By now you’ve heard all about Miley Cyrus at the VMAs — and whether you think it was a minstrel show, an example of the double standard exacted on women, or simply in bad taste, the overwhelming reaction has been negative.
Take a look at Jody Rosen’s incisive critique for New York Magazine:
Cyrus has spent a lot of time recently toying with racial imagery. We’ve seen Cyrus twerking her way through the video for her big hit “We Can’t Stop,” professing her love for “hood music,” and claiming spiritual affinity with Lil’ Kim. Last night, as Cyrus stalked the stage, mugging and twerking, and paused to spank and simulate analingus upon the ass of a thickly set African-American backup dancer, her act tipped over into what we may as well just call racism: a minstrel show routine whose ghoulishness was heightened by Cyrus’s madcap charisma, and by the dark beauty of “We Can’t Stop” — by a good distance, the most powerful pop hit of 2013.
A doctoral dissertation could (and will) be written on the racial, class, and gender dynamics of Cyrus’s shtick. I’ll make just one historical note. For white performers, minstrelsy has always been a means to an end: a shortcut to self-actualization. The archetypal example is in The Jazz Singer (1927), in which Al Jolson’s immigrant striver puts on the blackface mask to cast off his immigrant Jewish patrimony and remake himself as an all-American pop star.
Cyrus’s twerk act gives minstrelsy a postmodern careerist spin. Cyrus is annexing working-class black “ratchet” culture, the potent sexual symbolism of black female bodies, to the cause of her reinvention: her transformation from squeaky-clean Disney-pop poster girl to grown-up hipster-provocateur. (Want to wipe away the sickly-sweet scent of the Magic Kingdom? Go slumming in a black strip club.) Cyrus may indeed feel a cosmic connection to Lil’ Kim and the music of “the hood.” But the reason that these affinities are coming out now, at the VMAs and elsewhere, is because it’s good for business.
It’s gross, it’s exploitative, it’s unfortunate. But what fascinates me isn’t the critique — although there’s much more to be said, especially in terms of gender and self-exploitation and postfeminism — so much as Cyrus’s immunity to it. These critiques may shade our understanding of her image; when someone writes a star study of her, decades from now, this performance, and the response to it, may or may not hold as much significance as, say, her turn as Hannah Montana. But her stardom will endure — and not even because of the old maxim that ‘all publicity is good publicity.’
Cyrus, and other pop stars with negative publicity swirling around them, are immune for a rather simple reason: their power, and resilience, doesn’t stem from their images. It’s in their music. And so long as you can turn on your Top 40 radio station and hear a super catchy song — catchy enough that it overrides your personal politics — it doesn’t matter what they do, so long as the music remains infective.
Take the most blatant example of a Pop Star Behaving Badly: Chris Brown. In what has now become well-trod public knowledge, on the night of February 9th, 2009, Chris Brown physically attacked then-girlfriend Rihanna. The severity of the beating only became evident when a picture of her battered face, leaked to TMZ, quickly spread across the internet. In the years since the event, Brown has managed to make himself look like even more of an asshole, tattooing a picture of a battered woman, who just happens to look like Rihanna, on his neck, and making all matter of equally egregious statements. But I don’t need to convince you of Brown’s douchery: it’s common knowledge.
And yet, his records still sell. And not just a little, amongst the Brown defenders, but a lot. Number One album, Number One Singles, tons of award nominations a lot. His video for “Look at Me Now,” released in 2011, has received over 220 MILLION YouTube views. “Don’t Wake Me Up” was EVERYONE last summer.
Now, I love Top 40 radio. I’ve always loved it. I love its comforting repetitiveness; I love how it familiarizes me with the newest pop, for better or for worst, while I’m driving to the grocery store. But I loathe Brown and the choices his image represents, so I change the channel when one of his songs comes on — even the implicit, passive endorsement is too much for me. But I can’t change the channel when I’m pumping my gas and the loud speaker is playing that same Top 40 station or when it comes on during a sports game.
Do all these Clear Channel radio execs endorse domestic abuse? Does the owner of the gas station? Do the players on the sports team? Do most of the kids listening at home or playing the YouTube video in the background while they do their homework or chat online? Do the moms who let their kid use the song for her ringtone? Probably not, no. But the songs are catchy. And because you’re not looking at Brown’s face as the song plays in the background, you can deal. It’s the banality of catchy Top 40, and it’s very easy to tolerate. If Brown’s music were shitty, he’d no longer be popular. Simple.
But why doesn’t this disarticulation of performer and product work with other celebrities? Why can’t we tolerate what Paula Deen does in her private life, with the understanding that she’s a “good” cook? What about Mel Gibson, who’s still a decent actor, but has arguably behaved less abhorrently than Brown? Because celebrities in general — and film and television actors in particular — are wed to their actual faces. Every time I see Mel Gibson onscreen, I’m reminded of the infamous mugshot. Every time I hear his voice, I hear the transcript of racial epithets. Every time I see Paul Deen’s face, I see her clumsy, back-handed apology for her own racial epithets. The thing that makes the star a star — the talent — is yoked physical appearance.
Granted, pop stars are pop stars in no small part due to their ability to manufacture an image to accompany their songs. Without her boyfriends and break-ups and best friends and bitch face, Taylor Swift would not be Taylor Swift. But the source of her power and charisma is not in her appearance, per se, or her speaking ability — as clearly evidenced last night at the VMAs. It’s in her catchy-ass music that worms into your head and refuses to leave. Britney’s a great example here: now that she’s basically become a recluse, her new releases still sell like crazy. It’s not because she’s a good singer — she’s not, really — but because she has great production. Max Martin, Dr. Luke — if they make it, it doesn’t matter who sings it, or what the body behind that voice has done, you’ll listen to it.
Or take the so-called “song of the summer, “Blurred Lines,” which may or may not be “rapey.” If it were a poem, submitted as assignment by a student, I’d probably go for the later. But put it with a Pharrell beat, and every time it plays at a summer wedding, you’ll be on the dance floor — it’s easy to forget about how condescending the video is when it’s that easy to move to.
There are dozens of other singers who have committed crimes, cultural or literal, that we ignore. And as much as Cyrus’s performance engenders intelligent conversations about race and sexuality, the fact remains that her song — “We Can’t Stop” — is infectious. Cyrus herself may not understand that the song’s power and poignancy stem from its sadness (someone on Facebook said “it sounds like the funeral music for a young person”), but that infectiousness makes Cyrus, the industrial earner, immune.
Cyrus won’t make money because of this performance — she makes money because of the song that undergirds it. And so long as she continues to make that much money, big name, super talented producers will continue to make songs for her, which will continue to dominate the radio and top 40 charts. She could become a lesbian, she could date a guy twenty years older than her, she could leak a sex tape, she could convert to Scientology, she could cloister herself in a Buddhist monastery, she could appropriate the signifiers of yet another culture, she could join the Occupy Movement, she could change her name to a symbol — so long as this was still her single, and she still had the muscle of a major label behind her, this song would still be one of the major hits of the summer.
You know the one thing she probably couldn’t do? Become an outspoken, radical feminist. Which, contrasted with the embrace of Brown, should tell you something about what our culture will and will not tolerate from our idols.
Just a very quick note on this week’s episode of Scandal, a show that’s doing some of the most interesting (network) work in storytelling, female desire, postfeminism, race, and the intersections between all of the above. But what I found interesting about this week’s episode had nothing to do with those qualities and everything to do with it’s evocation of “morality clauses” in contracts — a page straight from the playbook of classic Hollywood.
If you don’t watch Scandal, the basic premise is as follows: Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) is a “Fixer,” a term borrowed from classic Hollywood and meant to connote her behind-the-scenes, treading the line between legal/illegal, “fixing” of various potential scandals. She also works on political campaigns, but that’s another story.
Within this particular episode, Pope is hired to help spin the scandal from the revelation of an old affair between a female CEO and her former law professor. When she was a law student and he was a law professor, they engaged in an affair; now said affair is coming to light because the law professor is nominated for the Supreme Court. Not an altogether unfamiliar scenario.
But what really interested me was how the company of which the female participant in the affair (nicely played by Lisa Edelstein, formerly of House) is subject to censor from the company of which she is the CEO, which threatens to fire her for violating the terms of her contract, specifically, a “morality clause.” Even though her “transgressions” occurred fourteen years in the past, her Fortune 500 company could still fire her for actions that did not adhere to the moral standards of the company. Or, more bluntly, any actions that, once revealed, would incite negative press coverage and make the stock price drop.
The board of this company seems to have the CEO cornered: her actions violate the morality clause, even if they were committed years ago, and they’re about to vote to fire her. But at the last minute, some associates of Olivia Pope barge into the board room and threaten to all sorts of dirt on the other members of the board, all of whom have also signed contracts with morality clauses.
In truth, these Pope Associates have nothing. No dirt. I’m sure they actually could find something, but they had a time crunch. But the very suggestion that they had dirt was enough to make all of these (male) board members feel very guilty and quietly rescind their threat to invoke the morality clause in her contract. As close up of individual board members makes abundantly clear, the vast majority of them have also violated their own morality clauses.
And here’s where we return to Classic Hollywood. Morality clauses never (or very rarely) actually govern the behavior of the contracted individual, whether a member of a board or a Hollywood star. Instead, it’s all about appearance — and surveillance. Companies publicized morality clauses much in the same way that the studios, following the scandals of the early ’20s, publicized their own clauses. Ultimately, adherence to the clauses mattered very little — indeed, no star was every fired. What mattered was the appearance of strict moral regulation.
Perhaps even more importantly, the knowledge of such clauses legislates behavior. Or, rather, makes it go underground, ostensibly immune to surveillance. In classic Hollywood, this meant relying on Fixers employed by the very company that had made you sign the contract with the morality clause. Today, it means that individuals, whether on the corporate or celebrity level, understand that their behavior will be surveilled. Crucially, however, it doesn’t mean that they will actually alter their behavior. Humans do “immoral” things, broadly defined. Humans have affairs; humans do drugs; humans have peccadilloes. Morality clauses persist not to actually change behavior, but to a.) make outsiders believe that the company/studio/whatever does not endorse that behavior and b.) to force that behavior underground.
It’s a totally screwy system. But that’s ideology and the realities of American conservative values.
You may have seen this story making the gossip rounds: at Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel’s wedding, Timberlake’s longtime real estate agent made a congratulatory gag video, featuring footage of homeless people from L.A. giving the couple their congratulations. Gawker went public with it yesterday, and their write-up covers its “greatest hits,” as it were:
After the guests at Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel’s wedding were whisked to southern Italy via private jet last week, they were greeted by a video produced by Timberlake’s longtime pal, L.A. real estate agent Justin Huchel. The video had a gag: Huchel hit the streets of Los Angeles and asked a bunch of homeless people, street musicians, and transexuals to wish the multimillionaire newlyweds well. Funny, funny stuff.
The 8:30 video featured street interviews with ten people, many of them obviously homeless, premised on the idea that they were friends of Timberlake and Biel’s who, for whatever reason, couldn’t quite swing the trip to the Borgo Egnazia resort in Puglia for the nuptials, which were reported to cost $6.5 million. “Greetings from Your Hollywood Friends Who Just Couldn’t Make It,” reads the opening title card, “Featuring Sid, Chuck, Robert, and More!” Sid, Chuck, Robert, and others appear to be penniless and living on the street. Some of them are obviously intoxicated, mentally ill, or both, and at least one of them is entirely incapable of speaking.
