As her incendiary book makes clear, Rosie O’Donnell is a media activist in the guise of a superstar, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And she’s here to put a smackdown on the fame game, even as she admits her own complicity in the celebrity industry. Her goal is no less than to retrieve the communal promise of television, to reestablish the relevance of today’s media. It would, of course, take quite a smackdown to achieve that.
But more power to O’Donnell for taking a crack at it. What other bona fide superstars do you know of who have tried to do what she did, i.e. be a thorn in the side of conservative pundits by using her bully pulpit on her brief shining year on The View (2006-2007) to slam the war, decry discrimination, norm gay and lesbian families, and call for feminist activism. Just by sitting at a table with the often insufferable Elisabeth Hasselbeck, Joy Behar, and Barbara Walters, and trying to have substantive discussions with them, Rosie performed a public service. She demonstrated that women on TV have more to say than Walters wants them to. Enduring the fluffy segments about hair and make-up, the escapist prattle about celebrity gossip, and the empty posturing that was meant to stand in for debate about current events, Rosie dared to say what was on her mind. And shook everyone up in the process.
She took a network show with a tired, empty, and pointless format (look, women have lots of different opinions, let’s hear some of them as long as they are benign and fit into a faux consensus) and tried to use it as a platform to really say something. Before O’Donnell came along, no one really took the format seriously. Or Barbara Walters seriously, for that matter. All fluffy infotainment trying to cash in on a marketing demographic. Shockingly, O’Donnell took it seriously.
As she explains in her book, she believed in Walters as a feminist trailblazer, seeing her as a mother-figure, like the mother she lost to cancer in her youth. While Walters did go where no women had gone before in the world of television journalism, I’m not sure you could prove that she has had any enduring feminist content herself. But O’Donnell believed in her and only realized too late that her own values (speak the truth to power, basically) would crash so radically with Walters’s (speak politely and support the class power structure) that they would end up at loggerheads.
As her behind-the-scenes narrative reads a bit surprisingly like a tale of innocence and substitute maternal figure lost, O’Donnell’s efforts to find some, any common ground with Walters even after their well-publicized fights mean that she is a generous soul. At the same time, she also notes how she can be a raging bull (she will no longer be quiet, she will not filter, she will confront people, she will say what she has to say—what could be more threatening from a woman).
What O’Donnell perhaps ends up saying the most about, on the show and in her book, are the ties that bind women and the differences that divide them. Her deep sense of humanity and empathy was always what was so compelling about her on-screen presence, and it was her ability to connect with audiences that so threatened her stand-offish co-hosts (in keeping with such character traits, O’Donnell’s book profits are going to her Broadway Kids charity).
In her memoir, O’Donnell recounts one episode where she actually had the nerve to talk about class on air, explaining how she always felt like a fascinated outsider at Walters’s high society events. A visibly uncomfortable Walters tried to dampen down Rosie at the time, frantic at the idea that she would have to discuss in a substantive way money and class in America. But O’Donnell nailed something about the country’s class divide, the link between class status and culture, and what these things mean and feel like. In the book, O’Donnell quite rightly points out that when she and Donald Trump went into celebrity deathmatch mode, Walters sold her out, and in so doing, Walters put her own class investments (she and Trump were in the same high society club) over her feminism.
That the entertainment press spent more time detailing O’Donnell’s dust-ups with the likes of Trump only helps prove her point. She criticized celeb rags for contributing to the death of Anna Nicole Smith by watching and abetting the train wreck and then asking for more. Rather than taking her swipes at them seriously, they instead tried to turn her into another tabloid headline. But O’Donnell has shown that she will continue to use her own media access to try to change the discourse and fight for more substantive content (whether in this book or on her popular blog). She seems ready for the unending battle with superficial entertaino-rags. Again, more power to her.
Indeed, this book allows O’Donnell to make a more sustained critique. In her smart account, she goes about making her impassioned pleas for the power and transcendence popular entertainers can achieve (take Barbra Streisand seriously, dammit!). As she espouses her love of Babs, she cops to her stalker-ish tendencies, but takes the time to explain why she’s so obsessed with La Streisand, Broadway, and the TV icons she grew up on. Streisand matters so much because, O’Donnell argues, her music makes her fans feel connected and moved in a sublime way that does not involve simple escapism but rather an imagining of the self that is enabling and rooted in community.
In contrast to this positive use of the media to give people access to meaningful artistic expression, O’Donnell slams its obverse, what she terms the entertainment industry “fame game.” The core of the book is a sustained critique of it. O’Donnell assesses the process whereby individual artists become celebrities, and what it’s like when they and their audiences start to lose their sense of perspective in the midst of such intense—and yet superficial—media scrutiny.
