the fauxdacity of soaps
September 5, 2008
imagine for a second that you’re bristol palin. imagine that it’s monday night and that earlier in the afternoon, millions of people around the country and around the world found out that you fucked up and that you’re knocked up. imagine that they found out and it’s not like funny katherine heigl knocked up and it’s not like funny juno knocked up, it’s just knocked up, it just sucks, it just does. and it’s the night after everybody in the world found out about this, that you’re knocked up, and you’re just so tired. your body is tired because, hey, you’re pregnant, and you’ve been up all day after not being able sleep on the weird, different bed in the hotel, but mostly you’re just tired of it, of all of it, the great big mass of it that’s pressing in on you from every direction. you’re stuck in this hotel room in minnesota, of all places, and you can’t go anywhere or do anything because then people would take your picture, there would be flashes everywhere and video and microphones, and so that’s not allowed, and you don’t want it anyway. and your stupid fucking boyfriend is still in alaska and his phone isn’t working cause of all the reporters calling it and you don’t even know why you want to talk to him, really, but you just want something that’s not this, that’s not it. and you’re in this hotel room and you’ve had to be around all these people all day, all of them, your family and then the rest of them, the sweaty men in shirtsleeves and women in their thick-cut pantsuits, and there’s never any break from it, there’s never any rest, it’s lights, camera, action, even though there aren’t any of those things in the room, no, no cameras near you, “no cameras near bristol,” they said, not yet, but it feels like you have to be on now, all the time, that there could always be someone watching you, looking at you, staring.
it’s late and your little sister has gone to bed and all the adults are having a meeting about something, probably you, probably about what you’ve done and what it means and how you changed things and how people are reacting, and because of this, you get a minute to yourself in the empty hotel room. you’re hungry, because, hey, you’re pregnant, but there’s no food in the room except the mini bar and you know you’re probably not supposed to touch the mini bar but at this point, seriously, you feel like if you want some oreos, well, it’s your decision to make, not anybody else’s, so you take the oreos and you rip open the package. you eat them fast and they’re so good, they fill something up inside of you not just your stomach. the mini bar is still open and you look at the alcohol, the little bottles, and you think about what it would taste like to drink them, to drink them all, what if they came in and found you on the bed, all drunk and passed out and fucked up, that’s what levi called it, “fucked up.” you remember that one time with levi at his friend’s house, when you took a gulp of whiskey from the bottle in the underwear drawer and it burned and you thought about how people in movies drink whiskey and it burns and you thought about your dad drinking whiskey and how he didn’t act like it burned and then levi took the bottle and then the lights went off. you’re sitting there on the bed with your fingers all covered in the oreo crumbs and the empty package in your lap and it’s so quiet in the room all of a sudden, so quiet after all the people talking all day, and you would think it feels good but it doesn’t, because even though they’re not there and they’re not talking, you can still hear them, in your head, all their voices, all talking about you and about what people think about you and about what people are saying about you and about what is to be done with your situation. you’re hearing all those things and it’s so horrifying but you can’t turn it off because it’s in your head. so instead of turning something off, you turn something on, the TV. you turn it on and start changing channels. what do you watch?
okay, okay, i’ll cut the overwrought fan fiction but let’s talk about daughters, for serious.
daughters, daughters, daughters. they’re all everybody’s talking about lately. hillary and obama both talked about daughters and when hillary dropped out, obama talked about daughters even more, to make sure we got it. in his speech at the convention, he talked about daughters, he mentioned them over and over, to make sure we got it, and after the speech brought them up on stage and hugged them, right in front of america. and now, the focus of our presidential election isn’t on the candidates, it’s on another daughter, someone else’s daughter. it’s on bristol palin, who got knocked up.
america, for all this talk about daughters, do you know who your daughters are really listening to, whose every word and glance they’re following, who they actually care about? it’s not barack and it’s sure as hell not john mccain. it’s not joe biden and it’s not sarah palin and it’s not even hillary clinton. instead, for millions of them, for millions of eligible and soon to be eligible female voters, it’s LC, it’s heidi, it’s lo and audrina and whitney. you might think that’s bad or wrong, that it makes them stupid or vapid, that they’re wasting their time on trivial things when they could be learning about “the important stuff.” i don’t agree.
