Shirley Temple Was a Celebrity. George Zimmerman Is Not.
Following the passing of film icon Shirley Temple on Monday, a common refrain in the pieces that commemorated her life and work was that she she didn’t make an embarrassment of herself once the bright lights of the Fox studio lot no longer cared to capture her image.
It is noteworthy that someone of Temple’s stature could fade into a polished second act so seamlessly. Especially someone as iconic and profitable as she. She was Lindsay Lohan… Mary-Kate and Ashley… Miley… Britney… all rolled into one and beyond, peaking somewhere around her 16th birthday. She left celebrity behind. She served others. She lived her life. A rare feat in today’s Coming Attractions celebrity atmosphere. We should all be so fortunate.
Already, too much has been said about this “celebrity boxing match” between child killer George Zimmerman and nostalgically beloved, albeit deeply troubled rapper DMX.
That Zimmerman is even considered a celebrity in some circles is disgusting, but not at all surprising. My feelings on this specific issue have already been stated eloquently by colleagues here and here.
This fight, whether it happens or not, is symptomatic of a greater issue in our culture. It’s what gets respectable news entities, once helmed by the likes of Edward R. Murrow, to jockey for Charlie Sheen exclusives. It’s what drives an insatiable curiosity about Lindsay Lohan. It’s the thing that gets mass petitions to deport Justin Bieber sent to the White House while more pressing foreign and domestic policy issues crawl, almost invisible, along the bottom ticker. It’s why major news has to cover “entertainment” to stay afloat.
Americans love a hero, but they also love villains. We love the idea that we can be anyone we want to be or, better yet, the redemptive narrative of the phoenix rising from the ashes. But in the spirit of the country’s Puritan ancestry, we also take joy in a public stoning in the town square.
It’s why Tonya Harding can still do interviews about assault on Nancy Kerrigan. It explains the existence of Celebrity Rehab on VH1. It’s why Iyanla Vanzant, once a fallen star herself, has made a comeback of her own by “fixing” the lives of others — including DMX (whose episode was disastrous at the very best). As a culture, we thirst happily on the spilled blood and ego of those we condemn. In creating a culture that worships celebrity — a term with ever lower barriers to entry — instead of talent or integrity, we echo the brutality of the Colosseum, where destruction was consumed as public sport and entertainment.
It is a system in which we are all complicit, from the stories we share, the names we know and the ones we will not allow ourselves to forget. We vote people into a permanent culture space with pageview clicks we bestow, the magazines we buy, the episodes we watch, and how many of our dollars we offer to opening weekend totals. As celebrity-oriented culture grows larger and more dominant so, too, will its offenses.
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