Laney College Distractions of Wrestling and Reality TV Argument Analysis




As our essay, you will use what you learned during the semester about critical

thinking to analyze the effectiveness of one of the arguments in

Empire of Illusion

Empire of Illusion Essay Essay Overview As our final essay, you will use what you learned during the semester about critical thinking to analyze the effectiveness of one of the arguments in Empire of Illusion. Thesis Statement • • You must have a clearly stated, one sentence, argumentative thesis statement that states: o Your topic (the ONE specific argument you are analyzing—you are not writing about the entire book) o Your specific argument (how effective or ineffective you believe Hedges’ argument is) o Two/three reasons that support why the argument is either effective or ineffective: ▪ Based on what you learned about making arguments in Writing Logically, Thinking Critically, what does Hedges do or fail to do that makes the argument ultimately effective or not. Examples: o Hedges’ argument that the entertainment industry dilutes American public discourse and discourages critical thought is ineffective because he fails to account for the growing popularity of media that encourages and requires critical thinking. o While Hedges’ ardent critique of positive psychology may be cogent in its essence, it is ineffective in that it leans too heavily upon multiple logical fallacies, most glaringly the extensive use of epithets and false analogies. o Hedges’ argument on how positive psychology is an illusion is inefficient and weakened because he provides too many irrelevant supporting resources, generalizes these resources with fallacies, and makes equivocations about the importance of different definitions. o Although Hedges’ commentary on the problematic themes portrayed and glorified through pornography in our culture is accurate, ultimately his analysis is incomplete because it fails to examine how it is symptomatic of underlying power structures built on patriarchal dominance, racism, and the exploitative commodification of natural resources, including human labor. o Hedges’ argument that positive psychology is used by corporate culture to suppress critical thinking, moral autonomy, and real relationships to establish conformity is unconvincing due to his use of equivocation, false analogy, and abstract language. Essay Requirements ✓ Each body paragraph must start with a topic sentence that tells readers what that paragraph will develop/cover (should pertain to your thesis statement). ✓ Each body paragraph should start and end with your thoughts – never research. ✓ A body paragraph should range between five and eight sentences – it should never be a page in length. ✓ Not only will you include research in your paper, but you must explain, analyze, and comment on each quote, summary, or paraphrase you incorporate into your essay – your critical thinking! 1 o AXES: ▪ Assertions – statements which present points of view. ▪ eXamples – specific passages, scenes, events, or items which inspire these points of view. ▪ Explanations – statements which reveal how the examples support and/or complicate the assertions. ▪ Significance – statements which reveal the importance of the analysis to our personal and/or cultural concerns. ✓ You will never include research without analyzing it. ✓ You will always need to show readers how or why your analysis is significant. ✓ Your conclusion should not merely function as a summary of your entire essay. ✓ You are required to use proper MLA citation format for both in-text citations and a works cited page. ✓ You will not receive credit if you do not follow MLA citation guidelines. ✓ If you plagiarize ANY part of the essay, you will not receive credit. ✓ Must include a minimum of 2 acceptable outside sources (NEVER Wikipedia) o Academic databases for example ✓ Your essay must be FOUR pages (minimum). ✓ If you do not meet the length requirement, you will not receive credit. ✓ You will upload all drafts and the final paper to ✓ Your essay will need to score in the GREEN category to receive credit. ✓ Formatting: Times New Roman, 12pt. font, double spaced. o No extra spacing allowed – at the beginning of the essay or between paragraphs o No headers or footers 2 Table of Contents Title Page Dedication Praise I – The Illusion of Literacy II – The Illusion of Love III – The Illusion of Wisdom IV – The Illusion of Happiness V – The Illusion of America Notes Acknowledgements Bibliography Index Copyright Page 2 For Eunice, soles occidere et redire possvnt: nobis cvm semel occidit brevis lvx, nox est perpetva vna dormienda. da mi basia mille. 3 People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster. —JAMES BALDWIN 4 I The Illusion of Literacy Now the death of God combined with the perfection of the image has brought us to a whole new state of expectation. We are the image. We are the viewer and the viewed. There is no other distracting presence. And that image has all the Godly powers. It kills at will. Kills effortlessly. Kills beautifully. It dispenses morality. Judges endlessly. The electronic image is man as God and the ritual involved leads us not to a mysterious Holy Trinity but back to ourselves. In the absence of a clear understanding that we are now the only source, these images cannot help but return to the expression of magic and fear proper to idolatrous societies. This in turn facilitates the use of the electronic image as propaganda by whoever can control some part of it. —JOHN RALSTON SAUL, Voltaire’s Bastards1 We had fed the heart on fantasy, The heart’s grown brutal from the fare. —WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS, The Stare’s Nest By My Window JOHN BRADSHAW LAYFIELD, tall, clean-cut, in a collared shirt and white Stetson hat, stands in the center of the ring holding a heavy black microphone. Layfield plays wrestling tycoon JBL on the World Wrestling Entertainment tour.2 The arena is filled with hooting and jeering fans, including families with children. The crowd yells and boos at JBL, who has had a long career as a 5 professional wrestler. Many chant, “You suck! You suck! You suck!” “Last week I made Shawn Michaels an offer, and I have yet to hear back from the Heartbreak Kid,” drawls Layfield. Michaels, another WWE wrestler, is a crowd favorite. He is a self-professed born-again Christian with a working-man persona. “So earlier today I made Shawn Michaels an offer that was a lot easier to understand,” Layfield continues. “I challenge Shawn Michaels to a street fight tonight! So Shawn, I know you’re back there. Now what’s your answer?” “HBK, HBK, HBK!!!” the crowd intones. A pulsing rock beat suddenly shakes the arena as action shots of the Heartbreak Kid flash across the Titantron, the massive screen suspended over the ring. The crowd cheers, leaping up as Shawn Michaels, in jeans and an army-green shirt, whirls onstage, his long, blond hair flying. Pyrotechnics explode. The deafening sound system growls, “I know I’m sexy . . . I got the looks . . . that drive the girls wild. . . .” Michaels bursts into the ring, fists pumping, stalking back and forth. The ref steps in to begin the match. “HBK! HBK! HBK!” chants the crowd. “Hold on, hold on, referee,” Layfield says, putting his hand on the referee’s shoulder. People in the crowd begin to heckle. “Shawn,” he says, “you got a choice to make. You can either fight me right now in this street fight, or you can do 6 the right thing for you, your family, and your extended family, and take care of them in a financial crisis you never dreamed would happen a year ago today.” Michaels stands silently. “You see, I know some things, Shawn,” continues Layfield. “Rich people always do. Before this stock market crashed, nobody saw it coming, except, of course, my wife, but that didn’t help you, did it? See, I was hoarding cash. I was putting money in gold. While most Americans followed the leader—blindly, stupidly followed the leader —I was making money. In fact, Shawn, I was prospering while you were following the herd, losing almost everything, right, Shawn?” “Fight!! Fight!! Fight!! Fight!!” urges the crowd. Michaels looks hesitantly back and forth between the heaving crowd and Layfield. “You lost your 401(k). You lost your retirement. You lost your nest egg. You lost your children’s education fund,” Layfield bellows into the mic, his face inches from Michaels’s. “You got to support your extended family, Shawn, and now you look around with all this responsibility, and you look at your beautiful wife, she’s a beautiful lady, you look at your two little wonderful kids, and you wonder: ‘How in the world . . . am I going to send them . . . to college?’ ” Layfield pauses heavily. Michaels’ face is slack, pained. Small, individual voices shout out from the crowd. 7 “Well, I’ve got an answer,” Layfield goes on. “I’m offering you a job. I want you to come work—for me.” “No! No! No!” yells the crowd. Michaels blinks slowly, dazed, and lowers his eyes to the mat. “See, there’s always alternatives, Shawn. There’s alternatives to everything. You can always wrestle until you’re fifty. You might even wrestle till you’re sixty. In fact, you could be a lot like these has-beens who are disgracing themselves in high school gyms all over the country, bragging about their war stories of selling the place out while they’re hawking their eight-by-tens and selling Polaroids. Shawn, you could be that guy, or you could take my offer, because I promise you this: All the revenue that you’re goin’ to make off your DX T-shirts will not compare to the offer that I . . . made . . . to you.” He tells the Heartbreak Kid to look in the mirror, adding, “The years haven’t been kind to you, have they, Shawn?” He reminds him that one more bad fall, one more injury, and “you’re done, you’re done.” The crowd begins to rally their stunned hero, growing louder and louder. “HBK! HBK! HBK!” “What else can you really do besides this?” Layfield asks. “You get a second chance in life.” Layfield sweeps off his white Stetson. “Go ahead,” he screams into Michaels’s face. “Ever since you walked out here . . . people have been wantin’ you to kick me in the face. So why don’t you do it? I’m gonna give you a free 8 shot, Shawn, right here.” The crowd erupts, roaring for the Heartbreak Kid to strike. “HBK!! DO IT!! DO IT!! HBK!! HBK!!!” “Listen to ’em. Everybody wants it. Shawn, it’s what you want. You’re twitching. You’re begging to pull the trigger, so I’m telling you right now, take a shot! Take it!” The Heartbreak Kid takes one step back, his stubbled face trembling, breathing rapidly like a rabbit. The crowd is leaping out of their seats, thrusting their arms in the air, holding up handmade banners. “HBK!!! HBK!!! HBK!!!” “Do it, Shawn,” Layfield hollers, “before it’s too late. This is your second chance, but understand this, understand this—” “HBK!!! HBK!!! HBK!!!” “—Listen to me and not them! If you take this shot . . . then this offer is off the table . . . forever.” The crowd stops chanting. Different cries are heard: boos, shouts to attack, shouts to stop. There is no longer unity in the auditorium. Layfield holds his head outstretched until the Heartbreak Kid slowly turns his back. Layfield leers. Shawn Michaels climbs through the ropes out of the ring 9 and walks heavily back to the dressing room, his dull gaze on the ground. “Lookin’ forward to doin’ business with ya, Shawn,” Layfield shouts after him. The crowd screams. Layfield, like most of the wrestlers, has a long, complicated fictional backstory that includes a host of highly publicized intrigues, fights, betrayals, infidelities, abuse, and outrageous behavior—including goose-stepping around the ring and giving the Nazi salute during a wrestling bout in Germany. But tonight he has come in his newest incarnation as the “self-made millionaire,” the capitalist, the CEO who walked away with a pot of gold while workers across the country lost their jobs, saw their savings and retirement funds evaporate, and fought off foreclosure. As often happens in a celebrity culture, the line between public and fictional personas blurs. Layfield actually claims to have made a fortune as a stock market investor and says he is married to the “richest woman on Wall Street.” He is a regular panelist on Fox News Channel’s The Cost of Freedom and previously appeared on CNBC, not only as a celebrity wrestler but as a savvy investor whose conservative political views are worth airing. He also has written a best-selling book on financial planning called Have More Money Now. He hosts a weekend talk-radio program syndicated nationally by Talk Radio Network, in which he discusses politics. 