“Justin and Jessica, I haven’t seen you for a long time,” one toothless man tells the camera. “I hope the wedding goes fine for you. My gift is in the mail.”
A male off-camera voice, apparently Huchel’s, asks the man when he last saw Timberlake and Biel, adding, “Did you and Jessica mess around?”
At one point, after commentary from an apparently transexual man, Timberlake’s “SexyBack” is played in the background.
Another glassy-eyed apparently homeless man woozily tells the camera, in a lengthy and rambling monologue, “Jeez I miss you so much. I wish I could be there.” (“There” being the $1,000-plus a night Italian resort hanging out with guests like Jimmy Fallon and Andy Samberg. “Here” being behind what looks like a McDonald’s.) Others mumble unintelligibly in response to questions about when they last hung out with Timberlake and Biel. When one shirtless man says he saw them at the L.A. Coliseum, the male voice asks, “were you performing with them?”
I’d also suggest watching the video yourself, available at the top of the Gawker post.
So there we go.
For much of my life, I had no idea what white privilege was. Because I lived in a town where white privilege went unquestioned, it was invisible to me. I don’t blame my parents for this; I don’t even (entirely) blame my education for this. My high school was operating within the system of white privilege, which works very, very hard to make white privilege invisible. If it were visible, then it would be questioned. In my school district, one of the junior highs had the mascot “Sacajawea Braves” — which, until about ten years before, had been the Sacajawea Savages. And no one ever said anything about it. The fact that a school governed by white people, in a predominantly white town, could get away with calling the people associated with Sacajawea “Savages,” or even “Braves” — that’s white privilege. That I never was made to think of my own race an actual race — that’s white privilege. There’s a privilege inherent to not having to think about your own race, to not having to think about not offending other races.
One of my favorite distillations of white privilege comes from the work of Peggy McIntosh, who authored a clear list of all the things that white people don’t have to worry about. I copy it in full because it is just so f-ing incisive:
As a white person….
1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.
3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
7. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
9. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.
10. I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.
11. I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another person’s voice in a group in which s/he is the only member of his/her race.
12. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
13. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
14. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
15. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
16. I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their race.
17. I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color.
18. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.
19. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
20. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
21. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
22. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
23. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
24. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.
25. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
26. I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
27. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.
28. I can be pretty sure that an argument with a colleague of another race is more likely to jeopardize her/his chances for advancement than to jeopardize mine.
29. I can be pretty sure that if I argue for the promotion of a person of another race, or a program centering on race, this is not likely to cost me heavily within my present setting, even if my colleagues disagree with me.
30. If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.
31. I can choose to ignore developments in minority writing and minority activist programs, or disparage them, or learn from them, but in any case, I can find ways to be more or less protected from negative consequences of any of these choices.
32. My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races.
33. I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing or body odor will be taken as a reflection on my race.
34. I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
35. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.
36. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.
37. I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps, professionally.
38. I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.
39. I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.
40. I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
41. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
42. I can arrange my activities so that I will never have to experience feelings of rejection owing to my race.
43. If I have low credibility as a leader I can be sure that my race is not the problem.
44. I can easily find academic courses and institutions which give attention only to people of my race.
45. I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.
46. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.
47. I can travel alone or with my spouse without expecting embarrassment or hostility in those who deal with us.
48. I have no difficulty finding neighborhoods where people approve of our household.
49. My children are given texts and classes which implicitly support our kind of family unit and do not turn them against my choice of domestic partnership.
50. I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.
That is white privilege, and white privilege is real. We have a black man as president, but that doesn’t mean that these assertions don’t hold true. To be white in America means to be privileged; to deny as much is to deny the realities of lived race relations in the world today. I am not saying that this is awesome. I acknowledge that I benefit from white privilege every day of my life, but that doesn’t mean that I think that this is the way things should be.
And no where does privilege manifest itself as overtly as celebrity culture. Now, I anticipate the initial counter-arguments: lots of non-white people are celebrities! Indeed, some of the *biggest* celebrities are, in fact, non-whites! Obama! Beyonce! Jay-Z! Kanye West! Denzel! Crucially, the concept of “white privilege” doesn’t mean that people who aren’t white can’t be celebrities. It just means that those people don’t have the behavioral latitude as white celebrities. Take, for example, the backlash against Obama’s First Debate, when he didn’t bring the “anger” — as Chris Menning explains, ”When reading articles that laud Mitt Romney for winning, keep in mind that they’re celebrating the fact that Mitt Romney can get away with behaving like a white man and Barack Obama, the President of the United States, still can’t.”
In short: white people can get away with all sorts of egregious shit because they are the ruling class. Non-white people (an overarching conflation I hate, but that works here) cannot. White privilege has been all over the rhetoric attached to this election: Mitt Romney has connections to the company that controls voting technology, which is, overall, okay; imagine how people would deal with that if Obama had such connections…..or imagine how differently people would treat an “underage” pregnancy on the part of a white candidate and the same on the part of a black candidate. Privacy, indifference — that’s what white privilege grants.
And that’s what’s in overt display at Justin Timberlake’s wedding to Jessica Biel.
I’ve been public in my celebration of the boringness of this wedding. It’s a “secret” wedding that somehow managed to garner the cover of People — I call bullshit. This was a highly orchestrated, ostensibly secret wedding primed to promote its two stars, both of whom are struggling with their Hollywood careers. (Biel is tanking; Timberlake, who’s made it very public that he’s concentrating on acting, will make or break his career with his turn in the Coen Brother’s next film). Fact is, the wedding was a classic celebrity affair: public event masked as intimate affair.
Which makes the video mentioned at the beginning of this piece all the more egregious. Justin Huchel (who is white and privileged) put the video together. Sure, it’s humorous. Sure, it’s possible that Huchel paid the partipants, thus (ostensibly) negating complaints that he exploited them. But the fact remains: at a party full of (almost entirely) white, privileged people, this video was presented with the specific purpose of amusement. People of color, people of ambiguous gender, people of explicitly lower class — employed for amusement. It’s a white person’s privilege to produce this video, and it’s a white person’s privilege to think that this is funny. To be blunt, it is privilege that allows these testimonies to be funny. Absent that privilege, they are singularly tragic.
You might think I’m overreacting, or too sensitive, or need to be reminded that this was all in jest. To repeat: the idea that this sort of action could be “all in jest” is a product of white privilege. It is, plain and simple, exploitation, and exploitation of the disenfranchised. Arguing that it’s “just a joke” is tantamount to arguing that systemic race and class exploitation is “just a joke.” This sort of behavior is a symptom of the greater, systemic disease. That’s the sad, totally shameful truth.
Generally speaking, I like Justin Timberlake. I don’t like Jessica Biel, but that’s because I think her image is boring — not because, to this point, I thought she was a racist. I understand that Timberlake and Biel did not spearhead this video. But they have spearheaded its cover-up, as clearly illustrated in the letter sent to Gawker upon its publication of this information. This was, as the lawyer explains, intended as a “private joke” at Timberlake’s wedding, and not meant for further distribution. Again, that’s white privilege: the idea that you could create an explicitly racist, classist, exploitative text and assume that it would go no further, and that if it did, that you could shut it down with a letter to the editors of Gawker. Critique Gawker all you will, but you must admire its defiance. Granted, Gawker is headed by a white male, and that’s part of what has made the site historically viable. This post undoubtedly garners a lot of page views, but it also speaks truth to (white) power…and in a way that white people can’t possibly disavow.
This petite-scandale won’t do much to Timberlake/Biel’s image. They weren’t responsible for it, per se, although they are, without doubt, responsible for cultivating an environment in which this sort of behavior would be considered okay/humorous. I don’t know how, or whether, we should blame other attendants of this wedding for calling attention to it before it went public. Would Jimmy Kimmel make a public statement about this sort of thing before it was made public? No. Again, that’s white privilege: the ability to ignore.
But I hope that this incident has the same effect on you as it does on me: reminding me how insidious white privilege can be while reminding me to call attention to it in our own lives, whether we’re white or not. The only way to interrogate and, eventually, challenge privilege is to make it visible. That’s the goal of this post, and hopefully it will become yours as well.
Here is what you need to understand about Claire Danes: for the millions of women (and a few hundred thousand men) who watched My So-Called Life, she will always be Angela Chase. Let me rephrase — for the millions of women for whom My So-Called Life became the seminal text of young adulthood (Generation Catalano, as Slate recently dubbed us) Claire Danes must be Angela Chase. While the show lasted but 19 episodes and Angela Chase remains frozen at age 15, it is essential to think that Angela grew up, grew out of her Jordan Catalano phase, and went on to success. Such is the crux of Danes’ star image: she’s teenage angst made good, proof positive that teenagers became adults (who may sometimes make bad decisions, as evidenced below).
Granted, millions around the world know Danes as Juliet to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo. And although Juliet obviously dies, the fact that Danes lives is, yet again, proof that the intensity of teenage love can be endured, can be “lived through.” Even if you’ve never seen or loved a Claire Danes text, you might still know that she survived growing up Hollywood, and that this girl:
But something else happened around 2004 — something that turned many fans, ardent or casual, against her. During the filming of Stage Beauty (which, admit it, is laughably bad), Danes and co-star Billy Crudup developed some sort of relationship. Crudup left his long-term (and seven-months-pregnant) girlfriend, Mary-Louise Parker. Overnight, Danes became a family-wrecker. Look at her in the corner! Classic “Other Woman” picture placement!
While Dane and Crudup didn’t flaunt their relationship in the press the way that, say, LeAnn Rimes and What’s-His-Bad-Acting-Name did, they did stay together. Danes starred in Shopgirl (woefully underrated) and played a bit-part (as a relationship-wrecker!) in The Family Stone. Crudup’s career stayed in second gear with supporting roles in a smattering of high profile pictures (Trust the Man, Mission Impossible III, The Good Shepherd). It’s difficult to correlate negative P.R. and film performance when the actors aren’t the principle stars, but it was clear that neither Danes nor Crudup were getting big roles. Scandal didn’t make them more interesting to audiences; instead, the details of the scandal made them both seem inconsiderate and cold. (Again, Crudup and Danes maintained that their relationship did not start until after the disintegration of Crudup and Parker’s relationship. Still, Crudup left his pregnant girlfriend. Some actions can never be positively spun).
And I mean look! Adorable! Something about Crudup’s face just screams cad, whereas Dancy looks like he just wants to cuddle.
The marriage marked the beginning of Act II of Danes’ career. Not only had she jettisoned the association with Crudup, but she went back to television, the medium where audiences had loved her the most. Danes transformed herself to play the role of Temple Grandin — an Autistic woman with a truly astounding life story — in an HBO documentary. On the surface, playing Grandin was just a chance for Danes to show that she could transform herself into something more than a pretty face, the way that, say, Charlize Theron did for her turn in Monster.
