Part I: Bowing Down to a Two-Headed Calf
Every time a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.
– Gore Vidal
In the Middle Ages, the corrosive emotion of envy was an obvious choice for Pope Gregory’s list of seven deadly sins. Yet it is qualitatively different from the other scourges of the spirit. Unlike anger, pride, lust, gluttony, greed, or sloth, envy never gives the illusion of short-term pleasure. From the moment it starts, envy only brings anguish and sorrow.
We are flooded daily with mass media images of beautiful people having expensive fun in magnificent surroundings. Of all the Deadly Spins – desires once considered sins and now spun into beneficent forces by modern marketers – envy moves the most product. The nagging sense of not measuring up to the super-beautiful, super-rich standard set by popular culture festers away under the collective consciousness like an unlanced boil, driving us into the market for some fashionable fix.
The disease has even inflamed modern relationships. A study conducted recently on the dating preferences of men and women found that the expected minimum for physical beauty has risen over the past two decades. Younger generations expect more in a partner in terms of appearance.
Is this because of all the perfectly symmetrical faces, with their indices of glowing genetic health, staring out at us seductively from magazine racks and TVs, or projected to godlike dimensions on the movie screen? The authors of the study suggest this is indeed the case. The multiplication of these media images means there are greater numbers of young men and women who will no longer accept “average” looks. They want to re-imagine themselves as desirable hotties – and if they sometimes doubt they meet the pop culture gold standard themselves, they can at least demand it from a partner.
What animates this attitude isn’t so much beauty per se, as the fact that the famous are generally much better looking than the non-famous. The train is fame; movie-star looks are the caboose. On the popular singles website nerve.com, dating singles get to respond to the category, “what celebrity I resemble the most.” Respondents offer “Meg Ryan type,” “Russell Crowe look-alike,” and the occasional modest comparison to a lesser star not considered conventionally beautiful. Celebrity is increasingly the baseline comparison for ourselves and others.
The envy industry is everywhere these days, but one area of the world stands out. According to Salon contributor Cintra Wilson, the event horizon of this spiritual black hole is found in Los Angeles, and the singularity where reality ceases entirely is Hollywood. Wilson is arguably the most savage critic of the celebrity-seeking mindset. Her book A Massive Swelling:Celebrity Re-Examined As a Grotesque, Crippling Disease, and it effectively eviscerates the Californication of the North American self-concept, along with the “kind of screaming pink self-loathing that burns supersonically through all psyches in LA like a dated racing stripe.”
Wilson moved to Los Angeles in 1995, with the intent to creatively carve out another aperture in its commodified culture. “What better place to go than a city that orchestrates all the attitudes I hate the most about the American mentality?” she wrote. “I thought I would fiddle like Nero with my nourishing little artistic pursuits while Babylon burned.”
She discovered an urban environment so consumed by envy that its adherents were ocasionally disabled by it -- literally. In one passage, she describes the most relentlessly self-advancing among the LA acting set: Hollywood extras.
“These types of actors are also the people who will go horribly crazy if somebody they know, or vaguely know, gets famous. They have to take to their beds, it’s that bad, their lives are over, they are in Hell. They sink into a self-loathing depression that lasts years, and it’s all they can think about: “That fucking bitch is famous and I’m not?!? God loves Hitler more than he loves ME!!!”
The deadly spin of envy is fed by the sense of entitlement that runs rampant through the US mindset, according to Wilson. “If a person in this day and age has two cents’ worth of talent, it is considered his sacred obligation to Go for the Gold, or try and grab the big brass monkey ring, and otherwise make six to ten demoralizing career-and-connection-oriented phone calls a day, perform painful Top 40 hits at all the high-school graduations and bar mitzvahs, pay hundreds of dollars for eight by ten photographs of themselves looking like sexually available newscasters, and audition with seething positive energy for every Exlax commercial that comes down the pike, until the day that the opportunity for Fame reveals itself like a pinpoint of light down the throat of a large python.”