10 The interaction between the crowd and Layfield is vintage professional wrestling. The twenty-minute bouts employ the same tired gimmicks, the same choreographed moves, the endless counts to two by the referee that never seem to get to three without the pinned wrestler leaping up from the mat to continue the fight. There is the desperate struggle of a prostrate wrestler trying to reach the hand of his or her partner to be relieved in the ring. This pantomime, with his opponent on his back and his arm outstretched, can go on for a couple of minutes. There are a lot of dirty shots when the referee is distracted—which is often. The bouts are stylized rituals. They are public expressions of pain and a fervent longing for revenge. The lurid and detailed sagas behind each bout, rather than the wrestling matches themselves, are what drive crowds to a frenzy. These ritualized battles give those packed in the arenas a temporary, heady release from mundane lives. The burden of real problems is transformed into fodder for a high-energy pantomime. And the most potent story tonight, the most potent story across North America, is one of financial ruin, desperation, and enslavement of a frightened and abused working class to a heartless, tyrannical, corporate employer. For most, it is only in the illusion of the ring that they are able to rise above their small stations in life and engage in a heroic battle to fight back. As the wrestlers appear and strut down the aisle, the crowd, mostly young, working-class males, knows by heart the long list of vendettas and betrayals being carried into the ring. The matches are always acts of retribution for 11 a host of elaborate and fictional wrongs. The narratives of emotional wreckage reflected in the wrestlers’ stage biographies mirror the emotional wreckage of the fans. This is the deep appeal of professional wrestling. It is the appeal of much of popular culture, from Jerry Springer to “reality” television to Oprah Winfrey. The narratives expose the anxiety that we will die and never be recognized or acclaimed, that we will never be wealthy, that we are not among the chosen but remain part of the vast, anonymous masses. The ringside sagas are designed to reassure us. They hold out the hope that we, humble and unsung as these celebrities once were, will eventually be blessed with grace and fortune. The success of professional wrestling, like most of the entertainment that envelops our culture, lies not in fooling us that these stories are real. Rather, it succeeds because we ask to be fooled. We happily pay for the chance to suspend reality. The wrestlers, like all celebrities, become our vicarious selves. They do what we cannot. They rise up from humble origins into a supernatural world of tyrants, divas, and fierce opponents who are huge and rippling with muscles—mythic in their size and power. They face momentous battles and epic struggles. They win great victories. They garner fame and vanquish their anonymity. And they return to befriend and confer some of their supernatural power on us. It is the stuff of classical myths, including the narrative of Jesus Christ. It is the yearning that life conform to a recognizable pattern and provide ultimate fulfillment before death. “For the truth is,” wrote José Ortega y Gasset, “that life on the face of it is a chaos in which one finds oneself lost. 12 The individual suspects as much but is terrified to encounter this frightening reality face to face, and so attempts to conceal it by drawing a curtain of fantasy over it, behind which he can make believe that everything is clear.”3 Clashes in the professional wrestling ring from the 1950s to the 1980s hinged on a different narrative. The battle against the evil of communism and crude, racial stereotypes stoked the crowd. The bouts, which my grandfather religiously watched on Saturday afternoons, were raw, unvarnished expressions of the prejudices of the white working class from which he came. They appealed to nationalism and a dislike and distrust of all who were racially, ethnically, or religiously different. During these matches, some of which I watched as a boy, there was usually some huge hulk of a man, known invariably as “The Russian Bear,” who would say things like “Ve vill bury you.” Nikolai Volkoff, who wrestled during these years under the name Boris Breznikoff, used to sing the Soviet National Anthem and wave the Soviet flag before matches to bait the crowd. He eventually teamed up with an Iranian-born wrestler, Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri, known as The Iron Sheik. In the midst of the Iranian hostage crisis, the Iron Sheik bragged in the ring about his devotion and friendship with Ayatollah Khomeini. The Iron Sheik was regularly pitted against a wrestler known as Sergeant Slaughter, All-American G. I. During the first Gulf War; the Iron Sheik reinvented himself, as often happens with wrestlers who shed one persona and name for another, as Colonel Mustafa, an Iraqi who was a close confidant of Saddam Hussein. In wrestling, villains were 13 nearly always foreigners. They were people who wanted to destroy “our way of life.” They hated America. They spoke in strange accents and had swarthy skin. But that hatred, once directed outward, has turned inward. Wrestling fans, whose numbers have been swelled by new immigrants and are no longer limited to the white working class, began to come in too many colors. The steady loss of manufacturing jobs and decline in social services meant that blue-collar workers—people like my grandparents—could no longer find jobs that provided a living wage, jobs with benefits, jobs that could support a family. The hulks of empty manufacturing centers began to dot the landscape, including the abandoned mills in Maine, where my family lived. The disparity between the elite, the rich, and the rest of the country grew obscenely. The growing class division and hopelessness triggered a mounting rage toward the elite, as well as a sense of powerlessness. Communities began to crumble. Downtown stores went out of business and were boarded up. Domestic abuse and drug and alcohol addiction began to plague working-class neighborhoods and towns. The story line in professional wrestling evolved to fit the new era. It began to focus on the petty, cruel, psychological dramas and family dysfunction that come with social breakdown. The enemy became figures like Layfield, those who had everything and lorded it over those who did not. The anger unleashed by the crowd became the anger of people who, like the Heartbreak Kid, felt used, shamed, and trapped. It became the anger of class warfare. Figures such as Layfield—who arrives at professional matches in a giant white limousine with 14 Texan “hook ’em” horns on the hood—are created by wrestling promoters to shove these social disparities in the faces of the audience, just as the Iron Sheik mocked the crowd with his hatred of America. Wrestlers work in “stables,” or groups. These groups, all of which have managers, are at war with the other groups. This motif, too, is new. It represents a society that has less and less national cohesion, a society that has broken down into warlike and antagonistic tribes. The stables cheat, lie, steal one another’s women, and ignore all rules in the desperate scramble to win. Winning is all that matters. Morality is irrelevant. These wrestling clans have their own logos, uniforms, slogans, theme songs, cheerleaders, and other badges of communal identity. They do not, however, stay consistent in their “good guy” or “bad guy” status. A clan, like an individual wrestler, can be good one week and evil the next. All that matters is their own advancement. Week after week, they act out scenarios that are psychological windows into what has happened to our culture. Ray Traylor was a prison guard in Georgia before debuting as a professional wrestler in 1985. Known on the wrestling circuit as Big Boss Man, he was portrayed as a brutal, sadistic wrestler devoid of human compassion. Traylor showed up at the ring with a nightstick, a flak jacket, handcuffs, and a ball and chain. During a match in 1992 a digitized voice came over the loudspeaker. It warned the Boss Man that someone from his past was coming to exact revenge. Sure enough, the Boss Man was ambushed in the ring by Nailz, a wrestler who claimed to be a former inmate brutalized by the Boss Man during his 15 time as a correctional officer. Nailz, a six-foot, eight-inch brute with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, appeared in the arena wearing an orange prison jumpsuit. The two began a bitter, long feud. It was a feud many in the crowd knew too well. It was the feud between prisoners and guards. It was the feud between those who had once been incarcerated and who wanted to do to their keepers what had been done to them. Traylor later adopted a new persona in the ring, also known as the Boss Man, but now a hated security guard, dressed in a SWAT-like outfit, for Vince McMahon’s Corporation, which owns the wrestling franchise. McMahon, in tune with the passions of his audience, is always trying to exploit, threaten, and cheat the wrestlers who work for him. The Boss Man’s most infamous stunt was publicly taunting a wrestler named Big Show when it was announced that Big Show’s father had cancer. The Boss Man, at least in the scripted melodrama, hired a police impersonator to go into Big Show’s locker room moments before a match and tell him his father had died. Big Show, shown weeping, withdrew from the match, and the Boss Man won by forfeit. A grainy black-and-white video, purportedly lifted from a surveillance camera in the Boss Man’s locker room, showed Traylor asking the impersonator for a detailed report on how Big Show reacted. “What he do, what he do?” the Boss Man asked, eagerly shifting from side to side. The police impersonator pinched the bridge of his nose and bowed his head. “My daddy! My daddy!” 16 “My daddy! My daddy!” the Boss Man squealed. “Waaaa! My daddy gone!” In the ring he imitated Big Show and wailed to the crowd, “My daddy! My daddy! Waaaa! Waaa!” Stalking the ring in mirrored sunglasses, he read a ditty to the booing, enraged crowd: With the deepest regrets and tears that are soaked I’m sorry to hear your dad finally croaked. He lived a full life on his own terms, Soon he’ll be buried and eaten by worms. But if I could have a son as stupid as you I’d wish for cancer so I could die too. Boss Man then supposedly smashed Big Show’s family heirloom, his grandfather’s gold pocket watch, with a hammer and anvil. A video of the Boss Man was played to the crowd, showing him at the graveside service of Big Show’s father, in a Blues Brothers-inspired police car with a huge loudspeaker on the roof. The Boss Man blared through the speaker as he drove up the cemetery path, “He’s dead as a doornail, and no matter how much you cry and cry, nobody but nobody gonna bring him back. . . . You’re nothin’ but a momma, and speakin’ of yo’ momma, hey, Ms. Wight [Big Show’s mother], now that you’re a single woman, how’d you like to go out with a man like me?” He then drove the car into Big Show, who weighed close to 500 pounds. As the mourners huddled around the 17 fallen Big Show, the Boss Man hooked the coffin up to the police car with a chain and dragged it away. Big Show got up and ran after the casket, clinging to it until he fell off. Boss Man then “secretly” taped a meeting with Big Show’s weeping mother in her kitchen. He held up a manila envelope and shook it in her face. “If you don’t tell him what’s in this envelope, I will,” he threatened. “Let me tell him, it should come from me,” she sobbed. She confessed that she had had an affair during her marriage and that Big Show was the illegitimate result. Big Show’s father was not his biological father. “So what you’re saying is, your son is a bastard?” the Boss Man asked the bawling widow. “Yee-ess,” she whimpered between sobs. “Hey, Paul Wight,” the Boss Man turned and yelled into the hidden camera, using Big Show’s real name. “You’re a nasty bastard and yo’ mama said so!” “You know, I thought it was real funny when Big Freak Show’s fake daddy died and went to hell,” the Boss Man told the crowd afterward from the ring. “But you know what’s ten times funnier than his fake daddy’s dying? That’s Big Show walking around, ‘Waaa, waaa, where’s my daddy? Who’s my daddy?’ Well, that’s the million-dollar question. Your daddy could be any one of these stinkin’ morons sittin’ in this arena tonight. But the 18 fact remains: After I get through kicking your ass, I will be the World Wrestling Federation champion, and I guess that makes me your daddy.” City after city, night after night, packed arena after packed arena, the wrestlers play out a new, broken social narrative. No one has a fixed identify, not the way a Russian communist or an evil Iranian or an American patriot once had an intractable identity. Identities and morality shift with the wind. Established truths, mores, rules, and authenticity mean nothing. Good and evil mean nothing. The idea of permanent personalities and permanent values, as in the culture at large, has evaporated. It is all about winning. It is all about personal pain, vendettas, hedonism, and fantasies of revenge, while inflicting pain on others. It is the cult of victimhood. The wrestler known as the Undertaker frequently battles a wrestler known as Kane. Kane is the supposed result of an affair between the Undertaker’s mother and the Undertaker’s manager, whose stage name is, appropriately, Paul Bearer. Paul Bearer, fans were told, was at the time of the affair an employee at the funeral home in Death Valley owned by the Undertaker’s parents. Kane, in the story line, “accidentally” burned down the funeral home as a child. The parents died in the fire. Kane was hideously scarred. The Undertaker and Kane each thought the other had been lost in the conflagration. Paul Bearer had, it turned out, hidden young Kane in a mental asylum. It was when Paul Bearer had a falling out with the Undertaker that he had Kane released and signed Kane on as his agent of revenge. Kane and Paul Bearer, 19 during one event in Long Island, ostensibly exhumed the parents’ bodies for the crowd. They carried the purported remains into the arena. The younger brother had a series of bouts against the older. Paul Bearer was finally kidnapped and trapped in a concrete crypt. The Undertaker refused to rescue his manager. He buried him alive. As Paul A. Cantor notes in his essay on professional wrestling, “All the elements are there: sibling rivalry, disputed parentage, child neglect and abuse, domestic violence, family revenge.”4 Those who were once born with the virus of inherent evil, the Russian communist or the Iranian, now become evil for a reason. It is not their fault. They are victims. Self-pity is the driving motive in life. They were abused as children or in prison or by friends or lovers or spouses or employers. The new mantra says we all have a right to seek emotional gratification if we have been abused, even if it harms others. I am bad, the narratives say, because I was neglected and poorly treated. I was forced to be bad. It is not my fault. Pity me. If you do not pity me, screw you. I pity myself. It is the undiluted narcissism of a society in precipitous decline. The referee, the only authority figure in the bouts, is easily distracted and unable to administer justice. As soon as the referee turns his back, which happens in nearly every match, the second member of the opposing tag team, who is not supposed to be in the ring at the same time as his or her partner, leaps through the ropes. The two wrestlers pummel an opponent lying helpless on the mat behind the referee’s back. They often kick, or pretend to 20 kick, the downed wrestler in the gut. The referee, preoccupied, never notices. The failure to enforce the rules, which usually hurts the wrestler who needs the rules the most, is vital to the story line. It reflects, in the eyes of the fans, the greed, manipulation, and abuse wreaked by the powerful and the rich. The world, as professional wrestling knows, is always stacked against the little guy. Cheating becomes a way to even the score. The system of justice in the world of wrestling is always rigged. It reflects, for many who watch, the tainted justice system outside the ring. It promotes the morality of cheat or die. I watch Irish-born wrestler Dave Finley, with a shamrock on his costume and brandishing his signature shillelagh, enter the ring in Madison Square Garden with a four-foot, five-inch midget known as Hornswoggle, who is dressed as a leprechaun. The two are battling a massive African American wrestler known as Mark Henry. Henry is bearded and grimacing and weighs 380 pounds. He shouts insults at the crowd. When Hornswoggle enters the ring in the middle of the match to assist a beleaguered Finley, the referee tries to get Hornswoggle out. Finley, now unobserved by the referee, grabs his shillelagh and hits Mark Henry on the head. The referee, preoccupied with Hornswoggle, sees nothing. Mark Henry holds his head, spins around the ring, and collapses. Finley leaps on Mark Henry’s bulk. He attracts the attention of the referee, and with the count of three wins the match. The crowd cheers in delight. Wrestling operates from the popular (and often inarguable) assumption that those in authority are sleazy. Finley is a favorite with the crowd, although tonight he 21 cheats to win. If the world is rigged against you, if those in power stifle your voice, outsource your job, and foreclose your house, then cheat back. Corruption is part of life. The most popular wrestlers always defy and taunt their employers and promoters. Women, although they enter the ring to fight other women wrestlers, are almost always cast as temptresses. They steal each other’s boyfriends. They are often prizes to be won by competing wrestlers. These vixens, supposedly in relationships with one wrestler, are often caught on surveillance videos flirting with rival wrestlers. This provokes matches between the jealous boyfriend and the new love interest. The plotlines around the women, or “divas,” are lurid, bordering on soft porn. Torrie Wilson is a female wrestler engaged in a long and popular feud with another female wrestler named Dawn Marie. Dawn Marie, who was originally called Dawn Marie Bytch, announced, on one occasion, that she wanted to marry Torrie Wilson’s father, Al Wilson. Torrie was appalled. Dawn, however, also supposedly found Torrie attractive. Dawn told Torrie she would cancel the wedding with Al if Torrie would spend the night with her in a hotel. In a taped segment, the two women met in a hotel room. They kissed and fondled in their underwear. As they began to undress, screens in the arena went black, leaving the rest to the imagination of the fans. Dawn, despite the tryst, married Al anyway. The two held their ceremony in the ring in their underwear. Al, fans were told afterward, collapsed and died of a heart attack after marathon sex sessions on their honeymoon. Torrie Wilson then had numerous grudge matches with Dawn, 22 whom she blamed for killing her father. Sordid domestic scenarios, which resonate in a world of broken and troubled homes, are also staples of television talk and reality shows. The divas in the ring are there to fuel sexual fantasy. They have no intrinsic worth beyond being objects of sexual desire. It is all about their bodies. They engage in sexually provocative “strap matches,” in which two women are tied together with a long strap. During the bout, combatants use the strap to whip each other, including smacking exposed buttocks. They grab a short length of the strap between their two hands and wrap it around the neck of the opponent to simulate choking. In “evening gown matches,” women wrestle in long evening gowns ripped to expose lacy bras and thongs. Evening gown matches, involving two and sometimes three women, have also been filmed in swimming pools. Such matches frequently result in “accidental” exposure of breasts, which sets crowds roaring in lewd gratification. Female wrestlers often try to sabotage matches or seduce male wrestlers who oppose allies or members of their clan. In one episode broadcast on the big screens in the arena, a female wrestler named Melina enters the locker room of a wrestler named Batista. The scene has the brevity and stilted dialogue of a porn film. Melina, in a sequined red tank top and micro-miniskirt, stands awkwardly behind the brawny and tattooed Batista, who is seated on the bench, dressed in a tiny bikini brief. Melina self-consciously rubs her palms up and down his expansive pecs. “My boys, Mercury and Nitro, have a match against the Mexicools, and they could really use this time to 23 prepare. So if you could . . . withdraw yourself from the match tonight?” “Naw, I don’t think so,” rumbles Batista. “I could really make it worth your while,” whines Melina, straddling one of Batista’s massive thighs. “How you gonna do that?” Batista mutters. “Let me show you,” Melina pouts. She kisses him, wriggling her shoulders in a caricature of passion. Batista finally figures it out and yanks her down as they kiss, spreading her legs open over his lap. The crowd is heard whooping. The video cuts to a close-up of Melina’s black bra strap. She turns around, pulling her tank top down over her bra. “So we have a deal, right?” she simpers, blowing her hair out of her face. “A deal? No, no deal,” Batista chuckles. “Thanks for the warm-up, though. I feel great.” He flexes his chest muscles, making them jump. “I’m going to kill those guys.” He cuffs her on the shoulder. “See you out there.” “Oh, my God,” sniggers the announcer. “Did he say, ‘Thanks for the warm-up’? What a backfire!” The camera zooms in on Melina’s humiliation. “No, no, nooooo!” she shrieks, clapping her hands to her face, 24 squinting malevolently after Batista. Fans chant, “Slut! Slut! Slut!” when Melina appears in the arena. Melina, although the temptress in the story, later announces she has filed a lawsuit for sexual harassment against Batista. In The Republic, Plato imagines human beings chained for the duration of their lives in an underground cave, knowing nothing but darkness. Their gaze is confined to the cave wall, upon which shadows of the world above are thrown. They believe these flickering shadows are reality. If, Plato writes, one of these prisoners is freed and brought into the sunlight, he will suffer great pain. Blinded by the glare, he is unable to see anything and longs for the familiar darkness. But eventually his eyes adjust to the light. The illusion of the tiny shadows is obliterated. He confronts the immensity, chaos, and confusion of reality. The world is no longer drawn in simple silhouettes. But he is despised when he returns to the cave. He is unable to see in the dark as he used to. Those who never left the cave ridicule him and swear never to go into the light lest they be blinded as well. Plato feared the power of entertainment, the power of the senses to overthrow the mind, the power of emotion to obliterate reason. No admirer of popular democracy, Plato said that the enlightened or elite had a duty to educate those bewitched by the shadows on the cave wall, a position that led Socrates to quip: “As for the man who tried to free them and lead them upward, if they could 25 somehow lay their hands on him and kill him, they would do so.” We are chained to the flickering shadows of celebrity culture, the spectacle of the arena and the airwaves, the lies of advertising, the endless personal dramas, many of them completely fictional, that have become the staple of news, celebrity