(vis-a-vis Taylor Swift’s Red)
Has blue eyes (“State of Grace”)
You never saw him coming (“State of Grace”)
Is your achilles heel (“State of Grace”)
Took your virginity (or some approximation thereof) (“State of Grace”/”Red”/”Treacherous”/”Trouble”/”I Almost Do”)
If you have feelings for him, they will take the shape of metaphors involving colors (“Red”)
Is good with his hands (“Treacherous”)
Is trouble (“Trouble”)
Clarification: is trouble when he walks in (“Trouble”)
Has a new girlfriend (“Trouble”)
Wears belts with notches (“Trouble”)
Has a plane? To fly you places you’ve never been? (“Trouble”)
Still has your scarf in his desk drawer. That smells like you. (“All Too Well”)
Played t-ball (“All Too Well”)
Has a sister (HOLLA, MAGGIE G!) and a mother who tells stories about him (“All Too Well”)
Also glasses and a twin bed and a refrigerator with a light. (“All Too Well”)
Dates 22-year-olds. (“22″)
Has a chair by the window, looking out at the city (“I Almost Do”)
May or may not wonder about you (“I Almost Do”)
Has a telephone that you almost call almost every night (“I Almost Do”)
Is very active in dreams as concerns the touching of faces (“I Almost Do”)
Likes to break up and get back together like a 14-year-old boy (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”)
Is one of those awesome guys who needs space after a month apart (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”)
Music tastes: Indie Records > T.Swift (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”)
Just to be clear, is never ever ever ever getting back together with you (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”)
Adorable fight resolution tactic: put on a football helmut while fighting (“Stay Stay Stay”)
Carries groceries; finds 22-year-old amusement endearing (“Stay Stay Stay”)
Repeated, sad-faced refusal to put you on the top of his list (“The Last Time”)
Responds positively to jokes on the door (“Holy Ground”)
Fits poems like a perfect rhyme (“Holy Ground”)
His face = in every crowd (“Holy Ground”)
Has love as big as New York City (“Holy Ground”)
Dancing is not worthwhile without him (“Holy Ground”)
Has long handwritten note in pocket. Right now. (“Sad Beautiful Tragic”)
Incites sadness, beauty, tragedy (“Sad Beautiful Tragic”)
Has green eyes? (“Everything Has Changed”)
Has freckles? (“Everything Has Changed”)
Has a simple name? (Everything Has Changed”)
Eyes look like coming home? (“Everything Has Changed”)
Doesn’t like it when you wear highheels (“Begin Again”)
Doesn’t get that song (“Begin Again”)
Unchivalrous, untimely (“Begin Again”)
No really: doesn’t think you’re funny (“Begin Again”)
Probably is listening to this album on repeat just as much as I am (“Annie’s Deep Thoughts, 3 pm, Day After Thanksgiving 2012″)
What do you know about Denzel Washington? Outside of his film roles — varied and classic — what do you know? Did you know that he’s been married to his (first, only) wife since 1983? That he has four children? That his father was a preacher, that his parents divorced when he was 14, that he went to private high school and nearly flunked out of Fordham before he discovered acting? Did you know that he’s been possessed by the Holy Spirit, that he considers going into pastorhood, that he prays every day?
Unless you’ve read the six articles — from GQ, Entertainment Weekly, Grantland, and The New York Times — that I just read, chances are you did not. He’s the biggest star you know the littlest about.
But you do know who Denzel Washington is. You know what he represents: a blend of charisma and honor, save when he “goes bad” and plays the amoral, the stubborn, the angry. He’s a master of historical ventriloquism, the first choice for any bio-pic of a black man. Yet he’s also dexterous, racially speaking, in the same way that Will Smith is: if a role is written for a white man, he can play it. Which isn’t to say that his image isn’t inflected with racial awareness — see, for example, his three collaborations with Spike Lee, including Malcolm X, along with his role as “The Hurricane” and various other racially specific roles. His image is not a-racial, but he can play a-racial — and that’s part of what has made him a star. (Apocryphal legend has him adament about decreasing, or altogether cutting, storylines and/or scenes in which he appears, romantically speaking, with white women: white men don’t want to see me go home with their women, he’s said to have argued. Whether or not this is true, the principle holds true: all the way back in The Pelican Brief, when his character played it chaste with Julia Roberts (despite the romance depicted in the filmic adaptation) through last week’s Flight, when he fools around with a beautiful, very white love interest….but never more than a kiss, and very fleetingly onscreen).
Point is: Denzel is, economically speaking, one of the most powerful and resonant stars working today. He is, however, as I like to parse it in my stardom classes, a star purely in terms of picture personality and capital. People like the type of role he plays, and they like it well enough that they actually go and see his movies. He is not a cultural star, per se — his image is limited to his roles, and what they seem to represent. What they represent is something powerful: his picture personality is that of an eloquent, persuasively charismatic man capable of manipulating and transcending the environment in which he finds himself. On the street, in the boxing ring, in the courtroom, amidst gangsters, in the air — he dominates. Sometimes he’s a bit nefarious and morally dubious; most often, however, he’s righteous and affable. Like Tom Cruise or Matt Damon, he is, let it be said, a pure pleasure to watch on screen.
Which is why audiences flock to his movies. His track record is nearly without fault. He doesn’t do risky independent films; somewhat humorously, his lowest grossing films are the ones he chose to direct himself. He plays big men, leading men, and he plays them at least once a year. He’s not Nicolas Cage, taking anything that comes his way to pay off the mortgage on his 52 houses, but he’s not Daniel Day-Lewis, or even Will Smith, either. He works. And it’s not as simple as a “one for me, one for them” industry algebra — the type of visible rotation you see in the careers of Clooney and Damon. There’s a fine line between his plainly populist works and his prestige ones, usually marked by the extent to which he’s willing to play up the moral ambiguity of his character. And this most recent turn, as an alcoholic yet valiant pilot in Flight, is in the later camp. He’s marvelous in it, but he’s also very easy to despise.
Such dexterity is central to Washington’s picture personality, with its dominant themes of charisma and skill. I’ve never seen Washington not charismatic: whether he’s evil or good, broken or whole, he’s always charming. You can’t take your eyes off of him. You see that he deserves whatever splendors he’s achieved, and if he hasn’t achieved them, then he deserves them anyway. Even in Flight, when his character is (no spoiler) a huge drunken piece of shit, there’s a moment when he comes out of the hotel room, captain’s uniform on, Rolling Stones soundtrack turned to 11, and you’re like DAMMMMMMMN, I can totally forget he was just sniffing lines at 7 am! Before flying a plane!
Why? It’s a nifty editing trick — and the soundtrack, jeez, you put that soundtrack on behind anyone, have them walk in slo-mo, and suddenly they’re charisma manifest. But it’s also a pure Denzel moment — a moment you see in almost every film — when he takes the movie by the horns and let’s you know he’s in control. Not because he looks good walking down the hallway, but, in the case of Flight, because he’s evidenced that he’s got this character down: schlubby and hungover in one scene, on top of his game the next. That’s theme #2: the talent. The Oscar-Winning, the every-famous-figure-playing, the I don’t talk about my process guy. He just does it; it’s just natural. It’s real, unadulterated talent.
What I’m interested in, then, is how Washington has participated in the cultivation of this second discourse — a discourse that simultaneously bolsters his masculinity and appeal to a certain movie-going demographic.
He’s done it in two ways:
1.) Naturalizing Acting
Because Washington’s life is seemingly without scandal, interviews tend to focus on his actual films — and many of them, including a lengthy NY Times profile from last month, focus exclusively on it. The profile begins with a key quote from Washington:
When he was young, “being a movie actor wasn’t on my radar at all,” Mr. Washington said. “I took an acting class at Fordham, and it was kind of easy, or I enjoyed it, I should say, and people told me I was good. When I started out, I was just thinking about the stage; it was never my goal to get to Hollywood. But here I am.”
So humble, so un-meditated! He didn’t try to be good, he just was. And while he put in his time — the stage, then commercials, then television, and finally the big-time in late ’80s — the talent was always there, just waiting to shine.
