Pop Culture

It’s a Bad Religion

Didn’t we all go to high school with someone like Anne Hathaway? You know the girl (invariably it’s a girl): the compulsive overachiever, the neurotic striver, the quivering underfed valedictorian, bug-eyed from sleep-deprivation and the pressure-cooking of her own psyche. Our Annes maintain perfect grades while being not only involved in but practically in charge of so many activities (theatre and chorus and volunteer work and sports; have you ever read the “early life” section of Anne Hathaway’s Wikipedia page?) that it doesn’t seem possible you both exist in a world of twenty-four-hour days. Surely Anne’s days have more hours, surely her ability to accomplish so much more than you before the age of thirty has nothing to do with the fact that maybe three out of five days a week you smoked pot after school and watched 90210 reruns, and everything to do with the fact that she must have some sort of magical power of control over time. Now watch Anne twitch off stage, clutching her gold Oscar talisman, blinking her wet Gollum eyes. You forgot the first rule of high school, Annie: never let them see you care!

We think we know Anne Hathaway because she’s a high school trope, or rather, because she has the perfect shape and form on which to hang a high school trope. Attending high school turns out to be a lot like reading Shakespeare, in that it becomes a template for reading the literature of one’s life. As we grow up we seem to keep meeting the same kinds of characters we first encountered in the cafeteria. We keep utilizing the same personal taxonomies first codified in adolescence.

It helps that Hollywood churns out teen movies and television shows whose plots invariably reinforce and hinge upon the traditional social pecking order of the cafeteria (one begins to wonder which came first: the actual teen, or the teen movie). It helps, too, that Hollywood can itself be viewed as a kind of high school, with its perennially shifting in-crowd; its fairly strict attractiveness requirements for achieving popularity (some exceptions made for humor); its sets of graduating classes cycled through each awards season, with the Oscars as its baccalaureate. When last year’s Oscar winners present to this year’s, they always seem at once puffed-up and wistful, like Trent McNeely back from his first year of college.

See Sandra Bullock at this year’s Oscars, for example: America’s sweetheart, homecoming queen of the movies, with her aw-shucks demeanor and her long scroll of high-grossing rom-coms going all the way back to her heart-pounding, Keanu-clutching, collegiate-sweatshirt-and-floral-miniskirted beginnings in Speed. But, what, we want to know, is with that overlong, shiny, flatironed horsehair? Year after year now her ‘do has been the same thing: so long and Gothic, so Cher, so Elvira, not at all befitting the home-sweet-home queen of hearts. Maybe the hair is the public symptom of some private urge—some cedar-lined fetish closet hidden somewhere on her estate—some weird below-the-belt piercing. (Whatever it is, it’s the same urge that led her to get married to that tattooed motorcycle guy, right?) Or maybe her hair is so long because it’s full of our secrets, America’s secrets, its sheeny darkness absorbing all our hidden shames (our cutting, our binge-eating, our hoarding, our abuse, our abusing) like a black hole fueled by the gravitational power of her celebrity.

Celebrities offer a sort of Platonic ideal-level opportunity for labeling: we generally know nothing about them from first-hand experience, and their preternaturally smoothed faces become a projection screen for the replaying of our memories, our assumptions, our conspiracy theories and knee-jerk cynicisms, our hopes and lusty fantasies, all of which storytelling and stereotyping we can engage in with little to no concern for repercussions or the interrupting force of truth. Thus unencumbered, we spin our sticky little web of celebrity imaginings. We pluck, magpie-style, bits of material from red carpet interviews and magazine profiles, paparazzi candids and YouTube clips. We pan shiny slivers of gossip from the thick mud of internet comments, the anonymous sources of grocery store tabloid stories. We spin our personal narratives about Angelina Jolie or Tom Cruise as idly as a child telling himself a fairytale while drawing in the dirt or talking himself to sleep.

Now see Barbra Streisand, the girl who gets the lead in all the school musicals, the one with the fastidious locker and an incredibly inflated sense of self-importance. What’s so great about her, anyway? Her warbly watercolor voice? Or maybe Barbara’s more like that crazy lunch lady who was actually your great aunt but who you, cruelly, always ignored in the cafeteria, glancing over at her only to snicker with your friends about her weird gelfling hands and, for that matter, weird gelfling jewelry. Your parents dumped you and your brother at her house for their anniversary weekends away, and she would hold court from an overstuffed chintz armchair in the corner of her dim living room heavily decorated with hanging plants and, in one corner, a giant burbling aquarium, chain-smoking Mistys with a cigarette holder and drinking sweet wine from a plastic cup. She’d make twice-baked potatoes and ice cream sundaes and let you stay up late watching HBO. In later years, she’d let you have some wine, too. It was actually kind of fun, but you never let that slip.

