Monday, February 19, 2007

Eve of Self-destruction - The February 14, 2007 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer informed its readers that cable news coverage of the death of Anna Nicole Smith exceeded that of the Iraq War. According to numbers released by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, discussion of Smith's death accounted for 37 percent of the conversation on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel during the two days following her demise, edging out the Iraq War (14 percent) and the race for the White House (9 percent). Even more distressing is the fact that on the day of her death, according to the Inquirer, Smith consumed 50 percent of the coverage.

All of this is sad enough in and of itself. What is more disturbing is the cultural phenomenon that this misapplication of media attention speaks to. Given her meager idiosyncratic talents, that Anna Nicole received as much attention as she did in life - let alone in death - says much about the evolution of American culture over the last few decades, particularly the impact of modern feminism. As discussed elsewhere, second-wave feminism left young women with essentially two choices: namely capitulation to social mores that propose that women are to be valued solely for their physical perfection (i.e.: their pulchritude and fertility) and to a somewhat lesser extent their material success, or consignment to a purgatory of cultural oblivion.

This is consistent with the fact that early on in feminism’s second wave, there developed a strangely schizoid fracturing between those "men haters" who wanted to have little to do with the male gender and the "men enviers" who wanted nothing more than to be exactly like men in every way. For any number of reasons, the "men enviers" carried the day and continue their ascendancy; in the main, second-wave feminism has fortified itself around the precept of establishing equality between the sexes in every area, to include sexual behavior.

We know that over the last few decades, feminists have worked to redefine gender roles in American society, especially those pertaining to sexuality. My sense is that as a result, we have learned to frame the behavior of women in the context of feminist narratives. By proposing that men and women are fundamentally the same, save for how they are socialized, feminism created the conditions that allowed for the negation of women's essential nature. As young women are expected to fully incorporate masculine and feminine tendencies (while young men are not held accountable for much at all as it pertains to adult responsibilities), femininity as it is classically understood has been demeaned. The paradox is that feminists have done so with results not unlike those achieved under the Taliban in Afghanistan, with the only difference being the means; the Taliban nullified women by creating a second-class status for them, whereas feminism established a nether-gender for women, rendering them biologically female but sociologically masculine.

Both capitulation and cultural oblivion represent two forms of the same type of forced self-negation - a purposeful diminution of the female whole for the sake of a vague shadow of femaleness. But in the case of Anna Nicole (along with Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton and Brittney Spears), an extreme form of capitulation presents itself. Indeed, the avatars of the new standard for young women seem to be most susceptible to the (il)logical end of society's current obsession with a faux femininity. The self-destructive behavior evidenced by Anna Nicole, et. al., is little more than a form of slow-motion suicide; it is as if these young ladies suffer from W.E.B. du Bois' "double consciousness" such that their psyches can barely keep from being torn asunder.

Of course, cable news' current obsession with female self-destruction reveals much about the essential nature of the media. In its pursuit of convenient, easily assimilated "news" the M.A.C.'s behavior told us everything we needed to hear about its power as an anti-civilizing force. To be sure, the media serve to subdivide our society and atomize our common culture. By positioning the Brittney-Lindsay-Anna Nicole nexus as more newsworthy than the common threat posed by al-Qaeda and its confederates in Iraq bespeaks the M.A.C.'s own sense that the personal trumps the political.

By multiple means and on various occasions, the M.A.C. has shown itself to be sexist, in as much as it reinforces the idea that a woman’s ultimate value is in sexually titillating and gratifying men. In a fashion resembling its treatment of minorities, the M.A.C. judges the worth of females by qualities other than their talents. As discussed elsewhere, the media are not above sending forth their "best and brightest" women for the sole purpose of garnering male attention, particularly that of the coveted 18-35 male demographic.

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