Monday, March 18, 2013


Dave Zahl at Mockingbird has been talking about "Authenticity" lately, and notes at that post that "Exhibit A here is what the always insightful Heather Havrilesky refers to as: 'Oscar night’s Lawrence/Hathaway carnival ride of attraction/revulsion' in her column for The Vulture, 'Why Jennifer Lawrence and Mila Kunis Are Beloved'."

What's immediately interesting, to me, is the strangeness of the whole concept:  that people take a really way oversized amount of interest in the personality characteristics of other people they don't actually know.   Here's an example, from the Harvrilesky article:
While actors can display a wide range of behaviors and say anything they want (short of spewing hate speech) without eliciting much scorn, actresses are lambasted for the slightest slipup. Too skinny or too fat? Too fussy or too messy? Too unpolished or too stiff? Women in general can't do much in this world without garnering a flood of criticism, often from other women. Deliver a few narcissistic pronouncements, be haughty to a foreign journalist in a weak moment, get a little too caught up in the dream you dreamed in time gone by, and yesterday's innocent princess is today's evil queen.

Even so, there's something very specific, and very dramatic, about this everygirl/diva study in contrasts — as embodied by Oscar night's Lawrence/Hathaway carnival ride of attraction/revulsion. The vocal negative reaction to Hathaway and her ilk feels like more than the sadly predictable backlash against intelligence or a reflection of our cultural disgust with girls; it suggests a sea change in the way we encounter celebrity. We may have reached the outer limits of our patience with the kind of self-involvement that rises from a life in the spotlight. There are just too many ways to be famous, or at least to draw an audience — from blogging to posting clips on YouTube to tweeting something pithy during the Super Bowl — for most of us to want to see a star treating the world's attention as something that they'd been destined to bask in since birth. By sharing their Instagram feeds or favoriting our tweets, famous actresses seem accessible, a part of our sphere; so to have one step back and act like they are untouchable, or in some way part of a rarefied world, is an insult that is not to be tolerated. Mila Kunis and Jennifer Lawrence haven't simply scored a "win" by behaving like normal, everyday people, eliciting comments like "She is the greatest!" and "I want to eat burgers with her!" They're doing what we expect every star to do, in this post-celebrity age. We expect stars to keep their egos in check.

What's a little strange about this shift, though, is that it doesn't seem to apply to actresses like Lena Dunham, whose aw-shucks remarks are consistently ripped to pieces by commenters who don't seem to believe that Dunham deserves the press she's getting, despite the fact that, unlike most actresses, she actually writes her own material and as such probably has plenty of interesting opinions beyond her love of a particular brand of beer. Alas, when Dunham professes her enthusiasm for short shorts and warns the public that she'll be showing off her legs "until I'm 100," the comments sections soon turn nasty. "I was sick of her and her empty vibe from the start," one wrote on this website. "She looks like a sausage trying to escape from its casing," said another. By parading her perfectly nice, girl-next-door face and regular-mortal body on the small screen, Dunham has waged an admirable fight against the reigning mindset that women on television should always be gifted with supermodel good looks. And Dunham rarely comes off as anything but earnest and funny and self-deprecating, the same party tricks demonstrated by Kunis and Lawrence. So why all the hate? Apparently it's not enough for a woman to be smart and likable and humble. Audiences presumably don't crave Dunham as their best friend because they already have a best friend just like Dunham. They want an upgrade. The key is to act just like average humans, but not to look remotely like them.
I watched "Anne Hathaway's interview with Ricky Lo" - linked above, and didn't find anything strange or "haughty" about what she said - or, in fact, anything weird about what he said, either (apparently he's getting the business over the clip, too).   Why are people - apparently - cringing about these things?  I guess I can understand that, though; perhaps it's a bit of self-contempt - that we're so invested in celebrity itself.  When celebrities don't seem to live up to the status we ourselves give them - and who could live up to it? - perhaps that says something about us and how overinvolved we are in the whole thing.  We continue to watch, though; we can't look away.