Which is why Danes’ impressive work on Homeland should be no surprise. On the recommendation of the cultural gurus at the Slate Cultural Gabfest, I started watching earlier this week and quickly burned through seven episodes. I was a bit turned off by the premise — returned P.O.W., War on Terror, CIA operatives, etc. etc…..hadn’t I sorta kinda watched this show before? Isn’t it Rubicon meets 24? But Homeland is everything that I want from a thriller, filled with nuance, moral ambiguity, and intricate plotting. It also escapes the fatal Showtime curse of really shitty supporting characters (Dexter, I’m talking to you). The show is very, very good, and Danes is very, very good in it.
But Danes’ character, Carrie Anderson, also seems to be a culmination of Danes’ star text to date. New York Mag‘s Vulture already established that Carrie is Angela Chase all grown up , but Carrie is also a notorious home-wrecker, very smart, and filled with anxiety about fucking things up the way she did in the not-so-distant past.
The show works because the writing is excellent, the acting, especially on the part of the three principles, is superb, and the production values are high. But it also presents Danes in the way we want to think about her: as an extension of Angela Chase, imperfect and scarred and striving. While stars can change the conversation about their images, it’s impossible to undo an aspect of your established star image. I wouldn’t say that Danes has “embraced” her image as a one-time home-wrecker, but this role shows that she, and the writers of the show, understand the associations that many viewers will bring to the show.
The stars that last are those that understand their own images and make decisions accordingly. It is my hope, then, that the character of Carrie Anderson, and its cognizant play on Danes’ star image, is but the beginning of the long second act of Danes’ career. Angela Chase was (and is) so important to the person I am today — for her to endure is, in some small, significant way, for me to endure. I realize this might sound ridiculous. But that sort of attachment, even by someone, such as myself, with ostensible academic distance from stars, underlines the ways in which stars matter, and why I spent a Sunday morning thinking about Angela Chase, myself, and the way we’ve both changed and accumulated meanings since age 15.
I’m having SO much fun writing these things. Mitchum, weed, boobs, Beer Miles, Jordan Catalano, it’s allllll here.
Note: The following will also function as the first half of the epilogue to my dissertation, which I’ll be handing in IN ITS 400 PAGE GLORY on Wednesday. In the meantime, I would *love* some feedback….
On February 28, 2011, as I was completing the finishing touches on my dissertation on the history of the celebrity gossip, something fortuitous occurred. A major star, with very specific economic value to multiple media identities, underwent a very public meltdown. At the time of this writing, the star has been fired from the program in which he was starring. Perhaps even more importantly, this star submitted to mainstream media outlets to air his grievances, but was quickly disillusioned with the way that he, and his story, was mediated. He has since made a series of decisions and statements that effectively lay the industry, its machinations, and his place within it, bare.
This star is by no means the first to undergo a very public self-destruction. But he may be the first to fully engage the particular powers of the online gossip industry to do so. As will become clear, this star, the extent to which his behavior was tolerated and capitalized upon, and the resultant media frenzy illuminate the inherent conflicts that characterize the current production of stars — and the potential for those conflicts to be be exploited.
The star in question is Charlie Sheen, son of Martin Sheen, brother to Emilio Estevez, and, for much of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, a major film star. For the last eight years, Sheen has commanded upwards of $2 million an episode for his work on the Two in a Half Men, which has consistently been ranked as the top sitcom in America. Years of drug use, repeated accusations of domestic abuse, public dalliances with porn stars and prostitutes, and an intoxicated rampage through the New York Plaza Hotel culminated in a Cocaine-induced bender spanning January 26th and 27th. Sheen ended up and the hospital, and his publicist released an official statement that the star was suffering from “severe stomach pains,” which Sheen later claimed to be related to a hernia. The next day, Sheen entered into a self-fashioned rehab in his home, and Two and a Half Men officially went on hiatus.
The show was scheduled to resume production in early March once Sheen regained sobriety. But throughout February, Chuck Lorre, the creator and executive producer of Two and a Half Men and several of the most popular and profitable sitcoms in America, levied a public critique of Sheen. Since his first sitcom, Lorre has placed “vanity cards” (small print musings on life and the industry) at the end of each episode. Lorre has subtly decried Sheen’s actions in the past, yet following Sheen’s January hospitalization, his criticism became increasingly overt. A card at the the February 14th episode of Men read “If Charlie Sheen outlives me, I’m gonna be really pissed.” The same day, a card at the end of the Lorre-produced Mike and Molly alluded to Sheen’s lifestyle: “He felt dead inside. No matter how hard he partied, he could never escape the simple fact — inside, dead.”
Sheen retaliated by calling in to the radio show of friend (and conspiracy theorist) Alex Jones on February 24. He described Alcoholics Anonymous as a “bootleg cult” and exclaiming “I have a disease? Bullshit, I cured it, with my mind!” Sheen also called Lorre “a stupid little man,” referring to him as “Chaim Levine.” The same day, he released a “public letter” to TMZ, claiming “I fire back once and this contaminated little maggot can’t handle my power and can’t handle the truth. I wish him nothing but pain in his silly travels especially if they wind up in my octagon. Clearly I have defeated this earthworm with my words — imagine what I would have done with my fire breathing fists.”4
In response, Warner Bros. Television and CBS (Two and a Half Men’s production company/distributor and home network) issued a definitive statement, declaring that “based on the totality of Charlie Sheen’s statements, conduct, and condition” they had decided to cancel the duration of the season.
The purportedly sober Sheen then filmed interviews with ABC and NBC in which he continued his attack against Lorre and declared “I am on a drug — it’s called Charlie Sheen. It’s not available because if you try it once, you will die. Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body. . . . .Too much?” Unhappy with the way the interviews were edited and lit, Sheen invited TMZ to perform a live interview in the backyard of his Hollywood Hills home.
TMZ had, of course, been tracking the Sheen story for months, publishing dozens of quips from Sheen in print and taped form. But this was something different. An unvarnished, real-time quality characterizes TMZ content, and the Sheen interview was no exception. But this conversation was streaming live, just hours after his interview had aired on ABC. The interviewer, a jeans-and-t-shirt-clad TMZ staff member, sat in lawn chairs with Sheen, who chain-smoked, demanded coffee (mixed with Vodka), interacted with members of his entourage (including his two “goddesses”) and pontificated for forty-five minutes on his critics, their jealousy of his lifestyle, and the inability of the world to understand the fact that he was “winning at life.”
Sheen has since taken to Twitter, accumulating one million followers so quickly that he broke a Guinness World Record.7 His rhetoric has been transformed into internet memes, his soundbites transformed into haikus, captions for New Yorker cartoons, and juxtaposed it with the rantings of other famous “Charlies,” such Charles Manson. He has been called a one-man sideshow and a visionary. Whatever Sheen is, it is clear that he, like a handful of stars over the last fifty years, has challenged the way that the industry has traditionally mediated stars and their behavior.
* * *
I have made this detour into the recesses of Sheen’s mind with purpose, as his rhetoric — and the mediation thereof — have, more than any recent scandal or celebrity event, illuminated the way that the industry works. In the process, he has articulated uncomfortable truths about the way stars and gossip about them are “made,” and what audiences expect, and demand, from these products.
Sheen exemplifies the importance of stars today: his name and presence in Two and a Half Men helped the show get picked up; his particular brand of humor, coupled with that of co-star Jon Cryer and the writing, directing, and overall production of Chuck Lorre, made the show a phenomenal success. That success, in turn, allowed Warner Bros. to charge unprecedented amounts for domestic and international syndication rights; as of 2011, the show airs in forty-eight countries around the world. But Two and a Half Men is dependent on Sheen — his character’s bad-boy behavior add necessary (albeit slight) spice to an otherwise bland family sitcom. Warner Bros. and Lorre could replace Sheen, but as the example of James Garner and Maverick made clear all the way back in the 1960s, a popular show’s identity hinges on the presence of its star, as validated by Sheen’s $2 million an episode paycheck.
Some speculate that after eight years, Two and a Half Men had run its course, and Lorre was looking for a way out. But the show still consistently placed in the top fifteen, and every episode “in the can” meant millions in additional syndication revenue. The imperatives of the marketplace demanded that it continue, even when Sheen spent the hiatuses between filming trashing hotel rooms, using illegal drugs, and abusing the women in his life. Other stars, including Lindsay Lohan to Mickey Rourke, have engaged in similar vices and have been chastised or fired. In Rourke’s case, his erratic behavior made it nearly impossible for the film to be “bonded” and receive funding. In contrast, Lorre, Warner Bros., and CBS tolerated Sheen’s behavior, however repugnant, because it did not effect the bottom line — a reality to which Sheen pointed during his interview with TMZ. Put bluntly, a star’s actions are not judged by their morality or legality, but by how they effect the products with which they are associated.
But the tolerance of Sheen, both on the part of audiences and the industry itself, goes beyond simple economics. He is a white male and the son of a well-respected star, with a long career in Hollywood.8 Sheen’s offenses are also studded with glamour: he parities, but he parties with entire baseball teams, inviting All-Stars to a private yacht for a screening of his hit film Major League. As clearly evidenced by the TMZ video, his lifestyle is luxurious, seemingly filled with beautiful blondes willing to fulfill his every wish. As Sheen explains, he is a “bitchin’ rockstar from Mars,” and the media has done very little to disabuse viewers of this notion: his lifestyle may be a little crazy, but it is one in which he clearly revels. In contrast, female stars who lead a similar lifestyle — whether Lohan or Britney Spears — have been consistently framed as pitiable. Women who live outsized lives are grotesque, while Sheen is just, in his words, “grandiose.”
The public’s willingness to accept or gloss over Sheen’s actions is directly linked to the specifics of his picture personality. Even before Two and a Half Men, Sheen’s star image hinged on his portrayals of rogues, cheeky jack-asses, and philanderers in Major League (1989), Men at Work (1990) Hot Shots! (1991), and subsequent sequels. Two and a Half Men took his existing image and placed it in a domestic environment, where it took on a crucial narrative function as the unruliness against which his brother and nephew defined themselves.
If the roles were exchanged, and Sheen, rather than Cryer, played the upright, loving father, Sheen’s actions would seem quite literally “out of character,” puncturing audience understandings of what his star image represented. As is, his actions seem a natural, albeit amplified, extension of the role he plays on-screen. Instead of shocking fans, they function as yet another source of entertainment and pleasure: a repeat of Two and a Half Men, aired the evening of the TMZ interview, garnered 9.3 million viewers, as did the complete ABC interview, which aired at 10 p.m. on March 1st and won its time slot.
Sheen himself is cognizant of the harmony between his extra-textual and textual lives. While he admits that Two and a Half Men’s writers do not use actual experiences from his life, the show nevertheless “took all my gold, and used it, and then went thanks, good bye.” Sheen emphasizes that his antics have had no negative effect on the popularity and profitability of the show: “Negative press?!? Did you see the numbers on the show? It’s all about commerce, dude.” In other words, Sheen’s overarching star image — his on- and off-screen antics — are at least part of the reason for the show’s enduring popularity. Why punish him for living out the life of the character audiences love to watch on screen?
Indeed, as David Carr points out, Sheen was not fired for living out the life of his on-screen counter-part, but for his willingness to insult his boss, who, at this moment, is one of the few working in Hollywood television that has been able to deliver network product that attracts consistent ratings.10 Despite rumors that Lorre himself has mistreated and verbally abused his staff and crew, the fact remains that he is one of the most powerful men in the business. Warner Bros. and CBS will lose millions as a result of the early termination of the season, but both realize that keeping Lorre happy far outweighs. such losses. The rhetorical mudslinging is, in truth, a battle between oversized egos, with Lorre’s ego the more precious of the two.
