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Ergo Sum

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Girls Gone Stupid

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February 2007 has been quite a month for female role models. As shocking as the cases are, I find myself more taken with how they were treated by the mainstream media. I think that women can do better than this. I also think that if what we witnessed is any clue about the state of journalism, the once-noble profession should be pronounced dead even before newspapers stop being printed. Furthermore, we should stop and look at what role we might be playing in all of this.

The media frenzy began when astronaut Lisa Nowak was arrested and charged with crimes reportedly committed in pursuit of scaring off a rival in a love triangle. Legal matters are under consideration and in this country the accused is entitled to a presumption of innocence, but that won't stop the media from reporting any detail that can be found, as long as it's salacious, tantalizing, or otherwise shocking.

I was at the RSA Conference in San Francisco when this news broke. I was taken by the contrast in the reporting between the two newspapers that were delivered to my hotel room. Exhibit A is the Wall Street Journal, a proper newspaper, the one I read daily. Exhibit B is the McPaper, USA Today, a reliable source for learning what's happening in the world—when your understanding is on par with a sixth-grader. The McPaper comes with another bonus, however: piffle in the form of celebrity gossip that can be called “journalism” only because it bothers to verify basic facts. Television news, sadly, follows the same formula as the McPaper: bite-sized pieces of sensationalism presented selectively and completely lacking in evidence of proper analysis. Should someone audit what CNN put out on the wire and discover that nothing else ran for a whole day after news of the sordid business involving a few members of the U.S. space program broke.

In need of focusing while listening in on a conference call originating back in Columbus, I went into the Crypto Lounge at the conference, an area with room to meet or to work, displays replaying keynotes, and displays tuned to television news. There, flashed before my eyes was the breaking news on MSNBC: Anna Nicole Smith was dead at thirty-nine. Found in a hotel room. Then came the speculation: drugs must be involved (Let's cut to a replay of an interview she gave!) The willingness of people giving interviews and of anchors to speculate publicly and prominently about what sordid affairs of the recently deceased's private life must be responsible for her demise was genuinely breathtaking. Journalism indeed.

I can see no excuse for the complete lack of decorum exhibited by the anchors and talking heads. She might well have made herself a pop culture icon and thus exposed herself to scrutiny in life but to treat the recent death of a human being as though it were entertainment—legal circus involving the settlement of her estate or not—is utterly repulsive.

Before I could figure out how our media could display such breathtaking lack of respect for the dead, the Britney Spears “news” broke into the “mainstream” news outlets. Not only was she continuing the “hard partying” that had been widely reported in the gossip outlets but she was also checked into a rehab clinic. And out. And she shaved her head. And she got a new tattoo. And she's in rehab again. (“Respect her privacy ... during this time,” said a spokesperson.) And she's out again. Back in, and this time, she agrees to stay for the duration of the thirty to forty-five day program. (This can't look good to the court in her ongoing custody battle with divorcing husband Kevin Federline! Thanks for pointing that out.)

We're cutting back to an interview that Spears gave last year! Through her tears she told Matt Lauer that celebrities are people too and they need to be accorded their due respect! Next up, we're going to broadcast more speculation into her private life!

It went on and on and on, hour after hour of this.

* * *

Every one of these stories is sad; that they became the spectacles that they did is sadder still, a commentary on the state of our media and maybe of ourselves.

Some of what Spears told Lauer in that interview that was spliced up and replayed struck me: that people needed to be treated with respect. I am inclined to agree with the observation but I must also add that the simple fact is that the only sort of control that anyone has in the respect department is a matter of self-respect. Her public behavior was not the sort of thing reflective of self-respect and was by its very nature bound to send chins wagging.

