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“She’s just famous for being famous.”  That’s the ultimate celebrity smack down today, isn’t it?  It says, “You’re unworthy, but you have somehow fooled the public and the press into thinking you’re something special.”  Ouch!

And, who’s the worst offender of them all?  I’m almost afraid to mention her name for fear you’ll refuse to read on.  Paris (okay, I said it) seems to represent the decline of Western culture to many people.  She finally got what she deserves (not just jail time, but former admirers and defenders turning against her).  She’s never done anything (positive, that is) to deserve the attention and adulation she’s received, after all.

As if prior to Paris females, in the eye of the media maelstrom, were celebrated for their talent or accomplishments.

At least Marilyn Monroe was an actress, the argument goes, with the inference that this entitled her to celebritydom.  Oh, so it was Marilyn’s acting that triggered the media mayhem and made her an icon.  Really!

At least Madonna is a singer and dancer, the argument continues.  Yes, it must be her notorious vocal range, not the image of her writhing around in a wedding gown to “Like a Virgin” at the first annual MTV Video Music Awards, that cemented Madonna’s place as a celebrity Hall of Famer.

We point to Princess Diana and say, at least she worked on behalf of worthy causes like babies with HIV/AIDS and the dismantling of land mines.  Yes, but she first became a celebrity because she was…a nursery school teacher?  That, unfortunately, usually garners attention only when one is accused of child molestation.  Because she was…a virgin?  Well, I suppose that is a talent of sorts.  But the foremost reason the media swarmed to Diana was because she, of all the eligible women in Great Britain, supposedly won the prince’s heart and certainly his hand in marriage.  (In point of fact, it turns out that being married to Charles was quite an accomplishment indeed, but that’s beside the point.)  At the time, she was simply a pretty princess-in-training, a fairy tale in the making, no more and no less accomplished than most young women like, say, Paris Hilton.

Tina Brown’s addictive new book, The Diana Chronicles, released to coincide with the 10th anniversary of Princess Diana’s tragic death, makes this eminently clear.  Brown quotes Tatler magazine editor Geordie Greig as saying, “‘Everything went into the performance of Being Diana….When you met her you never felt more seduced, more glamorous, more famous, more intoxicated.  Before she was famous she was an uninteresting schoolgirl—nice, polite, uninquiring, uninspiring.  What made her change was being royal, rich, famous, watched, desired.’”

We have coronated Paris Queen of the A-listers because she possesses some of the very same qualities that Marilyn and Madonna and Lady Di and (let’s not forget) Anna Nicole naturally had or learned to cultivate:  beauty, sexiness, the rare ability to bewitch the camera, and the desire to be famous.  These are the attributes that we, as a culture, have decided make a young woman deserving of her own booth at a hip Hollywood nightclub or her own reality TV show or the most covers of the most magazines.  Talent?  Achievements?  Oh, yeah, maybe those, too—but they place a distant second when you’re a starlet.

The gig is up.  There’s no use pretending that we care more about Lindsey Lohan’s acting abilities than her party girl mishaps.  Or that a previous generation cared more about Elizabeth Taylor’s acting talent than her larger-than-life romantic escapades.  It was senseless for Simon Cowell to insist throughout the past season of American Idol that it was primarily a singing contest when voters were intent on choosing the girl with a very good voice (but not the best voice) who is also young and pretty and giggly.  And it’s ridiculous to blame Paris Hilton for society’s infatuation with beguiling young women.

Remember the 1992 Clinton campaign slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid”?  I think we need an updated version for our times:  “It’s not Paris Hilton, stupid.”  It’s us.

In her "Vox Pop" column for PopMatters Meta voices her observations about pop culture, particularly as it intersects with our lives. She is endlessly fascinated by the myriad ways in which our pop culture choices reflect back on us -- our beliefs, our desires, our idiosyncrasies, our intellects. Wagner's published pieces include written commentaries, features, and profiles for Salon, Boston Globe Magazine, Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. You can visit her blog here. When she's not writing, Meta is molding young minds as an adjunct professor at Emerson College, where she teaches creative writing. She also developed and occasionally teaches a column-writing class at Grub Street, an independent writing center in Boston.

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