He says that his process is a combination of “inside out” (meaning finding the psychology of the character and then going from there — a Method tactic) and “outside in” (more in the Laurence Olivier school, in which you analyze the character and consciously “play” him, as opposed to “becoming” him). In other words, he uses a few tricks — he learned to box for The Hurricane, he learned the sax for Mo’ Better Blues, he spent a lot of time in a flight simulator for Flight — but he’s no Daniel Day-Lewis or Joaquin Phoenix. He prepares, but he doesn’t overthink it. In the interview with the Times, he uses the metaphor of the pilot: the director, crew, and other actors need to trust what he’s doing. He’ll surprise them, but they need to trust that he’ll get the plane, er, film, on the ground safely. Indeed, Washington’s acting is always confident; there’s a swagger there. His characters have swagger, but his acting has swagger was well, if that makes sense.
But as Washington and his profilers also emphasize that he doesn’t exactly know how he does what he does. Again, the pilot metaphor is yet again apt: as the passengers on the plane, you don’t know exactly how you get on the ground; you just do. Even the pilot might not understand exactly how he nails a difficult landing. But he does, and it’s better not to ask questions how it happens. You could transwer this metaphor to that a chef: it tastes good, doesn’t it, so don’t ask questions!
Or: Hey fans of Denzel, stop asking questions about why he’s so good: he just is! You’ll ruin it if you think about it too hard! Washington uses these metaphors himself. He’s reticent to talk about process. The proof of his skill is on the screen: why complicate it?
It’s a masculine conception of acting — how it happens, why it works. It distinguishes him from the feminized, emotional method actors; the weirdos and the drama nerds. Washington loves acting, but he doesn’t overthink it — or least that’s the image he’s cultivated.
2.) “I Don’t Know How to Be a Celebrity”
Which brings us to Washington’s own cultivation of non-celebrity. He only gives interviews to promote new films, but he’s not a cagey interviewer. In the four major profiles I’ve read, all of them given over the last four months, he’s talked openly about his parents’ divorce, his own history with his father, his children, even his relationship with his wife (and how she feels about Michelle Obama thinking he’s hot). Some actors cultivate anonymity by keeping interviews focused on their craft, but Washington seemingly answers any question he’s asked.
Because Washington’s life is scandalous/gossip-worthy, however, the focus remains on his acting. Interviewers also love to emphasize that he’s a non-celebrity: GQ told him “In some ways, you’re a cipher. There’s not much you put out there.”
Washington’s answer is just so perfect:
But that’s not my job to put stuff out there. Sidney Poitier told me this years ago: “If they see you for free all week, they won’t pay to see you on the weekend, because they feel like they’ve seen you. If you walk by the magazine section in the supermarket and they’ve known you all their life, there’s no mystery. They can’t take the ride.” My professional work is being a better actor. I don’t know how to be a celebrity.
“I don’t know how to be a celebrity!” Seriously, that’s perfect. What a way to endear yourself to your public, especially to men (and/or women) who dislike celebrity culture, then to say that you literally do not know how to do it. He also demonstrates his business acumen: even if he knew how, it’d be a stupid move. People wouldn’t like him. [Sidenote: His logic is faulty. Some stars on the covers of magazines do great business. But he's correct that just being on the cover of a magazine, aka gossip-worthy, doesn't mean that your movies will do well.]
Now what’s remarkable about this statement is the fact that it is embedded in an interview with a popular magazine. His picture was, in fact, on the cover of that magazine, which could be found in the check-out aisle just last month — only the magazine was GQ, not Us Weekly. He talks about his family and personal life, it’s just that they’re not scandalous enough to merit continued coverage. It’s not that he’s cagey, or an asshole, or annoyingly private — all characteristics that actually make people dislike a star when they hear about them. He’s forthcoming and wholly affable in interviews. He loves to talk sports. He loves the Yankees. He loves his kids. He is such a Dad, a Grown-Up Bro. He doesn’t have a cell phone and is only mildly annoyed that someone is running a Facebook page pretending to be him. He’s a purely analog star, a student of the Hollywood old school. But it doesn’t make him look stodgy or behind the times, the way that Tom Cruise’s fumbling Twitter efforts do. He’s outside of the game. He’s above it. He’s just doing what he does, being with his family, giving interviews, speaking truths. His daily code of life: read the bible. His advice to black men: put your slippers under the bed so you have to get on your knees in the morning.
I talk a lot about star production on this blog — about how stars and their teams work really hard to create images that resonate, that matter. The brilliance of Denzel is that his incredibly resonate image is posturing as the complete lack of one. He’s the anti-celebrity, the devoted actor, a model of masculinity. A star who says he doesn’t know how to be a celebrity. As our lives become more and more saturated with obvious manipulation — aesthetic, rhetorical, political — Denzel’s anti-image is increasingly refreshing. But as I tell my students, being apolitical is a political position; the absence of politics is a political statement. So too with images: the anti-image is one of the most potent images of all.
So, I’ve been looking forward to Nashville ever since I first saw Connie Britton’s face attached to it. When I found out that T. Bone Burnett was running the music, and that Callie Khouri (she of Thelma & Louise fame) was running the show, things just seemed to get brighter and brighter. The production values are high; ABC seems to be wholly behind it; GOD THE MUSIC, I LOVE IT, IT IS CONSTANT ROTATION IN MY SPOTIFY.
But it’s also super soapy, following in a long tradition of primetime, Southern-based soaps (think Dallas) and, as someone suggested in my Twitter feed today, regressive, at least in terms of feminist sensibilities. Or at least a “step down” for Connie Britton. Or is it?
I’ve asked a bunch of people who a.) love Nashville; b.) write on the internet in some way; and c.) come from some sort of background that is not identical to mine to chime in on the specific appeal of the show. We’ll see where this goes.
I kinda can’t stand Hayden Panetierre, but this show has somehow endeared her to me in some weird way. What do we do with that?
LET’S GO! LIKE A TELESCOOOOOOOPE!
Jia: I have the same reaction to Hayden Panetierre (or, more specifically, her acting). But I too have come around to her, in this part, on this show. First, I think there’s a sort of January Jones as Betty Draper thing going on: a bad actress playing a bad actress works well. In Ms. Panetierre’s case, an actress who comes off a little too cutely insincere/self-conscious at best (and wholly narcissistic and hate-able at worst) can play her country-music analogue pretty seamlessly.
Also, re: the idea of this show being “regressive,” of course it’s not Louie or Portlandia or something that struck people as formally or structurally new. But I like the straightforwardness of a good soapy drama, much prefer it to the fake “progressive” veneer of a show like Modern Family. (And some soapy shows–like my current kick, the O.C.–make room for some fourth-wall innovation, etc, anyway.)
AHP: Yes yes yes — I love it when people get on the “Betty Draper is a bad actress at life – that’s why January Jones is so perfect” train. I mean, Hayden even kinda looks like January Jones, and they both seem to be straight off of the “casting couch,” if you’re putting up what I’m putting down. I think what resonates with me about Panetierre = the fact that she’s constantly putting up an image to cover up for her tragic/classed background, and what we’ve seen in the last few episodes is the puncturing of that image — the vulnerability and fragility that resides beneath all star images. In some ways, Nashville is, at least in part, a meditation on image: what Rayna and Juliette culturally/socially “mean” and how that fits (or doesn’t) with their “real life” actions, desires, pasts, etc.
Jia: PS, the rumor that Hayden Panetierre is a Hollywood escort–have you read that/written about that? Her and Amanda Bynes both? I read it once and I thought, “Oh, sure,” because that is very much how she comes off, casting couch-esque, and it’s interesting to think about how there’s nothing specific to telegraph that except (I would like to think this is what shapes most of my judgment about her) a lack of nuanced talent. But honestly, she’s pretty good on this show! Or at least, this character is a pretty decent absorption for the things about her that normally irritate people. (AHP: And she’s a much better singer than Connie Britton, right?!?) (Jia: YES. Which is unfortunate, I wish they were equal musically for the show’s sake. Also, Hayden has some hilarious musical efforts in her past. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=rsZasAQJ06I song she did for “Cinderella III: A Twist In Time” omg and also that awful “Stars Are Blind” esque song “Wake Up Call” ) (AHP: Although I will say that my favorite song of hers is the one with Deacon — “Under Mine.” The other stuff is too Carrie Underwood.)