the new 90210 premiered this week and, leading up that, everybody was talking about it, too, mostly in that binary “will it be good?” or “will it suck?” kind of way, but also in that “i remember way back when” nostalgic kind of way. now, i will go on record as not being anything close to an expert on the show and actually only having seen it a few times. i recognize this as a big gap in my cultural cred, especially since i am obsessed with watching what is in some ways a spiritual sequel to the show. but people, really, did 90210 teach you anything about what life in the real world is like? did it teach you to understand the world? did it teach you how you were supposed to live your life? i wasn’t an adult then so i can’t say for sure, i can’t understand the cultural environment of the time, but my feeling based on wikipedian speculation and reading people’s reactions to the show and nostalgia about it and comparison of it to the hills is no, it didn’t, at least not in the way that the hills does. instead, it was what gossip girl is now: kind of a pseudo-campy/pseudo-serious look at this group of young people in this exciting urban atmosphere, full of pretty actors playing ugly characters. it allowed you to kinda identify with the characters/kinda snark on them, it told a simple morality tale about how the money and drugs and sex corrupts these young people and hurts them morally but how some of them are still good deep inside and blah blah blah. i’m really talking out of my ass but, in sum, it was a soapy drama, a TV show, it was entertainment, it was fun.
but the hills is so much more than gossip girl or 90210 and so much more than a TV show and so much more than entertainment (not least because, in and of itself, it’s not really very entertaining, as some people have made a fetish of saying over and over again in slightly different ways). what it is is this kind of primer for how to live in the twenty first century, both how to exist in the world and how to observe it and understand it and interpret what it all means. i was talking about the nouveau roman last week, but the hills isn’t life: a user’s manual, it’s a user’s manual for life. for its audience, watching the hills is providing the critical/analytical/performative tool that they need to live in and understand contemporary american society. the best/ only way i know to illustrate this is to compare things on the show to things happening in the election.
to start, watch this video of barack obama. this is a loop i cut from the official obama campaign video of his convention speech. the video itself has all these “i have a dream” aping cutaways to the crowd during the speech, cutaways that fail to be moving just as a function of aesthetics; that is, color hi def video of fat people in t-shirts in a stadium just doesn’t have quite the gravitas of grainy black and white film of soldiers and folks garbed in their mad men vestments, sweating and smoking cigarettes on the mall. i digress. anyway, before the actual speech begins, there’s a build-up of these vérité moments of the prep backstage, sort of like in concert films when they show the band psyching themselves out and then walking through the bowels of the stadium to the stage. the shot i’ve looped is one of obama, his eyes closed, mentally centering himself before he goes out to make one of the most important speeches of his career to 75,000 live screaming humans and millions more watching all around the world.
before reality TV, especially before second wave reality TV like the hills, the way we would’ve interpreted this moment is with that word i used earlier, vérité. we would have thought about this as vérité, like, the medium of this shaky handheld cheap DV camera is giving us this secret, unfiltered glimpse into the real obama, the man behind the mask, not the one that makes the big speeches, but the private soul that lives behind closed doors. but what the hills has done is broken the “real-fake” binary forever and allows us to see this moment for what it really is. of course, this moment with obama is, in one sense, completely real. the kind of focus you need to prepare yourself to appear before that many people and make a speech must be incredible. at the same time, i think you have to be kidding yourself to say that he’s not aware that there’s a camera around him, expecting him to look deep, focused, and presidential, and that, because of this, that he isn’t at least subconsciously projecting this look that is deep, focused, and presidential. the genuine essence and the performance are melded, inextricably joined, the peanut butter of the real all swirled together with the sweet jelly of artifice.
