Maybe celebrities deserve our sympathy, not our scorn
The media storm surrounding Lara Bingle and that bloke who plays cricket has got me thinking about the pressures of celebrity and whether we should give a bugger about putting famous people under such intense scrutiny. It also got me thinking about my own brief, shameful experience with harassing a star.
Several years ago I went to dinner at a posh Chinese restaurant. This may sound perfectly benign, but I’m a squeamish vegetarian. Being surrounded by living things swimming in tanks meant the only thing on the menu that looked vaguely appetising was the beer. Two slabs later, while my friends were still picking at their entrees, I decided I needed to make a phone call.
I staggered down the restaurant stairs like a drag queen post-Sleaze Ball and off to the phone box outside. In the middle of this drink-and-dial episode I spotted a large man sheltering a smaller man in a way that made him look important. So I dropped the phone and tottered over to see who the smaller man was. It turned out it was the actor John Cusack. Being a self-anointed film critic I proceeded helpfully to tell him who he was. “You’re John Cusack”, I slurred.
But it didn’t stop there. As the phone dangled impotently in the box a few metres away my friend could probably hear me reveal to Mr Cusack his list of film credits and a discriminating appraisal of his work. The larger man – the actor’s security detail as it turned out – stopped me mid-sentence. He said calmly but firmly, “He’s not John Cusack tonight, lady”.
I wasn’t going to let that go through to the keeper – not in my state.
Directing my drunken indignation at Cusack, who by the way had not even looked at me, much less spoken a word to me, I shouted “Who the f… do you think you are?” Kindly, he didn’t ask the same of me. The actor just looked at the ground and stayed looking at it until an expensive car pulled up and he was bundled into it and driven away from the crazy lady left standing on the street.
Which brings me to the question: can we empathise with celebrities who want to be left alone?
There seems to be two schools of thought on this. One is what I call the ‘Princess Diana was like a member of my own family’ view. Members of this club seem to take everything a celebrity goes through personally. They buy all the gossip mags and then melodramatically lament the demise of a celebrity. “They were never allowed to just have a normal life”, they snivel. The other are a much colder, smug lot who think, suck it up with your personal trainers and chefs, you deserve what you get.
The interesting thing about these opposing sides is they have more in common than either would like to admit. When a celebrity gets into trouble both believe they have the moral right to weigh into a debate about who’s to blame. It’s received wisdom that this is all due to the tabloid media and their obsession with elevating then destroying celebrities before you can say “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”.
But our feeling that we can make such moral judgments – whether about the media in the case of the Di fan club, or the celebrities themselves in the case of the rest of us – is a function of something with deeper historical roots.
What both sides fail to recognise is that celebrities aren’t people in any real sense; they’re mythical creatures of the Ancient Greek variety. They facilitate the public enactment of tragic myths and therefore serve the same function a Greek tragedy did to the populace of that ancient place.
Sorry to break it to those who take the moral high ground about Di’s relationship to the paparazzi, Michael Jackson’s enabling doctor, or Tiger Wood’s penis, but the celebrity dramas that play out in our living rooms have a long history.
From Sophocles to Shakespeare, Beckett and beyond, dramatic tragedies generally involve the reversal of fortune of a protagonist that elicits pity and fear in their spectators. The great philosopher Aristotle believed that the role of tragedy was to produce a catharsis – a purification of the emotions that it evokes.
Given this, it seems those breathless over break-ups splashed across Woman’s Day like Lara and Clarkey’s may not be such phonies after all. They may just be part of a long tradition of audiences who are able to experience a much needed emotional cleansing. Perhaps us morally smug types who look down on such people could do with a bit of a scrub ourselves.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t think of anything worse than being famous. Imagine having to deal with obnoxious drunks who won’t leave you alone when you’re trying to enjoy a quiet night out.
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