Saturday, June 27, 2009

The obligatory celebrity-death tribute.

By the time you read this, journalists and bloggers will have disgorged about 700 million words re the King of Popa figure I do not use haphazardly, as it's equal to the New York Times' 2006 estimate of the money Michael Jackson banked (and blew) in his career. It seems like overkill for yours truly to post at any length here. So instead of commenting on the King—and, of course, poor Farrah, who, for all her alleged beauty, was upstaged at the last by a noseless freak who got famous by wearing costumes that looked like a cross between a Captain Marvel outfit and a level-4 biohazard suit (not to mention that silly glove)I think I'll just offer a comment or two on all the commenting.

I can't help noticing that the tone of the mainstream coverage of Jackson's shocking death seems to be: "Yes, Michael was a quirky hum
an being...but what's really important to remember and celebrate is his musical genius and his profound influence on the course of modern music!" This, from the same folks who spent the past 20 years covering Jackson's musical accomplishments only in passing while concentrating the full measure of their journalistic resources instead on (a) his true sexual orientation and the extent of his (widely assumed but technically unproven) pedophilia, (b) his other bizarre habits and eccentricities, and (c) whether or not he really did sport evidence of vitiligo on his johnson.

Now, back to Farrah. It is true that she managed to acquit herself nicely after leaving Charlie's Angels. Her media eulogists gave credit where credit was due, citing the likes of The Burning Bed and Extremities as examples of an emotional range and overall acting acumen that no doubt shocked many viewers who knew her only from Angels or That Poster. All I'll throw in my two cents: The coverage of Fawcett's life and career has neglected to mention one of her finest roles, in my view, as ill-fated Texas dowager Joan Robinson Hill in the 1981 true-crime miniseries Murder in Texas. It was that film, in conjunction with the mesmerizing book on which it was loosely based, Tommy Thompson's Blood and Money, that later inspired me to try my own hand at true crime. The result was Deadly Blessing, which in turn became a TV movie renamed Bed of Lies, starring Susan Dey and Chris Cooper. I must also confess that I watched Farrah's own documentary of her struggle against cancer when it aired some weeks back, and I shed more than a tear or two. That scene near the end where her only child, Redmond, crawls into her sick-bed in his prison garb and leg-irons, to tell her he loves will be a long time before that fades from memory.

All that said
and I grant you, this is a pet peeve of minethe very next time I hear somebody describe Fawcett as "one of the most beautiful women" (if not the most beautiful woman) of her generation, I'm going to run downstairs, find my copy of the aforementioned poster, and excise the famous nipples. Look... Farrah was a phenomenon in her day. No doubt about it. But Farrah was also one of those gals, indigenous to Texas, who need an awful lot of prep time to look naturally beautiful. This is clear in some of the more recent candid shots of her, even pre-cancer. Call me crazy if you will, but she was never was an especially pretty woman. She was a flamboyant woman, and there's a difference. Hell, for my money, she was the third-prettiest woman on Charlie's Angels...certainly the second after Jaclyn Smith.

I know it's not really her fault that America clutched her to its bosom (or clutched her bosom to its bosom) the way it did, but I do hold her responsible, whether by design or not, for fast-tracking the widespread misapprehension of female beauty that plagues us today. We've commented on this before. Once Farrah hit the scene and the aforementioned poster achieved ubiquity, beauty was no longer about, well, beauty.** It was about sex. Suddenly any woman who provoked a glandular response in men (or other women, for that matter) was beautiful. In fact, the shorthand "T&A" came into widespread usage as a direct result of Charlie's Angels and the producers' determination to highlight the relevant assets of Ms. Fawcett and her co-stars in every show; it became a generic term for the knock-off shows that followed in Angels' wake. Today, with only rare exceptions—Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman come to mindfemale beauty is seen largely through the lens of T&A: Is a woman showy and glam and sexually provocative? Then my God, she's gorgeous!

For the benefit of the purists and social reformers, I realize that I'm making the wrong argument here. The right argument is: Rather than debating what constitutes beauty and who's got it, let's stop obsessing about beauty entirely. But let's face it
in our appearance-obsessed culture, that argument is a non-starter. Ain't gonna happen. So once again I ask, can we please at least revert to judging beauty in terms of aesthetics, not assthetics? Besides, the T&A conception of so-called beauty sends a terrible message to America's teenage girls, and results in a tragic amount of tawdry imitative behavior on their part. Which leads to other problems.

So there ya have it. My twisted tributes. Read 'em and weep.

* The Times' estimate, which obviously exceeds the "going number" of $500 million, was attributed to "three individuals with direct knowledge of the singer's business affairs."
** I know I've opened myself up to the allegation that I'm woefully naive and have no sense of cultural history, so: Yes, women like Sophia Loren and Raquel Welch were always best-known for the features that didn't happen to reside on their faces. But the descriptions most commonly used in discussing them reflected that: They were called "sexy" or "sex symbols" or "sex-bombs," labels that reveal an awareness that this was about hormones, not aesthetics. The word "beautiful," as used prior to the era in which Ms. Fawcett debuted, still generally recognized a distinction between face and figure, such that it was more commonly applied to women like Grace Kelly, Natalie Wood or Liz Taylor.


Anonymous said...

Only one comment about MJ, his real fame came from his outstanding pop singing and performing ability. That led to the freak-show which came later.

But as far as the beauty queens, this as known as the Gilligan's Island test.

Ginger or Mary-Ann?

Farah also ushered in the aloofness as well.

One SHAM aspect of this, is how millions of people feel so intimate with complete strangers they have only seen on the media. The media creates a false sense of intimacy.

