Saturday, March 28, 2009

And Now...For Something Completely Different

I don't tend to be a non-fiction reading kind of gal. I like my reading to be on the fun side. But every now and then a book pops up that looks interesting to me and I'll take a detour from my normal frothy TBR pile. The book that caught my attention this time is The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism is Seducing America by Drew Pinsky and S. Mark Young.

This one seemed intriguing to me for a variety of reason, though the main one is because my husband is kind of a 'reality' show junkie. He claims to like them because they are a form of brain candy that allows him to tune out from everyday stressors. I get that, I really do. But I find the current 'reality tv' trends to be very disturbing. I worked on one of the earliest 'reality tv' shows back in the mid-90's and our brand of 'reality' was much different than it is today. Now, the shows can't really claim to be 'reality' at all since the situations are so fabricated that the real world has very little to do with anything.

Drew Pinsky's book ties into the 'reality' show phenomenon because it examines the relationship between celebrity culture, one that is populated with increasingly narcissistic people, and a public that aspires to the same kind of fame through competing on 'reality' shows, blogging very personal content and uploading images of themselves on YouTube, or sadly, YouPorn. I didn't expect this book to relate to myself personally because I don't tend to like to draw a lot of attention to myself and I am not someone who enjoys being the center of attention. But you don't have to be a extrovert to have some relationship to the fame-seeking culture we currently live in. Every time we have a snarky comment for a celebrity train wreck like Anna Nicole Smith or Amy Winehouse, we unwittingly play into a cycle of cultural narcissism that is increasingly unhealthy for all of us.

Back in the day of the old studio system in Hollywood, actors and actresses had carefully cultivated images and very little of their personal life was put on display. Movie audiences didn't know Rock Hudson was gay or that Judy Garland was a drug addict during most of their careers because the studios had very strict guidelines for their stars--anyone who was 'caught' in less than seemly off-screen behavior usually saw their careers dry up. But it doesn't seem there is any bad behavior anymore. Celebrity sex-tapes and diva tantrums are commonplace and frequently excused. Celebrities who are arrested for drunk driving or drug possession usually go to rehab and then resume their careers will no ill effects. Sometimes the more notorious the bad behavior the hotter the career. With the explosion of 'reality' tv and sites like YouTube, everyday people are now striving for the same kind of fame as their favorite stars and often mimic the worst celebrity behavior to get the attention they crave. When pseudo celebrities like Kim Kardashian are launched into the public consciousness through a sex tape, it passes on a message to impressionable teenagers that one only has to be outrageous to be achieve wealth and fame and guys like Joe Francis, the creator of "Girls Gone Wild," swoop in to take advantage of their youth and need for attention.

The book resonated with me because, as a blogger who often writes about celebrities, I fall into the trap sometimes of trying to be funny by writing an unflattering remark about a goofy celebrity-- in my case it's usually Paris Hilton. But Dr. Drew makes the case that the cycle of building someone up [though I can honestly say that I have never, ever built up Paris Hilton in any way] only to tear them down is a great contributor to the Mirror Effect and is usually a function of envy. It makes you think.

It would be easy to dismiss Dr. Drew as someone who doesn't really have the right to lecture any of us on this topic since he has his own set of reality shows in "Celebrity Rehab" and "Sober House." But he does have an interesting argument in that his shows provide context in a way that other similar shows do not. He doesn't put his celebrities into deliberately stressful situations in order to create drama. He shows them as real people who have real emotions and real problems. He gives them a history and often includes background information that explains how they ended up as addicts and why they act out so publicly. He allows them to be humanized which is important in that it offsets the tendency to see celebrities as caricatures. I found the book to be both interesting and informative.

As a parent I think the phenomenon of the Mirror Effect is something we should all be aware of. There is very little chance we are going to be able to completely shield our kids from the antics of their favorite celebrities. As a mom of a "tween" girl it's awkward to explain why Miley Cyrus chooses to take pictures of herself in increasingly revealing poses but at least now I have some context to put it into and an additional way to explain to my daughter why that is not behavior she wants to emulate. Additionally the book is entertaining and easy to read-- I finished it in just a day-- and it has a lot of thought provoking information that will definitely have an influence on how I write about celebrity culture going forward.


furiousBall said...

interesting, although i don't necessarily agree with everything that i've heard on his show, i've always thought of him as being a bright guy

Charles Gramlich said...

Typically, I just can't and don't watch any reality show. The exception is Hell's kitchen, and I'm half ashamed of that. I really dislike the humiliation factor on so many of the shows. and as you say, there's nothing "real" about 99 percent of them

Avery DeBow said...

I think there's a deep-seeded sociological factor at play, here, something to do with America's fascination with our former home, England, and its royal family. With no hope for a glittering monarchy of our own, we've turned to the biggest, most glittering thing we can claim--Hollywood.

We've elevated actors to royal status in our longing to record their every move, to claim some piece of their glory as our own. And those who want more than vicarious fame? They'll do whatever it takes to get their moment in the spotlight. Those sly dogs in production companies sniffed out this desire and obligingly provided us with a solution that both fits our voyeuristic, covetous obsessions and our acclaim-craving need--reality TV. Pretty smart, actually.

SQT said...


In the book Dr. Drew says that he has talked to producers of these reality shows and they deliberately pick contestants that will up the drama factor-- which should be pretty obvious to the audience. The only psychological criteria they have is basically that they can't be suicidal or likely to cause physical harm to other people. All other issues are pretty much okay.

Another thing I read recently that was really disturbing is that the more the country moves away from religion-- and God by extension-- the more celebrities become our new gods. Scary!