Monday, December 21, 2009

Celebrities, allergies and Edgar Allen Poe

[Before we get into the blog post, I gotta say that the Newsweek web site is almost unreadable. Totally bad design, UI, findability, etc. I was going to link to the story I'll be mentioning below, but after 2 minutes wandering around the site... meh.]

Last week's Newsweek's cover story was about celebrity. Specifically, the whole Tiger Woods blech. Now, I didn't know what had happened until about two days into it. I am that sports blind. This is not to make any kind of great Luddite, "I don't watch TV! I don't pay attention to gossip! I'm above the frickin' fray!" claim. If it had been Leonard Nimoy, Corey Doctorow or the Mars Rover caught in a tabloid affair, I would have known in 10 seconds. I just really, really pay no attention to sports of any kind.

The Newsweek article, though, was kinda interesting. In it the author (sorry, don't know... can't find it on the site) makes a basic claim that celebrity is a kind of narrative that we all (mostly) find interesting in and of itself. Brad and Angelina do interesting things as part of their jobs (acting, mostly), but are far more interesting as characters in a great, unscripted (mostly) drama of their own lives. The author makes the claim that celebrity is a 21st century art form.

OK. Though I disagree about the 21st century thing. We've had mass celebrity at least as long as we've had mass media (see "Charles Lindbergh). The idea that the parade of famousness is a "thing" itself doesn't really move me. Yeah. Sure. We like drama, melodrama, comedy, satire, fable, etc., whether it's served up as fiction or news.

What did get me thinking, though, was the idea that we sit up and pay much more attention when the objects of celebrity do something that gets them in trouble. Like Tiger Woods. All of a sudden, lots of people (myself included) who knew Tiger's name, but didn't really give a tinker's cuss about the guy are now sitting up straight and going, "Really? Really! He did what? With whom? And his wife had what?"

Why is "Tiger Screwed Up" so much more interesting in the celebrity drama than "Tiger Keeps Doing those Great Tiger Things that Made Him So Famous to Begin With"?

I think it's two reasons. First, allergies.

My wife is deathly allergic to honey bee stings. Seriously deathly. Like, if she gets stung and doesn't jab herself with her EpiPen in like 10 seconds, she could die. And you probably know someone (or someone's kid) who has serious peanut allergies. Eat a Peanut M&M and go into anaphalactic shock. Fun!

What's this got to do with celebrity? Well, you don't pay any attention to honey, bees or peanuts... until you or your kid is massively allergic to them. They're part of the scenery of everyday life. But dishes with honey make my wife's tongue numb, and if she eats enough of something before realizing there's honey, her throat swells up. More fun! So... between that and my various migraine triggers, we spend a lot of time reading food labels.

The point being this: celebrity screw ups are interesting because they're a kind of allergic reaction. If you're famous for being a role model of some kind (Tiger), then screwing around is going to make you swell up, get all puffy and possibly die (metaphorically speaking). If an actor or singer had experienced the same incident Tiger did, nobody would care. Musicians and actors aren't generally famous for being Good Guys. They're allergic to being ugly (Britney with no hair). And a severely allergic reaction is, frankly, kind of scary. So we react. We pay close attention. We, essentially, diagnose. What did he do? With who? Where? And did she know? We're trying to determine if this is a fatal reaction. Our relationship to celebrity is as consumers. And if the product has been killed (for each of us individually, or for everyone paying attention), we need to know. It's a kind of social-cannibalistic food safety issue, I think.

We also like it when celebrities screw up because it provides a neat frame-breaking moment. Edgar Allen Poe, inventor of the modern short story, made great use of frame-breaking in his scary tales. For example, in the "Fall of the House of Usher," he has the main character reading a book about a storm... and then hears something similar to what he's been reading about:

At the termination of this sentence I started, and for a moment, paused; for it appeared to me (although I at once concluded that my excited fancy had deceived me) -- it appeared to me that, from some very remote portion of the mansion, there came, indistinctly, to my ears, what might have been, in its exact similarity of character, the echo (but a stifled and dull one certainly) of the very cracking and ripping sound which Sir Launcelot had so particularly described. It was, beyond doubt, the coincidence alone which had arrested my attention; for, amid the rattling of the sashes of the casements, and the ordinary commingled noises of the still increasing storm, the sound, in itself, had nothing, surely, which should have interested or disturbed me. I continued the story.

I've always heard this literary device called "breaking the frame." When a character experiences movement between his "real" world and an internal fictional world, we--as readers ourselves--find it easier to imagine that movement might similarly occur between our really real world and the fictional world we're enjoying. It's a kind of transitive property of fiction.

When a celebrity breaks from his/her normal mode, we experience a similar framing shift. We see them outside of the narrative that made them famous, and that gives us (probably subconsciously) a certain frisson of expectation and excitement. If it is possible for Tiger to slip, almost instantly, from "Millionaire Golf Endorsement God" to "Shabby Womanizer," then... maybe... there's a chance for us to shift from "Working Stiff" to... ??? Who knows? That's the wonder of it.

Between the fascination of watching an allergic reaction, and the dramatic tension of frame breaking, we're almost helpless to turn away from the spectacle of celebrity crashes. We want to both diagnose what went wrong, and apply the results to ourselves. If the mighty can fall, perhaps the meek can also rise.