I agree with you completely on the image thing. It’s interesting that Juliette and Rayna are both trying to reach for the middle in a way: both of them trying to shed their pasts at opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum in order to achieve mainstream stardom and not be hassled by the accusation of either end (the “Lana del Rey, son of a Jersey millionaire” thing or the “Britney Spears, trailer trash forever” thing).
Alaina: I am probably going to be watching this show after everyone else have given up on it (whether that is in one season or five) because that’s how much I love Tami Taylor. But a couple things are bothering me. One, I keep struggling with the Rayna/Teddy have no money plotline. I TOTALLY buy her mid-career/middle-aged slump, but if she really was a Faith Hill or Reba like she is supposed to be, wouldn’t she have more money? One bad deal and they don’t have any liquid assets?
The bigger thing that’s bothering me is Rayna’s inaction. Both she and Juliet are struggling, but I am actually finding Juliet more enjoyable to watch (Hayden, what have you done to me) because her impulsive decisions – bouncing from one thing/person to another to try to make herself feel better is at least active.
But, now that I write this, I wonder if it’s a reflection of what hinders you at different ages. In your 20’s, you can fall prey to bad decisions – in your 40’s, it’s much more likely to be in-decision that holds you back.
AHP: Okay, yes: it’s one thing if you have some money and then your husband is a real estate dufus that you’d still be getting mad residuals every time country radio played your version of Faith Hill’s “Breathe” (btw, I hate late Faith Hill, which is part of the reason I’m having problems reconciling Rayna James as a character with my unadulterated love for Connie Britton). Also, side note, but I love the suggestion that Powers Boothe (Rayna’s dad) is acting in a completely different (far more melodramatic) show than the rest of the cast. It’s perfect. (Jane: I want to talk more about Boothe! That delivery! that growl. I have to admit here that I never made it past a few episodes of FNL, but I made it to the end of Deadwood, and while I have few associations between Tami and Rayna, I do have very sharp Cy-flashbacks whenever I wash Nashville. He is a lot more melodramatic than the rest of the cast — which tips it into some weird hybrid of HBO’s best and schmalziest soaps. I don’t know what to do with it, but I feel like such acting cannot be put to Pure Evil. I’m waiting for Cy (who seems much smarter than most of the other characters) to surprise us, and, hopefully, surprise Rayna as well. But it’s true, he could also just be as awful as Rayna keeps emphasizing.)
Karen: This is gross, but if they had money, it would “solve” too many problems–like why she won’t just leave him, or why she’s rude enough not to love him. If they have money, Rayna isn’t vulnerable, and they need her weak right now for various reasons. And let me be clear–she’s not weak financially like most people. Lady has plenty of money, she just doesn’t have rich person money. Big difference. Rayna is a pretty dang selfish character, and that’s a good thing. All these characters are deeply, deeply flawed, and that’s something I like about it. It is amusing that Juliet is the more active person (I’ve only seen through the episode where she steals the nail polish), and I am sort of rooting for Deacon to leave Rayna behind (you know, until he finds out she had his baby years ago–nah, if that were the story, we’d probably have to watch her kid with some dumb storyline). I see a show where a creator likely had to postpone nuance to sell the show to executives–two women, who hate each other, who love the same man, and there’s an evil father, and an evil mother and a shady business deal, and a random ingenue, and on and on and on… I’m hoping she has the know-how to make more of this–and I’m willing to wait patiently (through season 1) to see if she can get there. Oh, and I like the music. Enough that I would buy the album.
Alaina: I LOVE the music. I’ve been listening to it, a lot. Hayden’s voice is in my head, in my head. How did she DO that? Karen, I too am hoping for more subtlety as time goes on. I also hope Teddy dies, or something, because that actor has no charisma. The scenes with him and Powers Boothe are like Powers talking to a green screen. (Jane: Love the music so much too, but my favourite pieces are actually more Gunnar/Scarlett than Panetierre’s character. “Fade Into You” is absolutely astonishing, but the part of me that loves Tay also appreciates what Juliette is doing with that persona–aka dirtying it up.)
Jia: Teddy does need to die! Or something. The unfolding subplot about fraud appears to be leading him into an out-of-the-picture future (hopefully). My biggest character problem is Scarlett. I think it’s a really powerful representation of a young, abusive relationship, but her accent is just absolutely like an improv troupe’s version of a Southern milkmaid idiot (she is Australian though! that is why. very Claire on LOST-esque in general) and yeah. She is disgusting in terms of this one-note innocence and servitude; I get the picture that whoever conceived of her character might be like “This is a girl who really just wants to make her boyfriend dinner at the end of the day, really truly”–as if that made it better, more complex, rather than the absolute opposite. The way she is around the house with Avery is so saddening. (Jane: Does anyone else think that Eric Close just has the perfect face to portray Teddy? It is intensely dislikeable, and he always seems to be cringing. Like, oops, is it me again? It’s a prime Awful Character look, and, yes, I’m just waiting for his ruse to fall apart. What I find hard to believe is how Rayna still seems to trust him so wholeheartedly? I guess that’s the point though — to feel for Rayna’s innocence, as she dumps Deacon from her band and ignores his calls, etc.)
AHP: First thing: yes, Teddy, GAWD, so bad. As Jia gestures above, I think they’re trying to give us a way to root for Rayna to leave him. Because if there’s no ethical justification, then it just makes Rayna look like a bad mom. But if Teddy’s bad — entirely different story; she’s leaving to keep her kids safe.
Second thing: SCARLETT, EFF-ING-A, SHE IS THE MOST REGRESSIVE PIECE OF SHIT. I’m sorry, I don’t mean that misogynistically, but her reticence and, as Jia notes, the ACCENT! just drive me nuts. “Southern Milkmaid” is spot-on. She moved to Nashville “just to support” her boyfriend?
Karen: Um, ladies, don’t you see her boyfriend? He’s Lucky from General Hospital. She would crazy not to love Lucky Spencer, the kid who should have been Anakin Skywalker. Accents don’t bug me cause I’m from St. Louis, the land of no accents. All accents are therefore exotic and accurate as far as I can tell. The bigger issue is the dude she is singing with–does he have any personality at all? At least the abusive boyfriend has a dream, and a look (sort of skeevy, oily guy trying to hide how gosh darn cute he is).
Jia: (I totally think the guy she sings with is cute–can’t help it! NO ALMOST-ANAKIN THOUGH) AHP: Um, I’m digging him, but that’s an opinion almost wholly built on his singing ability. And his ability to wear plaid shirts with snaps. But where is this weird assistant-to-producer relationship going? Pure narrative device to make Scarlett jealous/realize she needs to be with someone who is not a jealous ass?
Alaina: I wish they hadn’t cast Lucky, because it makes me worry more that this will turn into a soap. That aside, I see Scarlett as totally insecure, yes, but there are actually a lot of women out there who are like that. Who, when asked what they like about their boyfriend, say, “He treats me well.” Like that’s a bonus. I am rooting for her to snap out of it, but then have singer boy (none of us know his name!) be busy with Hailey so she has to stand on her own two feet. Or for her to write with Rayna? I want the plotlines to intersect more. Also, Bunny from The Wire is distracting me with his past character lives. They need to give these people more character traits so they can fully reincarnate.
Jia: It also does not help that he is Mayor Coleman, formerly Major Colvin, right? AHP: Wow. Wow.
Alaina: On another note, Stephen and Elena are writing in their diaries on The Vampire Diaries. Why am I still watching this show? Oh, that’s right: Damon. (Karen: Damn straight, Damon.)
AHP: So what do we see as a progressive development in the Scarlett storyline? Is it getting together with singer-partner-cuteness? Is that just trading one sort of dependency for another?
Alaina: See my comment above about her being on her own. AHP: Ah yes, write with Rayna — that would be amazing. And actually enact what happens a lot in Nashville, when female writers write for more visible female performers. (Jane: AHP, I didn’t know that! But it’s also a nice reflection of the female writing that goes into Nashville as a show.)
