Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Celebrity Logic, Scandal, and Religion

So, it's been a while since the last post, between the holidays and the flu, but it's time to get back on the ball. And what better way to start off this new year, Two Double-Aught Eight!, than with some celebrity trash talk. It all started when I was interviewed by Sheila Marikar for an ABCNEWS.com story about celebrities suddenly finding religion. And while I'm at it, let me give a shout out to Sydney Steinhardt of Fordham University for his role in setting it up.

I was happy to oblige, being an expert on celebrity logic (my doctoral dissertation was about the relationship between heroes and media, looking at the transition from traditional hero to celebrity as related to the shift from a print to electronic media environment, and also the transition from mythic to historical hero as a shift from an oral to a literate media environment). As these things go, Sheila was under the gun to get the article online, so what I had to say got a bit truncated and reordered (not to mention I'm mistakenly identified as department chair, yikes!), but we'll get to that (also, my remarks don't come up until towards the end, not until the second page online). First, let's look at the article, which you can find online (and only online) at ABCNEWS.com but as always I put my readers first, and save you the trouble of clicking on the link:

What's a Scandal-Ridden Celeb to Do? Go to Church

A Bit of Old-Time Religion May Be the Easiest Way to Revamp a Tainted Rep


Jan. 4, 2008 —

Forget Le Deux, Bungalow 8 and Pure.

The hottest place for starlets to go after a scandal isn't at all exclusive, has satellite locations all over the country, and is most bumping on Sunday mornings--church.

Mischa Barton is the latest young star to pay a visit to God's house following public fallout from bad publicity. One week after she was busted for DUI and drug possession (two days after Christmas, no less) the former "O.C." actress was snapped walking down the steps of Beverly Hills' Good Shepherd Catholic Church, head bowed, virginal white dress flowing, church brochure in hand.

Paris Hilton toted the Bible around after her stint in jail on DUI charges. "High School Musical" star Vanessa Hudgens went to church after nude photographs of her stormed the Internet.

Looking at these scandal-ridden stars trying to make good in the eyes of God and the public, you'd think Mary Magdalene could've remade herself into the Virgin Mary if only she'd had the right publicist. Things haven't changed much since the olden days: Latching onto religion is one of the most effective ways for celebrities to show the world they're cleaning up their act.

"The surest, safest way to try to get out of a scandal is to pull out a Bible and invoke the name of God," said Michael Musto, gossip columnist for the Village Voice. "In the world of celebrity spin control, this is supposed to instantly confer sanctity and good intentions on you while dissolving all past heathenism.

"Surely there are some serious worshipers in La La Land, but in the case of Paris, her devoutness came under question on Larry King's show when she couldn't name a single passage she liked. Not even 'the part with the snake and the apple.'" he added, referring to Hilton's post-prison interview in which she pledged she had found a purpose in life beyond partying.

If paparazzi photos are to be believed, Barton, like Hilton, is more likely to frequent a strip of sand or a red carpet premiere than a house of faith. The angelic picture of her descending from the church may have been more contrived than candid.

"Anyone who's ever met [Mischa] or watched her knows that she has not been spending the preponderance of the last two years in Bible study class," said celebrity publicist Michael Levine. "The timing does seem suspect and convenient. It seems a little over the top."

But stars may not need to prove their faith is real to reap the benefits of a photo op with God.

"The question remains: Is it real or is it staged? That level of ambiguity actually adds to the interest. It leaves the story open, and we can continue to speculate on that very question," said Lance Strate, chairman of Fordham University's communication and media studies department.

If there's one thing America's celebrity-obsessed culture loves more than a scandal it's a comeback, or at least an attempt at one, and religion is a fast way to lift a career out of the ashes.

It's not just starlets. In 2007, Don Imus met with the Rev. Al Sharpton after his racist and sexist on-air tirade. Eight months later, Imus got his radio show back. So Mischa, don't fret. Put on your Sunday best and wait for the casting agents to come calling.