gossip, New Age mysticism, and pop psychology. In The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Daniel Boorstin writes that in contemporary culture the fabricated, the inauthentic, and the theatrical have displaced the natural, the genuine, and the spontaneous, until reality itself has been converted into stagecraft. Americans, he writes, increasingly live in a “world where fantasy is more real than reality.” He warns: We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so “realistic” that they can live in them. We are the most illusioned people on earth. Yet we dare not become disillusioned, because our illusions are the very house in which we live; they are our news, our heroes, our adventure, our forms of art, our very experience.5 Boorstin goes on to caution that an image is something we have a claim on. It must serve our purposes. Images are means. If a corporation’s image of itself or a man’s image of 26 himself is not useful, it is discarded. Another may fit better. The image is made to order, tailored to us. An ideal, on the other hand, has a claim on us. It does not serve us; we serve it. If we have trouble striving towards it, we assume the matter is with us, and not with the ideal.6 Those who manipulate the shadows that dominate our lives are the agents, publicists, marketing departments, promoters, script writers, television and movie producers, advertisers, video technicians, photographers, bodyguards, wardrobe consultants, fitness trainers, pollsters, public announcers, and television news personalities who create the vast stage for illusion. They are the puppet masters. No one achieves celebrity status, no cultural illusion is swallowed as reality, without these armies of cultural enablers and intermediaries. The sole object is to hold attention and satisfy an audience. These techniques of theater, as Boorstin notes, have leeched into politics, religion, education, literature, news, commerce, warfare, and crime. The squalid dramas played out for fans in the wrestling ring mesh with the ongoing dramas on television, in movies, and in the news, where “real-life” stories, especially those involving celebrities, allow news reports to become mini-dramas complete with a star, a villain, a supporting cast, a good-looking host, and a neat, if often unexpected, conclusion. The nation can sit rapt at one of these real-life stories, as happened when O. J. Simpson went on trial for the murder of his estranged wife and her purported lover. A carefully manipulated image of real life, which can be 27 based either on utter fiction or, as in Simpson’s case, real tragedy, can serve as a myth on which millions can hang their fears and hopes. The problems of existence are domesticated and controlled. We measure our lives by those we admire on the screen or in the ring. We seek to be like them. We emulate their look and behavior. We escape the chaos of real life through fantasy. We see ourselves as stars of our own movies. And we are, as Neal Gabler writes in Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, “all becoming performance artists in and audiences for a grand, ongoing show.”7 We try to see ourselves moving through our life as a camera would see us, mindful of how we hold ourselves, how we dress, what we say. We invent movies that play inside our heads. We imagine ourselves the main characters. We imagine how an audience would react to each event in the movie of our life. This, writes Gabler, is the power and invasiveness of celebrity culture. Celebrity culture has taught us to generate, almost unconsciously, interior personal screenplays in the mold of Hollywood, television, and even commercials. We have learned ways of speaking and thinking that disfigure the way we relate to the world. Gabler argues that celebrity culture is not a convergence of consumer culture and religion, but rather a hostile takeover of religion by consumer culture. Commodities and celebrity culture define what it means to belong, how we recognize our place in society, and how we conduct our lives. I visited the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles. It is advertised as “the final resting place to more 28 of Hollywood’s founders and stars than anywhere else on earth.” The sixty-acre cemetery holds the remains of 135 Hollywood luminaries, including Rudolph Valentino, Tyrone Power, Cecil B. DeMille, Douglas Fairbanks, Nelson Eddy, Bugsy Siegel, Peter Lorre, Mel Blanc, and John Huston, as well as many wealthy non-celebrities. Celebrity culture is, at its core, the denial of death. It is the illusion of immortality. The portal to Valhalla is through the perfect, eternally beautiful celebrity. “There’s nothing tragic about being fifty,” Joe Gillis says in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard , speaking of the faded movie star Norma Desmond, who dreams of making a triumphant return to the screen. “Not unless you’re trying to be twenty-five.” We all have gods, Martin Luther said, it is just a question of which ones. And in American society our gods are celebrities. Religious belief and practice are commonly transferred to the adoration of celebrities. Our culture builds temples to celebrities the way Romans did for divine emperors, ancestors, and household gods. We are a de facto polytheistic society. We engage in the same kind of primitive beliefs as older polytheistic cultures. In celebrity culture, the object is to get as close as possible to the celebrity. Relics of celebrities are coveted as magical talismans. Those who can touch the celebrity or own a relic of the celebrity hope for a transference of celebrity power. They hope for magic. The personal possessions of celebrities, from John F. Kennedy’s gold golf clubs to dresses worn by Princess Diana, to forty-dollar Swatch watches once owned by Andy Warhol, are cherished like relics of the dead among ancestor cults in Africa, Asia, or 29 the medieval Catholic Church. They hold, somehow, faint traces of the celebrities themselves. And they are auctioned off for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Pilgrims travel to celebrity shrines. Graceland receives 750,000 visitors a year. Hard Rock Cafe has built its business around the yearning for intimacy with the famous. It ships relics of stars from one restaurant to another the way the medieval Church used to ship the bones and remains of saints to its various cathedrals. Charlie Chaplin’s corpse, like that of Eva Perón, was stolen and held for ransom. John Wayne’s family, fearing grave robbers, did not mark his burial spot until twenty years after his death. The headstones of James Dean, Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, Buddy Holly, and Jim Morrison have all been uprooted and carted away. Those who become obsessed with celebrities often profess a personal relationship with them, not unlike the relationship a born-again Christian professes to have with Jesus. The hysteria thousands of mourners in London displayed for Princess Diana in 1997 was real, even if the public persona they were mourning was largely a creation of publicists and the mass media. Hollywood Forever is next to Paramount Studios. The massive white HOLLYWOOD letters tower on the hillside above the tombs and faux Italian Renaissance marble buildings that contain rows of crypts. Maps with the locations of stars’ graves, along with a glossy booklet of brief star biographies, are handed out at the gate. Tourists are promised “visits” with dead stars, who are referred to as “residents.” The cemetery, which has huge marble monuments to the wealthy and the powerful, many of them 30 non-celebrities, is divided into sections with names like Garden of Eternal Love and Garden of Legends. It has two massive marble mausoleums, including the Cathedral Mausoleum, with six thousand crypts—the largest mausoleum in the world when it was built in the 1930s. Most of the celebrities, however, have plain bronze plaques that seem to indicate a yearning for the simplicity and anonymity denied to them in life. The cemetery, established in 1899 and originally called Hollywood Memorial Park, fell into disrepair and neglect some eight or nine decades after it was opened. By the 1990s, families, including relatives of the makeup artist Max Factor, paid to have their loved ones removed from the grounds. By April 1996, the property was bankrupt. The cemetery was only months away from being condemned. It was bought by Tyler Cassidy and his brother Brent, who renamed the cemetery Hollywood Forever Cemetery and began a marketing campaign around its celebrity residents. The brothers established the Forever Network, where the non-celebrity departed could, at least in death, be the stars of their own customized video tributes. The cemetery Web site archives the tributes. “Families, young and old, are starting their LifeStories now, and adding to them as the years pass,” the cemetery’s brochure states. “What this means—having our images, voices, and videos available for future generations—has deep importance, both sociologically and for fully celebrating life.” At funerals, these carefully produced movies, which often include highlights from home videos, are shown on a screen next to the caskets of the deceased. The cemetery’s business is booming. 31 It costs a lot to be buried near a celebrity. Hugh Hefner reportedly paid $85,000 to reserve the crypt next to Marilyn Monroe at Westwood Cemetery in Los Angeles. The “prestige service” offered by Hollywood Forever runs $5,400. Jay Boileau, the executive vice president of the cemetery, conceded that a plot near Valentino would cost even more, although he did not have the price list with him. “We have sold most of them,” he said of those spaces. “Visits to his crypt are unique. Every year we hold a memorial service for him on the day he passed away. He was the first true sex symbol. Ten thousand people came to his funeral. He was the first Brad Pitt. He was the first true superstar in film and the greatest screen lover.” The most moving memorial in the cemetery is a small glass case containing the cremated remains of the actor David White and his son Jonathan White. White played Larry Tate, the Machiavellian advertising executive, on the television show Bewitched, and he had a long stage career. He was married to the actress Mary Welch, who died during a second childbirth in 1958. David was left to raise Jonathan, his only child. Next to the urns are pictures of the father and boy. There is one of Jonathan as a tall young man in a graduation gown, the father’s eyes directed up toward his son’s face. Jonathan died at the age of thirtythree, a victim of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Locker bie, Scotland. His father was devastated. He entered into a long period of mourning and seclusion. He died of a heart attack shortly before the two-year anniversary of his son’s death. The modest memorial is a simple and poignant veneration of the powerful bond between a father and a son. It defies the celebrity culture 32 around it. It speaks to other values, to loss, to grief, to mortality, and to the awful fragility of life. It is a reminder, in a sea of kitsch, of the beauty of love. Buses wind their way through the Hollywood hills so tourists can gawk at the walls that barricade the homes of the famous. The celebrity interview or profile, pioneered on television by Barbara Walters and now a ubiquitous part of the news and entertainment industry, gives us the illusion that we have intimate relations with celebrities as well as the characters they portray. Real life, our own life, is viewed next to the lives of celebrities as inadequate and inauthentic. Celebrities are portrayed as idealized forms of ourselves. It is we, in perverse irony, who are never fully actualized, never fully real in a celebrity culture. Soldiers and marines speak of first entering combat as if they are entering a movie, although if they try to engage in Hollywood-inspired heroics they often are killed. The chasm between movie exploits and the reality of war, which takes less than a minute in a firefight to grasp, is immense. The shock of reality