February 26, 2009

Understanding Celebrity News with Robert Frost

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“…I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;

And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again…”

“Mending Wall” by Robert Frost

What does Robert Frost have to do with Joaquin Phoenix? Precious little at first glance. And yet he may have everything to do with explaining, in part, our obsession with celebrities.

Why do so many of us Americans find celebrities fascinating enough to read and talk about? I believe that when future anthropologists study today’s popular culture, they will find the obsession with the lives of actors, musicians, politicians, and other famous figures to be a complex phenomenon.

One idea is that studying their lives gives people a form of escapism from more sobering global news. This past Wednesday, for instance, the top news stories for the US according to Google News included a Turkish plane crash, an article on the recession, and threats to reconstruction efforts in Iraq. In the midst of this heavy news was an article about the Obama girls getting a water dog.

Another thought is that the often-negative celebrity gossip provides a way for us to feel better about ourselves. We look at stories like Chris Brown’s alleged brutality towards Rihanna or Joaquin Phoenix’s bizarre appearance on the Letterman show, and we’re shocked. Not only because their behavior seems inexplicable, but also partly because, of course, we think we’d never do what they did if we were in their shoes.

However, this would not explain public interest in with less scandalous, more trivial news stories about celebrities, such as who’s been photographed hanging out with whom and who’s going on vacation where. And so there are other ideas. Perhaps celebrity news is popular because it gives Americans of different occupations, ethnicities, etc. something common to talk about. Perhaps in studying particular celebrities, we are able to network and form connections with other people that also share our fandom. Or maybe we’re interested by what it would be like to be rich and/or famous ourselves.

I suspect all of these theories are true to some extent. But I would propose one more idea:

Our obsession with celebrities, I suspect, is partially an outgrowth of a desire to get to know other people.

And now we come back to Frost and his “Mending Wall”, about a man and his neighbor who have a stone wall that separates their two properties. Once a year they meet to fix the wall by restacking rocks that have fallen. The poet tells his neighbor that there is little reason for them to have a fence between their properties. His neighbor repeats an adage his father taught him, “Good fences make good neighbors.” The poet thinks of asking his neighbor why he believes it to be true. “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was like to give offence.” Ironically, the poet remains quiet and continue to repair the stone wall between them.

It’s this strange paradox that Frost’s “Mending Wall” gets at: We want to know the people we interact with (neighbors, co-workers, etc.), and yet we give often keep them at a distance from us out of fear. We’re made for community, and yet we don’t connect.

Perhaps it’s easier to learn about celebrities than our neighbors because, comparatively, it’s low-risk. Celebrities are distant from us. We can learn their biographies, likes, dislikes, etc. passively by reading and watching news, instead of moving past the fears of starting a conversation with someone we may see on a daily basis and having it fall flat. In studying celebrities, we may be attempting to do that which we are meant to do and yet find so hard to do with each other: learn the details of each others lives.