As evidenced throughout Sheen’s slew of interviews, he understands his worth as a star — at one point, he even claimed that he would need another $1 million per episode to continue, a demand he has since rescinded. But Sheen is also willing to undercut attempts, whether forced rehab or confessional interviews, to sustain that value. Throughout the interview with TMZ, Sheen mocked the process by which stars attempt to pay “penance” for their sins, appearing in interviews, explaining their actions, and admitting their wrongs. As I’ve talked about several times on this blog, scandal of all forms require this sort of “reckoning,” which may manifest in the form of interviews, a new romance, a trip to rehab, or a come-back role. When Sheen agreed to participate in the interviews with ABC and NBC, the expectation was for him to humble himself, make it clear that he was sober, and win the support of his fans. Instead, the jittery Sheen seemed unhinged and fragile, and his rhetoric flew in the face of any expectations to make amends.
In the TMZ interview, Sheen derides the previous attempts to rehabilitate him, spoofing the types of questions, cuts, zooms, lighting techniques and facial expressions that other programs use to convey repentance. At one point, Sheen cheekily instructs the videographer: “If you can create the moment, though, where you ask that hard-hitting question about when I hit rock bottom and a shot of me like, blinking and looking down.” Later in the interview, he directs “Don’t get too close to me like they did on the [ABC Interview]. . . they put me in bad light, they put her in good light.” In this way, Sheen not only points out the otherwise hidden “tricks” of the gossip trade, but makes them look ridiculous.
Sheen likewise undercuts attempts on the part of the publicity apparatus to weave a narrative to soften the impact of his behavior. Sheen’s publicist had issued statements explaining the star’s hospitalization as the result of “mixed medications.” When asked why this statement was released, Sheen replies “I dunno, I was asleep during that moment. I respect Stanley [Sheen’s publicist] and he was doing the best he could. . . . . but if I conferred with him I probably would’ve come up with something better.” With this statement, Sheen lays the lie of the star making machine bare: publicists lie. And while not all publicists are tasked with covering up their clients’ recurring drug use, if this publicist lied, it seems natural that other publicists lie as well. While few gossip consumers are naive enough to believe that all publicist statements are absolutely true, never before has a celebrity stated so loudly, and so unequivocally, and to such a large audience, that the publicity apparatus manufactures the truth. It is telling that Sheen’s publicist resigned immediately after the conclusion of the interview.
Clearly, Sheen is aware of the repentance expected of him. But unlike misbehaving stars of the past, from Robert Mitchum to Mel Gibson, he refuses to cater to those expectations. Some stars, once embroiled in scandal, simply retreat; others choose a single, well-placed outlet to offer their exclusive confession or “side of the story.” In contrast, Sheen seems to be talking to anyone who will listen, flooding the mediascape with soundbites, each more outrageous and inflammatory than the next. As he explains, “I’m supposed to be out there begging for my job, I’m sorry, I don’t do that.” In a nation where the use of drugs and prostitutes is coded as shameful, his lack of repentance startlingly honest: “I don’t understand what I did wrong, except live a life that you all got jealous of?” Or, nearing the end of the interview, “you guys don’t even get the winning concept? The reality of winning? Sorry my life is so much more bitching than yours. I planned it that way.”
* * *
Perhaps most importantly, the coverage of Sheen underlines the close connections between the entities that hire stars and those that exploit gossip about them. TMZ, while housed under the Time Warner umbrella, has defined itself on its willingness to exploit gossip about all celebrities, regardless of their conglomerate affiliation. One can thus view the “collaboration” between Sheen and TMZ in one of two ways. First, TMZ is operating independent of Time Warner editorial oversight, and is approaching the scandal as it would any other: as an opportunity to attract visits to the website and viewers to the television show, even as it continues to bolster its brand as a go-to source for first-hand, unvarnished gossip. Alternately, Time Warner is mindful of the ways in which they can exploit Sheen even after his utility to Two and a Half Men has been exhausted. In other words, what Time Warner loses in profits from future episodes Two and a Half Men, it may (at least partially) gain in advertising revenue from TMZ, not to mention renewed interest in Two and a Half Men reruns. Whether TMZ is privy to this strategy — or whether it is an explicit strategy at all — matters little. When Time Warner decided to cultivate an investigative, no-holds-barred, video-heavy gossip outlet, it laid the groundwork for just such a situation as this one.
As a result, Time Warner was able to exploit Sheen’s star image while he was on the payroll for Two and a Half Men and can continue to do so now that he is not. Whether Sheen realizes the irony of the situation is unclear, but his continued willingness to provide TMZ (and other media outlets) with an endless fount of material again evidences his understanding of the gossip game. If he provides copy — the more unvarnished, crazy-sounding, and clippable the better — it will create a spectacle that will out-shine his adversaries.
In this way, Sheen is building a new star image on the wreckage of his old one. His message was getting lost in mediation, so he cut out as many mediators as possible. Instead of official statements or press conferences, he invites the cameras into his backyard, starts a Twitter feed, and “webcasts” live from his house on a Saturday night. He is attempting, as Ashton Kutcher once said of his own Twitter-use, to “take back his own publicity.”
Which is not, of course, to say that audiences have access to the real Sheen: “Crazy Sheen” is still just as much of an image as before, only this time, it has accumulated the varnish of authenticity, in part due its pure outlandishness, but also because of his reliance on tools (live streaming video, Twitter) that connote such authenticity.
* * *
Sheen’s star value, image, and maneuvering of the gossip industry thus serve as the natural, albeit blustering, extension of four phenomena put in motion following the disintegration of the studio system:
1) the embrace of “negative publicity,” e.g. publicity related to scandal, as “good publicity”;
2) the transfer of star management from the studios to the stars themselves;
3) the growth of gossip outlets and technologies that enable round-the-clock celebrity surveillance, and their accompanying connotations of intimacy, “realness,” and authenticity, and
4) the increasingly conglomerated gossip industry, wherein properties that rely on stars (movies, films, music) co-exist with others that produce gossip about them.
Each of these trends has roots in the 1950s and ‘60s, when the stars began to self-incorporate, take on their own publicity teams, and refuse to adhere to morality clauses. At the same time, gossip outlets gradually embraced scandal coverage, expanded in focus, and, increasingly, found themselves under conglomerate ownership, where they served a distinct promotional function. In the last twenty years, as more and more outlets, both friendly and “unfriendly,” attempt to exploit celebrity discourse for profit, celebrities have responded in turn, hiring massive teams to control the type and tone of discourse circulating around their images.
Sheen’s meltdown has shown how vulnerable the star image is once the publicity carapace is removed — and how willing gossip outlets are capitalize on that vulnerability. In this moment, Sheen’s antics seem outlandish, hilarious, and even refreshing: here, for once, is a celebrity who is not afraid to revel in his privilege, who recognizes that much of the disdain directed towards him — and towards any celebrity — is rooted in jealousy and resentment, and who is offering himself up, without the protection of a publicist, editor, make-up artist, or flattering key-lighting, for audiences to consume. Sheen may not be “Just like Us” with his dozen cars, multiple mansions, and stream of “goddesses,” but his efforts at communicating are a close as a celebrity can get to sitting down in a living room and having a one-on-one conversation.
As the market for paparazzi photos, Us Weekly, and gossip blogs expanded over the course of the last decade, the demand seemed to be for “authentic” celebrities, who communicated via New Media technologies, who did not seem manufactured, who did embarrassing things and shopped at the grocery store, but who, at the same time, lived glamorous lives, dated attractive people, had beautiful babies, and consumed on a level of which most could never dream. These contradictory impulses — one towards authenticity and normalcy, the other towards glamour and superlativeness — have helped guide the production of star images since the first generation of Hollywood stars.
The point, then, is that Charlie Sheen and his actions are exactly what many viewers seem to be asking from the industry: a pedigreed star, living an extraordinary life, but who is also available at all times, and dedicated to shattering all attempts at constructing him as something he is not.
But is The Charlie Sheen show a farce, or a tragedy? Is he lampooning the entire entertainment industry, and laughing his way to a higher paycheck, a more lavish lifestyle, and even more renown? Or does his attempt to do so — and the ability of the industry to profit from him — render him a tragic figure, trapped by his own game? Do his antics (and the ease with which he circumvented the traditional modes of celebrity production) prove that the gossip industry’s strategies are becoming obsolete? Or has he merely demonstrated that there is no outside of the publicity machine?
Put differently, is this apparent rupture in the gossip industry modus operundi merely proof of its resilience?
We will not know the answers to these question for months, if not years. But for now, I would argue that for all of Sheen’s apparent rebellion and willingness to humiliate himself to an international audience of millions, he has merely ratified the system. Sure, he lacks a publicist and has rejected counsel. But his ostensible refusal to play the game makes it easier for outlets to game him: they use the signifiers of his “freedom” (the screed from his mouth, the haggard look to his face) to sell tickets to the spectacle of an imploding star. Sheen’s actions have changed the tone and tenor of his image, but no matter of rants can change the fact that his image is packaged, disseminated, and exploited upon by the gossip outlets.
Sheen thinks he is a rockstar from Mars, that his life is grandiose, that he’s “winning at life” and the world is jealous. All these things may be true, and many others may believe them as well. But he also unemployed, his sons have been taken from him, and his ex-wife has filed a restraining order against him.
In truth, Sheen is a cog in a complex, tremendously exploitative industry, with close ties to all forms of media industries. That machinery has expanded, it has grown more complex, some parts have become automated, others rely on digital technology, and some fancy themselves independent. And while each cog — the celebrities themselves, publicists, entertainment new programs, gossip blogs — is essential to the industry’s smooth operation, it may also be readily replaced, left to rust in the junk pile of discarded celebrity. In this way, Sheen’s meltdown demonstrates the power of the contemporary industry to exploit its celebrity products in real time, on multiple platforms, and around the clock. At the same time, it telegraphs his eventual decline, and the industry’s overarching fickleness in regard to the celebrities that fuel it.
As Nikki Finke reported last Thursday, Summit will release The Beaver, otherwise known as the unfortunately named Mel Gibson starring vehicle, this Spring. The one-sheet is out (see below) and the trailer is circulating. And here’s the kicker: this film, which I should, by all accounts, hate — especially since Gibson has repeatedly revealed himself to be a uber-conservative, racist, misogynist — looks…..well, really good. The trailer totally takes advantage of me. The question of this post, then, is whether this movie has the potential to salvage Gibson’s career….or, alternately, whether a good film with a great performance can be saved from the image of its most prominent star.
The Beaver was set-up as a redemptive vehicle for Gibson: it was directed by long-time friend Jodie Foster, and the script for the film (penned by Kyle Killen — the guy behind the quickly cancelled critical darling Lone Star who came to speak at the Flow Conference) was #1 on Hollywood’s 2008 “Black List,” which lists the best unproduced screenplays circulating in Hollywood. (The creation story of The Black List is actually super fascinating — I highly recommend listening to Kim Masters’ “The Business” podcast interview with its founder).
