About a year ago, I stumbled upon the idea that Natalie Portman is, in fact, a wombat. Not only is she a wombat, but she is their highest ranking spy. Yes, this brave wombat queen was sent to infiltrate the world of humans with her Harvard degree in psychology, classic beauty, acting chops and skilful rapping. I warned my friends that Portman was nothing but a large shaved mammal, cleverly planted by the genius that is the Wombat Brotherhood in hopes that the human population would willingly give themselves to the complete and utter domination of their true rulers. Clearly, it was an ingenious plan on their part, and one has to give them credit for their cunning. By infiltrating the sector of the media that the majority of the population pays attention to (celebrity gossip), the wombats have put themselves in a prime position to numb us all into submission with gradual acclimatization to pictures of their people in dresses. Clever girls.
But how did the wombats know that this would work? And for that matter, why do we pay so much attention to stars that this plan could actually work? Simple: money, money, money. It benefits entertainers if they appear to be larger than life, if their foibles are seen as being so important that we devote entire sections of newspapers and websites to pictures of people we have never met wearing fancy clothing and getting groceries. It benefits the companies that manage them if the very mundanity of their stars’ lives captivates millions. Of course, all of this scheming works only if we, the audience, actually pay attention. And boy, do we pay attention.
For some, paying attention to celebrities is a way of providing a touch of the dramatic to their lives without becoming the human equivalent of a bull in a china shop, thrashing about and smashing up their relationships trying to get their dramatic fix. For some, it’s like a hobby: you accumulate bits of knowledge about entertainers and their work, and gradually you have a collector’s set of tidbits to spout forth during lulls in the conversation at parties. For others, it’s a balm against loneliness; if you glance at the message boards on any celebrity website, there are anonymous posters claiming to know the people involved, to have slept with them, loved them, met them. Then there are those who don’t even claim that: lonely people, feeling that they are entitled to judge someone who is likely thousands of miles away, hammering on their keyboards about who was the bigger jerk on which movie set. It’s incredibly interesting (and often problematic) to behold. Even more fascinating are the comments dealing with interpersonal relationships: armchair experts are quick to call Angelina Jolie a home wrecker on a story about her United Nations duties, but won’t say the same thing on a post about Kelsey Grammar, who notoriously had about sixty bazillion mistresses.
I find celebrity gossip to not only be fantastic escapism, but also an easy way to gauge what standards we hold people to in our wider cultural net. In older days, pantheons of gods were held up as standards of exemplary behaviour or cautionary tales. Zeus was a notorious Lothario, impregnating hundreds of women; his jealous wife Hera did everything in her power to bring her wrath upon those ladies, apparently not noticing that it generally takes two to tango. The Greeks had gods of war, thunder, light and of wine, and goddesses of love, wisdom and agriculture. If we are to reflect on these gods, we can get a sense of what mattered to the Greeks. Good harvests, art, lust, and philosophy.
In our age of the separation of church and state, and the virtual secularization of schools and public spaces, who do we have to worship but our entertainers? We don’t criticize it, we pull it in and absorb it without any thought. It’s a part of the fabric of our society, these new gods, and it regulates our behaviour, to a certain extent. We see the reactions of various tabloids and the people around us to the behaviour of these far off idols, and we learn how to behave. Lindsay Lohan is a coke-snorting nose vampire? Huh, guess that’s a good way to become looked down upon. Why is Kim Kardashian even famous?! Answer: she’s super hot (this editor has personally seen her bikini butt in no fewer than three UNBC dorm rooms). Better go to that foam party at the Genny, or Kanye will never think I’m his “perfect b***.” Natalie Portman, her husband and child are super adorable? Guess I’d better obey the wombats – argh! Curse their mind control powers!
Celebrity gossip is an important part of our culture, like it or not, and we’d better pay attention, and learn to subvert it. When Chris Brown is literally able to beat the living bejesus out of his girlfriend, then tattoo a battered woman on his neck, and still keep his record deal, you know there’s a problem. When Chris Brown can do that, and not be instantly vilified as a scum-sucking, bottom feeding lowlife, and still get Grammy awards and money, we have a problem. Throw in the fact that Kristen Stewart got dropped from the sequel to her blockbuster hit, Snow White and the Hunstman, just because she played a game of Mini Cooper tonsil hockey with her married director, and publicly vilified for cheating on her publicity-stunt boyfriend – we have a serious commentary on gender relations and violence within contemporary society.
It’s not surprising. The entertainment culture reflects the overarching views of the political culture. If Todd Akin can say that there is such a thing as “illegitimate rape”, or Stephen Harper can say that “the federal government should scrap its ridiculous pay equity law”, we should pay attention to what culture has created an atmosphere where this is permissive. And this starts right with how we treat one another, or the manner in which we judge people we’ve never met who happen to be living in Los Angeles.
So I for one welcome our new Wombat overlords. I think they’ll likely do a much better job at governing us than we have so far.