I don’t care about celebrity culture and I have no parasocial relationships. I did not watch The New York Times documentary “Framing Britney Spears”. Which is not to say I don’t care about Britany Spears. I care about her. She’s my sister in the human family and I love her deeply for that. Am I angry at her father or her ex-boyfriend? No. I’m not going to draw final judgments on a drama I’ve heard mostly one side of and where I have not done research. Her side is probably true but in all cases like this, I maintain an officially agnostic position. On the off-chance Britany Spears ever found my website, contacted me, and wanted to cry into my shoulder, I’d let her. I don’t get starstruck. I’d afford her the empathy and sympathy she is due as my fellow human. The only caveat is if she wanted to get lunch, I’d feel uncomfortable being protected by personal security. I like being approachable and small “d” democratic. Ultimately, I’d stomach it but I wouldn’t like it. The point is that I would confer to her the same respect I confer to normal people.
I’ve spent much time in the previous number of blogs complaining about tabloid and sensational reporting and stories infecting our culture. Which is not to condescend to the people who have parasocial relationships and like celebrity culture, it is not wrong in itself but it needs to be done in a manner that keeps air disinfected and people sober. The last thing any type of reporting should be is a melodrama with cartoon heroes and villains. That’s not how human society works and if our news reports reality that way we get a distorted view of reality. While that may or may not seem harmless in the context of Hollywood intrigue, it is definitely harmful in the context of politics. Whether a narrative is factually accurate and the victim has truly been wronged, it is important to remember that in many regimes from Marine le Pen to Duterte to Burma to Modi to any political party that needs sympathy for its cause that turning ostensibly true stories into dramatized folk stories is a means by which narratives are invented.
It isn’t about content, it is about style, and Hollywood can bleed into politics. This template is not the healthiest template for democracy. It creates the worldview that our society is divided into simple classifications that are either sympathetic or the opposite. As a fiction writer, I’m guilty of that myself to a degree but, at least, people know that’s fiction. The issue with using that template for nonfiction is that it ostensibly reflects reality. It has provable facts to support it. Yet, the template is disingenuous. It also puts emotional weight on a story that the objective facts may not warrant. I’m not saying Britney’s suffering was insignificant, it was significant, and she deserves to be sympathized with. That said, it would be wrong for the antagonism showed for the villains of the narrative to be disproportionate to their crimes. In the end, Britany is a multimillionaire pop star who lives in a mansion with millions of adoring fans and now lots of public sympathy. I get my daily news from NPR and BBC podcasts and so every day I hear about malnourished, diseased, people in underdeveloped countries. With villains like the Burmese military and the Proud Boys, I can’t bring myself to waste rage on Justin Timberlake whose victim has managed, just barely, to get clean water and stable housing.
The sad fact is that our stories have to be tabloid style and compete with the clickbait in front of everybody’s heads all the time. The New York Times had to print something that would be shared on Facebook. That is how our news is weighed, whether it is sensational enough to induce the salivation of the audience. The competition doesn’t even have to be real anymore, it can be fake news. That means reality has to compete with fiction. When reality has to compete with fiction then it can no longer be impartial and objective, it must distort itself. Literal and metaphorical sex has to be added to every story and that means sad and dark things for the future. If The New York Times becomes the slightly more respectable counterpart to The National Enquirer then reality and facts have lost. Let us pray to never go there.