Thursday, February 21, 2008

Celebrities

I've been thinking a lot about celebrities for the last few months, ever since I had my first real run-in with one. It was more of a 6-degrees-of-separation thing than an actual meeting (though I did say (or mumble) "hi" and shuffle by) but said celebrity was a topic of conversation for a few weeks among people that I see 5 days a week (trying to preserve some semblance of anonymity here...). It's amazing what star-struckness will do to people you think that you know. It's amazing the arcane knowledge that people carry around about other people who are, for one reason or another, famous. The main thing I've been thinking about is "WHY?" Why do we care? I have not solved this question, or really even come up with any reasonable answers. The closest I can think of is that generally speaking, people who care about celebrities are bored or otherwise in some way dissatisfied with their lives. Other people's lives are more interesting/satisfying/fulfilling. Which is itself bizarre to me, since the media spins most celebrities as trainwrecks waiting to happen.

Which brings me to the point of this blog. Recently, I read an (out-of-date, of course) article in the New Yorker about how our perception of movie stars has changed over time. I can't find the complete article online, but here is the abstract:
Fallen Idols. David Denby's article is a book review of a new book by Jeanine Basinger (Wesleyan Professor, incidentally), about how movie stars from earlier movies- think Clark Gable- worked differently than our current friends like Matt Damon. Stars in the good ole days were kept out of the media limelight and as the abstract says: "Stars today are paid more but valued less." I'm not sure they're valued less, but their privacy sure is. I'm leaning toward holding the opinion is that stars are valued exactly for how sordid and raunchy they can be: Member of a crazy religi-cult? Crashed your car into a tree lately? Been caught with your hands in someone's pants? Awesome! Sign on this dotted line. My, things have changed, according to Denby, who is really parsing Basinger.

So I've been mulling this over for a month or so, when I read another (also outdated (note: themacinator reads a lot. Eventually she will get to it. It might be old, but she will read it.)) article about celebrities. This time, the Sunday Style section of the New York Times featured an article by Alex Williams called Boys Will be Boys, Girls will be Hounded by the Media. I'm not sure it's a simple as that, but it does speak to the phenomenon most recently illustrated by the hush-hush treatment of Heath Ledger's death vs. the rubber-necking, OJ Simpson-like treatment of Britney Spears' mental illness. So now my question is further complicated, I guess: Why do we care so much about celebrities, and why do we hold so much stock in seeing female celebrities crash and burn? The NYT writes "Some editors confirm that they handle female celebrities differently. But the reason, they say, is rooted not in sexism, but in the demographics of their audience." So, apparently, mostly women are reading/consuming this stuff, and women want to read about other women. They particularly want to read about other women in trouble. And that's not sexism, that's capitalism.

Maybe. I was a precocious reader (see above about being a late reader- that's a new thing) and read Naomi Wolf's "The Beauty Myth" and Susan Faludi's "Backlash" early in my developing feminist conciousness. Sure, women buy and wear makeup, and many women will tell you that they do it because it makes them feel good and/or pretty. Many women also wear 6" heels and have expensive and painful procedures for the same reasons. Basically, Wolf and Faludi would argue that popular culture in the '80s and the 90's was a direct backlash against feminism. Can't beat 'um at the joining 'um game? Beat 'um at the not pretty enough game. I think this is relevant to the current obsession with female celebrity downfalls. I haven't put all of the pieces together yet, but it's untenable to have women be as powerful, rich, and famous as men. If the media publishes and broadcasts the (ultra rich and famous) damsel in distress, that is what women will buy and strive for, just as when they broadcast the super woman who is professional and perfect looking.

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