We grow up and celebrities become our fairytales. We covet their lives, imagine what it would be like to be transported, Cinderella-style, out of the dreariness of our own and into theirs, stocked as they are with ball gown Oscar dresses and stretch stage-coach limos and the gated palaces featured in the pages of Architectural Digest. We lay down in our magpie bowers and lull ourselves to sleep with these stories and when we get up and are confronted, once again, by disappointing reality, we then also want to see and know that these stars are just like us! We want to be comforted by pictures of celebrities unhappily pumping gas or waddling on the beach, cellulite flapping. We want their husbands to cheat, their children to cry inconsolably in public, their drinking to spiral down into addiction. Yes!, we want this, we need this: man cannot live on bread and water alone. He needs the surface perfection of lives of the rich and famous (as happy and idealized as the Chobani commercials that aired during the Oscars, in which merely by eating yogurt you were allowed to: have a special moment with your adorable Asian grandfather, frolic in a field full of wildflowers and sunshine, and go back in time to relive your entire childhood and fix all its mistakes) to be shot through with flaws, just so the average man knows that he is not alone.

See Adele with her thick white ankles, her tea-length, bell-skirted dresses, her husky East London yodel: fat girl triumphant. If she weren’t British (that accent lacing her every utterance with a chimney-sweep’s charm), if she weren’t witty (her gum-snapping, wise-cracking persona in direct opposition to the melodramatic seriousness of her music), if she didn’t have that voice and couldn’t write those songs and in that music didn’t utterly sacrifice her every embarrassing emotion upon the altar of our consumption, would we let someone of her size be so popular? If she were born in Southie, talked like a Good Will Hunting extra, and become famous by clawing her way to the top three on American Idol, would we obese Americans turn such a blind eye to her weight?

See Kristen Stewart, her upper arms jiggling and bruised as she hobbles on stage. Her hair actually looks dirty. We whisper—stoner—from a bad home—to each other in our cafeteria seats. What is it about an arm bruise that makes one look so sloppy and suspect? Who’s grabbing you so forcefully, Kristen? Or did you walk into a bar stool? And couldn’t you have covered that up using some kind of industrial strength stage concealer? Why have you not been made to look perfect? Hello? Don’t the slackers prefer that grassy knoll over there?

Of course, since there’s many, many more of us than them (long ago the “other half” turned into the “one percent”), sometimes the relentless tide of our collective obsessions (so brilliantly captured by New York magazine’s “Undulating Curve of Shifting Expectations”), our cacophonous adulations and denigrations (the latter following as close as a shadow on the heels of the former: how we love a chance to tear down the Regina George!) can carry the celebrity out to sea. Marie Antoinette may be the ur-text of this narrative. In elementary school we are taught that Marie said of her starving people, “Let them eat cake.” That for this she was reviled by the French, and so began a revolution. We are taught this simple narrative in part because the rest of the negative press that brought about Marie’s downfall is so crass and debased as to be unfit for children. She was accused in the widely read libelles—slanderous political pamphlets; think US Weekly if US Weekly focused on politicians and America had no laws preventing defamation—of wanting to bathe in the blood of revolutionaries; of being in lesbian relationships with her ladies-in-waiting; of participating and even organizing massive Versailles orgies; and of having an incestuous relationship with her son. Imagine if US Weekly was printing such information about Michelle Obama. Now imagine if we all believed it. Welcome to France, 1789. And yet—do we not believe what US Weekly prints? Do we not take the little nuggets of gossip so casually tossed off by your coworker with an air of truthiness, of I-was-there-I-saw-it-happen, though really he has only read Page Six that morning on the train in, as gospel truth? And do we not enjoy classifying others? Do we not get pleasure from shifting people into categories which results in either our greater understanding, or the affirmation of previously ascertained beliefs? Do we not see both the sad narcotic effect this act of imagining has on ourselves, and the malicious power it may have on its targets?

See Jane Fonda, seventy-five years old—born in the 1930s!—and looking fierce as hell in that canary yellow wasp-waisted power-gown. No, stars are not like us, because back in the 1980s, all our mothers did leg lifts and chair squats on the living room carpet under the tutelage of Jane Fonda’s Workout VHS, and our mothers do not, for the most part, look like Jane Fonda at this year’s Oscars. What is Jane Fonda doing to keep herself so young? Injectables like Nicole Kidman (that column of dimpled plastic milkflesh poured into a column of sequins before each awards show by a team of doctors)? More serious under-the-knife stuff?  Sleeping in a cryogenic chamber each night? Whatever it is, it involves money. Unless it’s just genetics. Because some people are just born lucky.

Liz lives and writes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.