brings with it the terrible realization that we are not who we thought we were. Fear controls us. We do not control it. The movie-inspired images played out in our heads, the fantasies of racing under a hail of bullets toward the enemy or of rescuing a wounded comrade, vanish. Life, the movie, comes to an abrupt halt. The houselights go on. The harsh glare of our limitations, fear and frailty blinds and disorients us. Wounded marines booed and hissed John Wayne when he visited them in a hospital ward in Hawaii during the Second World War. Wayne, who never served in the 33 military and for the visit wore a fancy cowboy outfit that included spurs and pistols, would later star in the 1949 gung-ho war movie The Sands of Iwo Jima. The marines, some of whom had fought at Iwo Jima, grasped the manipulation and deceit of celebrity culture. They understood that mass culture contributes to self-delusion and social control and elicits behavior that is often selfdestructive. Illusion, especially as presented in movies, can replace reality. When Wayne made The Sands of Iwo Jima, director Allan Dwan recreated the iconic image taken by photographer Joe Rosenthal of five marines and a navy corpsman raising the American flag on top of Mount Suribachi during the battle at the end of the film. Dwan coaxed Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, and John Bradley, the three surviving soldiers from the flag-raising, to appear briefly in the film to reenact the scene with Wayne, who handed them the original flag, loaned to the moviemakers by the Marine Corps. The photo, later used by Felix de Weldon to sculpt the massive United States Marine Corps War Memorial near Arlington National Cemetery, had already made the three veterans celebrities. It was widely reprinted. President Franklin D. Roosevelt used the photo as the logo for the Seventh War Loan Drive in 1945. The Pentagon brought the three men back to the United States, where they toured as part of the fund-raising effort. The veterans helped raised $26.3 billion, twice the original goal. But the publicity, along with the transformation from traumatized veterans to poster children for the war, left the three soldiers alienated, bitter, and depressed. They were 34 prisoners to the image and the patriotic myth built around it. Hayes and Gagnon became alcoholics and died early— Hayes at thirty-two and Gagnon at fifty-four. Bradley rarely took part in ceremonies celebrating the flag-raising and by the 1960s had stopped attending them. He was plagued by nightmares. He discussed the war with his wife Betty only once during his forty-seven-year marriage, and that was on their first date. He gave one interview, in 1985, at the urging of his wife, who told him to do it for the sake of their grandchildren. He was haunted by the death of his friend Iggy—Ralph Ignatowski, who had been captured, tortured, and killed by Japanese soldiers. When he found Iggy’s body a few days after he had disappeared, he saw that the Japanese had ripped out Iggy’s toe-nails and fingernails, fractured his arms, and bayonetted him repeatedly. The back of his friend’s head had been smashed in, and his penis had been cut off and stuffed in his mouth. “And then I visited his parents after the war and just lied to them,” John Bradley told his son James, in one of the very rare comments he made to his children about the war. “‘He didn’t suffer at all,’ I told them. ‘He didn’t feel a thing, didn’t know what hit him,’ I said. I just lied to them.”8 Bradley’s family went to Suribachi in 1997 after his death and placed a plaque on the spot where the flagraising took place. James Bradley investigated this buried part of his father’s past and interviewed the families of all the flag raisers. He published his account of the men’s lives in his book Flags of Our Fathers. 35 The veterans saw their wartime experience transformed into an illusion. It became part of the mythic narrative of heroism and patriotic glory sold to the public by the Pentagon’s public relations machine and Hollywood. The reality of war could not compete against the power of the illusion. The truth did not feed the fantasy of war as a ticket to glory, honor, and manhood. The truth did not promote collective self-exaltation. The illusion of war peddled in The Sands of Iwo Jima, like hundreds of other Hollywood war films, worked because it was what the public wanted to believe about themselves. It was what the government and the military wanted to promote. It worked because it had the power to simulate experience for most viewers who were never at Iwo Jima or in a war. But as Hayes and the others knew, this illusion was a lie. Hayes, arrested dozens of times for drunkenness, was discovered dead, face-down in his own vomit and blood, near an abandoned hut close to his home on the Gila River Indian Reservation. The coroner ruled that Hayes died of exposure and alcohol. It was left to the songwriter Peter LaFarge and Johnny Cash to memorialize the tragic saga of Hayes’ brief life. “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” told a tale about war the producers of The Sands of Iwo Jima, who made the movie not to tell a truth but to feed the public’s appetite and make a profit, studiously ignored.9 Celebrity worship banishes reality. And this adulation is pervasive. It is dressed up in the language of the Christian Right, which builds around its leaders, people like Pat Robertson or Joel Osteen, the aura of stardom, fame, and celebrity power. These Christian celebrities 36 travel in private jets and limousines. They are surrounded by retinues of bodyguards, have television programs where they cultivate the same false intimacy with the audience, and, like all successful celebrities, amass personal fortunes. The frenzy around political messiahs, or the devotion of millions of women to Oprah Winfrey, is all part of the yearning to see ourselves in those we worship. We seek to be like them. We seek to make them like us. If Jesus and The Purpose Driven Life won’t make us a celebrity, then Tony Robbins or positive psychologists or reality television will. We are waiting for our cue to walk onstage and be admired and envied, to become known and celebrated. “What does the contemporary self want?” asked critic William Deresiewicz: The camera has created a culture of celebrity; the computer is creating a culture of connectivity. As the two technologies converge—broadband tipping the Web from text to image; social-networking sites spreading the mesh of interconnection ever wider— the two cultures betray a common impulse. Celebrity and connectivity are both ways of becoming known. This is what the contemporary self wants. It wants to be recognized, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible. If not to the millions, on Survivor or Oprah, then to the hundreds, on Twitter or Facebook. This is the quality that validates us, this is how we become real to ourselves—by being seen by others. The great contemporary terror is anonymity. If Lionel Trilling was right, if the property that grounded the self in Romanticism was sincerity, and in modernism was 37 authenticity, then in postmod ernism it is visibility.10 We pay a variety of lifestyle advisers—Gabler calls them “essentially drama coaches”—to help us look and feel like celebrities, to build around us the set for the movie of our own life. Martha Stewart built her financial empire, when she wasn’t insider trading, telling women how to create and decorate a set design for the perfect home. The realities within the home, the actual family relationships, are never addressed. Appearances make everything whole. Plastic surgeons, fitness gurus, diet doctors, therapists, life coaches, interior designers, and fashion consultants all, in essence, promise to make us happy, to make us celebrities. And happiness comes, we are assured, with how we look and how we present ourselves to others. Glossy magazines like Town & Country cater to the absurd pretensions of the very rich to be celebrities. They are photographed in expensive designer clothing inside the lavishly decorated set-pieces that are their homes. The route to happiness is bound up in how skillfully we show ourselves to the world. We not only have to conform to the dictates of this manufactured vision, but we also have to project an unrelenting optimism and happiness. The Swan was a Fox reality makeover show. The title of the series referred to Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Ugly Duckling,” in which a bird thought to be homely grew up and became a swan. “Unattractive” women were chosen to undergo three months of extensive plastic surgery, physical training, and therapy for a 38 “complete life transformation.” Each episode featured two “ugly ducklings” who compete with each other to go on to the beauty pageant. “I am going to be a new person,” said one contestant in the opening credits. In one episode, Cristina, twenty-seven, an Ecuadorborn office administrator from Rancho Cordova, California, was chosen to be on the program. “It’s not just the outside I want to change, but it’s the inside, too,” Cristina told the camera mournfully. She had long, black hair and light brown skin. She wore baggy, gray sweatshirts and no makeup. Her hair was pulled back. We discovered that she was devastatingly insecure about being intimate with her husband because of her postpregnancy stretch marks. The couple considered divorce. “I just want to be, not a completely different person, but I want to be a better Cristina,” she said. As a “dream team” of plastic surgeons discussed the necessary corrections, viewers saw a still image of Cristina, in a gray cotton bra and underwear, superimposed on a glowing blue grid. Her small, drooping breasts, wrinkled stomach, and fleshy thighs were apparent. A schematic figure of an idealized female form revolved at the left of the screen. Crosshairs targeted and zoomed in on each flawed area of Cristina’s face and body. The surgical procedures she would undergo were typed out beside each body part. Brow lift, eye lift, nose job, liposuction of chin and cheeks, dermatologist visits, collagen injections, LASIK eye surgery, tummy tuck, breast augmentation, liposuction of thighs, dental bleaching, full dental veneers, 39 gum tissue recontouring, a 1,200-calorie daily diet, 120 hours in the gym, weekly therapy, and coaching. The effect was suggestive of a military operation. The image of a blueprint and crosshairs was used repeatedly through the program. Cristina was shown writing in her diary: “I want a divorce because I think that my husband can do better without me. And it would be best for us to go in different directions. I am not happy with myself at all, so I think, why make this guy unhappy for the rest of his life?” At the end of the three months, Cristina and her opponent, Kristy, were finally allowed to look in a mirror for “the final reveal.” They were brought separately to what looked like a marble hotel foyer. Curving twin staircases with ornate iron banisters framed the action. A crystal chandelier glittered at the top of the stairs. Sconces and oil paintings in gold frames hung on the cream-colored walls. The “dream team” was assembled in the marble lobby. Massive peach curtains obscured one wall. “I think Cristina has really grown into herself as a woman, and she’s ready to go back home and start her marriage all over again,” said the team therapist. Two men in tuxedos opened a set of tall double doors. Cristina entered in a tight, black evening gown and long black gloves. She was meticulously made up, and her hair had been carefully styled with extensions. The “dream team” burst into applause and whoops. 