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25.05.2008  

May 22, 2008 (the date of publication in Russian)

Marine Voskanyan

THE INJECTION OF INFERIORITY

The cult of superstars favors manipulation and wrecks self-reliance. Part 2

Part 1: http://www.rpmonitor.ru/en/en/detail.php?ID=9425

In the conditions of freedom from traditional institutions and their influence, a substantive "search for oneself" is attainable for only a narrow category of reasonable and educated persons who easily discern manipulation (it is noteworthy that this category of people appears to be capable for an independent choice of way of life in any historical epoch and under any political conditions). The huge majority, mostly convinced of being independent in the choice of the way of life, belief, appearance, and generally, the quality of being, undergo a rather harsh dictate from outside, involving strategies of seduction, speculation on self-esteem (e.g. slogans like "That is what you deserve" and "Choose the best"), and certainly, exploitation of role models – famous persons, or stars.

 

WHO ARE ALL THOSE PEOPLE?

Their portraits gaze at us from every cover of a glossy magazine. In newspaper interviews, they tell us how to look like, on the TV, they prompt us the best diet, and during election campaigns, they influence the electorate stronger than the candidates. Stars are idols of today. In a 2006 interview to The Independent, Archbishop John Sentamu claimed that in today's society, the cult of famous personalities sometimes acquires a form of idolatry when people are engaged with watching the life of the rich and famous instead of focusing on their own life.

At the first glance, mass attention to the life of well-known persons is quite explainable. People have always been inclined to gossip about their neighbors, especially those belonging to a higher social class. Today, the quantity seems to be transforming into quality. Despising elder generations for their respect of biographies of heroes, prophets and saints and rejecting the notorious personality cult the Soviet Union had been blamed for, today's "democratic" society does not realize that it is even less free from cultism – moreover, this phenomenon has developed to an unprecedented extent.

Mass media, especially TV programs, idolizing any famous personality, telling everyone which kind of furniture they have chosen for their bedroom, which event they attended, what car and what clothes they chose for this occasion etc. Interviewers inquire about their habits of eating, raising children, and using scents. Paparazzi try to detect their manner of shopping or lolling on a beach. Philistines watch, listen and read endless reports about life of other individuals that has nothing in common with their own life. The poorer audience is offered cheap papers lively sold out in local trains. The middle class is influenced with more powerful artillery of glossy magazines with photos and texts of higher quality. Persons with unrestricted financial possibilities can invite a Hollywood star, not speaking of an idol from the domestic "pantheon", to a private party.

Our grandfathers were frequently indignant about the popularity of rock stars that reaped popularity by "whispering" into the mike and becoming famous without vocal capabilities, compensating its lack by means of "posturing". At present, one does not need even an ear for music or artistic talent to become a star: posturing is sufficient. In order to get popular, one has just to be featured on the TV as frequently as possible. Participants of daily-broadcasted reality shows gain higher ratings of popularity than any musicians or cinema actors. This popularity is achieved exceptionally by presence of the camera monitoring their "daily grind". These earlier unknown heroes attract armies of fans ready to wait at the hotel doors day and night in order to have a glance at their idols, details of their private life discussed on lots of media forums and their names frequently penetrating into major papers. However, as soon as the camera loses interest to them, they vanish from the memory of TV spectators into nowhere: the easier is to get famous the sooner is to be forgotten and replaced by a new image.

This development is routinely interpreted with commercial interests of TV producers. In fact, commercial interest had been crucial in support of artistic talents during centuries. Show business rather capitalizes on the popular demand than shapes it. Private interest per se does not explain the public interest to the world of wealthy and famous. Some psychologists believe that in the secular society, TV idols play the same role as saints for the believers, allowing masses to join the community sharing a certain set of virtues. These virtues of today are youth, beauty, success and wealth.

 

TO BE HEALTHY AND WEALTHY

In this succession of virtues, youth comes as No.1, making mass culture ruthless towards even its celestials. As soon as plastic surgery fails to conceal the signs of aging, fame vanishes in a matter of one year. This fact is desperate for the feminist movement that had tried to prove that age and appearance are not the highest parameters in a woman's self-esteem. In practice of today's show business, the depth of a woman's inner world is meaningless since her appearance reveals that she is used up.

