Joe Evans discusses the British public’s obsession with the falls, both metaphorical and literal, of celebrities and public figures in their five minutes of fame
Very recently the nation witnessed an accident. The rise in injury lawyers has made suffering an accident like the one I’m talking about a hugely profitable business.
With that in mind, the 56-year-old victim must have been delighted by the 4.6 million witnesses. The payout for falling backwards down three steps would no doubt cover a trip to the Balearic Islands, or a nice new car. The problem, however, is that the victim, as we all know already, is Madonna, and she is very, very famous.
You see, when a normal woman in her mid-50s falls over in the street, people help her up, in my experience. In the case of Madonna’s dive though, the overwhelming response of the country, myself admittedly included, was to howl with laughter. We condone our laughter with the knowledge that her famous bones, cast in gold, cannot break and her private medical care will cover the cost of any injury.
It doesn’t matter that it’s an actual woman on the stage, because as far as we are concerned, it may as well have not even been a real human.
What her fall evidenced to me, after I had composed myself, was that we love a celebrity to fall from grace so much that it overrides any sense of human decency.
This says a lot more about us than the famous. We want our celebrities to fulfil two incompatible roles in our lives; we apparently want role models who never break character, but also dehumanised actors in a 24/7 human zoo. So if any A to C listers happen to pick up this edition, something like that would be perfect.
A perfect example of this can be seen in this week’s edition, or any edition, of The Daily Mail. The headline, ‘David Walliams looks forlorn as he is pictured for the first time leaving his London home following ‘split from model wife Lara Stone”, personifies all that I have just said. Ramming a camera into the face of a recently estranged man is absolutely fine; it’s all just good entertainment.
My flippant use of ‘man’ there illustrates my point. David Walliams is not a man as far as we care, he is a specimen to be investigated. If we recognized him as a human being we wouldn’t need to be told that he ‘looks forlorn’. Of course he does. He might well be heartbroken. It’s as if the nation needs reminding that he is sad because they’re waiting for him to deliver a classic catchphrase.
It is easy to attribute this to The Daily Mail in isolation. It is true that it is a newspaper that thrives on the dehumanisation of the famous. However, it also sells in its millions and that is because the Great British public can overlook their morals in favour of catharsis like this. The truth is that the bigger they come, the harder they fall, and we just love tuning in to watch.
Catharsis is exactly what it seems to be. It is as if we have been sold a lifestyle we can’t be a part of. Excluded from the realm of the rich and famous we sit back comfortable and wait. We bide our time. Then, when they make a mistake, we pounce, pursue, and dissect every square inch of their lives.
We’ve had to invent new platforms to fulfil our ravenous appetite for embarrassment and weakness. Britain’s Got Talent, The X Factor, in fact all ‘get famous quick’ programmes, are a conveyer belt of faceless people to shred to pieces. We now devour celebrities so quickly that we have turned inwards, to the non-famous seeking entry to the club, in order to boost our supplies of subjects. We reel out the bewildered, and we don’t need to know their backstory, just like we don’t need David Walliams’.
Perhaps the bigger they come, the harder they fall just isn’t true. If they are big names that we are exploiting, that is all the better, but if not then everybody is becoming fair game.
Perhaps one aspect of solace for those that we ridicule however is that we have a two minute memory. Like a goldfish eternally surprised by its fishbowl, we lap up public humiliation and spit it out before moving onto the next unsuspecting victim. What one day is a front-page scandal is, in truth, lining litter trays the next.
Remember when Prince Harry dressed as a Nazi, or Sir David Attenborough called the Queen a fascist tax dodger? Me neither. The first is long forgotten and the second never happened. The difficulty distinguishing between what is a scandal of national importance one day and what is fictitious nonsense illustrates the danger of investing in scandal. Similarly what at one point was an issue billed to destabilise the monarchy’s public approval, is confined to being a dinner party reference nobody remembers or laughs at.
It works both ways. Michael Sheen is currently being lauded for a viral video depicting his impassioned speech on the NHS. For a week he will be a hero of the left. After that, unless he cultivates this moment, he will once again be an actor like any other.
Whether it is positive or negative press, our obsession with celebrities runs deep within us, but is wholly superficial. It is like the fast food of entertainment. Quick, disposable, and deeply damaging to both us and them. Us and Them is a binary that serves to dehumanise people who are in fact pursued non-stop and to exhaustive lengths in order to fulfil our demand for stories. The effect on us is to forget both ourselves and our morals more and more.
We like to think we are all just indulging ourselves a bit. That sound benign. A glance to the internet following Madonna’s fall, a look at the vitriolic laughter, however, says different.