Essays

Paying Attention

I was watching the Today show yesterday morning and one of the first news bits I heard after tuning in was a brief story about Paris Hilton’s latest debacle and her upcoming jail time. Apparently she’s appealing the decision that’s sending her to the clink. A couple of things mentioned, unabashedly, by the young celeb included comments about how she has people to read her mail, as if she couldn’t be bothered to pick up her own letter opener, and how she felt the sentence was cruel and unusual punishment. She also allegedly started an online campaign to encourage the Governor of California to pardon her. Watching, I laughed, and waited for the people on Today to move on to something with a little more substance.

Later, driving to work, I heard a little tidbit of info about how there are now photos of Lindsay Lohan on the internet showing the little starlet snorting cocaine in a bathroom somewhere. Seems her “friend”, who was with her at the time, decided to snap some pics and share them with the rest of the world. Probably, of course, for a price. Great friend.

Then I got to work and I started thinking… what’s up with these girls? Which lead to my questioning of these kid’s parents. Who are they? And then finally, what’s up with us for even spending time talking about, taking pictures of, reading about, or watching stories on them? What’s our problem? Why are we so interested? Because really, it’s our interest and continued consumption of the information about them that keeps stories like these alive and well.

We spend so much time on stuff like this, people like them. And… who are they, really. Kids with loads of money, not completely grown up, who are privileged, yet sort of sad. They lead lives we can’t really imagine, yet we are fascinated. When something sad or embarrassing or unfortunate happens in a celebrity’s life, the tabloid media, and sometimes the supposed legitimate media, pounces all over it. And we jump right in, avidly soaking it all up. We stay tuned, buy magazines, listen to the radio, never turning it off, or putting it aside. It seems to grab us, takes hold, and becomes a massive wave breaking over us again and again, from all angles, all sources of mass media. A wave we want to jump and play in for days and days. Why?

So OK… I believe there’s a threefold answer to the question of why we have a constant zombie-like attraction to stories like these. On one hand, their lives are so different from ours and because of that we get sucked into hearing about them, which really is something akin to watching an educational documentary. We are shocked that something so different and strange exists, and we want to know how it works. On the other hand, our lives, by comparison, seem somehow normal, mellow, and unfettered by the chaos that seems to follow some of these famous people around. And because of that, we feel good about ourselves, and say things like… oh, that’s what happens when a person has a lot of money, they get out of control. Good thing that’s not me. Or, gee, that’s what happens when someone has so much privilege… whew… I’m so lucky not to be in their position. Or possibly… if I had their money, I would do something good with it. I wouldn’t throw it around, take it for granted, or ruin myself with it. But really… would we? Lastly I think maybe it’s because they are us… exposed. Normal people, meaning us non-celebrities, have strange and tragic things happen in our lives all the time, we’re just not famous, so no one cares. So maybe when we see terrible things happen to them, we feel somehow closer to them, we feel a sort of strange kinship. Like… see, these kinds of things happen in everyone’s lives, even theirs.

Then I had an interesting thought… this kind of media, which is growing and expanding every day, is changing us… and honestly… is that a good thing? I don’t think so. I think our world view, the way we think about ourselves as a society, what we find acceptable and tolerable is expanding right along with the fast paced information spewing world. I think our tolerance level is going way up, like the tolerance levels of long time substance abusers. Things we found unacceptable a few years ago are now more normal to us. And the raised tolerance and all that we are taking in is influencing and informing how we live our lives. It’s pushing the limits, speeding up the pace, contributing to a culture that’s losing it’s depth in favor of a quick fix and a glossy finish. So… what can we do…

The thing is… People are people… and that’s the way it will always be. We should probably be slowing things down, and ignoring ersatz stories like the ones I heard earlier. But sadly, we’ll probably always have an appetite for voyeurism of the strange, the unusual. It distracts us. We as a society will probably always want to know every detail about a celebrity’s stumble or fall. People who are famous will always fascinate us. We’ve become our own zoo.

So… the crux for me? What’s all of this pondering boil down to for this girl? I’ll tell you… Just for a second, imagine what would happen if we stopped watching, buying, looking, and wanting to know about all the fluff. Just think what would happen if we spent all that time and energy on say… really helping the people in Louisiana who still haven’t recovered from the ravages of Katrina or the people in this country and around the world who are in need, suffering, poor, without health care, dying… what could happen? What would happen? Maybe… just maybe… we’d stop watching, get up, and do something… participate in something meaningful. And people like Paris and Lindsay, who no doubt would still be crashing cars and snorting coke, would fade into distant memory, living their lives and getting no attention at all. And maybe, just maybe, we could change the world, instead of having the world change us… now that, that would be something worthy of our attention.

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