40 “I’ve been waiting twenty-seven years for this day,” Cristina tearfully told host Amanda Byram. “I came for a dream, the American dream, like all the Latinas do, and I got it!” “You got it!” cheered Byram. “Yes, you did!” Reverberating drumbeats were heard. “Behind that curtain,” says Byram, “is a mirror. We will draw back the curtain, the mirror will be revealed, and you will see yourself for the first time in three months. Cristina, step up to the curtain.” Short, suspenseful cello strokes were heard. There was a tumbling drumroll. “I’m ready,” quavered Cristina. The curtain parted slowly in the middle. An elaborate full-length mirror reflected Cristina. The cello strokes billowed into the Swan theme song. “Oh, my God!” she gasped, covering her face. She doubled over. Her knees buckled. She almost hit the floor. “I am so beautiful!!!” she sobbed. “Thank you, oh, thank you so much!! Thank you, God!! Thank you, thank you, thank you so much for this!! Look at my arms, my figure . . . I love the dress! Thank you, oh!! I’m in love with myself!” The “dream team” burst into applause again. “Well, you owe this to yourself,” said Byram. “But you also owe 41 it to these fantastic experts. Guys, come on in.” The crowd of smiling experts closed in on their creation, clapping as they approached. At the end of each episode, the two contestants were called before Byram to hear who would advance to the pageant. The winner often wept and was hugged by the loser. Byram then pulled the loser aside for “one final surprise.” The double doors opened once more, and her family was invited onto the set for a joyful reunion. In celebrity culture, family is the consolation prize for not making it to the pageant. The Swan’s transparent message is that once these women have been surgically “corrected” to resemble mainstream celebrity beauty as closely as possible, their problems will be solved. “This is a positive show where we want to see how these women can make their dreams come true once they have what they want,” said Cecile Frot-Coutaz, CEO of FremantleMedia North America, producers of The Swan. Troubled marriages, abusive relationships, unemployment, crushing self-esteem problems—all will vanish along with the excess fat off their thighs. They will be new. They will be flawless. They will be celebrities. In the Middle Ages, writes Alain de Botton in his book Status Anxiety , stained glass windows and vivid paintings of religious torment and salvation controlled and influenced social behavior. Today we are ruled by icons of gross riches and physical beauty that blare and flash from television, cinema, and computer screens. People knelt 42 before God and the church in the Middle Ages. We flock hungrily to the glamorous crumbs that fall to us from glossy magazines, talk and entertainment shows, and reality television. We fashion our lives as closely to these lives of gratuitous consumption as we can. Only a life with status, physical attributes, and affluence is worth pursuing. Hedonism and wealth are openly worshipped on shows such as The Hills, Gossip Girl, Sex and the City, My Super Sweet 16, and The Real Housewives of. . . . The American oligarchy, 1 percent of whom control more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined, are the characters we envy and watch on television. They live and play in multimillion dollar beach houses and expansive modern lofts. They marry professional athletes and are chauffeured in stretch limos to spa appointments. They rush from fashion shows to movie premieres, flaunting their surgically enhanced, perfect bodies in haute couture. Their teenagers throw $200,000 parties and have $1 million dollar weddings. This life is held before us like a beacon. This life, we are told, is the most desirable, the most gratifying. The working classes, comprising tens of millions of struggling Americans, are shut out of television’s gated community. They have become largely invisible. They are mocked, even as they are tantalized, by the lives of excess they watch on the screen in their living rooms. Almost none of us will ever attain these lives of wealth and power. Yet we are told that if we want it badly enough, if we believe sufficiently in ourselves, we too can have everything. We are left, when we cannot adopt these impossible lifestyles as our own, with feelings of inferiority and worthlessness. We have failed where others 43 have succeeded. We consume countless lies daily, false promises that if we spend more money, if we buy this brand or that product, if we vote for this candidate, we will be respected, envied, powerful, loved, and protected. The flamboyant lives of celebrities and the outrageous characters on television, movies, professional wrestling, and sensational talk shows are peddled to us, promising to fill up the emptiness in our own lives. Celebrity culture encourages everyone to think of themselves as potential celebrities, as possessing unique if unacknowledged gifts. It is, as Christopher Lasch diagnosed, a culture of narcissism. Faith in ourselves, in a world of make-believe, is more important than reality. Reality, in fact, is dismissed and shunned as an impediment to success, a form of negativity. The New Age mysticism and pop psychology of television personalities, evangelical pastors, along with the array of self-help best-sellers penned by motivational speakers, psychiatrists, and business tycoons, all peddle a fantasy. Reality is condemned in these popular belief systems as the work of Satan, as defeatist, as negativity, or as inhibiting our inner essence and power. Those who question, those who doubt, those who are critical, those who are able to confront reality and who grasp the hollowness of celebrity culture are shunned and condemned for their pessimism. The illusionists who shape our culture and who profit from our incredulity hold up the gilded cult of Us. Popular expressions of religious belief, personal empowerment, corporatism, political participation, and self-definition argue that all of us are special, entitled, and unique. All of us, by tapping into our 44 inner reserves of personal will and undiscovered talent, by visualizing what we want, can achieve, and deserve to achieve, happiness, fame, and success. This relentless message cuts across ideological lines. This mantra has seeped into every aspect of our lives. We are all entitled to everything. American Idol, a talent-search reality show that airs on Fox, is one of the most popular shows on American television. The show travels to different American cities in a “countrywide search” for the contestants who will continue to the final competition in Hollywood. The producers of the show introduced a new focus in the 20082009 season on the personal stories of the contestants. During the Utah auditions, we met Megan Corkrey, twenty-three, the single mother of a toddler. She has long dirty-blonde hair, and a wholesome, pretty face. A tattoo sleeve covers her right arm from the shoulder to below the elbow. She wears a black, grey, and white dress reminiscent of the 1950s, and ballet flats. She is a font designer. In an interview, Corkrey says, “I am a mother. He will be two in December.” We see Corkrey with a little blond boy, reading a book together on a beanbag chair. Breezy guitar music plays. “His name is Ryder.” We see Corkrey kissing Ryder and putting him to bed. “I recently decided to get a divorce, which is new.” The guitar music turns pensive. “The life I had planned for us, the life I’d pictured, wasn’t going to happen. I cried a lot for a while. I don’t think I stopped crying. And Ryder, of course, you can be crying, and then he walks by, and does something 45 ridiculous, and you can’t help but smile and laugh.” We see Corkrey laughing with her son on the floor. “And a little piece kind of heals up a little bit.” The montage of Corkrey’s life fills the screen as the rock ballad swells. “I can laugh at myself, while the tears roll down . . . ,” sings the band. We see Corkrey and her son looking out a window. She holds her son up to a basketball hoop as he clutches a blue ball. “It was kind of crazy, I found out Idol was coming to Salt Lake, and I’d just decided on the divorce, and for the first time in my life it was a crossroads where anything can happen!! So why not go for what I love to do?” Corkrey enters the audition room. The judges—Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson, and Kara DioGuardi —are seated behind a long table in front of a window. They each have large, red tumblers with “Coca-Cola” printed on them. They seem charmed by her exuberant presence. She sings “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” from Show Boat. Her performance is charismatic and quirky. She improvises freely and assuredly with the rhythms and notes of the song, beaming the whole time. “I really like you,” says Abdul. “I’m bordering on loving you. I think I’m loving you. Yeah, I do. Simon?” “One of my favorite auditions,” says Cowell in a monotone. “Yess!!” grins Corkrey. 46 “Because you’re different,” continues Cowell sternly. “You are one of the few I’m going to remember. I like you, I like your voice, I mean seriously good voice. I loved it.” “You’re an interesting girl. You have a glow about you, you have an incredible face,” says DioGuardi. The judges vote. “Absolutely yes,” says Cowell. “Love you,” says Abdul. “Yes!” says DioGuardi. “One hundred percent maybe,” smiles Jackson. “You’re goin’ to Hollywood!” cheers DioGuardi as the inspirational rock music swells. “YESS!!! Thank you, guys!” Corkrey screams with delight. She runs out of the audition room into a crowd of her cheering friends. The music plays as she dances down the street, waving her large yellow ticket, the symbol of her success. Celebrities, who often come from humble backgrounds, are held up as proof that anyone, even we, can be adored by the world. These celebrities, like saints, are living proof that the impossible is always possible. Our fantasies of belonging, of fame, of success, and of fulfillment, are projected onto celebrities. These fantasies 47 are stoked by the legions of those who amplify the culture of illusion, who persuade us that the shadows are real. The juxtaposition of the impossible illusions inspired by celebrity culture and our “insignificant” individual achievements, however, eventually leads to frustration, anger, insecurity, and invalidation. It results, ironically, in a self-perpetuating cycle that drives the frustrated, alienated individual with even greater desperation and hunger away from reality, back toward the empty promises of those who seduce us, who tell us what we want to hear. We beg for more. We ingest these lies until our money runs out. And when we fall into despair, we medicate ourselves, as if the happiness we have failed to find in the hollow game is our deficiency. And, of course, we are told it is. Human beings become a commodity in a celebrity culture. They are objects, like consumer products. They have no intrinsic value. They must look fabulous and live on fabulous sets. Those who fail to meet the ideal are belittled and mocked. Friends and allies are to be used and betrayed during the climb to fame, power, and wealth. And when they are no longer useful, they are to be discarded. In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s novel about a future dystopia, people spend most of the day watching giant television screens that show endless scenes of police chases and criminal apprehensions. Life, Bradbury understood, once it was packaged and filmed, became the most compelling form of entertainment. The moral nihilism of celebrity culture is played out on reality television shows, most of which encourage a dark voyeurism into other people’s humiliation, pain, weakness, 48 and betrayal. Education, building community, honesty, transparency, and sharing are qualities that will see you, in a gross perversion of democracy and morality, voted off a reality show. Fellow competitors for prize money and a chance for fleeting fame elect to “disappear” the unwanted. In the final credits of the reality show America’s Next Top Model, a picture of the woman expelled during the episode vanishes from the group portrait on the screen. Those cast aside become, at least to the television audience, nonpersons. Life, these shows teach, is a brutal world of unadulterated competition. Life is about the personal humiliation of those who oppose us. Those who win are the best. Those who lose deserve to be erased. Compassion, competence, intelligence, and solidarity with others are forms of weakness. And those who do not achieve celebrity status, who do not win the prize money or make millions in Wall Street firms, deserve to lose. Those who are denigrated and ridiculed on reality television, often as they sob in front of the camera, are branded as failures. They are responsible for their rejection. They are deficient. In an episode from the second season of the CBS reality game show Survivor, cast members talk about exceptional friendships they have made within their “tribe,” or team. Maralyn, also known as Mad Dog, is a fifty-two-year-old retired police officer with a silver crew cut and a tall, mannish build. She is sunning herself in a shallow stream, singing “On the Street Where You Live.” Tina, a personal nurse and mother, walks up the stream toward her. “Sing it, girl! I just followed your voice.” 