Her most compelling insights come from her first-hand accounts of what it means to navigate that world while trying to hold onto a sense of purpose as an artist. While some critics have looked down their noses at O’Donnell, slamming the book as sloppy and self-serving and only offering insights they themselves have already come up with, such critiques ring a bit hollow when you consider that O’Donnell has lived through the hothouse of celebrity in a way such critics haven’t. She has something to report from the front lines. And because she has lived through it so intensely, especially during her View gig, she has fresh insights that make her book worth reading.
One of the strongest points O’Donnell makes has to do with network pressure over talk show content. Able to compare what it’s like to have a syndicated talk show (her first, eponymous talk show), in which she had final control over content as well as the show’s look and packaging, with how The View has to answer to ABC’s concerns over the sensibilities of their corporate advertisers, O’Donnell’s conclusions are damning. She has specific examples of how corporate control of networks limits free speech.
As she kept struggling to improve The View even in the face of what she perceived as apathy from all the rest involved, O’Donnell targeted in particular the use of ear pieces (IFBs), through which producers feed info or instructions or even lines to the on-air “talent.” She feels IFBs turn live commentators into at worst canned puppets and at best into distracted speakers trying to please the man behind the curtain even as they are talking to you, the viewer at home.
O’Donnell writes: “I just want it to be what it can be. I want the fucking IFBs out of everyone’s ears, everywhere, not only here, but on every network; make TV live, truly live. All of us doing talk shows, acting, delivering the news: whatever the medium, it’s important to make TV what it can really be. And to do so requires those who sit on my side of the screen to hear, to listen, to stay present”. Her point is about the potential of TV as a live medium, about its power to help people express their beliefs to others who are listening and, in so doing, to connect speaker and viewer.
Addressing the complexity of that speaker-viewer relationship, O’Donnell implies that how these media interactions are framed, in the service of what ideologies and power structures, is all-important. As she catalogues the problems with the fame game, O’Donnell says the word celebrity should be “banished from the dictionary” because “a celebrity is not a person” it is a “phenomenon,” a “mixture of one human being and the culture that views her” because a “celebrity cannot exist without her audience”. Underscoring her point, O’Donnell also emphasizes the well-known dangers of fame, how it can distort reality for all those involved: “Celebrity-hood is not a real place.
There are not parties there. Celebrity-hood is an intersection that occurs in the air somewhere between the viewer and the viewed ... If you approach the intersection with nothing on your side except speed, as Anna Nicole did, you are a likely candidate for a crash”.
O’Donnell’s narrative is at its best when it explains the daily experience of fame, the shifting quicksand of social status that it brings. She recounts how, depending on whether she’s on TV during any given year, she goes from being a star to being a normal parent picking up her kids after school back to being someone who is “famous” and thus enjoys the perks of not waiting in lines. It can, as she notes, mess with your head, especially when you start to accept a sense of entitlement and privilege.
She also explains her own experience of social attention as an echo chamber. Sometimes, as when she attends the US Open just before her View gig started and went from being largely ignored there to being on the Jumbotron mere days later once the show aired, she would rather be able to observe the world around her than always being the one watching herself being watched.
Her detractors use her self-reflexivity against her, taking any moment of reflection she shares and making it suspect—as has been the case with well-publicized passages in the book, such as when she tells the elderly Walters “going is part of the gig” or alluding to childhood sexual abuse or breaking her own bones as a child to get attention. But O’Donnell is offering a full picture of a complex human being, and she willingly gives her own backstory, not leaving out the flaws or the tragedies.
When her detractors use her big personality or her version of her life story as a way to dismiss her critiques of the media industry, they are taking easy potshots at her. And when her naysayers happen to be evening entertainment news shows who bring on supposed “experts” to paint her as a troubled wounded child seeking attention, making her the star of yet another tabloid story, you know O’Donnell is on to something. Maybe she is getting to them.
Ultimately, Rosie O’Donnell’s book is relevant. It’s worth your time. While media critics have been decrying the dehumanizing superficiality of celebrity culture for years, again, rarely do we get insightful critiques from a superstar herself. O’Donnell believes in the power of television to connect people. In the power of entertainment and artistic expression to do so more generally, but in the hope and potential of TV specifically. Not that many people do anymore. Which is why her idealism is so refreshing, since it is based on hard-won knowledge and experience few observers have. And while in the end, she begins to argue (again, idealistically, but that’s OK) that perhaps the Internet is the only potential space for people to have freedom of expression without corporate censorship (and she chooses it as her new frontier), she nevertheless makes media access and content something worth fighting for.