"We're very used to the story where someone encounters a problem, gains redemption, admits their sins and asks for forgiveness. That plays very well," Strate said. "And it sends that kind of message to the industry, reassuring them that this person is still a business commodity. It humanizes the celebrity. It turns them into a kind of moral lesson."

Oh, and there were a couple of photos accompanying the article. The are of absolutely no intellectual interest, so I'll dump them, er, upload them here, 'cause that's what ya call good blogging!

Oh, and there was a caption that went with them:
Paris Hilton and Mischa Barton were photographed embracing religion after their DUI arrests. (Pacificoastnews.com)
Okay, now let me try to give you a sense of what I said to Sheila, as best I can recall, since the comments I made were all off the cuff. And I think it all starts with the fact that when a celebrity gets religion in response to a scandal, we simply cannot determine whether it's genuine or not. But we can understand it on several different levels.

First, looking at it from the point of view of the industry, the celebrity is a business commodity whose value is hurt by scandal. Obviously embracing God is a strategic move meant to restore, as best as possible, the celebrity's reputation, good name, in regard to the public, but that is secondary. The real audience, and the real market for the celebrity are the media industries themselves, for example, the advertisers who use celebrities in their commercials and seek out their endorsements, and the producers who use celebrities in television programming, motion pictures, etc. Scandal reduces confidence in the celebrity's ability to attract consumers to a product, and raises questions about the celebrity's reliability--you don't want an actor suddenly unable to complete the work halfway through a film or TV season.

So, when the celebrity turns to religion, it sends a metamessage that he or she is not out of control, that the celebrity is not unmanageable, that the agent, management, and publicity people are able to cope with the threat to the celebrity's image, that someone is minding the store and taking care of public relations and doing crisis communication. On this level, it makes absolutely no difference whether the celebrity has genuinely had a change of heart, or is just play-acting. If anything, it would be more reassuring if it is an act attributed to the celebrity's people, as the celebrity getting too religious might raise other questions about reliability and marketability, while a purely strategic act shows that that the celebrity is taking care of business first and foremost.

Second, looking at it from the point of view of popular culture, in which the celebrity is a character in a narrative, not essentially different from a fictional character, this is an entirely acceptable plot line. The hero stumbles, makes a mistake, confesses, apologizes, seeks forgiveness, and gains redemption. So, again, what counts is not any inner change in mentality, but the outer actions that fits the familiar story or myth. In American culture, with its Protestant foundation, redemption is a basic theme with obvious religious overtones. Think about the Christian hymn "Amazing Grace," written by John Newton in England, but linked to the familiar bagpipe melody and made extremely popular here in the US. Anyway, here are the lyrics:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

T'was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
'Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me.
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we've been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We've no less days to sing God's praise
Than when we've first begun.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
So, back to the point, which is that redemption is a religious notion, you confess--I think of televangelist Jimmy Swaggert crying on television, "I have sinnnnned!!!!!!!!!!" after having been caught in a sex scandal. Then you are forgiven. And of course you can ask God to forgive, and claim that God has granted it, and if you are a preacher like Jimmy Swaggart, you at least have some basis for making that claim. But otherwise, you have to seek out someone who can legitimately grant forgiveness and redemption. You can't get it from an elected official, a lawyer, a physician, not even from a college professor like me. You need a member of the clergy. Look how people who get caught up in a racist scandal like Don Imus go running to the Reverend Al Sharpton, or the Reverend Jesse Jackson, to apologize. It wouldn't work if they went to Obama, or even to Oprah. If I remember right, Bill Clinton went to see Jesse Jackson after it came out that he really did have sex with that woman.

So, getting religion grants forgiveness and redemption to the celebrity, and gives the story a happy ending. And more than that, it adds a moral to the story, which could make the celebrity an even better commodity than before. Look at how many celebrity has-beens flock to the daytime talk shows to talk about their recovery from drug addiction and other problems--whatever else the motivation, it is a career revitalization strategy, and it would be well worth it to fabricate a story about scandal, recovery, forgiveness, and redemption, maybe write a book, and get back on the celebrity circuit that way.