Jia:Agree that that’s where Scarlett is going. I also think that, eventually, if we’re thinking multiple seasons, she could be a challenger. And write with Rayna is the best idea! They are just talking, in the fifth episode (which I’m watching right now) about how she needs someone; she (Rayna) was like, “Maybe I should try it, to write on my own” and her manager was like ha ha ha. Also Teddy more and more reminds me of like, Jason Bateman’s boring boring cousin
Karen: The trouble with Scarlett is that she has NO point other than to be the more authentic young girl to Juliet’s false star. She’s a plot device, but we don’t yet know in what way she will shape the plot. Other than that, she just has a pretty voice.
AHP: Interesting — especially since Scarlett doesn’t actually “do country” in a traditional sense. But she is descended from royal country stock — which is why her boyfriend loves/hates her.
Jia: There are so many “descended from” problems in this show!
Alaina: Or, Scarlett could stay in this relationship until it really gets ugly, and then turn to Rayna (her writing partner) and we could learn about just how bad it got with Rayna and Deacon before he went to rehab. It would be interesting to see them spin this relationship out in a meaningful way.
Does anyone like Mrs. Coach in this role? And isn’t that the biggest problem of the show?
Alaina: I like her in it. I buy her as selfish and spoiled. I don’t “like” her as-in I wouldn’t be friends with her – but I think that’s the point. She is isolated, just like Juliet. She doesn’t seem to have real girl friends, and has poured her energy into herself and her relationships with men. They aren’t that different, when you think about it that way. If they are brave enough to explore this (instead of just asking us to be sympathetic to her plight) I will gladly come along.
Jia: I would watch Mrs. Coach do literally anything. She is dead-ending all over the place plotwise, but I think once she does the one thing she’s obviously going to do (sleep with Deacon) or just otherwise loosens her restraints, does something unpredictable, I think she’ll be likeable. I also think that Connie Britton has a really powerful appeal when she is attached to a likeable man; she plays best as part of a partnership. Which is weird. And interesting.
AHP: Also I’m jonesing for her to become a mentor to Juliet — of course, that’s the narrative tension driving the show; as soon as they have them become friends, then the tension is over. Or is it? I mean, think about FNL: the primary narrative tension was always ostensibly will the football team succeed? but it wasn’t really, or at least that was never what I was concerned about. I liked that FNL was willing to give us established, healthy relationships and let the narrative tension play out in how they would negotiate problems that arose.
Alaina: I want them to go on tour together, but have her mentor Scarlett.
Jane: I love all the narrative predicting that’s happening in this thread! That’s the magic of television that is just starting out, and still really finding its groove. As much as the audience is adjusting to this world, so are, we should remember, the writers, directors, and actors. I have to disagree a (little) bit with what has been said prior about Scarlett’s cardboard passivity, because, as someone mentioned, we see her push back against Avery in “Move It On Over.” She acknowledges some real truths about the hierarchies in their relationship, and a break up is definitely on the horizon… But, this is all to say that this show is developing and making character reveals in every episode, and multiple ones at that. What we’ve been saying prior about Scarlett’s character needs to be continuously adjusted, especially when we’re at something like Season 1, Episode 5. This is all to say that I wonder if someone can even personally write off a show until they’ve given it at least a dedicated first season viewing.
Elizabeth: Anne, I agree with you about the role of image with not just the characters, but the image of country music. Much in the same way that NYC was the 5th main character of “SATC,” I am enjoying how Nashville the city is utilized a reflection of the current state of country music. I acknowledge that this reflection is absurd and forced at times (the lakehouse belonged to Patsy Cline?), but when the woman asks Rayna if her new CD is available at Starbucks I cracked up- because yes, the new Taylor Swift album is being sold there. On the other hand, do songwriters that sign deals with publishing houses REALLY get that kind of luxurious creative space, complete with fully stocked kitchens?
The timing of this show is very interesting to me as well; without the shift from traditional country to country-pop (to pure pop in some cases- looking at you again, Taylor), this show wouldn’t have been embraced. I’ve been pondering whether this show, with these narratives, would have worked in the 1980s. I think not because of how much class and conspicuous consumption is represented in the show as a natural influence in country music. From my limited knowledge of the scene in the 80s (Willie Nelson! Oak Ridge Boys! The Judds!), country music was still viewed as the most humble of genres. In the previous episode Rayna is nervous about performing at the country club in front of the wealthy socialites and utters “these are the people that made fun of me for liking country music!”
Lucia: Okay, sorry, am deadline/work swamped today, but I did want to bring up one thing in re: Mrs. Coach that was triggered for me by the prompt and I don’t think anyone has mentioned yet, which is that this is the woman who did American Horror Story last year. (Which is a huge draw for biggish name stars, it seems, even this year.) This is the woman who had sex with a ghost (?) in a gimp suit. So let’s not pretend that she isn’t up for anything and that, all things considered, Nashville represents a step up in character development from that particular moment in Connie Britton’s career. (Which isn’t to say she wasn’t brilliant and that show isn’t its own type of awesome, rather that she went from 4D Tami to 2D horrorshow heroine and has swung back up to a woman who behaves, IMO, in a plausible, human way.)
As far as Nashville goes, imma just say for the moment that it just occurred to me that I’d like it a lot more if it were purely populated by women of a certain age, rather than the youngs vs. olds we currently have. Less All About Eve, more…well, I almost said Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, which is totally not where I was going with it, but it’s as apt a representation of women of more or less the same age going at it, though the power balance leaves a lot to be desired in terms of conflict. POINT BEING: I’d rather see a Faith Hill vs. Shania Twain struggle for the ages than Faith vs. like, I dunno…Taylor Swift.
Jane: Lucia! “Less All About Eve, more…well, I almost said Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.” That is perfect. I agree that that would be wholly more interesting (though also more difficult to pull off and sell, I’m guessing), and perhaps difficult for the 18-20-something TV-watching crowd to relate to. It does feel like the show is feeding the mainstream public a version of “country music” that is based around loosely, but at least visibly popular, country stars. I don’t know what’s happening to pop country, but is the future Taylor Swift?
Side-Question: How much do you think Panettiere’s character is really molded after Swift? I definitely see some resonances, but Panettiere just does not seem like a sweet, fun person to hang out with. But that’s definitely the reference, right?
AHP:I’ve heard lots of references to the fact that she’s supposed to be a mix of Swift and Carrie Underwood, who is supposedly a class-A snob/piece-of-work. Although the songwriting piece definitely seems to be influenced by Swift.
I’d also be interested in women-of-a-certain age, but I do think that the two generations do represent two strains of country that do seem to continue to battle it out. There’s a great piece by Ann Powers (music critic for NPR) about the long legacy of country duets, and she points to all of the different “strains” in country that each of the characters represent — Scarlett and her singing partner are in the Civil Wars alt-country strain; Scarlett’s boyfriend is supposed to be punk-country a la Jack White, etc. etc.
Lucia: HP doesn’t seem like a fun person to hang out with, but at least she can sing in tune. And OMGOMG I did NOT know that about Carrie Underwood, that is amazing. My money would be on the “talentless but why does no one notice oh right she’s hot” part of the character being a representation of TSwift, and the rest going to another well-known behind-the-scenes pain-in-the-ass, Underwood or otherwise. (Jane: marriage of Swift & Underwood actually does sound like a mess/nightmare.) (Jia: I also see a little bit of Britney Spears, maybe a little more than a bit, in the whole family meltdown/rehab storyline with her mother. I like that storyline, because I think the actress who plays her mother is really compelling). (Jane: People have also compared Nashville to Smash, and there’s definitely some Marilyn Monroe in Juliette.)
Question: I’m loving the female networking primed to happen in this show (as Alaina said above, they need to intersect more, and I believe they will). But can we talk about male networks? What are these treacherous men HIDING from women, and from each other (this is why I want Lamar & Rayna to have some sort of memo against Teddy, eventually)? I think even if Scarlett is (as yet) a little disappointing to the show’s feminist message (I mean Callie Khouri!), then we should think about how all the men are portrayed. They are all sort of icky, no?