let’s keep going. remember the big deal about hillary clinton breaking down and crying after iowa. there was that viral video clip of her getting emotional at whatever campaign stop that was, right before new hampshire, in this moment she was talking not about policy but about basic human feelings. i wrote an elliptical prose poem type thing about this at the time but i’ll repeat myself, in blunter, cruder language. what was she doing? did she genuinely begin crying and genuinely continue crying because she just couldn’t take it anymore? did she genuinely begin crying and then realize that it might be a politically advantageous thing to continue doing and so played it up? or was it all fake from the start, was it a carefully deployed, last-ditch attempt at pathos, planned to engender support in new hampshire? these are the same questions that every good scene on the hills raises. what is real, what is fake, what is genuine, what is not, what is the balance, can these things coexist?
beyond the fake-real issues raised by what hillary herself did, think about the reaction. TV pundits in well-lit studios and workers around water coolers and executives in boardrooms, they were all talking about this moment, about hillary clinton’s crying and whether she was doing it for real or whether she was faking it and what did that mean and did that make her more likeable or less and did it make her more electable or less. this is basically the same level of discourse being employed at the same time by teenage girls in their bedrooms talking about the hills, discussing the way lauren looked at brody at the end of the episode and did that mean she liked him or not and do you think she really really likes or does she just like him for the show and so on and so forth.
for someone like bristol palin, or for any other seventeen year old growing up in america, the hills is instructive in two modes, the performative and the interpretive. in the performative sense understanding this real-fake paradox is essential for knowing how to be. imagine you’re bristol palin and someone asks you if you’re really in love with your boyfriend. how do you respond? how do you balance what you really feel inside with what you want people to think about you with what you want to say for your mom with how your boyfriend feels? but this is not just for the bristol palins of the world; fame is a mask that eats into the face but all of us, even the nonfamous, wear masks sometimes. the hills is instructive because it lets us know that to be real, sometimes you have to be fake and that just because you’re being fake, it doesn’t mean you’re not real, somehow, somewhere, inside. in the interpretive sense, it’s important because it forces you to confront the fact that other people aren’t as simple as characters in the two dimensional teen movies you watch but are just as contradictory and paradoxical, just as real and fake, as you are.
want more? how about the whole john edwards affair? what strikes me about that is that his affair was literally enabled by its own documentation. the idea of hiring rielle hunter to create these videos was, at least ostensibly, to show the “real” john edwards. the problem was that the john edwards that was shown was maybe a little more real than he would’ve liked. as a result of this documentary impulse, though, we have these incredible videos left over, which, like hills episodes, are completely banal and facile on the surface but bubble under with juicy subtext. in the video above, directly addressing the camera, john edwards talks about how difficult it is to be real and fake at the same time:
“you’re trained to be careful, to close off if it feel sensitive, to close off if it feels personal. i have to tell myself…i’m trying hard to do it, but you know we’re so conditioned, we’re conditioned to say the same things, to say what we say, we’re conditioned to be political. and it’s hard to shed all that. i can be in the middle of being what feels real and authentic to me and i’ll get into a little reel in my head, you know, i can see it happening and i have to pull myself back out. i think it helps, though, that you guys are filming all the time and not just when i’m standing in front of a big crowd speaking.“
it’s funny because he’s talking about this real-fake paradox in the same kind of way that lauren conrad might talk about her life, directly to the camera in the interview segment on the hills: aftershow. i also think his use of the word “reel” there is very interesting, based on the different connotations of that word. i initially heard it as “reel” as in “schpiel,” like, a routine that he has to go through, the proverbial dog and pony show. you can also read it as edwards’ country boy roots revealing themselves, so, “reel” like line dancing, like a set of rigid, unnatural postures and positions you put your body through so that you can move in concert with others. there’s also “reel” in the cinematic sense, like the reel of DV tape that was recording edwards at that very second. a correspondent pointed out that edwards’ mistress is named “rielle.” finally, in terms of homophones, there’s that word we just can’t escape: “real.”
what all this reminds me of is the sex tape rumors that were such a driving force behind the rise in popularity of the hills, the rumors which helped to spark the ratings and publicity bump that occured around the beginning of the third season. at that time, spencer pratt was claiming with “1000%” certainty that a sex tape of lauren conrad existed. conrad, of course, completely and fervently denied this. the tension between them and the promise of this hyperreal document (which never manifested itself) was perfect tabloid and message board and blog fodder. along these lines, let us remember that the thing that made edwards finally admit his dalliance seemed to be the threat that photos or video, that some sort of document of the affair was going to be released – that’s what did it, that’s what forced him to get “real” and tell the truth.