49 “Is it that loud?” “Maralyn, she’s kind of like our little songbird, and our little cheerleader in our camp,” Tina says in an interview. “Maralyn and I have bonded, more so than I have with any of the other people. It might be our ages, it might just be that we kind of took up for one another.” We see Tina and Maralyn swimming and laughing together in the river. “Tina is a fabulous woman,” says Maralyn in an interview. “She is a star. I trust Tina the most.” Maralyn and Tina’s tribe, Ogakor, loses an obstacle course challenge, in which all the tribe members are tethered together. If one person falls, the entire team is slowed. Mad Dog Maralyn falls several times and is hauled back to her feet by Colby, the “cowboy” from Texas. Because they lost, the members of Ogakor must vote off one of their tribe members. The camera shows small groups of twos and threes in huddled, intense discussion. “The mood in the camp is a very sad mood, but it’s also a very strategic mood,” says Tina. “Everyone’s thinking, ‘Who’s thinking what?’ ” The vote is taken at dusk, in the “tribal council” area. It resembles a set from Disney World’s Adventureland. A ring of tall stone monoliths is stenciled with petroglyphs. It 50 is lit by torches. A campfire blazes in the center of the ring. Primitive drums and flutes are heard. The Ogakor team arrives at dusk, each holding a torch. They sit before Survivor’s host, Jeff Probst. “So I just want to talk about a couple of big topics,” says Probst, who wears a safari outfit. “Trust. Colby, is there anyone here that you don’t trust, wouldn’t trust?” “Sure,” says Colby. “Tell me about that.” “Well, I think that’s part of the game,” says Colby. “It’s way too early to tell exactly who you can trust, I think.” “What about you, Mitchell? Would you trust everyone here for forty-two days?” asks Probst. “I think the motto is, ‘Trust no one,’” answers Mitchell. “I have a lot of faith in a good number of these people, but I couldn’t give 100 percent of my trust.” “What about you, Mad Dog?” asks Probst. “These all your buddies?” Maralyn looks around at her team members. “Yes,” she says unequivocally. “Yes. And, Jeff, I trust with my heart.” “I think friendship does enter into it at some point,” says Jerri. “But I think it’s very important to keep that separate from the game. It’s two totally different things. 51 And that’s where it gets tricky.” Jerri will say later, as she casts her vote, “This is probably one of the most difficult things for me to do right now. It’s purely strategic, it’s nothing personal. I am going to miss you dearly.” “Jeff,” Maralyn breaks in. “I’m conjoined with Tina. She is a constellation. And, the cowboy [Colby]! The poor cowboy has dragged me around so many times [during the obstacle course challenge]. I appreciate it.” “I’d do it again,” laughs Colby broadly. “Hey, you hear that? He’d do it again!” says Maralyn. It is time to vote. Each team member walks up a narrow bridge lit by flaring torches, again looking like something out of Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, made of twisted logs lashed with vines, to a stone table. They write the name of the person they want to eliminate and put it in a cask with aboriginal carvings. Most of the votes are kept anonymous, the camera panning away as each person writes. But as Tina, Mad Dog Maralyn’s best friend and “constellation,” casts her vote, she shows us her ballot: Mad Dog. “Mad Dog, I love you,” she says to the camera, “I value your friendship more than anything. This vote has everything to do with a promise I made, it has nothing to do with you. I hope you’ll understand.” She folds her vote and puts it in the cask. “Once the vote is tallied, the decision is final, and the person will be asked to leave the tribal council area immediately,” says Probst. 52 Five people of the seven voted to eliminate Maralyn. “You need to bring me a torch, Mad Dog,” says Probst. She does so, first taking off her green baseball cap and putting it affectionately on Amber, who sits next to her and gives her a hug. The camera shows Tina looking impassive. “Mad Dog,” says Probst, holding the flaming torch Maralyn has brought him, “the tribe has spoken.” He takes a large stone snuffer and extinguishes the torch. The camera shows Marilynn’s rueful face behind the smoking, blackened torch. “It’s time for you to go,” says Probst. She leaves without speaking or looking at anyone, although there are a few weak “bye” ’s from the tribe. Before the final credits, we are shown who, besides her friend Tina, voted to eliminate Maralyn. They are Amber, who gave Maralyn a farewell hug, along with Mitchell, Jerri, and Colby, Maralyn’s “cowboy.” Celebrity culture plunges us into a moral void. No one has any worth beyond his or her appearance, usefulness, or ability to “succeed.” The highest achievements in a celebrity culture are wealth, sexual conquest, and fame. It does not matter how these are obtained. These values, as Sigmund Freud understood, are illusory. They are hollow. They leave us chasing vapors. They urge us toward a life of narcissistic self-absorption. They tell us that existence is to be centered on the practices and desires of the self rather than the common good. The ability to lie and manipulate others, the very ethic of capitalism, is held up as the highest good. “I simply agreed to go along with [Jerri and 53 Amber] because I thought it would get me down the road a little better,” says young, good-looking Colby in another episode of Survivor. “I wanna win. And I don’t want to talk to anybody else about loyalties—don’t give me that crap. I haven’t trusted anyone since day one, and anyone playing smart should have been the same way.” The cult of self dominates our cultural landscape. This cult has within it the classic traits of psychopaths: superficial charm, grandios ity, and self-importance; a need for constant stimulation, a penchant for lying, deception, and manipulation, and the inability to feel remorse or guilt. This is, of course, the ethic promoted by corporations. It is the ethic of unfettered capitalism. It is the misguided belief that personal style and personal advancement, mistaken for individualism, are the same as democratic equality. In fact, personal style, defined by the commodities we buy or consume, has become a compensation for our loss of democratic equality. We have a right, in the cult of the self, to get whatever we desire. We can do anything, even belittle and destroy those around us, including our friends, to make money, to be happy, and to become famous. Once fame and wealth are achieved, they become their own justification, their own morality. How one gets there is irrelevant. Once you get there, those questions are no longer asked. It is this perverted ethic that gave us Wall Street bankers and investment houses that willfully trashed the nation’s economy, stole money from tens of millions of small shareholders who had bought stock in these corporations for retirement or college. The heads of these corporations, like the winners on a reality television 54 program who lied and manipulated others to succeed, walked away with hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses and compensation. In his masterful essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin wrote: “The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the ‘spell of the personality,’ the phony spell of a commodity.”11 “The professional celebrity, male and female, is the crowning result of the star system of a society that makes a fetish of competition,” wrote C. Wright Mills: In America, this system is carried to the point where a man who can knock a small, white ball into a series of holes in the ground with more efficiency and skill than anyone else thereby gains access to the President of the United States. It is carried to the point where a chattering radio and television entertainer becomes the hunting chum of leading industrial executives, cabinet members, and the higher military. It does not seem to matter what the man is the very best at; so long as he has won out in competition over all others, he is celebrated. Then, a second feature of the star system begins to work: all the stars of any other sphere of endeavor or position are drawn toward the new star and he toward them. The success, the champion, accordingly, is one who mingles freely with other champions to populate the world of the celebrity.12 Degradation as entertainment is the squalid underside 55 to the glamour of celebrity culture. “If only that were me,” we sigh as we gaze at the wealthy, glimmering stars on the red carpet. But we are as transfixed by the inverse of celebrity culture, by the spectacle of humiliation and debasement that comprise tabloid television shows such as The Jerry Springer Show and The Howard Stern Show. We secretly exult: “At least that’s not me.” It is the glee of cruelty with impunity, the same impulse that drove crowds to the Roman Colosseum, to the pillory and the stocks, to public hangings, and to traveling freak shows. In one segment from Jerry Springer: Wild & Outrageous, Volume 1, a man and his wife sit on the Springer stage. They are obese, soft, and pale, with mounds of fluffy, brown hair. Their bodies look like uncooked dough. The man wears a blue polo shirt and brown pants. The woman wears a dark pink shirt with long sleeves and a long black skirt. “I have a sex fantasy,” the man tells his wife solemnly. His voice is quiet and nasal. She recoils with raised eyebrows. “Do you remember that bachelor party I went to three weeks ago? There was a stripper there. She was dressed up as a cheerleader, and she just turned me on. I mean, I got—I have this thing—I don’t know if it’s her or the outfit, I think it’s the outfit. But, I’d really love for you to dress up as a cheerleader. For me. And do a cheer that’s especially for me, and. . . . You could be my cheerleader . . . of my heart.” The woman, still sitting in her chair, has her hands on her hips and looks affronted. There are close-ups of the Springer audience bursting into raucous laughter, hoots, 56 and applause. “I brought her here to show you—” continues the man. He is cut off by the whoops of the audience. “Let’s bring her out!” says Jerry. The audience cheers. Shaking yellow pom-poms, a skinny blonde girl in a purple-and-yellow cheerleader outfit runs out onstage. Her body is like a stick. She turns a cartwheel and moons the audience, smacking her own bottom several times. Behind her, the obese man is shown grinning. The obese woman is waving in disgust at the cheerleader. “Is everybody ready to do a cheer just for Jerry?!” squeaks the cheerleader. “YEAAAHHH!!!” hollers the audience. “I can’t hear yoooouuuuuu . . .” pipes the cheerleader, lifting her skirt up to her waist. The audience goes crazy. She leads a cheer, spelling out Jerry’s name. “Now that you’ve seen these pom-poms, how’d you like to see these pom-poms?” she squeaks, shaking her flat chest. A rapid electronic beat fills the studio, and the lights dim. She takes off her top, her bra, and, gyrating her hips, slides off her skirt and underwear. Her bottom is about three feet from the whooping men in the front row. The obese man’s arms and legs are waving around in excitement, as his grimacing wife shakes her head 57 repeatedly. The naked cheerleader leans