Once Foster optioned the script, Jim Carrey and Steve Carrell were both attached to star at various points — but she decided on Gibson. This was after the anti-semitic sugar-tits rant…and before the misogynistic and super offensive voice mails to ex-girlfriend (and mother of his child) Oksana Grigorieva. So take a minute and watch the trailer, embedded below:
There’s something touching, no? That beautiful scene with Gibson floating in pool with the stream rising around him; the utterly hang-dog look to his face — it seems like he really is sorry for something.
But I also think that Summit — and Foster, if she had approval over the trailer — are very aware of the intertextuality between Gibson’s own life and the narrative of the film. A few choice quotes:
From the voice-over narration:
“This is the story of Walter Black, a hopelessly depressed individual.”
“The successful and loving family man he used to be has gone missing….and no matter what he’s tried, he can’t bring him back.”
“Walter is a man who has lost all hope.”
From the voice of The Beaver:
Walter: “I’m sick.” The Beaver: ”Do you want to get better?”
The Beaver: “This man is a dead end. He’s gone.”
From Walter’s wife, played by Jodie Foster:
“I fought for you, and I will continue to fight for you….”
All that’s missing is a stand-in for Summit saying “WE BELIEVE IN YOU AND YOUR RESILIENT FANBASE! THE CHRISTIANS, THEY LOVE YOU!”
The point being: we’re meant to see this film as Gibson’s personal and professional redemption. A chance for him to prove that he was, indeed, sick, but that he wants to get better, and to prove to the people who love him (his fans, Foster, whomever) that that is indeed possible. The Beaver even speaks in an Australian accent — a version of Gibson’s own “real” voice. The Beaver is Gibson’s true core, encouraging his broken exterior to become a better man.
A year ago, this would’ve played brilliantly. Hollywood loves a redemption story — see especially Robert Downey Jr. — especially when the subject of such redemption is male. (Females have a harder time — their weaknesses are less forgivable. Winona Ryder, etc.) The film would’ve been released as Oscar bait, would’ve almost certainly garnered several noms, and Gibson would be given the opportunity to reclaim his former Braveheart glory, a changed man, cognizant of the mistakes he had made and ready to rejoin Hollywood. I’d guess a Vanity Fair cover, complete with confessional disclosure, an Oprah interview, maybe even a slot on Barbara Walter’s Most Interesting People. He’d be doing promotional rounds RIGHT NOW.
Instead, the film is pushed to the Spring — well known as the place where once-potential prestige films go to die. (Granted, Silence of the Lambs, featuring Foster, was released in January and still managed to keep steam through the next year’s award season, but the game has changed since 1991). Summit is good at clever/exploitative marketing, and managed to keep The Hurt Locker alive in critic’s minds after a minuscule summer release. But I don’t think an aura of prestige is going to do much for this film.
Summit needs to use the selfsame narrative that they would’ve used if this were an Oscar film and Gibson’s relationship with his exgirlfriend hadn’t exploded across TMZ and the rest of the mediascape. They need to elide the fact that the film was made before those revelations and play it like a redemption for those mistakes as well. And this trailer proves they know such a strategy is imperative: Foster’s character’s exclamation that “I fought for you, and I will continue to fight for you” is almost identical to the way she has defended Gibson to the press.
According to a CBS/Vanity Fair poll, 76% of respondents said that “Gibson’s personal troubles would have no effect on whether they would see one of his movies.” To be clear: 76% would be uninfluenced by his “personal troubles.” But of that 76%, how many would actually be COMPELLED to SEE one of his films if it co-opted and commented on his personal troubles? And how many of the 24% who said that they would be “affected” could potentially be “affected” to go see it, so long as it sent a message of transformation?
This is the power of star image — when co-opted correctly, it can push a film or performance into legend. That could’ve been Gibson’s fate. But even a month ago, it was uncertain if the film would even see a release. The decision to go forward is most likely based on the relative silence on the Gibson front — not to mention the fact that several holes have been poked in Grigorieva’s case. The seas have calmed, as it were. This film — and Gibson’s career — could either fade away or be reborn.
I want to make it clear that no matter what Gibson once was, alcohol and power have turned him into a nasty human being. I don’t think it’s okay to talk to women the way that he did; I don’t think it’s okay to use racial or derogatory slurs. Obviously. But I find myself torn: am I willing to attend the film of a man who makes these remarks? Is it unfeminist to do so? But don’t I also watch movies made by Roman Polanski, Woody Allen? Starring Christian Bale? Is it possible to dislike the man and like the performance — hate the sin, love the sinner?
So tell me: will you have sympathy for The Beaver?
I’ve written on Confidential before, but on a much more cursory level. Below you’ll find the culmination of the chapter on which I’ve been working (and of which the ‘Problem Star’ series has been a part), detailing the rise and fall of the magazine that fundamentally altered the way the gossip industry did business. Stay tuned: as the end paragraph promises, there’s much Liz Taylor (and continued scandal) to come.
Garish, brassy, and brimming with punning innuendo, Confidential Magazine pledged to “tell the facts and name the names” — who was having sex with who, who was covering up hidden pasts, who was secretly flaunting societal rules. Confidential suggested, to an audience that quickly reached over four million an issue, that sexual and moral deviance ran rampant in Hollywood. In this way, it not only countered the wholesome narratives of traditional, conservative gossip outlets, but rendered them absurd. The mercurial rise of the magazine bespoke a hunger for this type of coverage — one that, once whetted, would not be sated by traditional reporting tactics. In 1958, “The Trial of the 100 Stars” forced Confidential publisher Robert Harrison to sell off the magazine, effectively neutering it in the process. Yet its success forced mainstream publications to alter their tone, style, and subject matter to better fit readers’ new-found taste for smut and scandal, and precipitated the rise in weekly tabloids, such as The National Enquirer, in the late 1960s.
In just four years, Confidential set new standards for the collection, mediation, and consumption of gossip. By extension, it altered the way that Americans consumed stars — along with their attitudes towards and expectations of them. And as the stars fell from grace, so too did their ability to reliably anchor a picture. Confidential proved that scandal sold magazines, but it did not necessarily sell movie tickets. In 1958, the gossip and film industries were still dependent upon one another. But the relationship demanded reconfiguration: as the fan mags broadened their focus to singers, television personalities, and president’s wives, Hollywood was increasingly relying on special effects and pre-sold properties. Ultimately, Confidential’s “reign” marked the end of close symbiosis between the two industries, and signaled the beginning of the slow demise of the classic fan magazine.
The narrative of Confidential has been well-rehearsed. Harrison started as a newsboy at the notoriously smutty New York Graphic, where he ran errands for Walter Winchell. Trained in the trade, he began publishing various “cheesecake” mags when paper rations lifted following World War II. But the profits were negligible, and Harrison was under pressure from the postal service, which threatened to revoke his mailing permit for mailing obscene material. Harrison had watched his staff mesmerized by the Kefauver Hearings, which put members of the organized crime syndicate, including Frank Costello, on the stand for the nation to see. Such unabashed fascination prompted Harrison to start a magazine based entirely on finding such inside stories—exposing that which would otherwise be “confidential.” The magazine that followed traded on the unsettled moral milieu of the ‘50s, specializing in stories that insinuated homosexuality, miscegenation, and aggressive female sexuality. No public figure, in or outside of Hollywood, was immune: as Harrison proclaimed, “once a person becomes a public character, he belongs to his public insofar as what he does. They’ve made him. Hence, in my opinion, he’s fair game, because his income is coming from the very fact that he’s a public property.”[i]
With an initial run of 150,000, Confidential peppered its coverage of public figures with stories of “racketeering, consumer scams, and political peccadilloes.”[ii] But it wasn’t until the third issue, dated August 1953, that Confidential would focus on Hollywood, placing Marilyn Monroe on the cover.
The headline inside promised to reveal “Why Joe DiMaggio is Striking Out with Marilyn Monroe!”, and circulation jumped to 800,000.[iii] Importantly, the story named DiMaggio’s rival for Monroe’s affections: 20th Century Fox co-founder Joe Schenck, who Monroe supposedly referred to as “daddy.” The jab was well-placed — Schneck was notoriously sensitive about his public image. The attack thus underlined Confidential’s willingness to alienate any and everyone in Hollywood, no matter their stature. As Henry E. Scott concludes, The Monroe Story, “was a clear sign that Confidential wasn’t going to play by the unwritten rules” that had theretofore governed the gossip industry.[iv]
Harrison was savvy to the power dynamics at play in the gossip industry. He immediately curried favor with Walter Winchell: in April 1953, Confidential featured a condemnation of Josephine Baker, who had recently bad-mouthed Winchell. Winchell was delighted; over the coming months, he “plugged the magazine so hard that, for a time, it was rumored he had money it.”[v] Harrison also recognized Confidential’s role as an alternative to the sappy, moralizing fan magazines and fluffy profiles in popular magazines. In the January 1955 issue, for example, Confidential queried “Does Desi Really Love Lucy?” The accompanying article detailed a tryst between Arnaz and a well-known Hollywood call-girl in 1944, when the two were separated. The issue hit newsstands the very same month that the cover of Look featured “Lucy and Desi, TV’s Favorite Family!”[vi]
With Winchell’s endorsement and established role as fan magazine “antidote,” sales boomed. The July 1955 issue sold 3.7 million copies, setting the record for single-issue sales and outpacing both Reader’s Digest and Ladies Home Journal in newsstand purchases.[vii] Confidential’s success was rooted in Harrison’s keen understanding of both the art of titillation and of the specifics of libel law. Harrison knew that the magazine had to deliver on its promise of scandalous revelation, and certainly would not receive “the goods” by relying on agents or studio publicity departments. Instead of cultivating a relationship with the studios, Harrison gleaned content through a network of informants, ranging from bell-check boys to call-girls, who provided the foundational truths for stories that he and his staff would then flesh out with the trademark Confidential style.[viii] In this way, Harrison supplanted the need for studio cooperation — and the resultant obligation to toe the publicist line — with his own stream of information and content.
The Confidential house style was laden with elaborate, pun-inflected alliteration, and allowed stories to suggest, rather than state, the existence of scandal. They also rendered Confidential copy quite hilarious; headlines such as “Orson Welles, His Chocolate Bon Bon and the Whoopsy Waiter” provided the push-off for what Harrison termed “the toboggan ride” of each article.[ix] And if the content was funny, it did not, strictly speaking, “appeal to prurient interests” — a basic qualification for a product to be labeled obscene, and one that would come in handy when the magazine was taken to court. While not all Confidential stories were strictly true, they were always rooted in fact. Frank Sinatra may not have eaten Wheaties to maintain his stature as “Tarzan of the Boudoir,” as Confidential alleged in 1956, but he did sleep with a call girl who related her experience, breakfast and all, to one of the magazine’s reporters.[x] The Wheaties were just for laughs — and provided the most opaque of covers for the real scandal, which was the presence of a young woman, not his wife, at breakfast time.