Really enormous business opportunities open before specialists in cosmetology and pharmaceutics. Since the age of 25, women intend to undergo all kinds of procedures of rejuvenation, frequently ominous for their health. Daily Telegraph's polls indicate that one half of 2000 female respondents believe to be more successful in their careers in case of being more physically attractive. 58% respondents are envious to women who look younger in the same age, and 36% envy to younger ladies generally.

In order to study today's cult of appearance and the relevant role of mass media, photographer Lauren Greenfield, author of Girls' Culture project, interviewed dozens of American girls whose photos and monologues comprised her book and exhibition. "Socialization originates simultaneously with adoption of the criteria of beauty. Today, the body is perceived as the prior expression of identity", says Mrs. Greenfield in her interview. "The priority is to be slim and blond. One of the girls I interviewed claimed that it is better to be a dolly than a whore, but it's still better to be a whore than a trog and a haybag." This pattern is multiplied through movies and magazines.

In 1980s, being a good girl meant to be good in work. In today’s popular culture, quality of work is not more significant: success is much more determined with appearance. The virtue of sexual attractiveness motivates girls for demonstration of their bodies to the extent of what would earlier be recognized as a clinical form of nymphomania. At the same time, they pay a huge toll to the cosmetic industry, though that does not save them from feeling themselves unprotected, unhappy, and ugly.

 

THE BLAME-YOURSELF PRINCIPLE

The ingenuous assumption that success is gained by human effort was once a cornerstone of the whole Western liberal capitalist mindset. At present, an individual effort of labor is as unpromising as the perspective of a small businessman in the economy dominated by transnational corporations. Still, an ordinary individual is still being convinced that everything is in his hands, though the soldiers of the consumer society will never become generals: all the sweet positions are already occupied.

Sigmund Baumann writes that the conditions in which people construct their individual being and which determine the range and implications of their choice, withdraw, or are withdrawn beyond the limits of their conscious influence, while the very reference to these conditions is actually tabooed. Persons are regarded as fully responsible for their failures, regardless from economic and political factors. "In case they fall ill, they have to blame themselves for a not sufficiently resolute pursuit of a healthy way of life. In case they get unemployed, they are to blame themselves for lack of communicativeness in an interview, for a weak motivation in seeking a job or even for elusion from this purpose. In case they are not convinced of their career success or nervous about their future, they are to blame themselves for lack of capability to gain influential connections or failure to develop a skill of impressing their bosses.

At least, that is what people are told, and they seem to believe that, judging upon their behavior, writes Baumann in his study entitled "The Individualized Society". Thus, risks and contradictions are generated in the society, while the responsibility is laid on the individual. The expanding gap between the right for self-actualization and the ability to influence social conditions that make this self-actualization attainable or unattainable, is viewed by this author as the central problem of today's society.

In order to get rid from the inferiority complex, an individual watches movies about successful persons that in effect, hurl him into a deeper despondency. He recognizes that one could spent the whole life in decent work but never attain a small deal of wealth that a lionne would squander in a day only due to her luck of having a wealthy grandfather. "Images of sweet life, personified by famous figures, generate new doubts and suffering", writes Giles Lipovetsky in "The Era of Void". "Encouraging individuals for excessively ambitious planning of their lives, the narcissist society exposes them for dishonor and contempt. The hedonistic society only imitates tolerance and leniency. In fact, alarm, diffidence, and dismay have never reached such an extent as today". The French philosopher concludes that narcissism of today's individualist is powered rather with hate than with love to the personal ego. According to Lipovetsky, the cult of famous persons "generates boundless self-humiliation", and "motivates an individual to imitate the idols' contempt to the masses, and at the same time, to countenance with the platitude of everyday life".

In Russian literature, these contemplations were expressed in the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. However, Raskolnikov's idol was Napoleon and not an attractive pop star Dmitry Bilan.