speaking of tabloid fodder, remember that the john edwards story was broken not by the new york times or the washington post but by the national enquirer, a tabloid, the kind of tony journalistic organ that sits above tic tacs and chapstick at the checkout counter. think about that: the source of this major political news was a tabloid, just like us weekly. a few days ago, us weekly was attacked by the mccain campaign and its supporters for their puffy, pink exposé of sarah palin. some have drawn the comparison with the more fawning approach that the tabloid took in their profile of the intensely photogenic, almost brangelenic obama family. we could discuss the relative merits of those pieces, but all i can think about is that this magazine, which a desperate mccain rep is holding up as an exemplar of mainstream media liberal bias, is the same featherweight checkout counter glossy that’s played host to countless pictures of, listicles about, interviews with, and feature articles starring lauren conrad and heidi montag.
or let’s just move on to the big stuff. i mean, i don’t want to dwell on this or celebrate because we’re not supposed to, right? but FAKE PREGNANCY! REAL PREGNANCY! FAKE PREGNANCY! REAL PREGNANCY!!! what did i and scads of teenage and twenty something daughters read about this spring? why, how heidi montag and spencer pratt had planned a fake pregnancy to garner attention for themselves. “”This summer, Heidi plans to wear loose clothes and even strap on some padding around her waist to make it appear as if she’s about three months along. The plan is to get the baby rumor mill going so she can get photographed more. She and Spencer won’t confirm or deny the pregnancy so they can keep everyone guessing.” what were i and millions of americans talking about over the past week? why, whether the vice presidential candidate for the republican party had faked her pregnancy. as with the whole hills sex tape controversy, there were blatant lies, there were weird, sketchy details, there were conspiracy theories a gogo. then, in a soap opera style plot twist, it was revealed that no, this crazy thing wasn’t true but hey, this one is! oh, bristol palin.
people talk about the evils of identity politics and how we should avoid them, how we shouldn’t talk about sarah palin’s or barack obama’s personal lives, but i think that in this race to do so is completely unavoidable. we have to talk about the politics of the candidates’ identities because they’re using their identities to play politics, whether it’s barack obama stumping about a woman from kansas and a man from kenya or sarah palin posing in a bikini with a rifle. of course, this is all like the hills, in which heidi and lauren don’t have the safety net of “character” to fall back on, who can’t say, “oh, that’s not me, that’s just this fictional person I play on TV.” they can’t declare things off limits or unfair game – it’s all out there.
another thing is that the hills, just like the election, is all about choice. nothing is didactically meted out, you choose what you think. you choose what of the show you believe and what you think is fake. you choose who you support and who you agree with, who you ally with and who identify with. this choice, i think, is just a micro version of the american political machine. think of those branded social networks based around the hills and other mtv shows and then the ones based around hils and barack. look at form, function, style: what is the distance between iamonmtv, where viewers sign up and “follow” the stars with whom they most identify, and mybarackobama, where voters sign up to “follow” the candidate they want to support? what’s the distance between whitney answering questions from her followers on iamonmtv and barack obama sending us all a 3 AM text message? what’s the distance between megan mccain (another daughter) shilling for her dad with her blog itunes playlists and audrina or lauren’s blogs shilling for their own personal causes? what’s the distance between team heidi and team hillary?
because these choices of team heidi and team lauren aren’t simple “i like the green power ranger better than the red power ranger” kind of choices. for the girls who really care about the show, they’re lifestyle choices. they mean something. if you’re team lauren, that signifies something about you. if you’re team heidi, that signifies something about you. these relationships with media icons are the training wheels for the relationships they will have or do have with their presidential candidates.
speaking of choice, heidi montag made this joke the other day about how she was angry with john mccain not choosing her as his running mate. look at it from her perspective. i mean, here he is, he’s already admitted that he’s a fan of the hills and heidi has gone to the trouble of endorsing him and going out to lunch with his daughter a couple of times and then at the last minute he picks a brunette from alaska.
