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Self-destructive stars seem to shine brighter

Human instinct, and a certain amount of schadenfreude, seems to draw average people to stories about celebrities in trouble.
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Who cares about Will Smith, really? Or Jada Pinkett-Smith, for that matter?

Sure, they’re impressive as actors and apparently have a happy family life together. But they’re just so … boring. They don’t hit the town drunk, get busted for shoplifting or have affairs. In short, they come off like the kind of stable, dependable folks you’d want as neighbors.

But then there’s Lindsay Lohan. She’s none too good an actor and her films are almost all mediocre. But she sure is fascinating, with her raft of substance abuse problems and chaotic love affairs.

The Smiths are only seen in the media when they’ve got something to promote. Lohan makes an appearance seemingly every day, like lots of other celebrities hitting the skids. Forget artistry, we seem to say, we want a sideshow instead. This extends to the stars we continue to worship from the past, such as Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland and Elvis.

In a less media-intensive culture, the way we view the famous might not matter so much. But with our 24/7 news cycle, the public’s fascination with falling (or fallen) stars has become all the more obvious. And let’s admit it: networks are all about ratings, so if we didn’t watch it, they wouldn’t show it.

Over the past few decades, a star system has gradually evolved that’s the opposite of a meritocracy. Call it a “trashocracy.” We offer stars polite applause when they make a great CD or film, but if they want our undivided attention, they’d better do something really crazy — like wear a surgical mask in public or buy up the remains of the Elephant Man.

Human train wrecks One reason we’re obsessed with “human train wrecks,” as they’ve come to be known, is people are instinctively drawn to tragedy, said P. David Marshall, author of the book “Celebrity and Power” and chair of the New Media and Cultural Studies department at Australia’s University of Wollongong. The same impulse that draws us to soap operas manifests itself when we watch someone like Michael Jackson fall from grace, he said.

“Anything that deals with mental instability is one of those things that becomes an object of speculation and gossip,” Marshall said. “We don’t know how to deal with it, probably, in our own lives. But it’s much easier to deal with it when it’s placed in a celebrity structure. It gives us a channel through which we can discuss things we might not if they were happening to someone we knew more closely who was having problems.”

But using Britney Spears’ head shaving as a metaphor for our own lives is just part of the issue, according to Dr. Andrea Bonior, a clinical psychologist and professor at Georgetown University. Bonior thinks there are “a host” of reasons we like to see stars knocked off pedestals — the main one being schadenfreude, the German word that means taking delight in the suffering of others.

“Sometimes there’s an inherent discomfort in idolizing someone who seems to have it all, so to speak — someone who seems to have fame and beauty and money and everything that we imagine we would want,” Bonior said. “And so there’s a little bit of pleasure — or schadenfreude, if you will — that comes from thinking, ‘Wow they actually might be going through something even more difficult than my boring day to day life.’”

Our desire to want to bring down celebrities can also be considered part of the democratic process, Marshall adds. Like political leaders, celebrities embody power given to them by the public; when that relationship breaks down, Marshall said, the public is in essence not letting the celebrity “represent” them anymore.

“The celebrated person is one of us who emerges from the populace and rises above us,” Marshall explains. “And that also means that they can be called back. And I think part of why celebrities are kind of liquid in terms of power is they’re celebrated by the most populist kind of sentiment. They don’t have the weight of history that established aristocracy has.”

A love/hate relationship And yet the love/hate relationships we have with celebrities can also bring out unexpected emotions in us. This, according to Bonior, is why there was such an outpouring of grief following the death of Jackson.

“I think there are a lot of people who had a lot of complicated feelings about him,” Bonior says. “They wanted to admire his sheer talent and his power on stage, but they had reservations about his personal life.”

As Geraldo Rivera pointed out, few celebrities wanted to be associated with Jackson before he died because of the allegations of child sexual abuse he battled. For years before that, though, Jackson was the butt of jokes and the object of public ridicule when his eccentricity turned into outright weirdness. All that changed when he died.

“Nobody wanted to shout from the rooftops a few weeks ago that he was the greatest entertainer alive because of this other stuff,” Bonior said. “But now they’re allowed to. His death, in a way, has provided a bit of a catharsis for people to let loose with all of those feelings.”

Jackson’s death might have caused the public to revise its perception about him, but our mixed feelings about people in the public arena aren’t likely to be altered, Bonior said: “You can even see that with Sarah Palin — this kind of reveling in the notion she’s being knocked down from what ever pedestal she had.”

So don’t expect Will and Jada to embody the current zeitgeist anytime soon. At this juncture in our culture, hitting the skids, not hitting it big with movies or CDs, seems to be the way into the public’s heart.