Gentle readers: We will admit, we’ve been absent from the scene for longer than the silences between laughs at a showing of Evan Almighty. Where did we go?
We went where all the stars go when they feel sated by the glory, laud, and honor their exercises in the public eye have brought them: we lumbered off to our cabanas in St. Pete’s for some serious off-the-grid R&R 1.
Like two grizzled Grendels retiring to their caves, chins slick with the grease of too much lipid-intensive pop depravity2, stomachs churning with the offal of your prime-time perambulations, your late-night sticky-finger “blogging” which, as we have mentioned before in these “pages,” we prefer to continue to call “typing”3, we needed some us-time.
Because quite frankly, we’d had it. We were done. We had spent our essence upon the field of pop culture battle and had lost the taste for it. How did this happen? Perhaps we were simply worn down by the deluge of excess and fearful of our own contribution to it. What, we were going to say more about the core-level embarrassment that every American surely feels about Angelina Jolie’s desire to adopt more children? Or about the fact that this apparently sells millions of tabloids each week? Cleaning the sand from between our toes, we would ask: Is there a single joke left to make about High School Musical that hasn’t already been made by every 13-year-old boy in every middle school in the land?4 The barrage of jailed, Chihuahua-wielding celebutants moving in and out of rehab like it was a Jimmy Choo outlet—it was too much and too little at once. To our astonishment, we found ourselves not really caring about whether the Big King won a Clio. We didn’t even get ratcheted up when Jenny McCarthy repositioned herself as a (gulp!) thoughtful and credible spokesperson for parents of children with autism. No, we just shook our woolly heads and rolled over on the bag of Doritos, popped another two-three Dilaudids with a Hostess Cupcake chaser and went back to deeply-addled sleep. We just didn’t give a shit.5
Our “retirement” can be summed up by a question: How can you be disquieted when disquietude has become the baseline hum of a culture plainly hurtling toward a full-on addictive need for disquietude itself?
But then it, happened, blazing into our inboxes via CNN Breaking-Almost-News-Update: Britney lost custody of her children to Federline. Now, MOTHERHOOD. In the sights.
Kee-RIYST on a raft with one oar a-spinnin’.
In response to such a travesty, we present a new, oddly perseverant edition of Disquieting Modern Trends, all having to do with our most cherished institution: the cult of the women who pushed you out and brung you up coREC’.
Saddle up, little buck: it’s gonna be a long night.
The Dispiriting Loop of Public Humiliation, Knee-Jerk Mockery of That Humiliation, Followed by the Lamenting of Said Mockery, Tumbling into the Mockery of Said Lamentation, Ad Infinitum
We must contextualize, a priori, in case you have been living under a rock.6 Britney, falling apart before our eyes, was just sad. When she unleashed her famously-plaid-skirt-hidden cha-cha on the YouTube-viewing public in November 2006, we laid it out for you. It was the end of an era, and maybe it was end of our ability to even laugh about it all. Nearly everything that followed—the arrests, the chopping off of hair, the public statements of her parents, up to and including Britney’s humiliating sleepwalk through her “new single” at the September 9th MTV Video Music Awards—it simply sapped us further of our snark. Maybe it’s our increasingly paternal view of things, but we wanted to tuck Britney into her snuggly covers with a hot chocolate or a chicken soup. Her career was over. The girl was ill. Or something was.
In the next few days, however, things got funny again.
First, there was the parade of people saying how gawd-awful she had been on MTV, speaking as if the general content on MTV (and the various MTV awards shows in particular) were not usually parades of public embarrassment and self-indulgence. “Did you see how terrible her lip-syncing was?” “She’s pudgy!” “Those background dancers were better than she was!” “Wasn’t that a terrible song?” Yeah, the lip-syncing was awful, but since when is lip-syncing anything but? Pudgy? Sure, compared to the 16 year-old that you used to ogle back in the 90s and the 16-year-olds the culture is currently promoting today. We were dying to know why these many astute Britney critics were watching the MTV Music Awards in the first place, given that MTV stopped playing music videos before the word “iPod” was even a twinkle in Steve Jobs’s eye.
That this would—in a matter of hours—be followed by gender-ambiguous weepfests about how cruel it was for people to judge Britney after she had, well, placed herself on television to be judged, just doubled our sense of delighted disquietude.7
O.K., so here is where it gets deep and, ultimately, disquieting. You become wildly famous for being the semi-talented vehicle for others’ desires, then you crumble back to Earth as the real, vaguely pathetic person you always really were. But the punishment for this inevitable come-down-ance is … the loss of your children to a disreputable sleaze of an ex-husband who, just months before, was held aloft as the very cause of your—by which we mean Britney’s—problems? Irony piled on irony and topped with a plump, Red Dye No. 2 of a maraschino irony. There it is: MOTHERHOOD, in the sights. Rich fodder. Chthonic resonance. Psychology. Wow, Britney—do you have clearance for this level?
Where do we begin?