Harrison understood the power of documentation: if he could prove that an event, however scandalous, had occurred, it would be immune from libel. He thus pursued the “state-of-the-art” in audio and visual surveillance technology.[xi] He hired private investigators across the globe who both unearthed dirt themselves and confirmed stories brought in by paid tipsters; other informants were asked to sign affidavits attesting to the veracity of their claims.[xii] Harrison’s lawyer also advised Harrison to “print slightly less than [he] knew” — thus maintaining leverage over stars, studios, and agents that might be tempted to sue. According to Frank Otash, one of Harrison’s long-time investigators, “what Confidential actually published was ‘pretty thin stuff’ compared to what he and others had turned up.”[xiii] Most famously, Harrison forged a deal with agent Henry Willson, trading proof of Rock Hudson’s homosexuality for an expose of Rory Calhoun’s convict past.[xiv]
As documented by Mary Desjardins, Confidential’s aesthetics and narrative methodology relied heavily on “practices of recycling, combining, [and] recombining.”[xv] Stories would regularly use established fact, such as Fatty Arbuckle’s murder trial, to infuse speculative stories with smutty-undertones. These “recycled” narratives “contained important omissions, combined several events that had no causal relationship,” and employed aesthetic flair, including loud font size and color and exclamation marks, to add further suggestiveness.[xvi] Confidential’s trademark blue, red, and yellow color scheme was paired with black and white photos, cropped to fit the narrative’s need, to form a sort of “smut decoupage.”
Confidential also perfected the now-common practice of recaptioning an unflattering or unkempt photo of a celebrity to substantiate the innuendo of the article.[xvii] As Desjardins notes, these “composite truth stories” possessed enormous “truth value,” presenting “plausible chronologies for events that had a ring of truth about them because readers had probably encountered some aspect of them before in newspapers gossip columns, traditional fan magazines,” etc.[xviii] The gossip industry had historically depended on the studios to provide photos of the stars, whether on set or at leisure. With no studio ties, Confidential was forced to rely on haphazard, unauthorized photographs. It just so happened that most were unflattering and easily manipulated to serve the magazine’s narrative purpose, with a certain aesthetic quality infinitely more suggestive of a dirty secret revealed. The demand for this type of unauthorized photos — the more suggestive the better — would soon coalesce into the paparazzi culture as we know it.
Proof of Confidential’s salience was in its imitators: dozens of publications and hundreds of “one-shots” promised disclosure in the Confidential vein, variously named Uncensored, Inside Story, On the QT, Behind the Scene, Hush-Hush, and Exposed. Harrison was familiar the desire for “second-tier,” even pulpier knock-offs, and promoted his own iteration, Whisper, to attract an additional 700,000 in sales.[xix] From 1955-1956, several mainstream newspapers and magazines profiled Harrison and the magazine; the publisher boasted that Confidential would fight, and win, any suit against it. It also sparked attracted virulent condemnation: a lawyer representing several subjects of the magazine proclaimed “These magazines are a major threat to the movie industry….We’ll hound them through every court in the country…We’ll sue the publishers, the writers, the printers, the distributors. We’ll even sue the vendors. This smut is going to stop.”[xx]
But stop it did not. Lacking immediate recourse, Hollywood attacked Confidential in other ways. In July 1955, Photoplay responded to the incursion of Confidential and the scandal magazines. Carefully avoiding the mention of names, Photoplay suggests that the scandal magazines’ tactics are unethical and manipulative, their readers naive and impressionable. To this end, the editor relates the story of one reader, whose daughter “had read your excellent article telling about Burt Lancaster’s wonderful home life.” But “now she brings into our house an article that makes Mr. Lancaster appear to be a man of little principle.” The daughter didn’t know what to think: “I’ve told her not to believe the article,” the mother relates, “but the disillusionment still stands.”[xxi] The daughter was responding to a discourse that undercut that proffered by Photoplay, and the resultant disillusionment and confusion typified the reaction to Confidential and its ilk. Should fans now question all that they’ve ever read and believed about their idols?
Photoplay reassured readers that “We must all admit the existence of good and bad persons, even the coexistence of good and bad in individuals. Motion picture stars are no exception.” With that said, “much has been written that is pure speculation….Even more has been written revealing scandal, dug from the archives of the past, which has no bearing on the person the star has become.” Photoplay concludes by advising the mother that “if you seek to believe the worst in human beings, motion-picture stars not excluded, you can find something bad in everyone. But there is more good than bad in most everyone, and on this truth Photoplay stands.” In other words, the fan who seeks such information — who purchases Confidential — will be disillusioned. But the fan who wants to know “the good”— the “truth” of the star’s soul — will stick with Photoplay. The decision is the reader’s: choose good or choose evil.
This moral is reproduced in MGM’s 1956 film Slander, whose narrative rotates around a scandal magazine obviously modeled after Confidential and the effects of an expose on a young Hollywood star. The film labors to frame the scandal magazine, its tactics, and its morals as unaccountably evil. To ensure the viewer understands the evil at work, the publisher is killed by his own mother at film’s end, while the star takes to television to proselytize against the purchase of similar magazines.[xxii] The film “made it clear that Hollywood put the blame on the public” for propagating scandal; the impetus was upon the reader to stop supplying the demand to which publishers catered.[xxiii] By asking readers to judge themselves instead of judging the stars, both Photoplay and Slander were attempting to distract from the actual revelations.
Photoplay helped readers “choose the good” by providing space for stars to “tell their own side of the story.” In 1955, Robert Mitchum sued Confidential for $1 million over his depiction in the story “The Nude Who Comes to Dinner.”[xxiv]
In “Robert Mitchum, The Man Who Dared To Sue,” Photoplay affirmed the star’s gumption and motivation: “The stake, Bob says, is not money — it’s the honor and good name of his family.”[xxv] Like several other articles of the period, the article emphasizes the lack of collective action on the part of Hollywood. Most stars hesitated to even issue formal denials of stories, lest they “dignify” the claims in the process. In reality, the stars had little recourse: some were scared of what other dirt Confidential might spread on their name, while others understood that a suit would only further propagate the scandal; to fight was to dig yourself deeper. What’s more, as Desjardins explains, “if the celebrity had not suffered pecuniary loss, the libelous material had to be defamatory on its face. In other words, it must be defamatory without the need of innuendo or inducement” — which, in the case of Confidential, would be extraordinarily difficult to prove.[xxvi] In Photoplay’s hands, Mitchum emerges as the savior — or at least the bravest — of the stars, protecting the honor of the entire industry.
Other stars simply used Photoplay to generate counter-discourse which would hopefully trump the scandal. In “Kim Novak: Stabbed By Scandal,” the star “personally asked Photoplay“ to tell the “true story” of her discovery.[xxvii] Novak had been “scandalously painted as an ambition-driven girl who let nothing stand in the way of a film career,” e.g. Confidential suggested that she had slept her way to the top. The article counters the Confidential narrative with Novak’s version of the “hard work” that led to her career. The article strains to frame scandal-mongers as “envious, grasping men” who “cowardly hide behind an anonymous name.” For Photoplay, the true scandal is not Novak’s behavior, but the nefarious men who conjure such material — and spread their lies to the reading public.
When Confidential exposed Rory Calhoun’s past as a juvenile delinquent, the star used Photoplay to proclaim his reformation, employing a narrative of growth and moral maturation with which Photoplay was well-versed. The article, published under Calhoun’s name, advises young delinquents to steer clear of trouble: “I have since had to pay the price for every mistake I ever made,” Calhoun admits, “I had to bring shame and suffering to the people who were close to me when I admitted to the world that I had a prison record.”[xxviii] Calhoun then psychologizes his behavior, explaining that he was raised by a single mother and lacked guidance. At 19, however, he found God, made friends with a chaplain, paid off his debt to society, and was baptized in a train station bathroom. Calhoun is now thoroughly reformed, as affirmed by the close of the article, which encourages readers to “BE SURE TO SEE: RORY CALHOUN IN COLUMBIA’S UTAH BLAINE!” Photoplay counter-Confidential methodology was straightforward: never dignify the magazine with a mention, but provide a space in which the stars could apply Photoplay’s trademark psychology and moralizing to form a defense and encourage readers to patronize the star’s films. While some readers certainly bought such defenses, Confidential’s numbers continued to claim. Scandal sold; moralizing defenses also sold — just not nearly as well.
Harrison continued to gain gumption, braving to proclaim “Why Liberace’s Theme Song Should Be Mad About the Boy” on the cover of its July 1957 issue.[xxix] But the stars and their studios had lost their patience. The studios purportedly began plotting a counter-attack in early 1957, funneling money into a secret fund, to be directed towards the California Attorney General with the explicit purpose of “getting [Confidential] at all costs.”[xxx] It was a war without visible armies: the stars could not see the enemy, and never knew when, or how, it would strike. Many decried it, but it was impossible to ignore: as Humphrey Bogart famously quipped, “Everyone in Hollywood reads Confidential, but they say the maid brought it in the house.”[xxxi]
This frustration came to a head in May 1957, when a California Grand Jury indicted Confidential and its subsidiaries with conspiracy to commit libel and conspiracy to publish obscene material.[xxxii] This was the trial that Harrison had been long anticipating, and he fired back with gusto. The defense subpoenaed hundreds of stars; many fled the state, but others were forced to take the stand and officially associate themselves with the magazine and scandal. Confidential stories were repeatedly read aloud in court to uproarious effect; the jury took a field trip to Graumann’s Theater to watch a re-enactment of the “alleged love scene” between Maureen O’Hara and a “Latin Lothario.”
The trial was front page news in Los Angeles and reported across the nation; the “serious” press was now propagating these stories, camouflaged as “legal reporting.”[xxxiii] In other words, the trial became a media spectacle, putting Confidential’s name was on everyone’s lips. The plan to silence the magazine and mute its allure had not only failed, but backfired.
Highlighting the magazine’s investigative and surveillance tactics, the prosecution charged that Confidential not only dug up old scandals, but set the stage to create new ones. In other words, Confidential was a “smut factory” — generating scandal so that they could then cover it.[xxxiv] Confidential’s defense team crafted a cunning response, claiming that 1) Confidential’s material was far less “morally contaminating” than other publications, including the bestselling novel Peyton Place, and 2) the magazine was actually performing a public service, broadcasting the “truth” about stars, whereas the studios had long disillusioned the public with falsified fairy tales, inspiring millions to worship “false idols.” By illuminating those lies, Confidential was performing a public service. In essence, Confidential was charging that the studios had long “systematized” their own star discourse; now that they were no longer able to do so, they were attacking the publication that had stolen and improved upon their tactics.[xxxv]
Nevertheless, the jury hung after fifteen days of deliberation, and the judge declared a mistrial. A retrial was scheduled, but both sides had had enough. A deal was struck: the studios would drop their charges; the magazine would stop covering the stars. In May of 1958, Harrison sold the magazine to other interests. The magazine still looked the same, but stripped of its investigative arm, it lacked the bite — and actual exposes — that incited its rise. The damage, however, had been done. From 1958 onward, even the traditional fan magazines were forced to alter their style and content to cater to appetites now oriented towards scandal.