Many SHAM type writers and speakers also exploit this impulse in people, using the media.
They make you think and feel like they are your close friend, when in fact you can't get within 100 yards of their limosine or private jet.

The intimacy people feel for these celebrities is an illusion and a mental projection in their own minds.

And the media death tribute is a great ratings jackpot too.

Anonymous said...

"poor Farrah, who, for all her alleged beauty, was upstaged at the last by a noseless freak who got famous by wearing costumes that looked like a cross between a Captain Marvel outfit and a level-4 biohazard suit (not to mention that silly glove)"

(wiping her tears away) When I die, Steve, I want you to write a note of remembrance for me, okay? ;)

More seriously (and the above was serious too, but not totally, you know:), I think Farrah was a victim of her sex-appeal and fame. The media created her image as that of a mindless bimbo, which she certainly was not.

And yes, that scene with Redmond... You'd have to be made of stone not to weep (or choke on tears).

As to Jackson, I agree with your points on the hypocrisy of the media coverage, after his death. Ugh.

BTW, since we are in a cynical mood (somewhat at least), I'm also thinking what a lucky bastard Gov. Mark Sanford is (again! ;), now that those deaths of two famous people eclipsed, in the media at least, the scandal of his, er, hike on the, um, Appalachian Trail. I guess it's true that timing is everything in this business.

Anonymous said...

Okay, Steve, just to play a devil's advocatess on the subject of assthetics: is it really the faceless (no pun) media's fault that the T&A is a standard of female beauty, or is it just that men are really attracted to those features (not exclusively, but mainly) and the media's focus reflects that attraction?

Neuroskeptic said...

How long until it's OK to joke about MJ again? I give it about three weeks.

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz: No question, men have always been swayed by assthetics (although let's face it, there was a time when women, especially young women, wouldn't have been caught dead in some of the get-ups you see down at the mall these days). What I'm trying to emphasize here is that we've dumbed down the definition of "beauty" by conflating it with "sexuality." It's almost as silly to me as if women were to suddenly begin describing all tall men as handsome, by definition. And I say that even though I'm 6-4. ;)

Neuro: Are you kiddin'? Haven't you seen the jokes circulating virally online? Some of them are... Well, lemme tell ya, I've pretty much heard it all (consider that in my youth there were times when I kept food on the table by writing for magazines like Hustler, which took pride in its lowbrow wit), but these new MJ jokes push the envelope of gutter humor.

Anonymous said...

"What I'm trying to emphasize here is that we've dumbed down the definition of "beauty" by conflating it with "sexuality." "

Alright, Cameron Diaz comes to mind, in the female corner (and a whole bunch of other star-lets); and, on the other side, assorted (usually young) male celebrities who, to my aging eye, look all the same -- indistinguishably boring.

Though this may be the age thing, after all, with differing beauty standards characterizing different generations. Cameron Diaz has been on the TV talk show circuits a lot lately, promoting her new movie, and whenever I even mention to my male household that she looks, well, ugly, I get those stunned responses from them. As in, "Ma, what on earth are you talking about?" Even my husband gives me a funny look -- that's before they all laugh and admit that I'm right -- yet they can't stop staring at her on the screen. (And I don't blame them, really. But Grace Kelly she is not.)

Steve Salerno said...

Grace Kelly? Hell, she's not as pretty as Gene Kelly. (Note for you young'uns: These were famous stars once.)

Anonymous said...

Farrah's greatest work, in the humble opinion of the teen-aged boy I was at the time, was as the hot blonde who "creamed" Joe Namath in a Noxema shaving cream commercial. She even sang in a Marilyn-breathy whisper)

Michael Jackson had three strong albums (Off the Wall: Thriller; Bad) and that was it. His follow-up albums, and "Victory" tour were duds and widely panned. The guy was completely washed-up by the age of 30. All of these glowing tributes are pretty much bullshit. He had a lucky streak which ended abruptly. His ability to entertain was truly "talent on loan from God" (ironic Rush Limbaugh phrase) and that loan expired two decades ago. All his attention came from his freakish lifestyle and his inability to pay for his lifestyle. But in the pop world, he was a has-been; a washed-up talentless hack relegated to the oldies station. He was five years from having his greatest hits collection from being used as a PBS fundraising premium.

But the death of Billy Mays saddens me. He was a real 50 year-old who worked hard, and was passionate about his products. And his Mighty Putty is holding my house together. Billy never took himself too seriously - here he is at at a McDonalds drive thru:

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:19 - you are certainly right about the "media jackpot". The networks love a celebrity death almost as much as a celebrity trial (the trial usually lasts longer). These events are very cheap to put on the air - just dig up a few has-been celebrities who might have known the corpse; and then sprinkle in a few spotlight-seeking self-anointed "experts", and you've got very cheap programming which will attract millions of viewers.

The deaths of Elvis and Princess Diana were multi-million dollar windfalls for the networks.

And the answer to your question is "Ginger". A tall, stacked, leggy redhead does it for me.

Anonymous said...

"in my youth there were times when I kept food on the table by writing for magazines like Hustler, which took pride in its lowbrow wit"

Steve, did you write something that made me ejaculate all over my chest when I was 14?

Hey man, thanks!

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 12:26, sorry I can't take credit for providing that...inspiration. Though I guess I have to own up to the magazines to which I turned in order to make a buck--and Larry Flynt was paying serious money at the time--I like to think I held my journalistic ground nonetheless. I wrote pieces on the real odds of nuclear war, a resurgence of insects and other microbes, harassment laws that I felt unfairly discriminated against men, etc. In general they were as thoroughly researched as if I'd done them for the New York Times Magazine.

Come to think of it, I did do one piece on "sex at work" that they illustrated in a way that might have helped you along.

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