Saturday, October 22, 2011

Falling Star

There's nothing I hate more than stupid/sensationalistic Yahoo News headlines.  There was one earlier this week with a headline that said something to the effect of "Stars Who Have Children While They're Young."  Underneath it was a photo of, of all people, Bristol Palin.  I immediately disregarded the subject matter of the article itself and thought to myself "Why the Hell is she considered a star?"

I realized how the definition of "star" seems to have become cheapened in recent years.  Used to be, the term applied to people who had reached the highest pinnacle of success in their careers, most notably movie or TV actors, or music performers, or professional and Olympic athletes.  Now it seems to apply to anyone who is notorious to the public, whether it's for appearing on reality shows, or through some sort of public scandal.  There have always been notorious famous people throughout history.  But, in the past, they were reserved for the pages of the sleaziest tabloids, not for the mainstream press.  These days, people like Bristol Palin or the Kardashians or that couple who crashed the White House party are profiled and legitimized by regular newspapers and magazines.  These are the sorts of "celebrities" who appear on shows like "Dancing with the Stars."

Decades ago, in the 1970s and 1980s, we had "Battle of the Network Stars," a series of TV specials where the actors from then-current TV shows representing all three networks faced off against each other in athletic competition.  But in the case of "Battle of the Network Stars," we watched people who were truly the top stars of television back then, not the "never weres" that we are subjected to now.  What's sad is that mainstream publications will devote paragraphs and pages upon people who haven't really done anything legitimate to earn our attention, while more deserving figures are ignored.

A couple of days ago, I was in a barber shop getting a haircut and I was flipping through Entertainment Weekly.  A letter to the editor was featured in the issue I was reading, chastising them for giving short shrift to the recent passing of Cliff Robertson, who won the Best Actor Oscar for "Charly" (1968).  Entertainment Weekly had mentioned Robertson's death in just two sentences, while they shamelessly devoted pages to people that no one will remember or care about 10 years from now.  It used to be that the term "starlet" was a denigrating term reserved for actresses who toiled in "B" movies or had generally second-rate careers.  But nowadays, "starlet" (if we apply that definition) sounds much better than "star" because at least the "B" actress has a career in movies or TV she can hang her hat on to explain why she might be well known to people. 

I don't know who is to blame here--the press or the public for paying just enough attention to these people to make the press think that the public wants to read about them.  I know I don't pay attention to them except when I casually spot their names on magazine covers at the barber shop or supermarket checkout counter and wonder "Who are they?!"  I know many people who are also sick of them and would prefer to read about people who have earned our interest.

What I also despise is how "reductionist" the press has become in describing the importance of particular people to the public.  Whenever I read obituaries of accomplished people, obituary writers seem to feel they have to appeal to the lowest common denominator by making an arcane reference to a minor footnote in their lives that the general public might remember them for, or draw a weak analogy to something current or hip because they expect the public wouldn't otherwise be able to relate to them, as opposed to highlighting their truly important accomplishments.

Take Lois Nettleton, for instance.  She was a talented actress who had numerous credits in film, television and theatre.  She had won 2 Emmys and was nominated for a Tony.  And what did most of her obituaries mention?  A "Seinfeld" episode where she caught George eating an eclair from a trash can.  I'm not dissing "Seinfeld" at all, just the fact that the obituary writers felt that they had to reference something as throw-away (no pun intended) as that in Nettleton's career in order to make the general public take interest in her.  It makes as much sense, for example, as having my retail job at JC Penny's during summer vacation from college turn out to be the thing I'm best remembered for when I pass away someday.

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