Culture Industry


Celebrity, Pregnancy and Sexuality

 

As I woke up this morning I turned the radio on and I found myself listening to a discussion on the BBC London Radio, with the appetising title of “Yummy Mummy Tummy”.  Instinctively, my attention was drawn to it…I was curious of understanding the whole point of it. Was it going to be a shallow discussion on food and mums, or would it be focusing on the ‘yummy’ sexuality of motherhood? Could the BBC be actually broadcasting something with such a poor content? Indeed, no.

 

Drying my hair, I followed carefully the discussion. It turned out that it had been stirred by the appearance on page 12 of today’s Sun of a very pregnant and very naked Christina Aguilera. Apparently (I haven’t seen the picture myself!), the ‘dirrrty’ singer was not just exposing pregnancy and nudity, but insinuating a rather sexual message with a Marilyn Monroe hair-style, high heel stilettos, heavy make-up and slightly tilted head.

 

What was the purpose of the photo? Precisely, what reaction did it want to instigate?

Putting on my make-up, I decided that the points made by the phone-callers on the radio were very varied and interesting. Generally, men didn’t seem to have any problem with such an exposure (no wonder!): if a woman is beautiful, and she is pregnant, then what is there to hide from the public? Women were divided: some were horrified by such a utilitarian disclosure of this extremely important private moment of a woman’s life. A mother said: will you ever find an ordinary pregnant woman wearing high heels and looking so perfect (If we define perfection as the result after hours of make-up sessions and professional photographers using some kind of photo-editing programme)? She went on affirming that a pregnant woman generally stays at home reading books on motherhood, finds it tiring to walk – let alone with high heels! –and conducts a healthy life-style, with the view of planning her new future which will revolve around a new creature other than herself. Other women proclaimed that Christina was in such a way stating as a feminist that pregnancy is a moment of internal and external beauty, when a woman realises herself fully.

 

However, most considered that the photo was more about Christina, as a celebrity, rather than about pregnancy and women. This was the main point which captured my attention and encouraged me to write.

Why? The strong meaning of pregnancy can be historically identified by finding it as a recurring very strong symbol unifying all faiths due to its connection with concepts such as fertility, creation, life, nature, instinct, evolution. How do these high values of human-kind be possibly expressed by a sexually appealing singer who is exposing her own fertile body? Someone commented that the message would have been different had she posed in a poppy-field, with no make-up and an overall attempt to show the link between woman-pregnancy and nature.

 

At the stage of folding my clean laundry, I started to think that all this was going totally in the wrong direction! Christina didn’t probably even contemplate such a complex discussion arising from her public exposure. After all, she is a celebrity and she is used to paparazzi-style attention on her, ready to judge her life and her behaviours. Christina, like all celebrities, lives and dies (metaphorically?) together with the attention that the public gives to her. The peculiarity of this mixed message creates exactly that attention that celebrities crave for. Madonna is the best example of a celebrity who always went for the ‘unexpected’, because she very well understood that the public’s attention comes when it is surprised with something it was not prepared for, which goes beyond the ordinary schemes of the ‘acceptable’ and clearly does not represent the ‘right thing to do’.  Why do people always fall for these provocations? No matter what each one of us believes of Christina Aguilera and her ‘naked pregnancy’, this discussion goes beyond this particular picture.

 

This picture is really not about her, but about us, the ‘ordinary people’.

We are all getting confused about the distinction between reality and fiction. This is why gossiping is so popular and successful. We are drawn to believe that the magazine’s issue on some VIP is giving us a special insight on that person’s life. We think that we are powerful, because, from the top of our throne, we are totally clear about our judgments and we are capable of objectively deciding if these people are leading their life in the right way or not. As a consequence, we feel better because we know that, no matter how everyone around us might be judging us, we are not in their position. On the other hand, whenever we discover that a celebrity is doing what we are, be it ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, or simply by dressing the same way, we feel gratified, because we see that what we do is ‘cool’.


Reading the Law & Social Theory module, I see how well contemporary philosophy (Adorno, Horkheimer and Habermas) explains the dynamics of the ‘modern culture industry’. The relationship between the private and the public sphere is vitiated by illusion. How?

The public believes that it is criticising the system, exactly as the BBC London programme was raising a discussion fundamentally aimed at criticising the media coverage of celebrities. The public of the ‘culture industry’ believes that it is critically analysing what the media are presenting to us. We get to the philosophical problem of the ‘happy slave’. How can I tell a slave about his condition and thus encourage him to free himself, if he is happy about it? You might wonder, how can he be happy for his lack of freedom? He is happy because he does not know other than his own condition, and he does not know the other possibilities. It is exactly the same when the public is relating to the ‘culture industry’. We are tricked to believe that it is helping us to understand the system, be critical and active actors within it, while in reality all is happening is that we are being immunised against the system itself.

So the issue of media coverage of celebrities’ lives is really something which is up to us to block out, be it because we feel pity for some of them (see Britney Spears) or because we are disturbed by their attention-seeking attitude (see Amy Winehouse) or for any other reason. All the criticism around this will always miss the main point: the distinction between reality and fiction that, if forgotten, leads us to be the only ones really falling into the paparazzi’s net.



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