Following along with some of these links and reading the comments it seems that people are also just really, really angry about something.  What?  Are they angry that celebrities get so much attention, while they themselves get little or none?  In the case of Ricky Lo, some from his own country seem embarrassed by him - as if he were the "face of the Philippines" and causing them to lose face somehow.

Or are people just plain furious generally?  That does seem to be the case, actually - at least online; it's no different in any other part of the web.   You see the fury on news blogs and political sites and everywhere; there's this seeming desire to make every passing thing into a huge drama, invested with deep meaning for the fate of the world or for the culture itself - and to take sides and demonize others.  What's interesting about that, actually, is that people you know in your own life - friends, neighbors, co-workers, acquaintances - don't seem all that furious, in the flesh.  (Well, except in traffic.)  And we're all online now, so it doesn't seem to be two different groups of people.  I've always seen the web as "the world's id" - and I guess that's really true; people do say things anonymously they'd never say in person.  They seem to feel free to let go of their rage online.

I do get that "social media" is a driver; Twitter appears to be a worldwide gossip engine at the moment - and also, in its "trending" concept, feeds into what seems to be a desperate desire and need to be "on it," in terms of what the latest thing is.  This happens on Facebook, too - from what I remember (I signed off for good a few months ago).  I suppose that's all just to be able to think of oneself as in the loop, part of the stream of life.   Andrew Sullivan has created a living for himself out of this sort of thing; once he said something like, "I'd like to really sit down and write a long book about Christianity" - but how does anybody have the time for that, when they have to keep track of the latest flotsam and jetsam of the culture? 

The deeper question, though, is:  is all this stuff about "life"?   Well, no - it sure doesn't seem to be.  It's all surfaces - and even more to the point:  it's all about somebody else.  The inner - and therefore the examined - life is, apparently (as Gloria Steinem once noted), not worth living.  And that, I think, is the problem.

I think "trending" taking the place of other, deeper things; it's a way to hide from the inner self.  As I mentioned here once before, at other times and in other places, people looked to "character building" as something desirable in itself - but it was something you had to actually seek out and learn about.  (That last link is a post about a current theory that modern life rewards extroversion and punishes introversion!)  The assumption was that people, by ourselves the way we come, are "unfinished" and need formation by systems of thought and/or faith.  And I think this is what "Authenticity" is actually seeking after:  a method or system to help people understand themselves and the world.

And perhaps the fixation with "celebrity" is an effort to focus on people that the whole world can look at and talk over - the modern way of talking about "the human condition" that's missing from our individual lives.

Because many people don’t have much of a program or system for this sort of thing any longer; religion, of course, once played the role of “explaining how the world works” and "talking about the human condition."   But its former system is maybe no longer intelligible to those outside it (and even to some inside it!) - or else needs to take new information into account and hasn’t caught up yet.  I suspect the system needs to be reworked and upgraded in any case, since some of the more fundamental things - the basic equality of all human beings - have been incorporated into our thinking now.  That is, of course, excellent - but it's nowhere close to the end of the story!  And I suspect "current thinking" will be found to be rather fluid in any case.

The fact still is, though: we have “data” pouring in everywhere, but many people have nothing that can make it coherent - or at least, permit thinking about coherence.  As I've said before here, too:  people don’t think much about things like “the classical virtues” – I didn’t know what these were until about 10 years ago, myself – and I bet few people outside of A.A. can name “the 7 Deadly Sins."   We know that people can’t name the 10 Commandments, let alone thinking about them in depth.  Society doesn’t hand down “the wisdom of the past” any longer; the past seems benighted in the current era, so people don’t tend to look at it much, either.

Religion, of course, is a systematic way of thinking about life on earth and what it means.  A.A. has its own system - one that leans heavily on religious practices, and one that helps me to think about things to this day, after almost 30 years.   Trying to understand life - human motivations, desires, actions, and etc. - has always been extremely to human beings.  Philosophy and psychology (which admittedly is taking up some of the slack today) have done this work, alongside religion.

The search for "authenticity" seems to be part of that search - a way to discover truth - but then morphs into a status symbol, and a way for people to "win."  It's the age of Marketing, after all.

The thing is:  religion, from my point of view, is just way more interesting - and it's free, besides.

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