 

THE SECOND ECHELON: TEACHERS OF LIFE, AND UNIVERSAL EXPERTS

Beside the figures of the first magnitude like Hollywood actors, pop singers and movie stars, the world of "new idols" has got a specific "second echelon". It is personified by innumerous "teachers of life", gurus and experts in all issues. They are of a great demand, as in case an individual does not or cannot believe in his own ability to perform anything essential, he focuses himself on smaller or even meaningless priorities in which he thinks he can succeed. That is a real Klondike for pseudo-teachers.

"Not hoping to improve their life by means of some active effort, people concentrate on significance of consuming healthy food, developing skills of belly dance, Oriental medicine, and jogging", wrote Christopher Lash in his study "The Culture of Narcissism" published yet in 1979. In the beginning of the XXI century, Russians have an opportunity to experience this reality in their life, with strong assistance from mass media. Magazines and papers are filled with advice of what clothes to wear, what health resort to choose for vacation, and how to make one's sexual life more diverse. The abovementioned stars also use the service of gurus. The boundless belief in specialists in communications and kin ascends to the very top of the society. Five years ago, Daily Telegraph described the family life of British PM Tony Blair as follows: "These teachers of life, super-nuns, experts in appearance, cooks of fame, policemen of fashion, are everywhere. Tony and Sherry Blair rely upon advice of their guru Carol Caplin who selects rouge for Mrs. Blair and recommends Japanese massage to Mr. Blair.

The paper quotes the opinion of Frank Furedi, professor of the Royal College of Arts, who believes that the discredit of traditional authorities has not generated a less superstitious and more skeptical society: "Today, we have become slaves of psychotherapists and "go-getting" persons, and ask pop stars to advice us how to save Africa".

Frank Furedi also writes: "It is very sad to watch aged persons like myself who desperately wait till somebody tells them what kind of clothes to buy. Though the era of adoration of authorities is believed to come to an end, we are wholly subordinated to the power of unofficial authorities".

Rev. Giles Fraser, the vicar of Putney teaching philosophy in Oxford's Wadham College, also believes that the cult of famous persons "has gone too far": "We have become more superstitious than two hundred years ago. This is seen in our adoration of idols and feng-shui-ization of life. Spirituality has become an attribute of image". In his turn, Mike Bywater views the influence of gurus with their universal advice, reflecting the lack of ability of individuals to make decisions concerning their own life even in such prosaic spheres as choice of food and clothes, as a symptom of infantilization of personality. "Does an adult with his independence and self-esteem that everyone is now obsessed about, really need someone's advice on every issue? Why should he eat, wear, and purchase what he is told by some other persons and not what he chooses himself?"

While British authors have long recognized these dangerous symptoms, the Russian audience has not yet analyzed this reality. Having read the advice in a glossy magazine about the necessary appearance, including the style of clothes, vanity case, hairdo and even expression of the face required to enter a prestigious night club, people patiently queue at its doors to undergo the disgusting procedure of scrapping. In Russia, the personnel of expensive stores first examine the customer to evaluate his financial possibilities, and then choose the intonation of talk with the client. A colleague of mine, invited to a conference on the Hawaii, did not look like a billionaire. However, when he entered a clockmakers’, he was offered all kinds of watches, including most expensive models.

The conscience of Russians permanently undergoes treatment of "branding": he is explained what is prestigious and what isn't. A character of a paperback detective story not occasionally mentions in the text what beer he drinks, what jeans he wears, and what department store he is passing by. A young girl, entering a web forum focused on beauty and heath, would be explained by the forum’s reputable users which cream or powder to buy, and it will appear to be the most expensive.

The naive girl is unaware that these consultants are paid for their work by the producers, though she easily guesses that when a soccer player tells in an interview what brand of boot he wears, he shares his experience not just in order to help you with advice. Similar methods of indirect advertising are used in order to sell us not only goods or images but also the feeling of our liberty from the consumer society and the spirit of revolt against its dictate. This spirit has also become an item of trade.

(To be continued)


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