Respect is not granted automatically. Even the holders of offices that are deserving of respect find that they must demonstrate themselves worthy of such respect before it is granted. If it's respect that Spears really desired, she could hardly have picked worse company than Paris Hilton, whose superfluousness makes respect impossible. Not needing to work to support her lavish living, she has partied and exposed her way to the consciousness of media, who now report on the daily affairs of her life as if they matter. The Hilton name was once synonymous with hospitality complemented by the business savvy and discipline needed to create a global service provider, an American success story. What now springs to mind is a picture of useless self-indulgence and the squandering of wealth created by others.

Spears' tearful remarks and open hostility toward the media notwithstanding, I believe that she really wanted public adoration. She hasn't released an album in years and all of her planned tours have wrapped up. Instead of pursuing the path of accomplishment, which must be followed if success is ever to be achieved, she tried to skip the hard work needed to get there. Instead, she kept dreadful company and behaved badly, finding herself the subject of more intensely personal media coverage.

When fame is the objective, the path to get there is almost always ugly. This is true for more than attempts to extend fame but also in attempts to reach it in the first place. Thus we walk our way further back in the month to the death of Anna Nicole Smith, who was sometimes said to be famous for being famous.

As a high school dropout and married at seventeen, she had few options before her. Working as an exotic dancer, she began to make an income from her image and took modeling lessons. That ultimately led to her first taste at fame which came with her appearance on the cover of Playboy magazine. When she married a billionaire six decades her senior, the gossip press went into overdrive. Thus launched into the public consciousness, she made a career of being Anna Nicole Smith. After the modeling stopped, there came the “reality” television and the ability always to find her way into the center of a controversy—just the sort of thing that keeps the gossip rags in print. It would remain so for the rest of her life, and not everything that was printed about her was flattering—criticism she apparently took personally.

Thus Smith achieved her ambition, fame, but ultimately had no real accomplishment that would earn her respect. Her surreal life came with its own cast of bizarre characters that clearly had their own issues, their own willingness to use the courts to settle every dispute, and their own interest in being in front of the camera. Inseparable from the character of Anna Nicole, the woman underneath it all was lost. Were her ambition accomplishment, it seems unlikely that the woman would be lost and she could have lived a full and happy life, even if none of us knew of a pretty girl from Texas called Vicky Lynn.

Accomplishment is no guarantee of success and happiness, of course. People hardly come more accomplished than Lisa Nowak, an astronaut in America's space program, a wife, and a mother. Nevertheless, if the media reports—based on the statements of police and prosecutors—are to be believed, she squandered it all in an attempt to secure the affection of another astronaut. I doubt that anyone not personally involved in the business will ever know exactly what happened in that bizarre opening of February and the real motivations for her actions are probably buried deeply. Whatever it was, she bet it all and lost.

In all of these cases, it seems that the women in question were in pursuit of something external to themselves, looking for more adoration than whatever they had. Pursuing this course, they became part of a grand symphony of absurdity before the entire world.

It's hard not to reflect on all of this without asking what questions this raises for girls and the women they become all around us: our daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, and friends. At the very least, it raises questions about goals and the motivations to drive toward those goals. I think that it also raises important questions about our—especially but not exclusively, men's—behavior toward women. Do we actually see who the women around us are, or are we too busy looking at them? Ultimately do we fail to help women see that their value comes not from the opinions carried by the media, fame, fortune, or sex appeal? Or do we pay them little attention when they're doing “what they should,” noticing them only when something has gone horribly amiss?

Undoubtedly, the mass media has much to do with this sad state of affairs. (For an interesting comparison, do a search on the number of articles carried on Lisa Nowak before and after her arrest; thousands more articles have been written about her in a single bad month of her life than in the decades that it took her to accomplish all that she had.) Nevertheless, the media is not the only influence around us; each of us has some degree of influence over others. We must therefore face the question: where do we have such influence and how do we use it? Do we encourage one another to see ourselves for what we can be and to work to that end or do we prod them along, just waiting for the opportunity to pull up a front-row seat to observe the train wreck that follows?

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2007-03-05 06:42 AM

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