This doesn’t just hold in the entertainment profession. The LA zeitgeist has been packaged, shrink-wrapped, and stamped for export to the rest of the US, and the global market. Once the box is opened, the contents skitters away like the face-sucking critter in Alien, dripping acid on every field of endeavour, from journalism to science.
I once received an invitation by a media figure in Vancouver to attend a lunch hour gathering of successful artists, writers and musicians. I attended a few times, but the vibe was all wrong. The chumminess felt disingenuous. At one of these lunches, the host leaned over and told me in a hushed voice the reason for my invite: “you never know who’s going to be famous next.” The invite apparently had little to do with my work. It was about the buzz that was beginning to attend my name. Unfortunately for the collector of soon-to-be-celebs, whatever local buzz I had failed to rise into the air-raid siren of national fame.
This brings us to the ambivalence that celebrity feeds. We both love and hate celebrities, precisely for having all the things we don’t, chief among them the constant attention of millions. So we like nothing more than demonstrations that the famous are just like us, or worse. Yet the nimbus of really big-money celebrity comes without a dimmer switch; it can’t be turned off. No matter how nutty Marlon Brando got in his old age, he hung on to his cachet. Bob Dylan can knock off any ill-conceived tune he wants, but it will not cast a shadow backward on his myth.
In the course of a career suicide, the megawattage of fame may even brighten into full-on infamy, which is even more blinding. Robert Downey Jr.’s successive attempts at druggy self-sabotage did not remove him from the Hollywood A-List (at least not until he was actually jailed and unavailable). In LA, a chemical dependency or some other spectacularly bad behaviour is not a source of disapproval from polite society, as it would be for the rest of us. It’s the source of a book contract, or a series of teary “I’m-a-victim-too” appearances on Oprah or Barbara Walters.
“The implication of Fame in this value-warped society is: you’ve made it,” writes Wilson in A Massive Swelling. “You and your talents are so bright, you are somehow physically and spiritually light-years beyond all us bone-sucking hacks. I yowl in disgust at this bias.” The acidic author counsels against thinking of fame as some glorious blessing bestowed on the lucky few, who then demand our fealty. “Let us not worship these people, for it is like bowing down to a two-headed calf: unholy and weird.”
Part II: A CULTURAL EBOLA VIRUS
A teacher friend once told me he discovered that 30-some students at the high school where he taught had a regular cocaine habit. The surprising aspect: the female users were primarily taking the drug to keep thin, rather than get high.
Bizarre, but not a total mystery. Many healthy young women find their bodies spectacularly shabby in comparison to the skeletal standard offered by Hollywood starlets, magazine models and runway wraiths. They envy the professional anorexic’s life-negating perfection, which has been cross-referenced with all sorts of media-mediated baggage: wealth, style, status and power.
Gluttony, sloth, lust, greed, anger, envy, pride: of the seven “deadly spins,” the most self-corrosive is envy.
“It is certain that envy is the worst sin that is, for all other sins are sins only against one virtue, whereas envy is against all virtue and against all goodness,” wrote Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales. “For envy is bitter about all the good things that belong to another, and in this way, it is different from all other sins. For almost all other sins give some sort of pleasure in themselves, save only envy, which always has in itself anguish and sorrow.”
Envy has probably been with humanity at least since the emergence of consciousness itself; the difference today is its cultural scale. It’s become more than Chaucer’s bitterness “about all the good things that belong to another.” Envy is turbocharged by the consumer market’s capacity to traffic in images, in a manner far beyond the grainy black-and-white halftones of only half a century ago. “In no other form of society in history has there been such a concentration of images, such a density of visual messages,” writes art critic John Berger. The visual landscape is the hook for the forces of publicity:
“Within publicity, choices are offered between this cream and that cream, that car and this car, but publicity as a system only makes a single proposal. It proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves or our lives by buying something more. Publicity persuades us of such a transformation by showing us people who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable. The state of being envied is what constitutes glamour, and publicity is the process of manufacturing glamour. The publicity image steals our love of ourselves as we are and offers it back to us for the price of the product.”