back on the floor and does the splits in the air. She then jumps into the fat man’s lap and smothers his face in her tiny chest. She runs into the audience and does the same to another man and a gray-haired woman in a cardigan who looks like a grandmother. The cameramen follow the cheerleader closely, zooming in on her breasts and ass. While the naked, ponytailed girl runs around leaping into the laps of members of the audience, the crowd begins chanting, under the deafening electronic music, “JER-RY! JER-RY! JER-RY! JER-RY!” The girl finally runs back onstage. The music stops. She collects her pom-poms and sits down naked, dressed only in a pair of white tennis shoes and bobby socks. “JER-RY! JER-RY! JER-RY!” chants the crowd. In a later portion of the episode, Jerry says to the man, “So this is really what you want your wife to be doing?” The naked cheerleader is seated beside him, and his wife is no longer onstage. “Oh, yes!” he exclaims. The audience laughs at his fervor. “It really excites me, Jerry. It really does.” “All right,” says Jerry. “Well, are we ready to bring her out?” “YEESSSSS!!!” bellows the audience. “Here she is!” announces Jerry. “Cheerleading 58 Kristen!” The wife runs out onto the stage. She is in an identical purple-and-yellow cheerleading outfit, with yellow pompoms. Her fluffy brown hair is tied into two bunches on the sides of her head. She resembles a poodle. Her exposed midriff is a thick, white roll of fat that hangs over her short, purple skirt and shakes with every step. She turns a clumsy somersault. She prances heavily back and forth on the stage. She does cancan kicks. She yells “WHOOOOOO!!!” Her husband is seen behind her, yelling with the rest of the audience. She leads a cheer of Jerry’s name, but forgets the Y. The audience laughs. She finishes the cheer. There is a shot of Jerry watching quietly at the back of the studio, leaning against the soundman’s booth, his hand covering his mouth. The wife continues to high-step back and forth. The clapping and cheers subside. The audience has fallen silent. “WHOOO!!” she yells again. She does, in complete silence, a few more lumbering kicks. A few individuals snicker in the crowd. Jerry is shown at the soundman’s booth, doubled over in soundless laughter. The woman is confused. She looks to the side of the stage, as though she is being prompted. “Oh—OK,” she says. She takes center stage again. “All right,” she says. “You’ve seen these pom-poms.” Individual giggles are heard from the audience. “Now what about THESE?” Her husband watches eagerly. The naked stripper, sitting behind her, laughs. 59 The stripping music comes on. The lights dim. The wife does more cancan kicks. She trots back and forth. She takes off all her clothes except her underpants. The audience is clapping to the beat, whooping, and laughing. Some of them are covering their eyes. Others are covering their mouths. She continues prancing onstage, doing the occasional kick, until the music stops. “JER-RY!! JER-RY!! JER-RY!!” chants the crowd. Her husband wraps his arms around her naked torso and kisses her. “You made my wildest dreams come true,” he tells her. Individuals laugh in the audience. “Aww,” says Jerry, shaking his head. “That is true love.” The woman collects her scattered clothes. “That is —that is—that is—true love.” Celebrities are skillfully used by their handlers and the media to compensate for the increasingly degraded and regimented existences that most of us endure in a commodity culture. Celebrities tell us we can have our revenge. We can triumph. We can, one day, get back at the world that has belittled and abused us. It happens in the ring. It happens on television. It happens in the movies. It happens in the narrative of the Christian Right. It happens in pornography. It happens in the self-help manuals and on reality television. But it almost never happens in reality. Celebrity is the vehicle used by a corporate society to sell us these branded commodities, most of which we do 60 not need. Celebrities humanize commercial commodities. They present the familiar and comforting face of the corporate state. Supermodel Paulina Porizkova, on an episode of America’s Next Top Model, gushes to a group of aspiring young models, “Our job as models is to sell.” But they peddle a fake intimacy and a fantasy. The commercial “personalizing” of the world involves oversimplification, distraction, and gross distortion. “We sink further into a dream of an unconsciously intimate world in which not only may a cat look at a king but a king is really a cat underneath, and all the great power-figures Honest Joes at heart,”13 Richard Hoggart warned in The Uses of Literacy. We do not learn more about Barack Obama by knowing what dog he has brought home for his daughters or if he still smokes. Such personalized trivia, passed off as news, divert us from reality. In his book Celebrity, Chris Rojek calls celebrity culture “the cult of distraction that valorizes the superficial, the gaudy, the domination of commodity culture.” He goes further: Capitalism originally sought to police play and pleasure, because any attempt to replace work as the central life interest threatened the economic survival of the system. The family, the state, and religion engendered a variety of patterns of moral regulation to control desire and ensure compliance with the system of production. However, as capitalism developed, consumer culture and leisure time expanded. The principles that operated to repress the individual in the workplace and the home were extended to the shopping mall and recreational 61 activity. The entertainment industry and consumer culture produced what Herbert Marcuse called “repressive desublima tion.” Through this process individuals unwittingly subscribed to the degraded version of humanity.14 This cult of distraction, as Rojek points out, masks the real disintegration of culture. It conceals the meaninglessness and emptiness of our own lives. It seduces us to engage in imitative consumption. It deflects the moral questions arising from mounting social injustice, growing inequalities, costly imperial wars, economic collapse, and political corruption. The wild pursuit of status and wealth has destroyed our souls and our economy. Families live in sprawling mansions financed with mortgages they can no longer repay. Consumers recklessly rang up Coach handbags and Manolo Blahnik shoes on credit cards because they seemed to confer a sense of identity and merit. Our favorite hobby, besides television, used to be, until reality hit us like a tsunami, shopping. Shopping used to be the compensation for spending five days a week in tiny cubicles. American workers are ground down by corporations that have disempowered them, used them, and have now discarded them. Celebrities have fame free of responsibility. The fame of celebrities, wrote Mills, disguises those who possess true power: corporations and the oligarchic elite. Magical thinking is the currency not only of celebrity culture, but also of totalitarian culture. And as we sink into an 62 economic and political morass, we are still controlled, manipulated and distracted by the celluloid shadows on the dark wall of Plato’s cave. The fantasy of celebrity culture is not designed simply to entertain. It is designed to keep us from fighting back. “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books,” Neil Postman wrote: What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumble-puppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.15 Mark Andrejevic, a professor of communication 63 studies at the University of Iowa at Iowa City, writes that reality shows like Big Brother and Survivor glamorize the intrusiveness of the surveillance state, presenting it as “one of the hip attributes of the contemporary world,” “an entrée into the world of wealth and celebrity,” and even a moral good. In his book Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched, he quotes veterans of The Real World, Road Rules, and Temptation Island who speak about their on-air personal growth and the therapeutic value of being constantly watched. As Josh on Big Brother explains, “Everyone should have an audience.” Big Brother, in which ten cohabiting strangers willingly submit to roundthe-clock video monitoring, is a celebration of the surveillance state. More than twice as many young people apply to MTV’s Real World show than to Harvard, for a chance to live under constant surveillance. But the use of hidden cameras—part of professional wrestling’s attraction as well as a staple on reality television—reinforces celebrity culture’s frightening assumption that it is normal, indeed enviable, to be constantly watched. For corporations and a government that seeks to make surveillance routine, whether to study our buying habits or read our e-mails or make sure we do not organize social protest, these shows normalize what was once considered a flagrant violation of our Constitutional right to privacy.16 There is a rapacious appetite for new, “real-life” drama and a desperate thirst for validation by the celebrity culture. This yearning to be anointed worthy of celebrity was captured in Dave Eggers’s book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. He writes a satirical transcript of an interview/audition tape he purportedly made for The 64 Real World. Eggers eagerly discloses to the interviewer the most sensational episodes of his life, including his daily habit of masturbating in the shower. His parents both died of cancer thirty-two days apart, leaving him at twenty-two to raise his eight-year-old brother Toph. Mr. T from the ATeam moved into the town he grew up in. His childhood friend’s father doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire. He drew a picture of his mother on her deathbed. His father was a devious alcoholic who drank vodka out of tall soda glasses. Eggers muses on the hunger for celebrity: Because, see, I think what my town, and your show, reflect so wonderfully is that the main byproduct of the comfort and prosperity that I’m describing is a sort of pure, insinuating solipsism . . . we’ve grown up thinking of ourselves in relation to the political-media-entertainment ephemera, in our safe and comfortable homes, given the time to think about how we would fit into this or that band or TV show or movie, and how we would look doing it. These are people for whom the idea of anonymity is existentially irrational, indefensible.17 “Why do you want to be on The Real World?” asks the interviewer. “Because I want everyone to witness my youth,” answers Eggers: I just mean, that it’s in bloom. That’s what you’re all about, right? The showing of raw fruit, correct? 65 Whether that’s in videos or on Spring Break, whatever, the amplifying of youth, the editing and volume magnifying what it means to be right there, at the point when all is allowed and your body wants everything for it, is hungry and taut, churning, an energy vortex, sucking all toward it.18 Okay, you want to hear a sad story? Last night I was home, listening to an album. A favorite song came on, and I was singing aloud . . . and as I was singing and doing the slo-mo hands-in-hair maneuver, I messed up the words to the song I was singing, and though it was two fifty-one in the morning, I became quickly, deeply embarrassed about my singing gaffe, convinced that there was a very good chance that someone could see me—through the window, across the dark, across the street. I was sure, saw vividly that someone—or more likely a someone and his friends —over there was having a hearty laugh at my expense.19 At the end of the interview, Eggers says to the interviewer, “Reward me for my suffering,” “Have I given you enough? Reward me. Put me on television. Let me share this with millions . . . I know how this works. I give you these things, and you give me a platform. So give me a platform. I am owed . . . I can do it any way you want, too—I can do it funny, or maudlin, or just straight, uninflected— anything. You tell me. I can do it sad, or inspirational, 66 or angry

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