Yesterday I wrote that I wasn't sure whether analyzing Paul Ryan's suit was frivolous. It turns out, that conflict runs a lot deeper than I realized: This article started out with the headline, "I'm NOT conflicted about whether this is important," and featured two articles that popped up on my Google newsfeed this morning:
- Robert Pattinson's Post-Kirsten Stewart Style is Sexy and Filled With Suits -- E! Online
- Ellen DeGeneres tries out Miley Cyrus’ drastic new haircut in Photoshopped image -- NY Daily News
Don't get me wrong, these publications' coverage is horrible, in the case of the E! Online article, it's super fracking[1. BTW, does anyone else feel like it's sort of perfect that the main curse word from Battlestar Galactica is being used to describe a natural gas extraction process that causes air pollution, radioactive water, and earthquakes?] creepy. But the basic premise, that the style decisions of the super-scrutinized are worthy of analysis, is the same.
There are three major areas of conflict, in my mind:
- These are all people asking for our attention. Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates, to prove they're capable of doing a massive job at the top of our government; super-celebrities, to make themselves sufficiently marketable that their mere name is enough of an asset to any creative work with which they're involved that they get bigger paychecks. In both cases, it's awful that this is our relationship to those roles in society. But in both cases, it's also a feature of our society.
- The style decisions of the super-scrutinized have resonating influences throughout the whole of our culture. By this point, the amount of attention we pay to them is good and important, though it's also self-reinforcing. These people are building the narratives of our culture, and their stylistic choices establish the costumes of those narratives.
- Directly adjacent to that point, the way we pay attention to the style decisions of the super-scrutinized reinforces the harmful cultural norms of our society. The Paul Ryan and Robert Pattinson articles are about sexiness and relatability, stemming from their conformity to the norm, and the Miley Cyrus article is about the remarkable fact that at least one person is standing up for a super-scrutinized person trying to resist that norm.
The first bullet-point reminds me of an article I read yesterday about rape culture, called The missing stair. While I wrote that bullet point, I felt the end of that article itching at me:
This isn't just about individuals, either. Everyone who says "I don't want to be a victim-blamer, but girls should know frat parties aren't safe places" is treating rape culture like a missing stair. Everyone who says "it's an ugly fact, but only women who don't make trouble make it in this business" is treating sexual harassment like a missing stair. Everyone who says "I don't like it either, but that's the way things are," and makes no move to question the way things are, is jumping over a missing stair somewhere. [Emphasis mine.]
And while I wrote the last one, I remembered a Ze Frank video, in his 2006 series, "The Show."
We need these narratives, and these people giving us touchstones to build these narratives. Life, it turns out, is way too big and complicated for anyone to handle working out entirely from scratch. But it also seriously hurts a lot of people when we don't question them, or think about whether the narratives we're using tell the truth about the people who fit into them.
This was always a problem for the people moving within the narratives, but I think it didn't used to be such a problem for the people setting the trends -- those people where characters in books, plays, poems and mythologies. We don't have to worry, for example, about how Romeo feels that everyone on earth imagines him as a hopeless romantic, or whether it hurts Darth Vader's feelings that people only ever see him as the bad guy.
As every child star grows up this generation, it seems like they have to face the impression that their transition from child to teenager to adult is a symbolic struggle on behalf of all culture, whether between innocence and corruption, or childhood and maturity, or stagnation and fluidity.
I know very little about Miley Cyrus and Robert Pattinson, so I can't speak to the nature of their struggles. But I will say that I'm not 100% certain that it's not important, and shouldn't be noticed.