Most adults have some intellectual defences against this paper-thin paradigm. But children and adolescents have few or none, and today face a marketing onslaught sharpened like stilettos by focus groups, psychographics and all the other dark arts of spin. (In fact, with the exception of items such as cars and dwellings, many advertisers no longer flog product to the over-35 demographic. Studies show you can only build “brand loyalty” by targeting the five to 15 set.)
Envy compels the young consumer of pop-culture towards the camera’s eye, in search of envy’s Holy Grail: fame. So-called reality TV shows trade on this mostly empty promise, with young unknowns hoodwinked into thinking they can be “famous for being famous.”
Even for those who aren’t actively seeking celebrity, the camera-conscious zeitgeist compels them to think of themselves, if only subliminally, as starring in their own productions. In his book Life: The Movie, movie critic Neil Gabler claims the US entertainment industry has democratized the idea of celebrity, extending the idea of performance into daily life:
“Over the years our movie going and television watching has been impregnating the American consciousness with the contentions and esthetics of entertainment, until we have become performers ourselves, performing our own lives out of the shards of movies. One might even think of American life, including quotidian American life, as a vast production in which virtually every object is a prop, every space is a set, every person is an actor and every experience is a scene in a continuing narrative.”
Nearly 50 years ago, sociologist David Riesman identified the emergence of a new type of social character in the US that he called “other-directed” – by which he meant, essentially, that one’s goals were directed toward satisfying the expectations of others. In other words, an audience. By definition, other-directed Americans were conscious of performance – a self-consciousness that led another sociologist, Erving Goffman, to conclude that in the 20th century, “life itself is a dramatically enacted thing.”
Place the cultural DNA of “other-directness” into the petri dish of the US entertainment industry, and voila: you have the cult of celebrity, with envy fueling a continually frustrated search for identity. A sense of discontent is central to the revenue flow. From the tabloid rack to the cosmetic counter to the television celebrity profile, there’s big box office in subtly pushing the consumer toward dissatisfaction with his or her appearance, lifestyle and identity.
Writes Gabler: “Acting like a cultural Ebola virus, entertainment has even invaded organisms no one would ever have imagined could provide amusement.” He points to the strange case of Dr. Timothy Leary, the ex-Harvard professor and sixties icon, who “turned his death into entertainment by using his computer webpage to chronicle his deterioration from prostate cancer, a show which ended with a video of him drinking a toxic cocktail in what he called a ‘visible, interactive suicide.’ ”
In modern day North America, celebrity and envy are joined at the hip: the Siamese twins of the corporate-sponsored social contract. According to US media critic Todd Gitlin, “to speak of a culture of celebrity nowadays is nearly to commit a redundancy.” Instant stardom has become the all-purpose spray-on, to be liberally applied on everything from products to politicians, for a branded, otherworldly glow.
To Cintra Wilson, sometime screenwriter and former LA resident, this culture of fawning obsession over superstars has become the secular religion of our time, one filled with false messiahs and empty rituals: “It is generally not the icons themselves that I jolly and assail; it’s the huge tumescent aura of Otherness, the grandiose Largitutude and supermagnified glamour of these deranged old musicians and dumb pretty kids and Sacred Cow Ornamental personages that I attack.”
Wilson insists the machinery of fame, with its promise of global attention and big bucks, can reduce real talents to camera-hungry hacks, and the rest of us to hungry ghosts at a banquet where we will never find a seat. In a media-mediated world where you can never be too rich or too thin, it’s no surprise that some young outsiders will reduce themselves to drug-taking wraiths in an effort to reach an illusory ideal.
In the forward to A Massive Swelling, the author smashes celebrity’s hall of mirrors into shards, and exposes the little person behind the curtain:
“I attack the maddening blizzard of tinsel scattered in the icons’ wake: the tidal waves of false awe glaring off their shiny suits. I swipe at the lurid neon head of the amplified celebrity wizard and not the frail, dumpy little nebbish behind the big screen of fire, because deep down we’re all delicate and pitiable inside. I believe that deep down, everyone is fundamentally an OK Joe deserving of your civility and compassion, even the ones I really hate, like Richard Dreyfus.”