Sensationalism, shame and the cult of celebrity
The reason why scandals generate such intense audience interest is because of their ambivalent symbolic form. That is to say, they allow for the expression of transgressive impulses as well as a reassertion of normative ideals in a ritual process that occurs over time. In this respect they can be compared to the traditional popular festivities of carnival, in which a temporary burst of sexual licentiousness and inversion of the social hierarchy is followed by a reinstatement of disciplinary social norms in the mock trial of the figure of Carnival that draws it to a close (Bakhtin 1984). The political effects are unpredictable. The communal effects of the public expression of transgressive behaviour can, in some historical circumstances, produce a longer-term change in the normative social order. More often, it simply allows for some temporary psychological relief from everyday disciplines. The aesthetic forms deployed, and modes of participation invited by scandal, enable these psychological pleasures. In particular, I want to look in this section at how the structure of sensationalism allows for the expression of fantasy and the displacement of personal shame on to celebrity transgressors, and, in the next section, at how melodrama, joking and parody are used in the telling of these stories. What becomes clear is the ambivalent politics of these pleasures.
All forms of scandal depend on ‘the closet’, although it is a term more closely associated with the legal restrictions put on the public expression of homosexuality. ‘The unveiling of sexual identities and practices is intrinsic to the scandal genre whether the subjects are heterosexual or homosexual’ (Epstein and Johnson 1998: 88). Although ‘coming out’ of the closet was encouraged by the gay liberation movement, and coming out stories are now an established narrative genre in both fictional and documentary forms (Plummer 1995), the use of the media for involuntary ‘outing’ was a surprising development in radical politics in the 1990s and the product of a more confrontational ‘queer’ politics. It has been used in the UK, for example, by the gay activist organization Outrage! and its leading figure Peter Tatchell. As a radical politics it was justified by the argument that citizenship rights for gays and lesbians are promoted by their visibility, their presence in the public sphere. It challenged the liberal approach that tolerates, and legalizes, homosexual behaviour only if it is kept private and invisible. While ‘outing’ had previously been a hostile tactic used by the tabloid media to generate a scandal whose effects would punish people involved in ‘deviant’ sexual behaviour, as used by Outrage! the intention was to force prominent people into the open about their sexuality so that the closet, and the hypocrisy it sustained, was no longer an option (Epstein and Johnson 1998: 88-9).
‘Outing’ and ‘coming out’ have a different relation to the psychology and politics of shame. ‘Coming out’ is an attempt to redefine the significance attached to a stigmatized sexual identity by a self-declaration: ‘I am not ashamed of my sexuality and therefore have no reason to hide it.’ It is a defiant act in which the intent is to convert the shame attached to an identity to something that can be owned with pride through a performative act of naming. ‘Outing’, on the other hand, is a coercive act that could be argued to intensify shame, in that the person named is forced into a public humiliation where the real scandal is their hypocrisy. Where ‘coming out’ has been the province of television talk shows and drama, where the narrative is told from the point of view of the person involved, ‘outing’ is an exclamatory form, the stuff of newspaper headlines and live television interviews, where the exposure is brief but dramatic.
Scandals often feature powerful men in the public arena, whether in the world of politics or entertainment, having heterosexual relationships outside their marriages. In a minority of cases, the sex is seen as abnormal, involving such ‘perversions’ as homosexuality, prostitution, group sex, auto-eroticism or (most stigmatized of all) paedophilia. The key factor is that they reveal sexual behaviour that carries a moral stigma even if the particular activity involved is not illegal. The telling of these stories is ‘sensationalist’ to the extent that they seek to have an impact on the senses and to provoke an emotional response. In sexual terms this means they may have the potential to excite the viewer sexually. However, the moral discourse in which they are framed means that the behaviour that provokes this reaction is simultaneously condemned. The condemnation allows for the ‘return of the repressed’; that is, all those potentially pleasurable aspects of sexual experience that are excluded from the sexual codes of a traditionalist, and patriarchal, moral discourse. The norm is heterosexual monogamy in a sexual union designed for the reproduction and care of children rather than for sensual pleasure per se. These reports therefore allow for the vicarious enjoyment of the thrill and excitement of doing something ‘bad’ in a structure that, in Freudian terms, placates the internalized prohibitions of the superego (Epstein and Johnson 1998).
It is similar to the double structure Freud found in smutty jokes, where the structure of the joke licenses the temporary evasion of the superego and the pleasure of indulging in transgressive sexual wishes (Freud 1991). In both cases, as well as imaginatively enjoying an image of sexual transgression, the teller and the listener are positioned as superior, while the victim of the scandal or the butt of the joke are subjected to humiliation and shame. It is a psychologically and culturally sanctioned technique, known as ‘projection’, in which bad parts of the self are disavowed and positioned in the world beyond the self, where they can be condemned and punished. It is a way to avoid the acknowledgement that one might harbour these prohibited desires oneself. In this way, Freud argues, we are able to evade the discomfort produced by feelings of shame while publicly reconfirming our social standing as respectable members of the community. In Freud’s early writing, shame, disgust and morality are the forces that organize and repress infantile desires – the shame of incest is an extreme instance. It is one of the ways we try to forget a part of ourselves, curb our unruly desires. As Jacqueline Rose (2003: 1) points out, ‘I would rather die’ is the phrase that conjures up the appalling nature of shame. It has a visceral quality:
People turn red with shame, are flooded by shame, as though shame – rather like
the sexuality it can cow into submission – brings the body too close to the surface,
inner organs and liquids bursting through the dams of the mind.
To confess to shame is a most intimate act. ‘And yet shame is also an action, a transitive verb – to shame – with a very public face. . . Shame therefore shunts back and forth, crossing the boundary between our inner and outer worlds’ (Rose 2003: 1-2). This psychodynamic can be traced in the interrelations of public scandals.
Rose (2003: 201-15) uses psychoanalysis to explain what it is that people – both celebrities and their watchers – really want from the glare of publicity. She speculates that the cult of celebrity in the contemporary media is an expression of a guilty secret, ‘a veiled way of putting into public circulation certain things which do not easily admit to public acknowledgement. Hence the pull and the paradox, why it is so exciting and demeaning at the same time’ (ibid.: 203). In this way she teases out the ambivalent desires involved in our voyeuristic enjoyment of the exhibitionism of celebrity in a Judaeo-Christian culture that, historically, has valued humility and modesty over narcissism. Celebrities disavow their desire to court publicity – they publicly declare how much they value their privacy and how ordinary they really are (despite the attention they are receiving). In doing so they embody and carry for us the shame at our own narcissistic and exhibitionist desires. We want to put them on a pedestal as an ego ideal, while at the same time punishing them for their narcissism.
So the idealization of celebrities, in Rose’s view, is a consequence of the same psychic processes as the pleasure we take in their humiliation when they are shamed by scandal. Celebrities inspire awe but also dread and an ‘excited gasp at the fall’ (ibid.: 4). These ambivalent feelings emerge in the frenzy of curiosity that creates celebrity and the relentless investigative uncovering of the scandalous news story. Rose points to the strongly violent component driving this curiosity. ‘It feels shameful in direct proportion to the murderous frenzy with which it is pursued (the death of Diana would simply be the most glaring instance of the trend) . . . we create celebrities so that our curiosity, or rather curiosity at its most ruthless, can be licensed and maintained’ (ibid.: 214). Curiosity does violence to its object; there is no such thing as a pure and virtuous curiosity. But, she argues, we have an interest in hiding this fact in order to maintain an idealized image of ourselves. Media attention is ‘sadistic in direct proportion to its vaunting of its own virtue’ (ibid.: 211).