Saturday, September 15, 2012

Celebrity Gossip and the Good Life

You have to feel sorry for Kate Middleton. Now an Italian magazine is planning to publish many more photos of her sunbathing topless.

Two things have gone very wrong here. The first is the whole polluted commercial cult of celebrity gossip, including the massive TMZ-led gossip industrial complex in the US.

There is something so deeply prurient and controlling about it, at the same time as it is louche and superficial. Who is fat, who is cheating, who was well-dressed and who had a fashion disaster at the Oscars, and so on.

It is partly an obsession with wealth and fame, of course. But it is also an obsession with flaws and failure and evaluation and judgment. It's not just the flash bulbs and arc lights of glamor, but the night of personal agony too.

Is it so bad to humiliate or take the rich and powerful down a bit? Isn't it part of the deal of being famous? No. Not when you had Princess Diana hounded to death by paparazzi, of course. Or the meltdown of Britney Spears a few years ago. It is suspect when the aim of the people on the other side of the lens is to make a lot of money out of humiliating people.

It feels more like a blood sport, with a baying mob following its prey with a strange mixture of admiration and envy and hate. There is a clear hypocrisy about it. Few of the paparazzi could withstand such arc-light scrutiny of their private lives.

It's not clear what you can do to stop it, either, when the Internet can evade most picture restrictions and privacy laws.

But it should make us ask about the kind of things we admire as a society. It should make us question whether the whole tinselly celebrity aesthetic itself shows there is a void in what we find admirable.

I always wonder about the fact you have a solid primetime hour of celebrity and entertainment news on networks like NBC every night, for example, the endless Extra and Access Hollywood.

I've talked before , such as here, about how we've mostly lost genuine discussion of the Good Life as a society. This is what we get instead, by default. Materialistic, superficial, plastic, judgmental and destructive. You are today's sensation and tomorrow's embarrassing road kill. Market or celebrity norms drive out other norms of behavior.

The other thing major problem which this incident highlights is, of course, privacy. This was an appalling violation of the intimacy and privacy of the couple, in a private house 800 meters from the road and the camera.

G says to me, Kate surely has done nothing wrong herself here. Of course not, I say. She is topless on a romantic break with her own husband.

But it also shows we have increasing confusion over privacy in general. Plenty of people have had unfortunate photos put up on Facebook, or got tagged in embarrassing situations. Plenty of people reveal far too much about themselves on Facebook anyway (I hardly ever log on).

The whole notion of privacy is utterly confused. The celebrity papparazzi ethos is destroying lives in Podunk and Portland as well as Malibu.

People need a sphere of their own in order to live, a space where they are not minutely scrutinized and obliged to play a role , or maintain a face for a universal panopticon.

A lot of our social behavior and appropriate balance instincts were evolved for the small hunting group or the village. But now we can gossip or provoke or offend instantaneously, worldwide, far outside the initial social group. Things can leak out of their context, out of their zone of appropriateness, when all walls and barriers come down.

That is partly what is wrong with the Mohammed film riots too. What goes in LA doesn't go in a slum in Cairo. But each wants to impose its mores on the other, which is impossible.

(edited 9/16 for flow)


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