AHP: RIGHT, especially Powers Boothe and that weird relationship with both of his daughters, and the amount of hate he displaces onto Rayna because of the apparent actions of her mother. I think Alaina said something to me earlier this week about how these are all WEAK men — lacking confidence, gumption, legitimate power, morals, etc.
Jane:So weak! And SO CREEPY? Whenever Avery hugs Scarlett and gives that side-eye, I shiver. When they started making out, I guess, “passionately,” in episode 5, it felt incredibly dark, and somehow violent. And even Deacon — the “good one” — is getting naked with someone maybe at least 20 years younger than him? The show seems to want to portray Deacon as weak, out of control, needing female support, but again — MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE need to be taken into consideration here too.
Ok, last question from me–and this bounces off some of what has been said earlier about Scarlett–but while I’m really enjoying this show so far, I’m afraid that it’s going to turn into this thing where all women are plot devices and sources of emotional clarity in order to save damaged men. Scarlett seems mostly a pristine mirror through which to reflect everyone else’s complex interiorities, and I want her to have her own. I don’t want all these women to end up saving the men in their lives, financially, emotionally, or otherwise. But as it stands, from a narrative perspective, the women are not intersecting right now and almost all relationships are being mediated via men. AKA the men are necessary.
Elizabeth: Lucia, great suggestion re: shifting the focus to Rayna’s contemporaries. After all, Rayna was compared to Martina McBride so surely she has another female singer who has also had similar success. All I ask is that they NOT make said female singer part of another damn love triange (trapezoid?). I also see Juliette as a hybrid of Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and some Kelly Pickler thrown in for good measure.
(And on a less serious side note, I can’t read “Scarlett” without thinking of the infamous Lindsay Lohan graffiti)
Allison: Okay, I am uber-sorry for coming in late to this wholly awesome thread, but someone has to spend her Friday mornings talking about Friday Night Lights with UVa undergraduates, and that someone is me.
Now, a couple of things come to mind after reading the above:
1) While I have no doubt the creators want Panettiere to be an amalgam of Swift and Underwood, since we’re talking about past-character lives, I see her as an extension of her Heroes character, Claire Bennet. That scene where she throws her mother’s junkie partner out of her house and is standing on the doorstep of her (original) house? It would not have surprised me if she had taken flight a la Claire. Similarly, the woman makes one face.
2) Scarlett’s accent is killing me. Killing me. I don’t buy it for one second. Also, everything that’s been said about her regressive and potentially abusive relationship? Yes. I am giving Avery the side eye. I don’t trust that guy for a second. But I want her to write with Rayna and I think that’s where the show is headed. Or Juliet will write with Rayna. Or with Scarlett. There is a collaboration coming. (Jane: Triangulated female relationship? Are Rayna and Juliet going to stop fighting over Deacon, and start for Scarlett soon? It seems, though, that in the show’s diegesis, Juliet is the worst singer, Rayna the better [not true in reality]. But the show also seems to emphasize that Juliet has the better songwriting chops, and it seems, at least from Episode 5, to suggest that Rayna probably doesn’t have much experience writing songs. But who knows!) (AW: Ep 5 definitely suggests that Rayna hasn’t written before, and then makes this leap to her having completed a song worthy of recording almost immediately, right? Or did I misread that?)
3) I would watch Eric Close do *almost* anything, but that is a personal preference and neither here nor there. However, I want Kimberley Williams Paisley off the show. Ugh. (Jane: She reminds me of Bambi.) (AHP: Bambi with too much make-up). (Jia: All I can think of is that stupid Father of the Bride scene where she’s playing basketball with Steve Martin) (AW: I don’t want to hate her but I do. And I sort of resent the initial are-they-having-an-affair-or-aren’t-they way we’re introduced to her. Soapy, yes, but what would it have done for her character, for the storyline, for the larger representation of women if she had been portrayed less as someone’s wife (“I go by Margaret Kinter now” — “Robert’s wife?” or whatever) than as a businessperson who aided in a felony?)
The characterization of men is fascinating. How do you reconcile the different places we’ve seen the male characters v. the female characters–public/private, alone/surrounded by others, etc.?
AW:For instance, and this isn’t yet a fully formed thought, so forgive me, but it seems like Lamar is almost always buffeted by his daughter, or meeting with individuals alone in an office or well-appointed room. In the last episode we saw Teddy meeting with Peggy in the dark, or in a car. I would say it’s a function of the women-as-performers trope that allows the women on the show to be seen in well-lit, more crowded scenarios, but what about Deacon? Or Avery? Or even Gunnar? They’ve been alone, or solitary in some way as well.
Jia: To me, the biggest difference I’ve noted in the men/women of Nashville is that everybody seems to be chasing the same fame/wealth/power/sexual dominance, but the women perform these ambitions out in the open (as you note, a function of the female roles in the show) while the male characters’ ambitions are more of the underhand, secretive, mediated, layered type. (AW: Yes, exactly. And of course the men need the women’s support, because there are ways in which this version of success wants to happen within an idealized mid-twentieth-century world. Hence, Scarlett/Avery. Rayna playing at Teddy’s benefit, pulling her support from Coleman)
AHP: Alright, I’m calling it — I want to thank everyone for writing (people reading this have no idea how much fun it is to watch others write in Google Docs; it’s like a ghost using your computer) and hopefully we can do this again sometime soon….maybe we Scarlett bucks the eff up and Teddy’s out of the picture? Fingers crossed?
Outro to “No One Will Ever Love You……” (Can we get some of that tension back, please?)
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.
“One of the things you realize fairly quickly in this job is that there is a character people see out there called Barack Obama. That’s not you. Whether it is good or bad, it is not you. I learned that on the campaign.”
Barack Obama has a star image. The quote above should make that clear. There’s “the real” Obama — the living, breathing, guy with bodily functions — and there’s BARACK OBAMA, the public image, the thing Obama talks about above. And that image is an ideological construction: an accumulation of photo ops, statements, sound bites, and things we, as a public (American or otherwise) need/want him to be.
His star image also includes “exclusive, all-access” profiles of him published in Vanity Fair – profiles that acknowledge the presence of a star image. And this is key: just because it acknowledges Obama’s star image doesn’t mean it doesn’t participation in its reification.
So take a look, then, at the opening to Michael Lewis’s recent “exclusive, all-access” (read: authentic) time with Obama:
At nine o’clock one Saturday morning I made my way to the Diplomatic Reception Room, on the ground floor of the White House. I’d asked to play in the president’s regular basketball game, in part because I wondered how and why a 50-year-old still played a game designed for a 25-year-old body, in part because a good way to get to know someone is to do something with him. I hadn’t the slightest idea what kind of a game it was. The first hint came when a valet passed through bearing, as if they were sacred objects, a pair of slick red-white-and-blue Under Armour high-tops with the president’s number (44) on the side. Then came the president, looking like a boxer before a fight, in sweats and slightly incongruous black rubber shower shoes. As he climbed into the back of a black S.U.V., a worried expression crossed his face. “I forgot my mouth guard,” he said. Your mouth guard? I think. Why would you need a mouth guard?
“Hey, Doc,” he shouted to the van holding the medical staff that travels with him wherever he goes. “You got my mouth guard?” The doc had his mouth guard. Obama relaxed back in his seat and said casually that he didn’t want to get his teeth knocked out this time, “since we’re only 100 days away.” From the election, he meant, then he smiled and showed me which teeth, in some previous basketball game, had been knocked out. “Exactly what kind of game is this?” I asked, and he laughed and told me not to worry. He doesn’t. “What happens is, as I get older, the chances I’m going to play well go down. When I was 30 there was, like, a one-in-two chance. By the time I was 40 it was more like one in three or one in four.” He used to focus on personal achievement, but as he can no longer achieve so much personally, he’s switched to trying to figure out how to make his team win. In his decline he’s maintaining his relevance and sense of purpose.