The Sanctity of Family and Marriage Puked upon by Flarging Mitt Romney and All His Little Mormon Von Trapp Stormtroopers
It is always tricky to launch a broadside against a Mormon, since that most-American of religions has undergone the most intense public relations makeover of any American export since Uncle Ben. Once they stood for all that threatened the family; now, they are its poster children. The “Mormotron 5000,” as Jon Stewart has gorgeously dubbed him, has cornered the market on monolithic paterfamilia menschhood as rhetorical blunderbuss, eager to stare down serial sorta-monogamist and—the consensus is in—asshole Rudy Giuliani in the values arena if not the hero one. But wait: Mormons and family? This must be “interrogated,” as we expensively learned to say in grad school … against a backdrop of Big Love8 and the merciful conviction of polygamist/rapist/dangerous-old-coot Warren Jeffs.9
What we’re seeing is a junction of cultural vectors pointing in 14 different directions at once, sort of like signs with all those cities on them at the center of the camp on M*A*S*H. “Plural Marriage,” former L.D.S. style, is rape when practiced by an ugly old scab like Jeffs but possibly heroic when practiced by Big Love’s Bill Paxton—whose jawline handsomeness, we hereby note, is not unpresidential10; Mormonism, on a presidential scale is both something to be run from and run on, as Romney’s Holier-Than-Thou-But-Maybe-I’m-Just-A-Born-Again-Guy strategy suggests. Poor Britty-Brit is a Madonna-kissing cultural-icon/role model for 13-year-old girls when her records are selling and her tummy is tight; sad, shame-inducing Britney must be punished by the legal system when she’s revealed to be what we knew her to be all along, just without the teen ripeness that we all denied (but knew) she was selling from the git-go. It’s as old as the Madonna/Whore Complex and it’s as new as whatever crap is on MTV and its disquietude is as wide as the demographic for dance-pop.
All of which really only points up how—here it is again—hoary and trite this unattainable model of family bliss really is, how much of a cartoon, how far removed from how people really live. It is funny and grotesque, this parade of candidates’ families—and not just Romney, mind you, but the whole lot of them — with their smiles and their dresses and the tacit assertion that not once ever has one of them had a dinner of EasyMac out of the microwave while Mommy and Daddy yelled in their bedroom. We are sick of the whole mess of them.11
Mary-Louise Parker: Lady Madonna
We are made even more sick of this Sanctity of Motherhood tripe when we see the embarrassment of riches of real honest-to-Pete mothers all around us, who are actual, flawed human beings who work their asses off WHILE loving their kids to death in their most honest, fucked-up, selfish but good-hearted ways. These stories are a whole lot more interesting than either the bogus cleanliness of Mitt or the debauched decline of Britney. And their pop-media patron saint is, of course, Nancy Botwin, Our Lady of Agrestic.
We’re not sure that Weeds is a brilliant TV show, what with its often awkward stance as a contemporary “dramedy”12 stuck (sometimes) painfully between shtick and heart-tugging. But Nancy Botwin, as played by the adroit Mary-Louise Parker, is a classic. Lest you think we are merely enchanted by Ms. Parker’s obvious auburn-maned comeliness,13 let us note that she has won a Tony (for Proof) and an Emmy (for the destroyed wife in Angels in America) and plays Nancy Botwin as a deliciously complex mom who does not rationalize her pot-dealing as much as she simply lives around it, wrong though it be. Truly, she reminds us of the actual moms (and dads) out there who are trying to love and raise their little Caitlyns and Jareds amidst the compromises of real life. These moms and dads, of course, have not recently had a baby with actor Billy Crudup, but we forgive them even as we prefer us some M-LP.
Let us not, however, get carried away. We are NOT herein digging on any of those Desperate Housewives harpies; we find their routine tired and offensive, actually, since they do not caricature expectation completely enough to really get clear of the Stepford Wife undertones, but seem totally oblivious to the dramatic/ironic possibilities of such. At the end of the day they are all just catty and expensive, because we like them that way, not because the world is broken.14 CAVEAT: Dana Delany. We are seriously intrigued by what she might do up in that piece.
Which brings us back around to where we started. What will now become of Britney, and why did it—utterly—have to happen this way? We end, à propos, with a collection of three lone gunman-grade theories as to how/why Britney’s children have been removed.
First: was this really just a Christo-level stunt engineered by Karl Rove so Romney can actually get some more marriage mileage in the public eye? We could certainly imagine Tipper Gore and the rest of the P.M.R.C. being brought out of mothballs, consulting on the sly, maybe explaining why Al’s not running. If this is the case, will Federline himself wind up with an ambassadorship? We can see him in Belize in a three-piece suit.
Second: is this simply the next logical step in seeking cheap über-publicity in light of the comparative impotence of any other publicity stunt accessible to the woman who made the mainstream cha-cha flash passé? That is, could Britney actually be some kind of evil genius of public stunt-ery, a kind of Karl Rove of the TMZ set? Cool!
Finally (and this theory seems most spiritually plausible to us): maybe this is all just a drama generated at the highest levels of government strictly for the eyes of Lindsay Lohan—so she can learn what not to do and how not to totally kill herself, which we really don’t want to see.15
In any case, we have had enough. We look forward to the end of the Britney fracas—and, frankly, the election—so we can finally settle down and start working on the issue that is REALLY bugging us: in a world ruled by Judd Apatow, how are any of us supposed to step up to … FATHERhood?
Bah, never mind. The brain reels. We’re going to go do some Stoli Pomegranate shooters and fire up the Halo 3 to totally dominate some thirteen-year-olds in Singapore. Screw you guys, we’re going home.