Back in early August, there was a furor over the rights to publishing the first photographs of the newborn twins of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt (Vivienne Marcheline and Knox Leon Jolie-Pitt, in case you’re interested). The UK’s Hello! and North America’s People paid an estimated combined $15 to $20 million (nevermind that the proceeds went to the Jolie-Pitt Foundation, dedicated to providing aid for humanitarian crises around the world). The madness was much commented on even in the mainstream media, almost as if biting the hand that feeds only discover that it’s one’s own hand.
I couldn’t have cared less about the photographs themselves, but the whole brouhaha registered in my midconscious (that’s what I call the back of the mind: not subconscious and not actively being thought about; another submission to the lexicographic powers-that-be is probably necessary). The thing festered and fermented and finally emerged as the question (with apologies to Thurber and White): Are Celebrities Necessary?
I know it sounds glib, but I’m trying to be serious here. Is our society capable of surviving without the existence of celebrities? What if, in a flash of metaphysics, celebrities and celebrity culture disappeared? Aside from the superficialities of supermarket checkout aisles having nothing to display and the blessed disappearance of the brain-vegetizing Entertainment Tonight, what would it be like?
Not so long ago we weren’t so thoroughly obsessed with celebrity. For instance, the majority of professional athletes drew regular salaries, lived in regular homes, drank in regular bars. But nowadays we seem obsessed. In addition to the longstanding exalted status of actors and actresses (only exacerbated with the advent of cinema) and British royalty, we now follow the lives of marginal athletes and musicians, reality television wannabees, and internet flashes-in-the-pan. We seem hell-bent on manufacturing new celebrities at a breakneck pace, but live in a culture that is simultaneously throwaway and archived for all time.
So what would it be like?
Envision all the time not wasted on scrutinizing the day-to-day minutiae of Madonna, Oprah, or Leonardo. Imagine television programming without unchecked hype, where the nightly news doesn’t have the doings of American Idol contestants as lead stories. What would happen? As I see it, there are two basic scenarios, but the ultimate result is inevitable.
On the one hand, all of the celebrity-fostering apparatuses would cease to exist and we would enter an Age of Documentaries. Free from the distraction, everyone would be more engaged in the world. More engaged in the natural world, more engaged in the world of the mind, and so on. Of course, it could only last so long. It’s human nature to be dissatisfied and to create. In the absence of the time lost mindlessly following the doings of celebrities, idle hands will stir. There’s an inherent need in us to create stories, to create characters who are better than us (to admire), who are worse than us (to feel superior to), and who are similar to us (to identify with). Once the characters are created, their eventual rise to prominence is unavoidable.
In the second scenario, the vacuum would be quickly filled and the celebrity status-quo would be restored before you could say, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night.”
The truth is that we are stuck with celebritydom. Unless we are willing to destroy the machines and catapult ourselves back in time to a neo-Luddite existence in which we are too busy breaking our backs making a living to bother with shallow distractions (which I think nearly all of us would agree is a bad idea), celebrities are a necessary evil. Or a necessary good, depending on your levels of self-reflection and self-absorption.
Therefore, I proffer the following metaphysical equation:
Humanity + Technology = Celebrity
By-products of celebrity include, in the negative column, lowered self-esteem, inadequacy, greed, and jealousy. On the positive side we have ambition, which in moderation is very helpful. Somewhere in middle there is self-righteousness and entitlement, which can be good or bad, depending.
In conclusion, it’s my belief that without destroying the technology that pervades our everyday existence, it’s simply impossible to avoid the phenomenon of celebrity.
I bet all of this is incredibly self-evident and I just wrote a long-winded post to point out what everyone already knows. *sigh*