all the time.” In today’s world they would have been stalked and roasted, stripped of their facades of perfection. The Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe that we know would cease to exist.
You could say our tastes have changed and it’s vulnerability we want, not perfection and glamour. But that’s a lie. If we don’t see the vulnerability, we will create it ourselves, with our teeth if necessary. We want to admire, envy, and destroy, all at the same time. Perhaps because celebrity has become so easy, just one unfortunate YouTube video away, the envy is almost reflexive because that person over there was able to grab it, and we weren’t. And what’s so great about them anyway, huh? Have you seen this photo of them I found on Google image search? Inglis believes the envy comes because we have always looked to celebrities to tell us how to feel. They were up there on stage, moving us and our mirror neurons, showing us romance or revenge or grief.
Maybe we are, as Inglis says, a people cut adrift, unsure how to feel or how to act. Family and community ties are lost, social norms are gone, and we are apparently unable to distinguish between good touch and bad touch. That would explain why we cling to Oprah in times of crisis. She has managed to maneuver modern celebrity by sharing details of her fat-to-muscle ratio and her bowel movements before anyone bothers to ask. She is not only willing to show us how to feel, she is ready to tell us and offer a suggestion of guidebooks to purchase. “Stories about celebrities must and should grip us; fastidious distaste will not do; these people have things to tell us about the meaning of our lives.” Today’s celebrities and the way we treat them, then, do not have much good to tell us about our lives. • 4 August 2010