Basketball hadn’t appeared on the president’s official schedule, and so we traveled the streets of Washington unofficially, almost normally. A single police car rode in front of us, but there were no motorcycles or sirens or whirring lights: we even stopped at red lights. It still took only five minutes to get to the court inside the F.B.I. The president’s game rotates around several federal courts, but he prefers the F.B.I.’s because it is a bit smaller than a regulation court, which reduces also the advantages of youth. A dozen players were warming up. I recognized Arne Duncan, the former captain of the Harvard basketball team and current secretary of education. Apart from him and a couple of disturbingly large and athletic guys in their 40s, everyone appeared to be roughly 28 years old, roughly six and a half feet tall, and the possessor of a 30-inch vertical leap. It was not a normal pickup basketball game; it was a group of serious basketball players who come together three or four times each week. Obama joins when he can. “How many of you played in college?” I asked the only player even close to my height. “All of us,” he replied cheerfully and said he’d played point guard at Florida State. “Most everyone played pro too—except for the president.” Not in the N.B.A., he added, but in Europe and Asia.
Overhearing the conversation, another player tossed me a jersey and said, “That’s my dad on your shirt. He’s the head coach at Miami.” Having highly developed fight-or-flight instincts, I realized in only about 4 seconds that I was in an uncomfortable situation, and it took only another 10 to figure out just how deeply I did not belong. Oh well, I thought, at least I can guard the president. Obama played in high school, on a team that won the Hawaii state championship. But he hadn’t played in college, and even in high school he hadn’t started. Plus, he hadn’t played in several months, and he was days away from his 51st birthday: how good could he be?
The president ran a couple of laps around the gym, then shouted, “Let’s go!” He himself divvied up the teams so each one had roughly the same number of giants and the same number of old people. Having put me on his team, he turned to me and said, “We’ll sit you first, until we get a little bit of a lead.” I thought he was joking, but actually he wasn’t; he was as serious as a heart attack. I was benched. I took my place in the wooden stands, along with a few of the other players, and the White House photographer, the medical team, the Secret Service, and the guy with the buzz cut who carried the nuclear football, to watch the president play.
Obama was 20 or more years older than most of them, and probably not as physically gifted, though it was hard to say because of the age differences. No one held back, no one deferred. Guys on his team dribbled past him and ignored the fact he was wide open. When he drives through the streets, crowds part, but when he drives to the basket large, hostile men slide over to cut him off. It’s revealing that he would seek out a game like this but even more that others would give it to him: no one watching would have been able to guess which guy was president. As a player on the other team, who must have outweighed Obama by a hundred pounds, backed the president of the United States down and knocked the crap out of him, all for the sake of a single layup, I leaned over to the former Florida State point guard.
“No one seems to be taking it easy on him,” I said.
“If you take it easy on him, you’re not invited back,” he explained.
I thought to myself, It must be hard not to take it easy on the president.
The point guard laughed, turned to another guy on the bench, and said, “Remember Rey?”
“Who’s Rey?” I asked.
“Rey pump-faked, turned, and just connected with the president right in the mouth,” the other guy said. “Gave him 16 stitches.”
“Where’s Rey?” I asked.
“Rey hasn’t been back.”
Obama could find a perfectly respectable game with his equals in which he could shoot and score and star, but this is the game he wants to play. It’s ridiculously challenging, and he has very little space to maneuver, but he appears happy. He’s actually just good enough to be useful to his team, as it turns out. Not flashy, but he slides in to take charges, passes well, and does a lot of little things well. The only risk he takes is his shot, but he shoots so seldom, and so carefully, that it actually isn’t much of a risk at all. (He smiles when he misses; when he makes one, he looks even more serious.) “Spacing is big. He knows where to go,” said one of the other players as we watched. “And unlike a lot of lefties, he can go to his right.”
And he chattered constantly. “You can’t leave him open like that!” … “Money!” … “Take that shot!” His team jumped ahead, mainly because it took fewer stupid shots. When I threw one up I discovered the reason for this. When you are on the president’s basketball team and you take a stupid shot, the president of the United States screams at you. “Don’t be looking to the sidelines all sheepish,” he hollered at me. “You got to get back and play D!”
So what do we have here? A president who likes to play basketball? Well, sure. But it’s also a powerful contribution to Obama’s image, structured, as it is, by strong lines of competitiveness, fairness, tenacity, and vivaciousness. The metaphor, of course — and the reason Lewis leads with this anecdote — is that Obama lives his life, and leads the country, the same way he plays basketball: with integrity, verve, humor, the sort of skill that characterizes those who can play at any game they put their mind to….even against those with better training, longer pedigrees, and stronger natural skills.
Let’s do a little decoding:
“If you take it easy on him, you’re not invited back.” = He hates sycophants, suck-ups, and others who aren’t honest about him/his skills
“No one held back, no one deferred.” = Obama craves a level playing field; always wants to bounce his ideas and skills against those who are his equal or better.
“You got to get back and play D!” = Hey Famous Writer, I hold you to the same standards of play, authenticity, and effort as I hold myself.
“He used to focus on personal achievement, but as he can no longer achieve so much personally, he’s switched to trying to figure out how to make his team win. In his decline he’s maintaining his relevance and sense of purpose.” = Duh.
None of this symbolism is too hidden. But the best part of the section is what’s hiding right in plain sight: the basketball itself. Sure, the way Obama plays basketball is a metaphor for his political life. But the fact that he plays basketball at all — it’s difficult to overstate how important that is.
Because if you know anything about Obama’s image, you know he plays basketball. You know he loves sports. You probably know that he used to unwind by shooting hoops with his “body man.” You know that he does his own Final Four bracket, that he proposed to revamp the College Bowl system. That he’s a White Sox fan. And while many presidents have been sports fans — hell, W. even owned a team — Obama is the first contemporary president with an image cornerstone of sports.
And not just any sport. Obama seems to like baseball and watch football, but basketball, that’s signifies something different:
- Intensely physical
- Demands a different sort of stamina
- Dominated (currently) by black men…
- …within an infrastructure run, owned, and funded by white, upper-class men of privilege.
- Heavy on the shit-talk: the best at the game are true wordsmiths
- Associated with a physique that is not threatening
- Born and popularized IN AMERICA
Are you picking up what I’m putting down? Put differently, are you understanding why Obama’s team would be keen to associate the president with sports in general and basketball in particular?
Am I reading too much into this? Did Obama’s team say “hey Barack, play more basketball?” No way. As Obama himself is keen to emphasize in the interview, he can’t fake sentiment or passion — when he does, it comes off as fake. I think he loves basketball. But I think that it’s no accident that Lewis was invited to this game….or, even more importantly, that Lewis decided that the sentiments and characteristics manifest there would work perfectly in the start of the most high-profile piece of the President in the last weeks leading up to the election.
Finally, the brilliance of a basketball game — and Lewis’s self-effacing participation in it — is that it doesn’t seem like publicity, or image-building, at all. It seems like a window into the authentic, all-access Obama. And the very best publicity, of course, is the publicity that convinces us it’s no such thing.
1.) Princess Kate, aka HRH Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, aka Kate Middleton, takes off her top while sunbathing in a private villa. (A HUGE private villa near Aix-en-Provence).
2.) A paparazzo, supposedly standing on a public road, takes photos of Kate sans top. This road is at least 500 m away (1640 feet) and would need a super high-powered zoom lens. The photos are grainy, but her top is gone.
3.) French and Italian publications (both owned by that upstanding dirty bird Silvio Berlusconi) publish the photos, which soon proliferate across the internet/other publications. I won’t go into details, but suffice to say that the understanding is that any British publications who reprints them will be in “big trouble” (an Irish one already is).
4.) The Royal Family calls foul. On Monday, September 17, the royal couple files a complaint and a request for an injunction against Closer, the French (yet Berlusconi-owned) publication that published the “full suite” of photos. To wit:
The duke and duchess have asked for the injunction order to be accompanied by a warning that the magazine would be fined €10,000 (£8,000) for every day that it did not comply with an injunction and fined €100,000 if it tried to resell the photographs. The judges will rule on the case on Tuesday at lunchtime.
I’m writing before the verdict comes out, but here’s what you need to understand:
1.) French privacy laws are much, MUCH more protective than American ones. That’s why Brangelina has a house there; that’s why (until recently) Vanessa Paradis and Johnny Depp lived there (that and Paradis was, well, French). It’s much easier to be a celebrity there, in part because the invasion of privacy laws are explicit and carry heavy fines: you cannot “take, record, or transmit, without his or her consent, the picture of a person who is in a private place.” In other words, invasive paparazzi = illegal. The question remains, however, whether this giant villa (with photos from a “public” road) was a public place. If it is, then these photos are, indeed, illegal.