The Confidential trial capped a ten-year period in which the stars became progressively resistant to the gossip industry. It was increasingly clear that the old ways of mediating stars were no longer cost effective: the stars refused to offer their services and interviews for free, apart from a select exceptions, such as Rock Hudson, the studios no longer forced them to do so. What Confidential offered, then, was a new business plan. The mainstream gossip industry may have decried the expose magazines, calling their tactics unethical and their content immoral. But Confidential showed that the gossip industry need not be dependent upon the sickly film industry; the fate of Hollywood need not be the fate of the magazines. Instead of bemoaning the fall of the stars, they could profit from it; instead of laboring to counter bad behavior, they could put it on the cover. They could also take a page from Confidential in terms of potential content, expanding coverage to an endless supply of television, music, political, and royal celebrities. And with Confidential essentially out of the business, there was a gaping hole for the mainstream magazines could attempt to fill.
This style fit the new generation of fan magazines readers, who cared less for nostalgic tales of old Hollywood and more for photos of young singing sensation Pat Boone. Photoplay would term its new approach a “broader look” to the future of stardom. As the next chapter will show, this “broader look,” — specifically, the type and tenor of stories mainstream magazines were willing to publish — would guide the gossip industry through the 1960s and ‘70s and its increasing de-articulation from the film industry. The magazines would have plenty of content, as the stars themselves realized that scandal did not harm their careers, but functioned as a form of a publicity as important as any in establishing an image.
Confidential was no fluke success. It built on the wreckage of star scandals and scandalous star images following the war, and established a foundation on which future publications, whether The Enquirer or TMZ, could flourish. It forever changed the contours and character of the gossip industry, but the ground had been well-plowed in preparation for it to sow its scandalous seeds. And as the actions of Liz Taylor would soon prove, it was ground that would prove to be unceasingly fertile. Hollywood’s misfortune — and the fall of the stars — would prove the gossip industry’s feast.
[i] “Fair Game: Interview with Robert Harrison,” Writer’s Yearbook, 1956, 20.
[ii] Mary Desjardins, “Systematizing Scandal: Confidential Magazine, Stardom, and the State
of California,” in Headline Hollywood, David A. Cook and Adrienne McLean, eds, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001), 208.
[iii] Henry E. Scott, Shocking True Story: The Rise and Fall of Confidential (Pantheon Books: New York, 2010), 6.
[v] Scott 23; Richard Gehman, “Confidential File on Confidential,” Esquire, Nov. 1956, 145.
[vi] Scott 55.
[vii] J. Howard Rutledge, “Gossipy Private Peeks at Celebrities’ Lives Start Magazine Bonanza” Wall Street Journal, July 5, 1955, 1.
[viii] Harrison would pay $4500 for a big article, $1000 for an outline, and $500 for a picture. See Rutledge 1.
[ix] “We went someone to get interested right away,” Harrison revealed, “and not get off that toboggan until they are through.” See “Fair Game,” 23.
[x] Samuel Bernstein, Mr. Confidential: The Man, His Magazine & The Movieland Massacre that Changed Hollywood Forever (Walford Press: New York, 2006), 88-90.
[xi] Desjardins 206-231.
[xii] Scott 38; Desjardins 210.
[xiii] Scott 40.
[xiv] See Robert Hofler, The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson (Caroll & Graff: New York, 2005).
[xv] Desjardins 211.
[xviii] Desjardins 212.
[xix] Desjardins 208; J. Howard Rutledge, “Sin & Sex: Gossipy Private Peek At Celebrities’ Lives Start Magazine Bonanza,” Wall Street Journal, July 5, 1955.
[xx] Jack Olson, “Smeared Stars Fight Back,” Chicago Sun-Times, October 22, 1955, 6.
[xxi] Ann Higgenbothom, “Scandal in Hollywood,” July 1955, Photoplay, 29.
[xxii] Slide 181.
[xxiii] Peter Baker, “When Public Lives Are Private Property,” Films and Filming, March 1957, 12.
[xxiv] The story describes Mitchum stripping naked at a party, “dressing himself” with ketchup, and declaring himself a hamburger.
[xxv] David Albright, “Robert Mitchum: The Man Who Dared to Sue,” Photoplay, Jan. 1956, 36.
[xxvi] “Under a special civil code in California law, which exemplified the degree to which the first amendment concept was held sacred, if the judge or jury believed that the article was susceptible to an innocent as well as defamatory interpretation, it was highly likely that the ruling would be in favor of the defendant.” Desjardins 208-209.
[xxvii] Tex Maddox, “Kim Novak: Stabbed by Scandal,” Photoplay, Feb. 1956, 54.
[xxviii] Rory Calhoun, “Look, Kid, How Stupid Can You Be?” Photoplay, Feb. 1957, 48.
[xxix] Liberace would successfully sue Confidential for libel.
[xxx] “Laxity of Studios Charged in Trial,” New York Times, Aug 27 1957, 43.
[xxxi] “Scandal Sheet in Court,” New York Times, Aug 18 1957, E2.
[xxxii] Coupling the two charges was no mistake. As Desjardins explains, “Yoking the charge to conspiracy to publish obscene material worked as contaminating factor in two ways. It put the case into a social arena in which the magazine might be judged as a moral contaminant in society (as moral crusade discourses usually described obscenity) and it ‘contaminated’ the libel charge, potentially predisposing jurors to find the magazine’s whole operation sleazy and therefore to fine its stories malicious in intent and its reporting of private acts outrageous and of no social value” (220).
[xxxiii] Jack Smith, ‘”Love Scene Re-Enacted,” Los Angeles Times, Aug 17, 1957, 1.
[xxxiv] Desjardins 221.
[xxxv] Desjardins 221.
The details: Sandra Bullock is/has adopted a baby from New Orleans, Louis Bardo Bullock. Bullock and estranged husband Jesse James began the adoption process four years ago; they took Louis home in January, but chose to keep the adoption a secret at the time. In March, it was revealed that James had engaged in multiple affairs, including one with a woman who had dabbled with Neo-Nazi apparel/performance. Now that Bullock has separated from James and announced plans to seek a divorce, she has continued the adoption process as a single parent.
The Strategy: Bullock enjoyed an enormous amount of positive press surrounding her Golden Globe/Oscar win — she had at last usurped Julia Roberts and Reese Witherspoon as America’s reigning sweetheart; she was box office gold (just forget about that pesky All About Steve; and even if the critics lambasted The Blind Side, America loved it. She looked gorgeous at the Oscar’s and accepted her award with grace and poise — all with Jesse James by her side. The revelation of James’ affairs — including one dalliance that apparently took place when Bullock was accepting an award — was the equivalent of beating an adorable and likable puppy. (Side note: women always get compared to objects in situations like this — John Mayer’s treatment of Jen Aniston was like ‘burning the American flag.’ Find me an instance when a man is turned into an object to describe his treatment at the hands of another?) When I heard the news, I actually gasped. Not because I necessarily love Sandra Bullock — I actually only really like her in Hope Floats — but because the scandal, and its timing, was so ridiculously unexpected.
Bullock basically maintained media silence since the James story broke. She moved out; she apparently wasn’t wearing her wedding ring, she made an announcement clarifying that she and James had not, as rumored, made a sex tape. But she kept her visibility to a minimum. This was crucial, as it effectively amplifies the current announcement…and makes it seem far less manipulative, or, at the very least, less part of an overall strategy. The message of a singular, unified message, with a singular, unified story is clear: Sandy just wants to be happy — and she’ll let us have this one glimpse, but she doesn’t play that celebrity game!
What’s not being said: While many outlets, from E! to Lainey Gossip, are expressing surprise and admiration that Bullock was able to keep the secret for this long, very few are being explicit about what a truly adroit move this is on Bullock’s part. But the finesse isn’t limited to the fact that she kept it secret this long: Bullock made three crucial decisions concerning the adoption of this baby and the publicity surrounding it.
1.) Keeping Quiet During Awards Season.
To my mind, this is the most crucial move — and the one that no one, at least no mainstream outlets, are talking about. In the interview with People, Bullock explains the silence around her adoption as ‘it being so crazy.’ In other words, she’d be all over the place promoting the film and her awards run, and wouldn’t be able to handle the concurrent publicity. Okay, fine, maybe.
But pause for a second and consider WHAT A HUGE CLUSTERF*** it would be if Bullock would’ve announced the adoption of a black kid while campaigning to win Hollywood’s highest honors for playing the role of a woman who ADOPTS A BLACK KID.
Of course, we want our stars’ extra-textual lives to mirror their textual lives, but usually this mirror-effect is reserved for personality traits and relationships. Not the adoption of children. And no matter how much Bullock emphasized the fact that she had begun the adoption process four years ago, the timing would read as highly manipulative, and her actions would seem ingenious…..the exactly opposite of Bullock’s star image.
My guess is if the news would’ve come out, Bullock wouldn’t have won the Oscar. Not because Hollywood frowns upon adoption (or inter-racial adoption), but because it would’ve read as too calculated….and the predominant wisdom in Hollywood is that Bullock won not on the strength of her performance, but on the strength of her likable personality in the business. This move = not likable, at least not in the awards run-up, no matter how they spun it.
2.) Keeping Quiet During the Maelstrom
Again, crucial for appearances. One of my students referred to the adoption (and the concurrent divorce announcement) as the equivalent of the ‘break-up puppy.’ In other words, the dog that someone gets after a break-up to sooth one’s emotions. Now, please do not mistake this analogy as me actually calling this young child a dog, but the comparison — a new lovable distraction — holds.
The baby thus functions as the redress necessary for Bullock to move beyond this scandal. Scandal theorists have written at length about how every scandal — whether Bush’s mistake in going to war in Iraq or the revelation of Tiger’s sexual activities — demands some sort of redressive action in order for society to smooth over the rupture caused by the revelation of the transgression. There has been no redress for the Iraqi War — and thus it is still a scandal — and Tiger’s attempt at an apology (accompanied by a trip to sex rehab) was no true salve. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie adopted a child and had a baby; Rita Hayworth married a prince and gave birth to a princess. And Sandra Bullock — who actually wasn’t the cause of the scandal, but the victim of it — adopts a baby.
But how does a baby function to redress the scandal? First, babies are a distraction. They’re adorable and become the topic of discussion. Why talk about how your husband had sex with a tattoo model when you could talk about how cute your baby is? The adoption/birth process effectively changes the narrative — a strategy that political strategists have long employed. From this point onward, Bullock’s narrative is all about moving on, growing up, and being happy — with a child of her own.
But in order for this narrative to monopolize the gossip space, Bullock had to wait until things quieted down. James went to sex addiction therapy; her things were out of the house. She even filed for divorce last Friday — a move that went undetected, as she filed under mixed-up versions of both of their initials. Now, when the story comes out, it functions as a complete and clean break.
Babies are also a signifier of wholesomeness. Bullock is rejecting the aspects of her past that have emerged as unsavory — specifically, the Hitler-costume wearing, motorcycle-repairing husband — and re-embraced her domestic image. The movie is exactly what will please her ‘Female Forever Fans’ most — a demographic I theorized at length here.
3.) Keeping Quiet Until a People Magazine Cover Can Be Arranged
Bullock (or rather, Bullock’s PR team) approached People. This is no secret — the managing editor of the magazine just talked about it on The Today Show. For those unversed with the celebrity game, this might seem like Sandy was just trying to allow fans a window into her life and inspire those who want to start over again. Okay, fine. But People is where stars go to announce big decisions — see, for example, myriad announcements of homosexuality, pictures of babies (even Brangelina’s), Elizabeth Edward’s decision to seek a divorce, etc. It’s sanctioned, it’s totally clean, it holds punches and, chances are strong that Bullock got full approval of the text of the article (not to mention the pictures) before it went to press.
