Thursday, April 22, 2010

Products of a Celebrity Culture

Continuing the conversation from yesterday...

“I once saw a documentary about tribal people living in the Papua New Guinean highlands. They had no written component to their language, yet by heart they could recite up to twenty-five thousand relatives, both living and dead. This seemed amazing to me. But then I thought that, while I couldn’t list that many relatives, I almost definitely could remember twenty-five thousand advertising jingles or the basic plots of thousands of television shows and movies. Or I could at least recognize the faces, if not the names, of thousands of movie stars, musicians, celebrities, and pro athletes. Indeed, people today compare their successes, looks, and situations with those of movie stars, who, because of their sheer exposure, seem like close friends.” (The Vertical Self, by Mark Sayers. Nashville, TN: 2010. p. 46)

Today more than ever, claims author Mark Sayers, advertising, movies, celebrities, and pop culture provide the framework for how we should define and understand ourselves and how we should behave. We cast ourselves in, and find ourselves treating the world as an audience whose function is to affirm the public selves we have created and give us a sense that we are worthwhile as human beings.

With the help of social media, you really can live life as if it's a movie starring you. And there's a lot pressure to do that.

Even as we strive to be like the celebrities we follow – sexy, cool, glamorous – something in us still strives for transcendence, for something eternal. Sayers says it’s the influence of Christianity; so much of what we still value as a culture has been very much shaped by the Judeo-Christian world that we can’t help hoping there’s something more than the small story all about me.


I found Sayers' chapter on the role of “sexiness” in modern Western culture rather helpful. Having become a Christian partly in rebellion against the lawlessness around me, early on I developed somewhat Puritan ideas about sex. I'm not sure how much I am willing to flex on those in terms of my own behavior, but I think it would be helpful for me to consider that there may be another way of looking at these things, so as to see it from another's point of view and respond to it with less angst.

Here's where I'm coming from. When I see girls showing a lot of skin and shape, flaunting their cleavage, etc. it just makes me mad. (Could be because I'm not so endowed?) But for a woman to "dress sexy" has always seemed tantamount to asking the men around her to picture themselves having sex with her. Which is a pretty stupid, wrong, and dangerous thing to do if she’s not willing or able to oblige that desire. Not that women who do this are "responsible" for the way others react, but they ought to realize they're playing with fire. I tend to think that to the extent you can control what you project, you should only “be sexy” with someone you actually could have sex with. And my line of work has only increased my conservatism about this whole modesty thing.

Yet that’s not how most people think about it anymore; these days almost anything can be described as “sexy.” It’s no longer about being alluring and desirable for having sex, says Sayers; when people describe something as sexy, they mean that it has value and appeal, that it's worthwhile. Trying to look sexy, for many people, has come to be about valuing yourself, showing yourself to be of worth, and asking other people to affirm that (not necessarily to have sex with you). Girls especially are encouraged to harness their sexuality as power and use it to get ahead. That doesn't mean they're out having sex, or expect to be. Though they may.

“Often this very public display of sexual power is completely disconnected from one’s personal sex life. What is important is not what is going on in someone’s real life but the show she is putting on for the audience of her peers.” (p. 62)

OK, I get that. I don't buy it, I still think there are better options, but this helps me understand.


In some ways cool is the male equivalent of sexy, though women may be described as cool and men may be described as sexy, too. I think I feel more pressure to be cool than to be sexy. But it's a pretty slippery idea.

“Never before has a word been so often used but so hard to define.” (p. 66)

The idea of being cool originally comes from the warrior cultures of West Africa. A Yoruba warrior would be described as cool if he was calm and controlled, if he knew who he was and saw the world as it really was. He did not have to strive; he was not insecure. He had peace. So he could solve problems, carry himself with dignity, and be generous to others. He was cool.

Something got lost as this concept was translated from Africa into America:

“To be cool was to live on the edge of culture – to reject it by living in its shadows, avoiding convention and conformity … As cool moved beyond those who understood its original ethos, it began to change. No longer was it simply a tool of dignity and survival; it became a way of defining yourself as an adolescent growing up in the midst of modern social alienation. … In a culture in which media and marketing had made personal image paramount, cool was a way of impressing others.” (pp. 70-71)

Cool became a social mask, a cover up for a lack of character, a performance – the opposite of the authenticity and integrity, really.

“This was what I began to call the paradox of cool… That is, the more you try to be cool, the less cool you will be.” (p. 76)

What Do We Really Want?

Cool seems more "redeemable" than sexy, at least in its original sense:

“Deep down we desire to connect and be ourselves with people who are whole… Survey after survey tells us that confidence is the most attractive quality we find in other people. We value a sense of knowing one’s self and a sense of mystery that hints at both tranquility and strength. Fascinatingly, these are the same qualities we attempt to describe when we use the world cool, but we find ourselves back at the original African meaning of cool: someone who is strong, calm, and at peace; someone who “knows”; someone who is filled with grace and generosity.” (p. 78)

That's enough for now. If you want to read Sayers' suggestions for reconnecting to the "vertical self" (embracing holiness), you'll have to look elsewhere and/or get the book.

Incidentally, another recent book (this one from jazz historian Ted Gioia) makes the case that the age of trying to be cool is over, and that earnestness and authenticity are back in fashion (sic). It's called The Birth (and Death) of Cool.

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