In the midst of Ebola scares, a midterm election, and the rise of the Islamic State, you probably knew (not that you could help it, but much to your shame) that George Clooney recently married, that Chris and Gwyneth held a divorce ceremony, and Renee Zellweger used more plastic than a Lego factory to change her face. This is hardly news, and yet it occupies the headlines of current events from The Sun to the Wall Street Journal.
Celebrities are not a new phenomenon. People have been breathlessly taken by their rulers since governments first formed. People gravitate toward the rich and famous. It not only gives us, the little people, heroes to follow but reaffirms our belief that one day we can “make it” too. If Taylor Swift can become famous with little more than a smile, then maybe I can achieve fame and success. Most classical writers had fans who might have hash-tagged them were it not for the absence of social media and threat of execution. It was, at least in part, Julius Caesar’s popularity with the mob that contributed to his assassination—desires to overthrow the republic notwithstanding. And while politics is merely show business for the, shall we say, aesthetically disenfranchised, media figures distastefully use their attention-grabbing status to opine on everything political from environmentalism to economics.
As an antagonist of pop culture, I find it difficult to support the pet causes of people whose greatest claim to fame is pretending (albeit convincingly) to be someone else. If one makes their living fictionalizing, it is hard not to cynically wonder if their outrage is similarly feigned. Other celebrities have even fewer talents, like being able to sing better than most—and if they don’t possess that talent, they can at least remove more clothes while singing sub par. For this reason alone, their social and political judgments should be discounted.
I think many media figures are self-consciously aware of their own inanity, which is why they must expand their platform to be taken seriously. They don’t cure cancer, but they can make it look like they care about curing cancer. To some degree, this is systemic to their industry. For a profession which must outdo itself every summer season, bigger must be better. Yet we may or may not be reaching a point of diminishing returns for the theatre-going audience; time, as in all things, will tell. Are we no longer able to suspend disbelief in the predictable highwire jumps, slow motion effects, and CGI? Somehow I doubt it. It is more likely that the convenience of home viewing is out-pacing the perceived value of soaring ticket prices, popcorn and soda that is more expensive than a McDonald’s value meal, and the annoyance of sitting with loud and socially-inappropriate viewers.
But if there is any cultural backlash against Hollywood beginning to assert itself, it may (and this is a really big MAY) be rooted in the celebrity phenomenon. It is hard to take seriously, for instance, a video of celebrities condemning gun violence when the blockbuster movies they sell make money through crafted explosions, fake bullets, and fictional body counts. To my knowledge, the only action hero who has ever to account for his actions is Jack Bauer, appearing before a congressional committee explaining his counter-terrorist measures in the seventh season of 24 (apparently you can’t kill 309 people without someone taking notice), and even then his use of torture is considered sufficiently justified to allow him to save the world for another three seasons. But when the Avengers help save New York City, we never see the President granting emergency federal funds and the painstaking process of rebuilding billion-dollar skyscrapers. Rarely do we see one of Denzel’s characters facing guilt-ridden sleepless nights for all the bad guys he’s shot in the line of duty. We don’t hear the residents of Westeros standing up and saying “Enough” to the violence. Ironically, if the American news media saw the residents of Westeros standing up and saying “Enough” to the nudity, incest, and general promiscuity in town, they’d be heckled as too Puritanical for a more enlightened age.
The beauty of fiction is in paring down a story to its most essential elements; we are told only those plots that communicate the greatest meaning. Though it takes place in real time, we are thankfully spared Jack Bauer’s real needs to eat and pee (fighting terrorists never allows for a bathroom break—except perhaps during the commercials). This is an acceptable aspect of fiction wherein we the audience suspend our disbelief. Yet the downside is that we consumers of pop culture never see the day-to-day reality of what would occur outside the narrative. We only see the sensational events but never the consequences.
And herein lies the problem of the political celebs. They appeal to the low information voter, urging them to act without ever considering the costs of action—always assuming though rarely arguing the benefits of inaction. Ignoring the realities of real life, they do not consider the end result nor the unintended consequences. Because pop culture reduces everything to the lowest common denominator, the least truth, the least goodness, and the least beauty are merely enough—though the least never is. While this is certainly democratic, it means the most superficial engagement suffices for electoral success.
In the marketplace of ideas, there will always be bad ones. In the media landscape, we will always find stories of no inherent value. But this also means we don’t have to justify their existence with our attentiveness.