Celebrity - Marina Hyde

Harville Secker, 2009, 238pp, SB

Bite Size : Acerbic argument that the power of celebrity has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished.

In this book Marina Hyde takes a one-woman stand against the cult of celebrity. As Hyde presents it though, "cult" is the right word in only half the sense. The orgy of self delusion, self-obsession, and sheer idiocy on the part of both the celebrities on display, and the supine media which panders to them, is indeed redolent of the activities depravity of a David Koresh / Jim Jones style sect. On the other hand, the sheer malign power and distorting effect on public discourse Hyde ascribes to the celebrities puts them more in the role of a world-straddling religion, with clergy and theology to boot. And boot very hard.

The key message of Hyde's book is simple -celebrities have a huge and ever-increasing tendency to hold forth on topics upon which they are profoundly ignorant, they are taken too seriously, and they are listened to far too much and often. This is not, according to Hyde, a mere irritation, but an influence profoundly destructive on the world at large.

There is no shortage of venality, ignorance and sheer ridiculousness on display from the great and good here (and in the main it is the upper echelons of Hollywood and the pop world being skewered rather than the low-rent Big Brother wannabes.) Driven by the hypertrophied arrogance of those who know they will be listened to no matter what shite they come out with, a grotesque legion of the fatuous famous march forth. Tom Cruise and Madonna act as the respective cheerleaders for Scientology and Kabbalah, creepy cults for the credulous described by Hyde as blending "McWisdom and Pyramid schemes." Charlie Sheen declares 9-11 an inside job, while Bruce Willis offers a million dollar reward for the soldier who captures Saddam Hussein......only to withdraw it as soon as the deposed dictator was actually caught. Sylvester Stallone opines his finely judged analysis on human rights abuses in Burma to promote the nuanced discourses of the new Rambo film, Jude Law and Geri Haliwell stage eerily vacuous and ill-judged press conferences in the Middle East, while Sharon Stone seeks to solve the Israel/Palestine conflict by sheer force of embarrassing sexual innuendo alone.

The book is frequently very funny. The style veers between sweetly vicious sarcasm to..........more playful sarcasm, with the odd note of sincerity targeted at the worst excesses on display. It is split into separate sections - religion, science, parenthood, the War on Terror...and pets. It shifts from the broader humour to be had from the straightforwardly absurd (ie. the merchandising range of rock band Kiss stretching to their own brand of coffins, the thuggery of Naomi Campbell, the bigotry of Mel Gibson, and the risible excuses each gives for each), to what she sees as the more sinister aspects of their forays into the public realm. Again, examples are not lacking. Madonna and Gucci hijacking a UN Malawi charity in what amounts to a shameless brand-promotion exercise and a striking abuse of US funding. The crackpot theorising of everyone from Tom Cruise through Gwynneth Paltrow to Demi Moore promoting all manner of pseudo-scientific "cures for cancer" which undoubtedly muddy the waters of public perception and information in literal matters of life and death. The sinister circus surrounding Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's decision for the latter to give birth in Namibia is especially disturbing. In doing so they and their "people" effectively commandeered an entire nation state. It's government crawled before their every whim, up to and including enforcing a no-fly zone over the entire country, and authorising the police of the state to rough up anyone who dared intrude on the special occasion. That this sets a precedent for further "states of emergency" is self evident, and self evidently abhorrent.

Marina Hyde's critique is broadly correct, and after reading the rampant absurdities of Cruise and co it would be a brave or foolish person to defend them. In choosing the most extreme examples however, she overlooks a degree of context as to why celebrities have been given such platforms as they have in first place. Since before the McCarthy days, American movie actors had a tradition of political activism far more pronounced than on this side of the pond. It was an activism usually allied to the Left - one reason why Senator Joe targeted them so avidly. Hyde would no doubt counter that the traditions of Bogart, Arthur Miller and Monroe have been hopelessly corrupted by the modern day dunces who stand in their place. But if that is so, she would have been better placed saying so rather than implying that film stars are universally ignorant and no celebrity has ever said anything worthwhile. Undoubtedly, what actors say and think is given too much credence today. But in concentrating on the buffoonery of Charlie Sheen and the gang, while not even mentioning the more measured campaigning of, for instance, George Clooney or Sean Penn - Hyde is setting up, if not a straw man, then at least one with sizeable tufts of hay sticking out of his orifices.

Elsewhere, the book has a strange change of tone in a chapter on the malignancy of celebrity magazines like Heat, particularly in their malevolent hounding of damaged individuals like Britney Spears. Again, points are made well, but for celebrities to suddenly shift from villains to victims at this point jars somewhat. Hyde would counter that this is a symbiotic relationship with both sides as bad as the other. But then more people depend on this industry than is made apparent - not least Hyde herself. She makes her living penning vicious spoof pen portraits for the Guardian. One victim, Elton John, unsuccessfully tried to sue Hyde for one last year. Hyde's one time boyfriend Piers Morgan (fact fans!) earned his mouldy crust as a tabloid editor ordering his hacks to search celeb bins. Hyde's trashing may be funnier, but is it that far morally removed? One more instance where the black and white imagery of slimy-stupid celebrities against the world does not, however amusingly drawn, quite hold true.

Any cop?

Often funny, frequently insightful, this is an enjoyably nasty skewering of a bloated, parasitical celebrity media culture. It is not however quite as rounded a critique as it could have been.

[First published on bookmunch, 2009] Back