Americans have a mixed relationship with celebrities. In some ways, they are our icons, our saints, a replacement for religious worship in a time of increasing secularism. In other ways, they are our devils. Miley Cyrus urinating in the streets, Kardashians videotaping their antics under the sheets.
Celebrities have usually been constructs, their public personas at odds with their private eccentricities and foibles. Marketers and media talking heads craft their images, setting them up as icons against a backdrop of quasi-religious mockery. Beyonce is fawned over by her attendants as some kind of goddess.
But once upon a time, celebrity fame was at least tied to something real. Elvis could sing. Elizabeth Taylor could act. Cindy Crawford was beautiful. Talent and hard work were prerequisites to success. By many accounts, Michael Jackson’s family were slave drivers, pushing him, prodding him. Many celebrities likely have similar stories.
The formula was talent + hard work + luck. You needed that last little bit. Some talent scout in that dive bar you were singing in, perhaps. Or a friend of the family who knew someone in Hollywood. You needed that break. But only those who had the gifts and put in the work could take advantage of that break when it came.
The Kardashians proved that talent wasn’t really needed anymore, and it was questionable how much “hard” work they really did. The Kardashians were among the first to be famous for being famous. They were the chicken and the egg rolled into one sexually-charged, quasi-pornographic package made for mass pop culture consumption.
But even if we cannot resolve the Kardashian paradox easily, there was something there. Some preexisting OJ Simpson-derived fame. Some kind of bizarre facsimile of “work” at maintaining their circular fame. They were somehow anointed by the media and by popular culture, but something was still brought to that table, even if weak and ephemeral.
Greta Thunberg and David Hogg represent a new breed of celebrity, a wholly-fictional creation of marketers and journalists: the anointed activist. In David’s case, we may say that at least he was there when the shooting took place that supposedly drove him to activism.
Greta further lowers the bar.
She merely recites talking points delivered by others of similar political mind. She is a kid at the spelling bee, rattling off her letters. Her winnings? A Nobel prize nomination, for one. A great mural put up to honor her, for another. What has she done? What new thing has she created? Where did she come from?
In popular culture, we may create icons out of wholly fictional cloth. Or we may cancel those who actually did something over a mean high school tweet. Cancel culture allows those same marketers and journalists to cancel the fame of anyone they do not like. Although, at least for the nonce, journalists can likewise be cancelled.
They giveth. They taketh away. If we’re lucky, they get taken away too.
All of this is artificial. The Right and the Left argue over the statements Greta spews over the airwaves. But it’s rather like arguing whether or not you like the cut of the emperor’s clothes.
Who will say that the emperor has no clothes?
Like the Kardashians, when you strip away the pop culture iconography, when you wash away the anointment oils of the media, there is nothing left. The product is the packaging. There is nothing here. The emperor has no clothes.
Zoe Quinn, a “game developer” who created what is, in essence, a barely-formatted word document for all of its “complexity” cheated on her boyfriend with five guys. When her boyfriend later wrote a screed about how bad this was, and what she did, this triggered a chain of events that had Zoe Quinn, fake game developer, being granted an audience at the United Nations.
For what? A domestic dispute in which she was the abuser? Not only is talent or hard work no longer a prerequisite, there appear to be no meritocratic standards at all.
Journalists and marketers reserve for themselves – or at least try to – the ability to manufacture fame, or to cancel it, for any reason whatsoever. It is trivially easy to cancel anybody. Ever said something hasty on the Internet? They will find it. Ever made an insensitive joke? They will find out. If you pass that test – somehow – then surely something can be taken out of context. Scrub a word here, cut off the beginning there, and you have a racist quotation. Unless you’re Mike Pence, have you ever been alone with a woman who wasn’t your wife? You could be a rapist, Mr. Kavanaugh! It doesn’t have to be true. It doesn’t have to be substantiated. It could be some typical childish stupidity from a high school kid. It could be nothing at all.
Whatever. It will become gospel, and it will be terrible, and you will be cancelled from polite society. Even if you retain your great station, half the country (or more) will hate you forever. That might even be true for Greta, save that the halves would be reversed.
But it’s all nothing.
The emperor has no clothes.
But journalists will tell you how beautiful the clothes are. They will paint your murals on the walls, sing your praises at all the townhalls. You will be the mascot, you’ll get your book deals. Until you’re cancelled for some idiot’s bad feels.
It’s all fake, and everybody knows. There’s politics at stake, even if the emperor has no clothes.