Gods and Kardashians
My favorite book in adolescence was Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. I loved the stories about gods and mortals interacting and creating utter chaos — wars, harrowing (if often pointless) quests, demigod offspring who didn’t really belong in either realm.
Mostly, I was fascinated by the idea that immortal and supremely powerful deities were bored silly unless they were stirring shit up. They never seemed to care about the consequences, only the momentary pleasure they got from tweaking a rival god.
This troublemaking pantheon gave the Greeks some great stories, the best of which told of heroes who rose to fame on the strength of their superhuman abilities, but inevitably fell because of a tragic flaw.
We no longer believe in flesh-and-blood deities and demigods, which makes sense. At a time when we can map every inch of the planet, from the peak of Mt. Everest to the bottom of the Marianas Trench, there’s no place for gods to hang out, free of human scrutiny. Our notion of the divine is now ethereal, both all-knowing and mostly unknowable — everywhere, always, forever. No beginning, no end. Whatever unattractive human qualities we once ascribed to this being — like the rage, jealousy, and occasional cruelty of the Old Testament — have been replaced by compassion, love, and help for our favorite sports teams in their hour of need.
Which brings me to the real point of this post.
When the hero takes a fall
Once we gave up on the idea that gods walk among us and meddle in our affairs, we likewise had to give up on the notion that gods bump private parts with mortals, thus creating semi-divine heroes with semi-super powers. Sure, kings continued to claim divine ancestry for a while, and segued from that magical notion to the slightly less magical but equally absurd claim of divine rights. Today most of us reject the idea that gods exist to provide us with either leaders or entertainment.
So we look elsewhere. We seek out exceptional individuals and elevate them to the role of stars, or at least celebrities. The biggest stars ascend to the status of heroes, at which point we don’t just celebrate their achievements, we hold these men and women up as role models. We aspire to be more like them.
Problem is, these stars and heroes are still human, subject to all the qualities we hate — the greed, lust, jealousy, and selfishness that we try to hide from the outside world (and sometimes from ourselves). The better the story we can tell about a hero, the more willing we are to suspend disbelief about that person’s true character.
Lance Armstrong is only the most recent example. Each time an eyewitness report confirmed what was increasingly obvious — that he must have used every performance-enhancing drug in the universe to keep up with all the competitors who admitted they were doing the exact same thing — his fans chose to believe his denials. He was the hero, after all, and a hero’s word must be better than a non-hero’s.
The Greeks could’ve told you how this would end: with a strange kind of infamy in which we have to weigh what he accomplished (started a charity; made Americans pretend to care about cycling when all we really care about is winning). As I write this, in early 2013, the public has mostly moved on. There was that crazy thing with the football player and his imaginary girlfriend, followed by that other thing with the “anti-aging” clinic in Miami providing steroids to ballplayers. By the time you read this, who knows what will momentarily capture our attention?
Whatever it is, it will almost certainly involve the basic narrative structure of every scandal: we elevate someone to the role of hero, and then we reach for the popcorn as our 24-hour media details his or her subsequent fall.
Too many channels, not enough heroes
The other problem we have is an acute celebrity shortage. I grew up with five channels on our black-and-white TV: ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, and the independent channel that showed Leave It to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet reruns. FM radio didn’t yet exist, and the AM stations mostly played music. We had daily and evening newspapers to tell us what happened while we were working or sleeping.
My mom used to make cracks about how she “just sits around all day, eating bon-bons and reading movie magazines.” We knew what bon-bons were, but none of us had seen a movie magazine. We just thought it was another of her anachronisms, like when she said “criminetlies!” in the same way we would scream “son of a f***ing bitch!” today.
Eventually, though, we got our movie magazines. We also got fluffy TV shows about entertainment, and eventually the Internet made it possible for us to read about entertainers 24 hours a day. Same with the political media, same with the sports media, same with whatever you call the media that gives us fresh video of kittens and puppies.
Meanwhile, the actual amount of news didn’t really increase. The really important stuff could still be covered by daily and evening newspapers, the original broadcast networks, and a handful of AM radio stations.
The real newsmakers — the people who make important decisions that affect our lives — are no more abundant than they were a generation ago. So the political media is forced to pick apart everything they say, how they say it, where they say it. They take what are sometimes clear statements and work them over until they’re so far out of context that even the speaker wouldn’t recognize his own words.
The no-news dilemma is especially acute in sports and entertainment. Athletes play games, we all see what happens in the games, and then they live their private lives until the next game. Entertainers make movies, record music, write books. They promote the hell out of those things when they’re ready for public consumption, and then they go back to their private lives so they can create some more.
But you can’t fill 24 hours’ worth of media space with accounts of what happened in games, or reviews of movies and music, or even with the bland comments athletes and entertainers say in carefully controlled press conferences and media events.
So what do we do? We manufacture celebrities, and we depend on them to manufacture news. That’s the only reason reality TV exists.
Real stars, like Johnny Depp or Bruce Springsteen (just to pick two that come immediately to my middle-aged mind), are only available to the media when it suits them — that is, when they have a new product to promote.
But fake stars are always there. That’s the implicit compact they agree to when they descend into Kardashian Canyon and present themselves for public scrutiny. They’re like self-selected lottery winners. They want to be rich and famous without actually doing any of the things that traditionally lead to wealth and fame.
Which means they also pay the price of wealth of fame. What gets celebrated must also be defamed and ridiculed. Narrative story structure demands it. The ancient Greeks perfected it.
The difference is that their stories were about imaginary gods and heroes. Their myths and fables were often cautionary tales: fly too close to the sun, and the sun will burn you.
Our stories are about real people. Some, like Armstrong, probably deserve whatever happens to them, because if there’s anything we hate more than a cheater, it’s a cheater who fools us into believing he’s a genuine hero.
Personally, I think our lives would be better if we ignored all but the handful whose work deserves our attention. And even then, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to think they’re anything more or less than us, just because they can do something we can’t.
Appreciate the work, in other words, but leave the worker alone.