I’d also echo Jezebel’s point in “Five Biggest Questions Sandra Bullock and Her Baby” that the fact that Bullock effectively hid a child for nearly five months underscores the fact that most ‘breaking news’ in the celebrity world is planted…and calls our understanding of what is and is not sanctioned (including paparazzi photos) into question. Put differently, if you can hide a baby, you can certainly hide a budding romance, and anyone who says that the were attempting to stay low key is not only lying, but attempting to garner press attention. Bullock’s ability to hide illuminates somewhat ironically illuminates the machinery of the celebrity industrial complex. And that makes us all feel somewhat ashamed in buying the spontaneity its selling.
And so she pulled it off. And it’s the biggest gossip news of the week, even the month. The other gossip magazines are most likely seething…and preparing their own covers for next week. But what ideologies are undulating beneath this move — and the semiotic playground of the pictures/feature itself?
First off, look at the cover. And look at Baby Louis, in close-up below.
As Jezebel (and many others) have pointed out, the beaded necklace signifies, for better or worse, as ethnic or African. Apparently the necklace was a gift from Bullock’s other daughter, Sunny, one of James’ kids from another marriage, and is intended to represent all of the kids in the family. [I'm unclear as to whether Bullock officially adopted Sunny, and what role she will play in those kids' lives from now on.]
Which brings us back to the glaring question that no one’s really talking about — DID YOU NOTICE THAT THIS CHILD IS BLACK? Please don’t mistake me: I think that adoption is so wonderful and necessary, and I think that the fact that most white parents in America don’t want to adopt black children (many of them are adopted by European parents) illuminates some crucial tensions still very present in American culture. What I want to emphasize, then, is that the adoption is a ideologically potent decision, underscored by the fact that her soon-to-be ex-husband IS A BIGOT. Take, for example, Bullock’s own (deflection) on the topic:
I want him to know no limits on where he can go. I want him to experience all culture, nationalities, countries and people like I did. I want his mind to be open and free. We were raised that we are all the same. No one greater, smarter, more powerful. We are all equal. I would love for Louis to know that . He has a big, beautiful, diverse family. As long as he know he is loved and protected and given the opportunity to touch and see everything, then I will have done my job as a mama.
This is multi-cultural rhetoric at its height — and has been espoused throughout both Crash (also starring Bullock) and The Blind Side. What it neglects is cultural specificity. Again, I think that every child deserves a loving home, but to neglect the power of this decision — and the fact that Louis is black — is to pretend we live in a post-racist/racial world, which we definitively do not. Again, this isn’t to say that mixed-race adoption is bad, but that there are a whole set of considerations when dealing with the white adoption of black children…ones that we haven’t entirely worked through in America.
When I posted the cover photo on Facebook, I garnered a number of responses, including the following one from my aunt:
i suppose it just isn’t possible that she wanted a baby, found a baby that needed a home, adopted that baby, and loves him to pieces? and sadly, in the process, some one didnt know how to behave like a grown up and she had the fortitude to kick him to the curb?
My aunt’s response encapsulates what a lot of Americans are feeling about the announcement today — and legitimately so. It’s certainly the message of the article and the specifics of its release. And, to step out of my analytical role for a second, I really do think that Bullock will love and cherish this child. But at the same time, we need to remember that yes, Bullock is a real person, with real desires and emotions, but she is also an image. And what that image does — and our response to it — says so much about our current understandings of the way that race, sex, family, and single motherhood function in our society today.
If you’re at all in the generation and reception of celebrity, stop what you’re doing, reserve ten minutes, and read this somewhat lengthy and admittedly explicit Playboy interview with John Mayer.
The release of the interview on Playboy’s website has made major waves: everywhere from USA Today to Huff Post, from TMZ to Perez Hilton, from ABC to US Weekly is excerpting and covering the reaction to the piece. Mayer added fuel to the fire earlier today when he Tweeted (to his 3 million followers) to apologize for using the ‘n’ word — in what he claimed to be an attempt to ‘intellectualize’ the word. (Details here; see John Mayer’s Twitter feed here).
There’s no doubt that what Mayer said in this interview was offensive. Inappropriate. Guilty of kiss-and-tell. Weirdly and obsessively honest. Borderline repulsive. Racist, sexist. This is all made very, very clear not only in this particular interview, but in Mayer’s other interviews — see, for example, last month’s equally odd and frank interview with Rolling Stone.
But more interesting, at least in terms of the celebrity paradigm, is the way in which this particular interview functions to produce Mayer as a very certain — and discourse-worthy – type of celebrity. While I do not condone or agree with the behaviors, word choice, or attitudes that he espouses throughout the interview, as one who studies celebrity culture, I find his disclosure and image generation absolutely genius. Disagree if you will, but consider the following:
1.) He’s generating a tremendous aura of authenticity.
Richard DeCordova, following Foucault, argued that the disclosure of sexual secrets is equated, at least in our culture, as the disclosure of the ‘real,’ authentic self. Usually these sexual secrets are disclosed without the consent of the subject — think Fatty Arbuckle, think Tiger Woods — but even when the subject is doing the disclosing himself, it’s still the rawest, most honest, most ‘real’ path of access to the star.
So when John Mayer extrapolates, at length, on his masturbation habits, and reveals that Jessica Simpson is “crack cocaine” for him (“sexual napalm”!), it’s so apparently honest, so apparently not the sort of thing that you’re not supposed to publicly disclose, that it can’t be anything but true. Let me rephrase: because ‘normal’ people, whether celebrities or laymen, are not supposed to talk this way, let alone talk about sex this explicitly, when Mayer does it, breaking those taboos, it is de facto taken as truth.
Which is part of the reason that the anger towards Mayer — at least the anger towards his sexual disclosure — is, at least on some level, amusing. He could be making this up just as easily as he could conjure a tale of him buying roses, making dinner, massaging feet, going on romantic walks, writing poetry, or “sneaking moments,” a la Jennifer Garner’s own disclosure last week concerning her and Ben Affleck’s “romantic” relationship. Mayer’s disclosure reads as pure truth — because who would lie and make themselves look like a douche? — when, in reality, it’s absolutely part of image production. Mayer says over and over again that he just wants to be real, transparent, honest. And isn’t that just as much of a constructed image as a star who puts himself forward as romantic, needy, giving, head over heels in love?
But so what? So he’s ‘real’? Isn’t everyone ‘real’ in the age of reality television? Sort of, but not quite. ’Authenticity’ has long been privileged in the celebrity game — look to Richard Dyer’s seminal essay on Judy Garland and the generation of authenticity — and it often has much to do with a certain coherence between extratextual life and textual narratives. In this way, Mayer’s confessional songwriting style certainly affirms this interpretation. But I think it has far more to do with the fact that Mayer is…
2.) …Playing the celebrity game for the 21st century.
Part of which is, of course, the generation of authenticity and transparency in an era when everything can be digitally enhanced or otherwise manipulated. Mayer generates his authenticity through traditional means of disclosure, e.g. the tell-all interview, which has long been a fixture in a star’s strategy to “set the record straight” or “show my fans the real me.” But he is also a faithful user of Twitter, which, as I’ve argued both here and here, is equated with the star’s unmediated voice. When you read a John Mayer tweet, it’s really him — whereas a quote in a magazine can be doubted, as it’s going through the filter of an interview, an editor, etc.
Mayer, like Ashton Kutcher, understands the ways in which Twitter can, in Kutcher’s words, “take back our own paparazzi.” It’s his means of setting the record straight, of establishing the real and authentic self that will, and should, take precedence over any mediated or unauthorized versions. In his words,
With Twitter, I can show my real voice. Here’s me thinking about stuff: “Wouldn’t it be cool if you could download food?” It has been important for me to keep communicating, even when magazines were calling me a rat and saying I was writing a book.
Indeed, the fact that Mayer even used Twitter to “set the record straight” about this very interview only further authenticates the process. Even more interesting, however, is the way that Mayer contrasts his understanding of celebrity with that of Aniston, who rose to stardom during a very different period. His take:
One of the most significant differences between us was that I was tweeting. There was a rumor that I had been dumped because I was tweeting too much. That wasn’t it, but that was a big difference. The brunt of her success came before TMZ and Twitter. I think she’s still hoping it goes back to 1998. She saw my involvement in technology as courting distraction. And I always said, “These are the new rules.”
For me, such a comment underlines the divide in celebrity culture today — those who know how to play by the new rules, and those who try and play by the rules of the 1990s and before. Tom Cruise obviously had no idea how the new game was played, and Mayer points a fine point on the only means for Cruise to return: I said, “Tom Cruise put on a fat suit.” That pretty much sums up the past decade: Tom Cruise with a comb-over, dancing to Flo Rida in Tropic Thunder. And the world went, “Welcome back, Tom Cruise.”
When the interviewer asks if Jennifer Aniston maybe bittorrented his completed album, he even responds “if Jen knew how to bittorrent I would eat my shoe.” He’s not making fun of her, per se — indeed, he tries to emphasize how much respect and love he has for her throughout the interview — but it underscores the fact that Aniston, and her cohort, have no idea how to operate within the incredibly mediated, networked word. None of them — apart from Demi Moore — know how to use Twitter correctly. Tom Hanks signs all of his Tweets ‘Hanx’ for goodness sakes, which is just like the way that all of my relatives and friends on Facebook over the age of 40 use a salutation at the end of a post, as if it were a letter. (Sorry, over-40s, but you totally do). Mayer knows how his actions will be amplified and proliferate across the internet at a moment’s notice. He knows how Perez operates; he knows how TMZ operates. Which leads me to the conclusion that…
3.) …Mayer is much smarter than you think.
Sexism and bigotry are not smart. But sexism and bigotry are by no means mutually exclusive with intelligence — and celebrity intelligence in particular. Mayer will get flack for this interview; it may or may not alter his overall star text (really, it does little save confirm what most already thought of him). It will most likely not significantly affect the sales of his new album. This is the guy whose most popular songs are “Your Body is a Wonderland” and “Daughters.” Those two images might seem discordant, but such songs only help to diffuse comments such as ”My d*** is sort of like a white supremacist” in reference to his lack of experience with black women in bed.
But when it comes down to it, his name is all over the internet. He’s only heightened interest in his album, his Twitter account, and his celebrity brand. It may be negative attention, but it’s attention nonetheless, and as the maxim goes, all publicity is good publicity. Obviously, he’s a douche. As Lainey Gossip says, he’ll always be that fat nerdy kid on the inside, desperate for you to know that he does, indeed, attract women. But he’s also playing the game better than Brange, and certainly better than Aniston herself, whose staged Mexico getaway photos with upcoming co-star Gerald Butler scream manipulation and desperation. He’ll be around a long time — and I’m not just saying that because I have a secret thing for that “Georgia Why” song from his first album. He’s cunning and adaptable, dynamic and compelling, quotable and effusive — characteristics that describe some of the most durable and enduring of celebrities.
And don’t forget that this is Playboy. There are reasons the interview was framed the way that it was. John Wayne made himself an uncontestable bigot in its pages in the 1970s, and John Mayer, facilitated by its editorial policies and interviewer questions, continues the tradition today.