So, now, the third point and bottom line, is that for much of the audience, the celebrity's remorse and new-found religion remains utterly ambiguous. Sure, there is a segment of the population that takes it all on faith, naively believing what they hear, see, and are told. There are even some people who seem to think that professional wrestling is real. But I believe that the majority of folks are pretty savvy about our media culture, if not downright cynical about it all, and that leaves them, us, with tremendous uncertainty about what happened--is it real? what does it mean? Ultimately, the ambiguity adds to the story, it keeps it going, keeps it open-ended. Will the celebrity continue in this new religious mode? Become a fanatic? Got right back to the bad behavior? Stay tuned is the message. And this cannot help but feed the celebrity's celebrity, the celebrity's unfounded, unearned, undeserved fame. (My comments on ambiguity here are rooted in Daniel Boorstin's discussion of pseudo-events and celebrity in his classic book, The Image, fyi.)

Okay now, so one final point to be made. As you probably know, we get the term paparazzi from Italy, which suggests that Fellini's homeland has a particular expertise on the subject of celebrity. And so, I am pleased to present the following link from La Stampa, a leading Italian daily newspaper, to an article entitled, "Le "cattive ragazze" di Hollywood scoprono la fede." Again, I'll give you the full text, and include the accompanying picture for no good reason except that it looks good:

Le "cattive ragazze" di Hollywood scoprono la fede Ma c'è chi ha dubbi sulla ritrovata spiritualità e sostiene che sia il modo più facile per ripulire una cattiva reputazione La "cattive ragazze" di Hollywoood sono pentite della pessima condotta tenuta in passato e riscoprono la religione, facendosi fotografare dai paparazzi all'uscita di luoghi sacri o intente a leggere la Bibbia. Due giorni prima di Natale, l'attrice Misha Barton, protagonista del telefilm " O.C", è stata fermata dalla polizia di Los Angeles per guida in stato di ebbrezza e possesso di droga. Pochi giorni dopo è stata ripresa mente usciva, fasciata in un candido vestito bianco, dalla chiesa cattolica del Buon Pastore di Beverly Hills. Sempre in chiesa si era recata Vanessa Hudgens, star del popolare "High School Musical", per chiedere perdono dopo lo scandalo suscitato dalla pubblicazione in internet di alcune sue foto senza veli. E Paris Hilton non poteva essere da meno. L'ereditiera, dopo la sua breve esperienza in carcere, si è fatta più volte fotografare in compagnia di una copia della Bibbia.

Ma per molti esperti di gossip più che la riscoperta della religione si tratta del modo più semplice per tentare di ripulire una cattiva reputazione. "Il modo più sicuro per uscire da uno scandalo è quello di tirare fuori una Bibbia e invocare il nome di Dio - spiega Michael Musto redattore del settimanale Village Voice - Nel mondo delle celebrità questa mossa conferisce immediatamente un'aura di santità e fa scomparire le malefatte di un passato turbolento". "Ormai siamo abituati a storie dove qualcuno incontra una difficoltà, ammette i suoi sbagli e chiede perdono - continua Lance Strate, preside del dipartimento di comunicazione e media della Fordham University - E' un processo che umanizza le star e le rende una specie di modello morale. A patto che il pentimento sia reale".
Even if you don't know Italian, and I don't myself, you can match it up a bit to the English language article above that it's based on, and of course it sounds better, or at least looks better, in Italian (not the first time I've been translated into Italian by the way, I wrote a chapter on media ecology, time and memory for an anthology on memory published in Rome). So, let me end this post by saying, grazie, and buona notte!

1 comment:

The Celebrity Town said...

really nice writing style. I like reading your articles.

The Celebrity Town