it’s funny because the way sarah palin was chosen is, in many ways, just like the way heidi montag was chosen for the hills. if you strip all the fame away from heidi montag, if we pretend that she’s just a normal girl what’s special about her, what sets her apart? nothing, really, she’s just normal. kind of pretty, sort of ambitious, but mostly normal. and, without the magic ticket she was given into the world of celebrity, into the show, that’s how she would’ve probably stayed, a normal girl from a small town in colorado.
of course, that’s the sarah palin narrative, too: plucked from the relative obscurity of the alaskan wilderness into the national spotlight, with the barest of real experience or qualifications but with scads of those particular qualities that resonate with the american public: personality, relatability, normality. i read this old interview in which sarah palin described the possibility of her being vice president as “so far in outer space.” to me, she sounds like carrie underwood talking about what it would be like to win american idol. in a sense, of course, that’s exactly what she’s talking about, this dream of american idolatry. for so many boys and girls in our country today, that is the american dream. from the snow-capped rockies of colorado to the red hills of georgia (but not only there), that’s what they dream of, that, suddenly, miraculously, the weight of attention will descend upon them like some sort of televisual rapture, that it will elevate them into the firmament of public consciousness, that it will render their essence into something bold and beautiful that the mass of the american public will take in through wifi or save to their tivos or have delivered via google reader. sarah palin is, as they say, living the dream.
one of the republicans’ big talking points against obama is that he’s a “celebrity.” while i don’t think that’s a bad thing, i don’t disagree with them on one count: obama definitely is a celebrity. he’s the classic hollywood kind of celebrity, the dashing, dapper george clooney or cary grant style leading man. he’s a celebrity because of what makes him special, what makes him exceptional, what makes him better and different than all the rest of us. he’s a movie star. sarah palin is a celebrity, too, but she’s the new kind of celebrity, like heidi montag or carrie underwood. instead of being famous for what makes her special, she’s famous for what makes her normal, the girl next door who wins a date with tad hamilton. she’s a TV star. while twenty years ago that would’ve have made her no competition at all for obama (reagan hollywood blah blah), in today’s cultural climate, i’m not so sure. she’s a TV star and that’s what scares me the most about her.
people keep ridiculing sarah palin for having been a beauty queen and posting in a mocking way those dated glamour shots and gauche bikini pics of her, as if to say “this could be our nation’s vice president”? it reeks of cheap sexism to me. personally, i feel there are a hell of a lot of reasons why sarah palin shouldn’t be vice president, but i think her pageant skills are one of the reasons she was a good choice for mccain to make. i mean, what is the distance between that debate about the couture choices of barack obama (re: lapels) and sarah palin strutting around in the swimsuit competition? what’s the distance between the youtube town hall and that hallowed Q and A session that takes place at every beauty pageant, in which the candidates are asked those cliché questions about “world peace” and “geography.”
your response to this rich pageant of american public life might be to rail against how this is all so stupid or inconsequential or even immoral or disgusting. and you might be right, it might be all of those things, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is, that this is the state of popular discourse. i have no interest in passing moral judgements on things like this; to do so seems like bad punk music to me, just angry whining that might provide you with some smug self satisfaction but nothing more, no enlightenment. i don’t know if i can offer enlightenment, either, but i think asking “why?” or “how?” is much more productive than saying “yes” or “no” or “good” or “bad.” i love america and if you love someone, it’s better to try to understand them and see the good in them than to constantly harp on their forfeits and inadequacies. you can hate the sin if you want (i don’t), but quit hating the sinner, because as americans, we’re all sinners, every one.
i know this is all getting kind of out there, trust me, i know. a valid criticism of this is whether what i’m doing here is trying to make my particular mania into a cultural universal. i know that i more than anyone am predisposed to view everything through the lens of the hills. i’ve been writing about it for a year and i’ve been talking about it with friends for longer. i think this show is more important than probably anybody else, besides maybe some of those sixteen year old daughters i talked about earlier. i’ve written over a hundred thousand words about this and why it is i think so and what it all means. what’s funny is that i don’t even really like the show anymore. i’m bored with it, i don’t enjoy watching it. i don’t think it’s as well made as it used to be. i don’t own the DVDs or the spin off book, i don’t download the soundtrack, i don’t buy the tabloids, i don’t hang out in the virtual hills. i don’t even watch reruns of it because i have to watch it so intensely when i write about it that it becomes this dead husk of a thing, used and wilted.
