Olympic Sob Stories And The Cult of Celebrity Relatabilty

2010 February 24

So, I’ve been sporadically watching the Olympics. And I’ve noticed something. Well, two somethings. The first being that  tapered white sweat pants as part of an official uniform is an abomination. Ralph Lauren should be ashamed. God, even Dov Charney and the American Apparel misogyny machine could have turned out something more wearable. And secondly (and more relevantly), has been the absolute explosion of hard luck backstories – injuries, addiction, abject poverty, dead parents, natural disasters. We’re veering into American Idol audition territory here. These tales of woes are being given equal billing with the athletes’ performances. Suddenly, it’s not enough to win your speed skating heat, now you must be the son of illiterate Appalachian miners who spent their life savings to send you to the big city for training camp when you were eight and are cheering you on from the stands, having taken their first ride on an “aeroplane” to be by your side in Vancouver. And I’m not even exaggerating much. When did pure talent stop being enough?

Photo by Daniel Coomber

I’ve written before about how young adults don’t have the same reverence and respect for authority that previous generations might have possessed. While they were faced with leaders and luminaries just as flawed (if not more so) than the ones we’ve grown up with, they seemed to have a faith in the offices, the system and the existence of genuine heroes that we don’t. Hand in hand with this goes a dismantling of the idea of celebrity as idol. The bloom is off the rose. We’re now privy to almost every detail (no matter how mundane or unflattering) of the lives of the rich and famous. And after you’ve seen someone stumble out of a car sans underwear, heard them discusses their eating habits, break-ups and procreation plans in TMI detail in magazines or into Billy Bush’s mic, downloaded their sex tape and browsed grainy photos of their vacation frolicking splashed across tabloid covers or on TMZ, you feel as if you know them, and not as a star, as a familiar.

Enter the new cult of relatability. If stars can no longer be our larger-than-life icons, we demand ever increasing proof that they’re just like us. If we can’t beat ’em (when it comes to acting, athletic achievement or just being superhumanly beautiful), we want to join ’em by hearing about all of the ways in which they’re just like (or maybe even worse off!) than us. Jennifer Aniston’s entire career over the last five years is predicated on appealing to every woman who’s ever been dumped for someone they suspected was prettier/cooler/sluttier/more popular than they could ever be. Go ahead and feel righteous indignation and empathy for her abject loneliness (all manufactured, bien sur) while girlfriend laughs all the way to the bank.  Being an underdog isn’t good enough. We demand increasing pathos and we feel it’s our right to be along for every step of the way with an all-access pass – rise to the top, success and glory, hubris and pride, being brought low by circumstance or personal weakness and the slow, chastened (hear that, Tiger Woods?) climb back into our fickle affections – the latter two stages being the real attention grabbers. Fitzgerald had it dead wrong. Not only are there second acts aplenty in American lives, those are really the only ones we care about these days.

So it’s only natural that we should see the humanizing fairy waving her magic wand over our Olympic athletes. And she has her work cut out for her – these people aren’t like us. They ski faster, jump higher, race harder and have devoted their whole lives to training and discipline. That’s all well and good, but what about dead grandmas? And DUIs? And a father who built a boat so that your family could escape across the Adriatic and your mother bailed said boat with one arm while holding you with the other (that one is true, BTW). We’re a venal,  jealous, yet oddly compassionate, species. Extraordinary talent is alienating, sob stories are endearing and engaging.  Humbled athletes who have learned their lesson (Hey, Bode Miller!) and reformed their badboy ways (Not gonna get sent home in disgrace this time, are you, Jeret Peterson?) get our seal of approval. And if you have the gall to be at the top of your game and not have a compelling tale of woe, you damn well better have a tabula rasa personality a la Sidney Crosby or cultivate an aw-shucks dude-next door demeanor in the vein of Apolo Anton Ohno. And, FYI,  we’re still going to be waiting around for the other shoe to drop.

The colonization of the formerly private sphere by the public fascinates me endlessly. All the world is a stage and one that is becoming increasingly crowded, with average joes mixing with those who would have been off-limits idols in days past. Those at the younger end of the Gen Y spectrum don’t know or remember any other reality other than one in which every aspect of their life could potentially be opened to public evaluation and validation. They expect the same of their celebrities. Even if you have nothing to hide, the unwillingness to play by the rules of full disclosure  makes it seems as if you do. And that impression of secrecy, that playing of the privilege card will do more to damn you in the eyes of fans and followers than a homemade sex tape or drug problem ever could.

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