[27 March 2007]
At this peculiar point in history there’s no shortage of faith in American culture. Currently the United States is one of the most religious nations in the world. Sam Harris, in his Letter to a Christian Nation writes, “44 percent of the American population is convinced that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead sometime in the next 50 years”.
Of course, there are alternative representations of American culture to consider: hamburgers, apple pie, baseball, and blunt, blonde, buxom bombshells—like Anna Nicole Smith, who recently died, dispirited and isolated, in a South Florida hotel room. Her prettified face became ubiquitous in American TV news, which reported the death of a tragic beauty, the death of a tabloid star, the death of a devoted mother, and asked a series of pressing questions: Was she plastered when she died? How did she die? Who fathered her young daughter? Who will acquire the insuperable inheritance money? What role did her attorney and assumed lover Howard K. Stern play? How did her son, Danny, die? Does anyone really care? Did anyone know Smith in anything but the proverbially biblical sense?
In the days after Smith’s death, the media flashed a particular picture of her repeatedly: She wore dark, formal attire and had a somber, determined look on her face and a not-so-modest cross around her neck. In death, Smith had seemingly become dignified. Undoubtedly, Smith’s death was not the most consequential bit of news; the media had more vital topics to broach, most notably the ceaseless war in Iraq, which now has claimed more than 3,000 American lives and uncounted Iraqi civilians. Also, to provide a sense of perspective, the death around the same time of journalist Molly Ivins, another Texan, received far less media coverage, but then, Ivins teased verbally rather than physically, and that’s clearly not hot.
What did Smith accomplish to warrant such attention? The media treated Smith as if she were some prominent stateswoman or maverick intellectual—or even a celebrity in the same hemisphere as Marilyn Monroe, the star-crossed sex symbol whom she desperately emulated. But Smith was hardly Monroe—she was hardly even Jenna Jameson. So how could she garner so much postmortem attention?
While much about Smith’s celebrity value seems self-evident, an aura of ambiguity surrounds her true appeal to the public. Smith first gained notoriety in the US by being named Playboy Playmate of the Year in 1993. Thanks to Hugh Hefner, she was particularly celebrated for her keen, native ability to make love to the camera—one of the few traits she did share with Norma Jean. She subsequently became a model for Guess jeans and starred in a few incontestably irrelevant films—Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult, for instance.
Smith’s tempestuous, controversial personal life, however, quickly began to take the spotlight over her desultory career. While in her mid-20s she married octogenarian billionaire J. Howard Marshall, a Texas oil baron. The media, either reflecting or pandering to the public, would soon label her a rapacious gold digger. Moreover, the tabloids reported her so-termed indulgent, hedonistic lifestyle, her drug and alcohol use and overdoses, and the fluctuations in her already “voluptuous” figure. At this point, Smith’s career stagnated, if it wasn’t over completely: She remained famous simply because she already was famous.
In 2002 Smith starred in her own reality show, The Anna Nicole Show, presumably in a last ditch attempt to revive her career. If she was hoping to reassert control over her public persona, a reality show may not have been the best decision: The show made her appear a vain, ditsy, childish, overweight, washed-up model, and the public found no reason to doubt that this was indeed her true character in life. Until her death, the media drummed up its own inflated, bizarre version of Smith, which the public seemed entirely content with. She became the entire world’s ecstatic in-joke. Cintra Wilson, writing in Salon, points out that the media perceived Smith as “their very own generational whipping blonde.” (“Anna Nicole”, Salon.com.) Smith became more notorious than famous.
While Smith lived, she came across as a type of Eve figure, an alluring female transgressor, a Mary Magdalene, a woman with “loose morals”. The public, always in need of real people to associate with mythical archetypes, was content to preserve her celebrity for that reason. After Smith passed away, the media seized upon the opportunity to dress her up like a dignified woman to again regale the public with the lavish ritual of desacralizing and humiliating her, again. The media felt compelled to reflect the public’s harsh pity and concentrated abomination for its own disparaging idea of Smith: gold digger. The process of manipulating Smith’s image took place to allow for public expiation and amusement. This paradoxical blend of delight and spite had to be refashioned in the media. Any reminder of the cruel treatment Smith had received had to be eliminated, first.
Within a week of Smith’s death, several articles masquerading as tributary and celebratory opinion pieces were published, but these articles only ostensibly glamorized and idealized Smith: the true aim was to gorge like a vulture on the beautiful remains of Smith. Philip Kennicott’s Washington Post article refers to Smith unashamedly as “poor Anna” and “pathetic creature”. He lionizes Smith, casting her as our era’s last invaluable courtesan. Cintra Wilson’s Salon article repeats the perfunctory connection between Smith and Marilyn Monroe, though Smith never really attained that level of cultural importance. Nevertheless, Wilson suggests that Smith’s cultural resonance was possibly even greater than Monroe’s, calling Smith “not so much a candle in the wind as a bonfire in a hailstorm.”
This faux glorification of Smith seems closely linked to America’s palpable religiosity. American religious culture is unique in the sense that it closely allies itself with celebrity and media culture. Americans bring a pronounced religious fervor to seemingly secular enterprises such as music and film, and the religiosity of American culture plays out as mass media: The TV becomes something comparable to a church or pulpit. The media fascination with Anna Nicole Smith can be understood in this context.
For example, the tasteless decision to play and replay a video of Smith—dolled up like a clown—while she was disoriented and pregnant functions as a moralistic, judgmental sermon: Do not take drugs while being pregnant; this woman is contemptible. Celebrities like Smith spawn believers, and believers are constantly on the watch for new goddesses or gods. The people need someone to love and to loathe, to praise and to denounce. But above all, it appears that the people need someone to assess for precious moral reasons, all while being perversely stimulated at the same time.
Any appeal Smith may have had to the religiously inclined American public largely stemmed from her commonness, which her rare beauty never quite extinguished. A small-town Texan at heart, she married young, stripped for an income, and worked at one time for Wal-Mart, that truly emblematic working-class fixture. Her sudden rise to popularity had overtones of the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches myth, and capitalism’s promises of upward mobility. But the faithful, charitable, and hopeful public finally denounced and condemned her. The public’s moral values and religiosity would permit a beautiful, humble, fallen woman to bestride the world, but not an incoherent gold digger.
Judged as immoral, Smith soon was regarded as inhuman. No more a common woman who found success, she was a vain, greedy woman; no longer cute and teasing, she was a fat, bumbling personification of mortal absurdity. Smith became the unrepentant, unregenerate Mary Magdalene in the public’s psyche. Smith’s own moral fanatic mother denounced her in the early ‘90s, oddly forecasting the public’s later disdain.
Anna Nicole Smith’s death may have led to a sense of guilt en masse. Consequently, the media raised the final illusion of all: that Smith was not really repudiated by the public for her ludicrous, infamous waywardness, but rather, that she was noble, tragic, pathetic, devoted mother, tragic beauty, America’s Rose, Shakespeare’s Ophelia, Marilyn Monroe, clown, the last courtesan heroine, or any other crude, false conception of Smith. Did not Anna become Maria?
But what does it matter who Smith was? Her birth name was Vickie Lynn Hogan. The beauty that made her famous and cherished eventually led to her final damnation in the fickle public’s mind. In death, she was less a human being mourned than a media myth still being manipulated, appearing humble, dignified, glamorous and contemptible yet again, as we exercised our emotions accordingly. It was more worthwhile to sustain our numerous fantasies about her than to extend to her the common courtesy we typically reserve for the dead. That’s why it might have mattered who Anna Nicole Smith really was—someone we’ll never know, except as a colossal, American sideshow.