2.) IT DOESN’T REALLY MATTER. Because whether you think that the royal family has made this worse by pressing charges, that “it’s a private issue,” or even that Kate showed a non-characteristic lack of media savvy, the point is that the war is won: the scandal isn’t Kate’s; it’s the media’s.
Put differently, her actions are not, in fact, scandalous. No one in Europe — and her “subjects” in particular — are scandalized by the fact of a 30-year-old woman taking off her top (presumably to avoid pesky tanlines, the very manifestation of low-classiness) while sunbathing. Scandal occurs when someone trespasses on the fringe of the status quo, or challenges the popular understanding of his/her image. Princess Kate may be classy and wear sleeves at her wedding, but topless sunbathing is not outside the realm of her expected behavior — in part because she is, as many are keen to remind, not royal-born. Yet any objections over her lack of royal born-ness were aired leading up the wedding. Now, that’s old (and out-of-touch) news: she’s the new people’s princess.
And she’s not the first people’s princess — a point the couple’s lawyer’s have been keen to underline in their case, highlighting the fact that Prince William’s mother was victim to similar “invasions of privacy” that led to her death almost 15 years ago to the day.
Which is all the makings for a perfect MELODRAMA:
The villains: the same paparazzi forces that killed the beloved Princess Diana.
The victims: the privacy-seeking “first couple” of Britain; son of Diana + heir to her popular “title.”
And once you successfully frame a gossip story in terms of melodrama, it essentially takes care of itself. The conversation suddenly has nothing to do with Kate’s nudity and everything to do with rights to privacy, special rights of royals/political officials to privacy, and the general exceptionalism of a beloved people’s princess. No matter what happens in court, it seems clear that the entity “behaving scandalously” is not the Duchess of Cambridge, but the photographer and, more to the point, the entities that would publish those photos (hence the suspension of the head of the Irish Star-Times).
Society, working with the help of media outlets, works to censor those at the center of scandal. Fascinating, then, how various media outlets have become the locus of that scorn….even when a Princess’s breasts are involved.
UPDATE: The French court has found in favor of the Royals, and will be forced to hand over the original photos and pay a $13,000 every time the images are republished.
Victory: Kate and Wills.
If two star images get married “in secret” in South Carolina and everyone yawns, did the marriage actually happen?
I’m being somewhat facetious, but the news of the marriage between demi-stars Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds broke late last night, and everyone yawned. Twitter is undoubtedly the best place to observe these initial reactions, and there were some doozies:
Sign of pop dementia: I initially assumed the Reynolds/Lively wedding was a RE-marriage, having mashed Lively and Scarjo into one person.
— emilynussbaum (@emilynussbaum) September 10, 2012
I just told my husband Blake Lively&Ryan Renolds got married and his reaction was”Why do these people keep getting married!?” Made me laugh.
— Busy Philipps (@Busyphilipps25) September 10, 2012
@annehelen Ryan Reynolds is totally a crazy person in my mind now. He’s the Liz Taylor of contemporary bland leading men.
— Rebecca K. (@isadora_ink) September 10, 2012
Now, if you are a lover of the Reynolds or Lively star image, you will likely protest: they did it in secret because they don’t want the publicity! True and false. They did not sell the photos of their wedding to People Magazine — something we associate with reality stars, but don’t forget well-respected, well-regarded stars like Reese Witherspoon, Drew Barrymore, and even Tom Cruise sell the rights to their weddings. It’s smart PR. (And who knows – these photos may emerge in the next week or so). Many of those stars had “secret” (meaning: not publicized ahead of time) weddings. This wedding was not publicized ahead of time, and there are currently no paparazzi shots, but I do not buy, for a second, that it’s truly a secret wedding. If anything, they kept it secret so that they could then sell “exclusive” rights to the photos, another well-known gossip industry trick. They’re also slowly leaking crazy info, like the fact that Lively’s “friend” Florence Welch (does this seem to crazy to anyone else?) performed a few songs, the couple had lunch with Bette Midler earlier that weekend, and the site of the wedding is from The Notebook.
But here’s the thing: Lively is an established fame-whore. She/Her Agent runs the fame game, and she has done a spectacularly good job of exploiting her major talent, namely, the ability to look stunning in short dresses. There is no way she’s not going to exploit this marriage – in as tasteful a way as possible, of course – the same way she exploited her relationship with Penn Badgley and Leonardo DiCaprio before her. When you’re short on one half of the stardom equation (actual acting talent), you compensate with an intriguing extra-textual life. And Lively has been very, very good at doing so every since her name made its way to the public’s lips back during the halcyon days of Gossip Girls‘s first two seasons.
Again, doubters gonna doubt: and say that Lively did love Badgley, did love DiCaprio, does love Reynolds. I don’t contest that. You just have to understand that love — in any situation — can also be accompanied by career savvy. Both Lively and Reynolds were on paths to legitimate film stardom that didn’t quite pan-out. And when the performances don’t do the job, the best publicists know that you turn to the extra-textual life to keep interest until the performances can win it once again.
Which is why this reaction to her marriage to Reynolds may prove a problem. The all-powerful minivan majority will eat up the details, in part because the minivan majority just loves monogamy and wedded monogamy in particular. But when the tastemakers of celebrity gossip consumption consider the union boring, confuse Lively with Reynolds’ previous wife (ScarJo), and express general disinterest, the best laid star union may not equal the sum of its star parts.
On a purely pragmatic level, lots of stars date other stars because they’re the only ones who understand/can cope with the lifestyle. Frankly, it’s the same thing with grad students, which is why I need to get some start-up capital to start my genius “G-Date” graduate-student dating site. But stars also date other stars because it raises their star stock exponentially — meaning, star dating star does not equal star + star, but (star) * (star). This wedding should be dynamite. It should be so much more fascinating than Barrymore’s wedding to a non-star, or Witherspoon’s wedding to a beige-looking agent.
But we don’t care. It’s not because Reynolds hasn’t been truly interesting since Van Wilder (seriously, that persona: go back to it) or because Lively can’t enunciate. It’s because their relationship is beige. It’s because there’s nothing scandalous, despite the fact that Reynolds is ten years her senior. It’s because they, and their teams, have planned badly: sure, it’s a wedding, but they’ve done nothing in the build up to make it worth your gossip-minded energy. It doesn’t stand for anything. It doesn’t represent anything, other than two wealthy good-looking white people with middling talent getting married — which, if you’re really invested in such things, read the New York Times on Sunday for much more fascinating backstories.
People mistake Ryan Reynolds for other handsome, long-faced stars all the time. People mistake Blake Lively for other long-haired television blondes. People mistake their relationship for the relationships of other beautiful yet otherwise unnotable people. Even if you think that it doesn’t matter whether they married for publicity or not, the fact remains: neither one of them is interesting enough to render the “secret” wedding interesting. And that, readers, is the sign of a falling almost-star.
You’ve heard the news: Amy Poehler and Will Arnett are separating after 9 years and 2 kids together.
Last week, when I posted a blind item from Lainey Gossip alluding to as much, I was somewhat taken aback by the response. I love Amy Poehler and Will Arnett (I especially love Amy Poehler, but we’ll get to that), but I didn’t realize that so many other people did as well. We’re talking profound investment in this relationship — far more than one would expect, especially given that the two are not, by any means, tremendous stars. They’re television personalities, they’re tremendously talented, but movie stars they are not.
And it’s not just fans: The AV Club declared the very “concept of love” dead; over at Gawker, “Amy Poehler and Will Arnett are Separating So Go Home and Break Up with Your Boyfriend Because ‘Love’ Is a Lie.”
Reactions fall into three general categories:
1.) I’m never invested in celebrity relationships, but I’m invested in this one, and this sucks.
2.) They seemed genuinely happy; this is sad.
3.) If Poehler can’t do it, no one can.
