On celebrity in the time of coronavirus.
As recently as March 21, The New York Times was joining in the chorus of disgust and ridicule at the bad taste and self-importance of a gaggle of celebrities, led by the Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot, who had recorded John Lennon’s “Imagine” in a version of what the ancient Greeks called stichomythia, each taking a separate line, as (I guess) a consolation of some kind to the little and comparatively unprotected people of the world for their sufferings in the shadow of the coronavirus. True, Jon Caramanica for the Times was not disposed, as many others were, to ridicule the song itself or its hypocritically communist and atheist “message” about the earthly paradise awaiting those who, along with a bunch of rich celebrities holed up in their mansions, rejoice to “Imagine no possessions.” But he did sort of grope his way towards an understanding of the real wrong note being sounded here:
On social media, Gadot and her crew were lambasted for bumblingly contributing, well, whatever this is as opposed to money or resources. Their genial naïveté is blinding them to the grossest sin here: the smug self-satisfaction, the hubris of the alleged good deed. The presumption that an empty and profoundly awkward gesture from a passel of celebrities has any meaning whatsoever borders on delusion—what you see in this video is nothing more than perspective-fogged stars singing into a mirror.
Borders on delusion? Well, it’s truly an ill wind that blows nobody any good if even the pandemic has created a dawning understanding here and there in the media of the fundamental absurdity of the virtue-signaling celebrity culture on which they have been wont to report with something approaching reverence.
Then, just over a week ago, Amanda Hess took to the Times’s Arts Section to proclaim that “Celebrity Culture Is Burning” as a result of the virus. If only!
Among the social impacts of the coronavirus is its swift dismantling of the cult of celebrity. The famous are ambassadors of the meritocracy; they represent the American pursuit of wealth through talent, charm and hard work. But the dream of class mobility dissipates when society locks down, the economy stalls, the death count mounts and everyone’s future is frozen inside their own crowded apartment or palatial mansion. The difference between the two has never been more obvious. The #guillotine2020 hashtag is jumping. As grocery aisles turn bare, some have suggested that perhaps they ought to eat the rich.
Notice how quickly she gets off the ostensible subject of the celebrity culture and onto yet another one of the Times’s hobbyhorses: “the rich.” The two are not the same thing at all, as most rich people are not celebrities. But here’s yet another way in which the Times sees an opportunity in the virus to push its own agenda. Ms. Hess seems incapable of grasping—I wonder why?—that what people resent about celebrities is not their wealth but their hypocrisy and self-righteousness, lecturing others about being good citizens from their own positions of relative ease and comfort as if they were voices of moral authority and not just famous for being talented (or merely good-looking) entertainers.
Now, today, we find the celebrity culture, which was “dismantled” if not burned only last Tuesday, rehabilitated in the paper’s “Fashion & Style” section by Vanessa Friedman, whose purpose is to ratify the celebrification, not to say the apotheosis, of “the new influencers” of the pandemic era, Anthony Fauci, Deborah Birx, and Andrew Cuomo. Dr. F. is said to have been nominated, with 11,500 seconders, as People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive and Dr. B. to have inspired several hashtags relating to her collection of scarves, while Mr. C. is rumored to have a nipple piercing. “You can dismiss this focus on the appearance of such figures during a crisis as superficial and reductive,” writes Ms. Friedman:
But at a time when so many of us are trapped in our homes, or hiding our faces behind masks in the street, these images of authority, up close on our screens, have become a potent point of contact and means of connection. And to focus on the details of those images is not merely a source of distraction from the dire news for those watching (and sometimes a source of levity), but also a way for the subjects themselves to frame their message, to manage our reactions, and how we relate. They have become role models, and what they are modeling, literally, is trust, reliability, work ethic, familiarity. Their consistency and calm in the face of fear is echoed by the consistency and calm of what they wear.
Her other purpose, however, inherited from the old celebrity culture from which these favored three are said to be departures, is to contrast their understated and reassuring elegance, their unmodish modishness, with what she calls “the neck-swiveling assertions of the president in his blowzy power suiting and braggadocio 1980s tie, or of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in his skinny Mod suiting.” In other words, the celebrity culture is dead; long live the celebrity culture. Turns out that we can’t do without its help to reassure us that, whatever else may change with the fashions, the Orange Man (along with all connected to him) is still Bad and can never, never, unlike us and those we choose to emulate, be among the cool kids.
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