Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Oops! I did it again...

When the Today Show aired a segment about Britney Spears's custody battle this morning, Bubba stopped eating his cereal and I gravitated out of the bathroom to stare fixedly at the t.v. screen. The usual experts were on hand, individuals with no personal knowledge of Spears but nonetheless "qualified" to dissect her motives and project the outcome of the legal proceedings and the certain havoc it will wreak on the lives of her children. And I have to admit, as I eagerly digested this tidbit of news, that I was more than a little ashamed.

Why are we so engrossed in the misfortunes of people like Britney Spears? I tried to delve into this question with Bubba as I drove him to work this morning. Frankly, I don't think he was too interested in the question and humored me by saying that maybe it's because we're concerned about her children. Oh really Bubba? I don't think so. It seems our motives are far less benevolent than that.

Maybe it's the media's fault. They're the ones that keep pushing these stories on us, anyway. But recent events undermine this argument. Case in point, the 2007 Miss Teen USA pageant. The contestant from South Carolina, Lauren Upton, responded to a pageant question in an embarrassingly incoherent way. Video of her response on YouTube drew a couple million hits. The so-called democratization of the media allowed the public to replay this young woman's embarrassing moment over and over again: and we did.

Neither Spears nor Upton seem to have much control over how the media represents them. Contrast this with the story of a carefully crafted media image. In Joan Didion's Political Fictions, she recounts an event she witnessed at the San Diego airport during Michael Dukakis's presidential campaign. Dukakis got out of the plane and, after being instructed by his campaign manager, tossed a ball back and forth with his press secretary on the tarmac. After enough photographs and live footage had been taken, the ball-tossing abruptly ended. Didion asserts that this ball-tossing was a set-up; however, in the weeks to follow numerous news articles referred to the event as evidence that Dukakis was an every-day guy.

If an individual can attempt to shape the media, can't the media shape an individual? If the media coverage of Dukakis as a regular Joe was fictive, isn't it possible that the coverage of Spears is too? In a recent opinion column, George Will called our obsession with gaffes, flubs, and other public embarrassments evidence of the coarsening of society. He said that the attention drawn to Lauren Upton's verbal missteps was cruel. Cruel is a harsh word. But be honest and ask yourself if you don't derive a certain amount of pleasure in watching Britney's life spiral out of control. And if so, isn't that, if not quite cruel, at least not kind.

If we become a society too willing to revel in the misfortunes of others, we risk losing our ability to be compassionate. So the next time the Today Show features a story on Britney, I'll try to not be so entertained. Or, like Bubba does, I'll think of the children.


janel said...

Does this mean we shouldn't watch Napoleon Dynamite?
I think the reason Miss South Carolina (and Napoleon) appeal to so many people is not because we're making fun of them as individuals, but we appreciate that other people make mistakes and say dumb things in public just like we do.
It's somehow consoling to me to know that others are also blessed with the occasional diarrhea of the mouth. I sure am. Kind of like how I can't stop commenting on this post. Diarrhea of the keyboard.

Jaime said...

Bubba is just sweet enough that I believe he's thinking about the children.

I think it is at least not kind the way we relish in the misfortunes of celebrities. I'm not convinced that "we appreciate that other people make mistakes" although it is a sweet thought. If that were the case we'd be spending $2.50 to send Britney a sympathy card or other supportive gesture rather than buying the newest issue of People. Whatever it is that draws us into celebrity gossip (and I am so very guilty of this) I have to believe it stems from a type of vice, rather than a human compassion or sympathy.

Stacy said...

I'm more of a conspiracy theorist in that I believe the networks and the government might be in cahoots to keep us informed on what they want us to be focused on. Spears and Upton are not NEWS they are GOSSIP. The more we focus on Gossip the Less we focus on important things that matter. Even Dukakis throwing a ball is gossip not news. On a side note if I threw a ball on the tarmac no one would take pictures they would probably ask me to stop. He must not be that average to be allowed that publicity. Anyway I think that famous people try to hide from or shape the media, the media tries to shape us and meanwhile our thoughts and actions are illspent. If we were more concerned about real news our country might not be laughing at others embarrassing moments but shaping our country for good.