One of the first movies I remember seeing at the cinema was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. There were a handful of other movies before that, but none rivaled the impact of this one, and in particular, its scene of Walter Donovan waning rapidly into dust. Donovan, played by Julian Glover, greedily drinks from a golden cup he believes will allow him to live forever. Yet his decision is not wise, and his sip accelerates the aging process in a gruesome manner. This is a frightening image for a child to see.
As an adult, I’m able to appreciate the scene for what it is: a dramatic turning point for both hero and villain, rendered in special effects that are not entirely convincing by today’s standards. Though the shock of the scene has worn over time, there is a deeper fear at its core. Donovan’s disintegration quickens the signs of declining and goes straight to the point: vigorous to dead in less than 60 seconds. The speed of the process is extraordinary. His turning to dust reminds us of the inevitability of death.
The Importance of Being—and Staying—Pretty
Much of our modern global culture goes to great lengths to deny the decline of youth and the certainty of death. We don’t search for holy grails or transfer our decay onto portraits, but we do support cosmetic, pharmaceutical, and self-help industries devoted to solving the problems of getting old. In 2005,ABC News interviewed Dr. Andrew Weil during the White House Conference on Aging. Well-known for his support and practice of alternative medicine, Dr. Weils said: “My concern is when people do things—you know, whether this is Botox or cosmetic surgery for the purpose of making it easier to pretend that aging is not happening. I don’t think that’s mentally healthy. I think it’s healthy to observe the fact that we’re aging, that we’re moving along this continuum of life. I don’t think it’s good to deny that.”
The news and entertainment media offer contradictory messages on the subject. We are surrounded by images and messages that reflect what Dr. Weil calls an unhealthy denial of age. Entertainers’ faces are frozen in time or permanently altered, their older, modified selves vaguely recognizable as their former, younger selves. Publications (both respectable and tabloid) routinely engage in handwringing over cosmetic surgery and eating disorders, yet simultaneously depend on the images of constantly refreshed, fresh-face stars to attract viewers/readers and stay in business.
The effect of this mixed messaging is a generation of celebrities (and their followers) under pressure to rejuvenate their appearances at earlier ages than ever before. Young women in their early 20s, such as Heidi Montag and Bristol Palin, represent several weeks’ worth of stories for a duplicitous publication like US Weekly, which revels in both the before and the after, the success and the disaster.
This trend is neither strictly American nor entirely new. In 2002, Time’s Chisu Ko wrote an article called “Peer Pressure Plastics”, which concerned cosmetic surgery in South Korea: “It wasn’t too many generations ago that South Korean kids had no control over their looks. Their hair, for example, was considered a gift from their parents — never to be cut. But today, kids drop into the plastic surgeon’s office after school, and when they get home their folks can barely recognize them.”
In Los Angeles, in Seoul and beyond, the attraction to cosmetic modification in young people has more to do with becoming or staying attractive and competitive than it does with stopping age in its tracks. But the search for slimmer bodies and ideal eyes and noses is one that often begins and ends in media. Seoul surgeon Dr. Lee Min Ku says in “Peer Pressure Plastics”, “They [teenagers] end up handing you a magazine…and asking for T.V. star Kim Nam Ju’s eyes.” Montag and Palin likely also handed their surgeons magazine wish-lists, and in the coming weeks and months other young women will walk into the doctor’s office with pictures of Montag and Palin, now featured models in those very magazines. And so on.
In spring 2011, we may have already reached the nadir of this cycle with the now widely- reported tale of Kerry Campbell, a mother who injects her eight-year-old daughter Britney with Botox. Quoted by Dulcie Pearce in The Sun, Kerry says, “What I am doing for Britney now will help her become a star.” For her part, wee Britney says, “My friends think it’s cool I have all the treatments and they want to be like me. I check every night for wrinkles, when I see some I want more injections…I also want a boob and nose job soon, so that I can be a star.”
We should question whether the news media is right to give any attention to people like Kerry Campbell. On one hand, the coverage has led to an investigation by San Francisco Child Welfare Services, who will determine whether Kerry is endangering her child. Yet the attention is precisely what this mother seeks, so in some warped way, her featured segment on Good Morning America validates the extreme measures she’s taken to make Britney a star. Campbell’s most recent claim, that she’s actually named Sheena Upton and fabricated the entire story at the prodding of a reporter, calls into question exactly how this non-story ever made it into major network news programming in the first place.