Granted, I concede that most of the sadness is flowing through the conduits of my Twitter and Facebook feeds, along with the comments on The Hairpin, Gawker, The AV Club, and similar publications. In other words, people who consume/love Poehler/Arnett products, which is a rather specific demographic. To spell it out: educated, upper middle-class, media-hipsters (a different category than the normal hipster; we consume hip media but are not actually hip. God knows I’m not hip. I just watch Louie and love Ron Swanson.)
With that in mind, here’s what I think is happening: this quirky, intelligent, companionable couple can’t make a relationship work long-term, and it highlights the tremendous challenges to maintaining a similar relationship in our “real” lives.
Let me take a step back.
Amy Poehler’s image = Intelligent, feminist, tremendously hard-working. Success on her own terms. Beautiful in a non-traditional who-needs-to-be-a-supermodel-I-mean-seriously way. Powerful friendship with another powerful woman. When asked by Seventeen how she got boys to notice her when she was young, she responded “I had no idea how to get boys to notice me. I still don’t. Who cares?”
Like many television personalities, her image is very closely aligned with her television character. In my mind, Poehler is Parks and Rec‘s Leslie Knope, minus a bit of the neuroses. Like Knope, Poehler’s worked very hard to reach a position of power; she does something she loves. She’s a feminist who is unafraid to be unpopular. She thinks women are important and awesome. I mean, Galentine’s Day!
Unlike Knope, Poehler also two (very adorable, very normal looking) children, and didn’t seem to have Knope’s struggle between desiring romance and following her life-long ambition.
….Until, seemingly, now. Amy Poehler “had it all.” I realize how problematic that phrase is, and it has been problematized thoroughly in recent months following the publication of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” in The Atlantic. Slaughter pointed to why “it all” is impossible; others pointed to why “it all” is ridiculous. But star images embody concepts that don’t exist in real life, but which we nevertheless strive for: Marilyn Monroe was innocent sexuality; Angelina Jolie is domestic, exotic sexuality. And Amy Poehler was “having it all” — intelligence, fame, respect, equitable partnership, children.
The fact that the two of them are both comedians also makes it seem possible to PLAYFULLY “have it all” — and even professionally collaborate! To great success! I always forget about the their performances in Blades of Glory. Perfection.
But Mallory Ortberg (handle: Melis) got it right in the comments on The Hairpin:
She’s being somewhat facetious, of course, but she’s right: a lot of us (me, you, others who read this blog) identify with Poehler or Arnett and their particular negotiation of “having it all.” We know very, very little of their actual relationship. What we do know is what it seemed to represent, and what its demise seems to represent.
I’m rewatching Season 4 of Parks and Rec right now, and it’s no spoiler to say how painful it is to watch Poehler’s character torn between her affection for Ben and the fact that her run for city council makes that relationship legally impossible. It tortures Leslie, and it tortures me — in part because the show is literalizing the tension many women feel in their own careers, only toss in the desire for a baby or two as well. To see that tension spread to Poehler’s extra-textual life makes it all the more poignant.
I can’t speak to what upsets men about the end of this relationship. I imagine it’s not altogether dissimilar: it might be historically easier for men to “have it all,” but most of the awesome men that I know want their partners to “have it all” as well. For these feminist men, their own version of “having it all” means equitable having-it-all-ness: something, again, that Poehler and Arnett’s collective image representative. (Please, Disappointed Men, elaborate/expand in the comments).
There might not be such a thing as taking news like this “too personal.” Remember: what we talk about when we talk about celebrities is, as ever, ourselves.
I realized that while I’ve been doing a bunch of writing this summer, most of it hasn’t been on this blog.
Here, then, are some links to various things I’ve been working on, scattered in the four corners of the internet:
“Media Studies Makeover” in the newly-launched, open-access Frames Journal
“What We Talk About When We Talk About Brangelina” in In the Library with a Lead Pipe, an awesome open-access, peer-reviewed publication for hip librarians
“Gossip Grrrl: Can Celebrity Gossip Ever Be Feminist?” in Bitch Magazine (this just links to the table of contents — but you can buy the back issue on that page, and if you’re really dying to read it, send me an email (my full name at gmail).
Various Scandals of Classic Hollywood over at The Hairpin:
Would love to hear your thoughts…..
A good male friend of mine Gchatted me soon thereafter, essentially asking about my interest in Williams and Segel. To summarize, “I don’t understand: you and Lainey Gossip both love posting links to this stuff — but it seems like it’s always just pictures of her and Segel….walking on the street? And he dresses worse than I do, and I work from home?”
But it did highlight a practice in which I didn’t (fully, consciously) know I was engaging, namely, celebrating any evidence of Michelle Williams’ domestic happiness/peace. We all “want” things for various celebrities — some people really, really want Jennifer Aniston to get married/have babies, for instance, whereas I really, really wanted Leonardo DiCaprio to not be dating Blake Lively. And don’t even get me started on how excited I was at the rumors that Mulder and Scully were together at last.
Those wants generally have little to do with the celebrity him/herself — and much more to do with how we feel about what women deserve after being cheated on, etc. etc. And the way we care about Michelle Williams really isn’t that different, even though her situation is very quite unique.
But here’s the thing about my friend’s confusion: he had no idea about the “uniqueness” of her Williams’ situation. No idea that she was with Ledger, that Matilda was Ledger’s daughter. No idea why the pictures of all three of them together would make people happy, no matter how ostensibly boring. And this is a guy who’s quite culturally savvy — but just didn’t read gossip until somewhat recently.
And here’s where the backstory — the gossip narrative, if you will — becomes so crucial. No sad break-up; no Heath Ledger overdose; no even sadder pictures of Williams and Baby Matilda trying to avoid paparazzi in Brooklyn = no desire to see quotidian photos of Williams and Segel. Seriously: they’re demi-stars. I love them both, I love them so much — but no one’s taking dozens of pictures of, say, Amy Poehler and Will Arnett and their babies. A few, sure, but no one’s posting pictures just to say “I’m so glad Poehler is happy!” ”Look, they’re holding hands!” ”The kid is there, that’s so great!”
That’s what most of my comments on these photos have amounted to: I love that she is with someone who seems as loving and loveable as Jason Segel. Even though I don’t know Jason Segel; I don’t know what he’s actually like with kids. I don’t know how he’s working the difficult maneuver of dating a mom with an early-elementary age kid who’s never known her father. But his image makes me think that he’s pretty awesome at it.
And that’s what amazes me: that my knowledge of him, culled from his interactions with Terri Gross on Fresh Air, his devotion to The Muppets, his vampire musical theater act, his drum playing on Freaks and Geeks, plus all his other roles, makes me think that he’s a decent guy who’s very patient and loving and playful and perfect for someone as seemingly wounded as Williams.
BUT AGAIN: I don’t know Williams. But I do know the fragility of her characters, her interviews, and first-hand anecdotes of her trauma following Ledger’s death. My heart wants his image to help heal her image, which is really another way of saying that “woman grieving, accosted by press deserves solid man.”
Of course, there’s a paradox, as there is to most gossip. My own investment in this situation — my desire to see pictures like these, your desire to see pictures like these — fuels the market for pictures like these. Fuels the continued surveillance, the very thing that fueled the perceived discontent in the first place. We want what’s “best,” what’s “happy,” what’s “peaceful” for celebrities, but we want to see it documented — we want to experience and endorse it.
And therein lies the rub. Celebrities are actual people, experiencing the commodity demands created by their images. The problem with someone like Michelle Williams is that she should, by all rights, simply be an actor, experiencing the same sort of attention devoted to Joan Allen, even Jennifer Lawrence. But her association with “scandal” (meaning: unexpected, not-totally-explained death) makes her gossip-worthy. Makes her a star — someone whose on-screen and off-screen parts attract equal interest — despite her desires.
I don’t feel “bad” for the celebrity lifestyle. It’s a hard one, but so are many, many “lifestyles,” especially those with far less money. The academic lifestyle is hard, but you know what’s really, really hard? Being a member of the working poor. Just sayin’. But as a consumer and cultural critic of gossip, I do feel conflicted about the way that attention and investment in situations like Williams’ work. Do you? Should we?