the thing is this show is really fucking up my life. i won’t even talk about my personal life because the less said the better but i mean my life as an artist. because that little blip of a short short i wrote about bristol palin at the top of the page? even though a lot of the details are total bullshit (was she even in minnesota then? i don’t know.) and even though it’s kind of maudlin and even though we could argue pointlessly all day about whether i’m rendering anything close to her psychological state or her relationships with her family or to politics, to me, it’s so alive, more alive than any of the fiction i’ve been trying to write lately, probably more than any of the fiction i’ve written since i wrote about heidi montag watching dharma and greg. it’s alive to me not because of the quality of the writing but simply because it’s about a real person, because it’s about her, bristol palin, but at the same time because it’s about a fake person, because i am allowing myself to animate her, to pull her marionette strings in the directions i want, to fill in details that please me, to edit and remix her essence. in creative writing workshops, one of the dead horses we beat are “stakes”; characters have to have stakes, things that are important to them and are at risk in the story. writing about real people means the stakes are automatic, because their problems and solutions, their joy and sadness, those are real, too, and i get to play with them, and so not only do they have stakes but i have stakes. concurrently, the reader, who has some kind of relationship with whoever this person is that exists outside the world of my story, the reader has stakes, too. we’ve all got stakes, we’re all high rollers. i feel like if if i admit that my characters are totally fake, i lose all the stakes, like dostoevsky at one of his casinos in a seventh seal sort of existential craps game and putting the power of fiction down and losing it to the house and hating himself even more because now he can’t dramatize his fears and dreams and hatred and love in long passionate monologues but instead has to write insipid personal essays with long run-on sentences and no capitalization in his blog. it’s like i’m sentenced to that circle of hell. if suddenly all the connotation and allusion in my little bristol palin story were stripped from it, if you couldn’t connect my dots to something existing in the real world, if it was just about some “fictional character,” well, who cares, what does that matter, why do we need to read about that? jesus, don’t get me a freudian or a jungian, i need a pirandellian.
i’m hoping this feeling is just a phase or that it’s writer’s block which i’m camouflaging from myself by having this kind of metafictional identity crisis – that’s what i hope. but i don’t know. you might say,” well, maybe you shouldn’t try to be a fiction writer, maybe you should be a journalist.” but the thing is, i could never be a journalist because i don’t care at all about the truth. i care about the truth as it interests me and the truth as it makes the bones of good story and the truth for what I can mine from it and refine into something better. i care about the truth as a raw material but as nothing more, i see it as being something like coal – largely boring and utilitarian but occasionally yielding the possibility of diamonds.
so i’m stuck in this fucked up rock/hard place situation where fiction doesn’t move me but neither does reality, where only things that exist in this weird nether realm in between make me feel anything at all. i’m stuck in this uncanny valley where nothing satisfies me except performances and simulations, where i love only liars and narcissists and beauty queens, and it’s like i’m sisyphus 2.0 – every word i write feels like a handhold to pull myself out of this but, as i try to climb up, my feet are just digging me in deeper and deeper. the hills are towering all around me and they cast shadows that cut into the landscape and create scary, dark places where i don’t want to go.
at the same time, even though it’s not really where i want to be, it’s where i feel i have to be. because, america, that’s where we are, you and me and lo and LC and all your sons and daughters. we’re a country that is completely obsessed with authenticity and we are, simultaneously, a country that is completely inauthentic. we have gaps and lacks in our veneers and big fault line cracks in our facades. i don’t think that makes us weak, though, i think it makes us strong. do we contradict ourselves? sure, we contradict ourselves. we are large, we contain multitudes. the hills is a better metaphor for that than any other piece of art i know, and that’s why, even if i don’t like it, i still have to watch. it’s why i think you should watch, too.
she speaks in your voice, american, and there’s a look in her eyes….well, i don’t know what it means. do you?