To figure out why the story gained traction is, sadly, very easy. In this day and age, the media and its audience found something plausible in the tale. Chalk this up to two related trends in popular culture: In the name of celebrity, the old take extreme measures to stay young, the young are encouraged to grow up too quickly, and both groups race one another to a dissatisfying middle.
That these attempts to stop and/or otherwise manipulate time are increasing is no accident. When we first hear of a mother injecting botulism in her eight-year-old’s face, we’re shocked, so we can’t look away. But then we look for so long that the image becomes normal and Good Morning America and its advertisers swoop in to give us more of what we want. Regardless of the truth of Britney’s story, other mothers and daughters are part of the show’s audience, and in a certain percentage of that audience, the outrageous story represents an opportunity for the spotlight.
Better Grow Up—Fast (Just Don’t Look Like You Did)
In many ways, modern information and Internet technologies are defined by their temporal qualities. There’s a correlation between the speed with which information is distributed, the hyperactive cycles of news and entertainment, and the time it takes for a subject to rise and fall in the public’s estimation. Established careers become vulnerable via viral video (Lars von Trier), leaked recording (Mel Gibson), or social media message (Gilbert Gottfried). And for a decade now, the Internet has been young performers’ intended path to the spotlight. In short, the Internet has the power to both give life and to ‘kill’. The veracity of its information means little if the hits keep climbing.
Other factors to consider are the amount of exposure and access to celebrity. Adult stars have long faced the nuisance of paparazzi, but the draw of youth has in recent years begun to dominate that industry, as well. Gone is the tacit acknowledgement of a teen star’s disposability, which saw young celebrities fade (comparatively gracefully) into obscurity with the onset of adolescence or young adulthood, only to emerge on cable TV years later in reminiscence or in memoriam.
In contrast, the coverage of modern teenage celebrities carries the whiff of, “let’s get this over with”, trumpeting the emergence of the star as a means of precipitating scandal and eventual downfall. Lindsay Lohan has long been an easy target, but she’s made so by enabling parents and a predatory press. Media consumers now expect to look behind the curtain, between the legs, and into every aspect of young stars’ lives as they inevitably flame out. Bad behavior becomes the way to stay relevant. Rihanna’s Good Girl Gone Bad basically spells out this process.
This “kill your darlings” approach to young stardom is beginning to have an effect on the stars’ outward embrace of decay, violence, and death. In Rihanna’s case, promoting the relationship between sex and violence has become a successful way of capitalizing on the good will she received after crazed Chris Brown battered her. It’s difficult to say how much this move toward the macabre has to do with budding self-awareness on the part of the young stars. In all likelihood, their handlers and managers are the ones delivering them into “danger” as a means of staying in the press.
Regardless of how the violent images are being produced, their origin (the public’s press-conditioned appetite) is of a piece with the trend that pushed youngsters into heretofore-unprecedented displays of young sexuality on magazine pages and television and Internet screens across the world. There’s something decidedly creepy about the media excitedly sharing pictures of a shirtless Justin Bieber kissing his teenage girlfriend in early 2011. The shirtless kid was 16 years old. Is this as egregious as reading about eight-year-old Britney Campbell’s alleged “virgin wax”? No. But neither piece of visual or textual information should appeal to any reasonable adult consumer, so the demand for such content is disturbing.
The same goes for supposedly nobler uses of teen sexuality as viewer bait, such as NBC’s infamous New Jersey shore episode of To Catch a Predator. Sal Cinquemani wrote in his review of the show for Slant Magazine: “Those involved in the making of the program probably believe they’re doing something good, but it’s difficult to imagine that the producers weren’t tempted to secure the rights to Britney Spears’s “Oops!…I Did It Again” for that particular segment or that they didn’t giggle proudly in the control room after stumbling upon a repeat catch.” Cinquemani’s observation rightly ties together the various motives involved in the production, most of which play upon the very predatory kind of attitudes the show outwardly professes to combat.
Yet ever since the 1998 watershed moment when Ur-Britney bared her midriff in a schoolgirl getup, images of sexualized teenagers have entered the mainstream at a steady pace, and many of the most popular examples—such as the GQ / Glee photo series—foreground the youth angle in a way designed to play upon the desires of the old for the young. After all, teenagers aren’t buying GQ.