Thursday, March 26, 2009

Celebrity Role Models?

In his semi-regular column in Entertainment Weekly, Mark Harris recently wrote an essay on Rihanna. For those of you who haven't turned on a television, opened a newspaper, or turned on a radio recently, she is the pop star who was (allegedly) severely beaten by her pop star boyfriend. What has been making the news most recently, though, is that following this event, she appears to have reconciled with her boyfriend.

Many in the media are up in arms about this, noting what a horrible message it sends to young women. They are correct. It is a horrible message to send and one that may reinforce unhealthy behaviors in abusive relationships. But there is also a deeper, if somewhat tangential, issue at play here that Mark Harris identifies. Essentially the question he raises is: why do we automatically assume that Rihanna is or should be a role model for young women in the first place?

This is a vital question for anyone interested in the intersection of media and culture. From where do we get the idea that simply because a person (whether actor, singer, or athlete) is known by a lot of people, that he or she should consequently be a role model? Is it because they live in nice houses and make a lot of money so we conclude they owe us something back? Is it an extension of the Peter Parker Syndrome -- that with great power comes great responsibility? Perhaps, if we understand fame as a kind of power, then we can conclude that someone who possesses fame should use that power to edify society rather than degrade it?

Be that as it may, it still does not answer the question of why we in the general public make the choice to view celebrities as role models to be imitated. It can't be simply because we see them on a regular basis (on film, televison, in magazines, etc) because there are plenty of people in my daily life that I see on a regular basis that I would never consider treating as a role model for my life. It can't be simply because we admire their skill at their craft. I greatly admire the musical talent of Elvis Presley, but I don't want to imitate his lifestyle. And yet we tend to assume that skill in one area somehow translates into virtue in all areas. Just because a person plays a mean guitar or can pretend to be someone else really well is a silly reason for thinking our children should look to them for guidance in life.

Mark Harris writes, "If we really think that being famous now automatically qualifies you as someone whose example should be imitated and followed by young people, then that can only mean we now believe fame in itself represents a form of moral superiority." If that is the case, then God help us all. Maybe instead of attacking celebrities for not living up to the moral standards we set for them, we should look at ourselves and ask why we need them to be a paragon of virtue in the first place.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Dollhouse 1.6 "Man on the Street"

Episode 6 of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse has been labeled a "game-changer" in the media. I have now watched it and would wholeheartedly agree with that assessment. The episode reminded me of the last episode of season one of Alias (although the game-changing does not go to quite that extreme a level). The episode was written by Whedon and characteristically contains some sit-up-and-take-notice moments. Revelations concerning the inner workings of the Dollhouse, Agent Ballard's neighbor, and the larger agenda of the Dollhouse all stand out. Throw in some well-shot fight scenes utilizing Tahmoh Penikett's Muay Thai martial arts background (an art that lends itself well to televised fight scenes) and you have the complete package. If you watched a few of the earlier episodes and gave it up, now is the time to get back on board (you can catch last night's episode on-line in several places). As for me, any ambivalence I may have harbored during the first few episodes is now gone.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


I caught Watchmen this past weekend and was rather intrigued by it. I had read the graphic novel over this past summer as part of a research project I was doing on the influence of the Book of Revelation on comic books (the article from that should be published in a book on apocalyptic and comics sometime next year). What intrigued me about Watchmen was the same thing that many critics have taken it to task over: the faithfulness of the adaptation. Watchmen is easily the most faithful adaptation I have seen of any novel, graphic or otherwise. With the exception of a slight tweaking of the ending, the film is virtually a shot for shot remake of the graphic novel. For me, this actually worked in the film's favor. I am one of the apparently few individuals who was underwhelmed by the artwork of the graphic novel. On screen, however, the visual imagery comes to life in a way that adds an extra punch to the experience. Unlike typical novels, graphic novels lend themselves well to this kind of rigidly faithful adaptation because the graphic novel is already a visual story and so the jump from there to film is much shorter than it is when having to translate words alone into images. 

The other highlight of the film was Rorshach. Jackie Earle Haley does a great job of making you root for and loathe his character at the same time.

Monday, March 09, 2009


I have made no secret of the fact that I am a fan of Joss Whedon's work. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is my all-time favorite television series, with Angel not far behind. Firefly never resonated with me in the same way, though I still enjoyed watching it. So I began watching Whedon's newest series, Dollhouse (airing Fridays at 9:00 on Fox), with great anticipation. I have now seen four episodes and based on those, I would describe Dollhouse as a show that is currently good (though uneven), but with the potential to be great. Classic Whedon themes are all there: girl power, the creation of identity, the quest for redemption, the nature and responsibility of power, and ruminations on the meaning of existence. What is notably lacking is the trademark wit and clever dialogue we've come to expect from a Joss Whedon production.

Dollhouse is the kind of show that will have a difficult time in today's media environment. It is a slow starter. The initial episodes have focused too much on stand-alone stories with not enough emphasis on the overarching narrative that carries the series. It is that overarching narrative that creates the potential for this show to transcend "story of the week" mediocrity. I liken this show to a roller coaster. Right now it is on that first leg where you make the slow and steady journey upwards. But as it approaches the top, I expect that we are merely a few episodes away from it really taking off.