Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Excusing Bad Behavior

Today, for the first time in what seems like forever, the front-page news everywhere is not focused on Michael Jackson.

What a breath of fresh air!

But the death of the so-called "King of Pop" offers us a chance to reflect on the dark side of celebrity. In the last few days, Zipcode, Daniel, and OCgirl have all written eloquently on this, and it got me to thinking about a question that's bothered me for a long time: why do we allow celebrities to get away with the sort of terrible behavior that we wouldn't accept in anyone else?

Michael Jackson was an electrifying performer. As a moderately accomplished dancer, I'm in awe of the way he was able to move across a stage - someday before I die, I hope to be able to moonwalk - and "Billie Jean" is a fabulous song from a fabulous album ("Thriller"). But Michael Jackson the man appears to have been a pretty miserable human being with a history of outrageous behavior (remember the pictures of him dangling his child over the hotel balcony railing, or the stories of his love of sleeping in a bed full of young boys?).

It's not just Michael Jackson, though. We seem to accept terrible behavior from celebrities as if it were a tax that has to be paid to enjoy their talent. I remember years ago watching an interview of Stephen Tyler, the lead singer of the band Aerosmith. He was being interviewed with his mother beside him, and she was obviously embarrassed - he was either drunk or high, mostly incoherent, and looked like something the cat had dragged in, then dragged back out after seeing it in the light. My heart went out to the poor woman who was clearly trying to put the best face on a mortifying situation.

Why do we accept this sort of behavior? Even if you like Aerosmith's music (and I don't), there's no excuse for people like Mr Tyler to present such a miserable image to impressionable fans.

Remember Wilt ("The Stilt") Chamberlain, the basketball hero who claimed to have had sex with 20,000 women? Whether he was a world-class hoop star or a bragging blowhard with a malfunctioning moral compass, he was someone many young people saw as a role model. Any question about why some young men think that irresponsible, unprotected sex is fine and illegitimate children are the girl's problem?

Lindsey Lohan? Paris Hilton? Mel Gibson? Why do they get free pass? Do they understand that their public image makes them role models for impressionable youngsters who learn that bad behavior has no bad consequences?

This isn't a modern phenomenon - artists and performers throughout history have had a reputation for erratic and unpredictable, if not downright bizarre, behavior. Why?

And why are there celebrities like the late Paul Newman who manage to overcome the burdens of celebrity and became a beloved philanthropist and humanitarian, not to mention a devoted husband for 50 years after a first failed marriage? (When once asked by an interviewer if he'd ever thought about being unfaithful to wife Joanne Woodward, he famously replied, "Why go out for hamburger when you have steak at home?")

I have four wonderful grandchildren who are surrounded by undesirable images. I try to set a good image for them (generally successfully, I hope), but I'm just one cranky and aging grandparent sticking his finger into a leaky dike of terrible role models. I'd rather they grew up to be Paul Newmans than Michael Jacksons. I'd rather they learned early on that fame and talent don't come with a license to be a lousy human being.

Isn't it time to hold celebrities to the same standards as the rest of us?

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



KKTSews said...

I've always felt the daytime talk shows encourage "bad behavior". Even shows that supposedly try to "fix" or guide bad behavior are, in fact, vaunting it by putting it on display.

Remind me to tell you my Paul Newman story when I see you and Agnes next week.

Amanda said...

Celebrities behave that way, the public lets them get away with it and it reinforces to them that its ok. Just like kids I guess.

I agree with you that I wouldn't want Aaron growing up wanting to be like Michael Jackson.

Malaise Inc said...

It is, admittedly, an unempirical observation, but sometimes it seems great talent is correlated to mental illness, particularly bi-polar disorder. And bizarre behavior stems from the illness coupled with a lack of accountability.

Reading biographies of great historical figures like Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill I often see glimpses of this: periods of immense productivity followed by periods of withdrawal. Of course, those great men weren't bizarre. They were, as politicians however, held accountable by the democratic process. But, who holds entertainment celebrities accountable?

My 2c, anyways.

Debbie said...

Just think of all of the attorneys, doctors, psychiatrists, photographers, writers and editors of tabloids and trash TV, the paper industry, retailers and employees of all other related industries who would be on the unemployment lines if it weren't for the bad behavior of entertainers. Besides we would be left reading only about Ted Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Madoff and other less glamorous creatures.

Anonymous said...

The good (or maybe bad) news is that this is not a modern phenomenon--it goes way back. Lord Byron was not exactly a role model for the average British youngster! We forget that Isaac Newton was quite weird, quite publicly, even when he was Director of the royal Mint. Part of this is the extraordinary forgiveness of the American (and thus the world) public; we appear to have come a long way from ducking stools for alleged witches, etc.

Eminence Grise

John said...

Perhaps the publicity given to the bad behavior of celebrities is a way of showing that they're not really better than we are. In spite of the successes that they have in their respective fields, they are still failures in other areas of life.

Maybe it is the way of human nature to look for those things that make them less to make all of us ordinary people feel better about our ordinary lives.

Leslie David said...

I don't know why we let celebrities get away with outrageous behavior, of course these days it delights the press. Of course I see bad behavior in the way my nieces are being raised and my sister and I weren't raised that way. I also wish there were more Paul Newmans and fewer Lindsay Lohans around as role models. Knowing you I think you're doing a great job as an role model and Opa for your grandkids--you'll find out for sure when they have kids of their own.

Mike said...

Malaise Inc got it right. Most artists are border line nuts.

Wv: arigsr - Arig juniors dad.

SusieQ said...

What really bothers me is how kids like Britney Spears turn out to be so rotten in the end. The entertainment world must do that to them.

Up and coming and following in Britney's footsteps is the young lady of Hanna Montana fame. Sometimes I think this is done to get some publicity.

Where have all the innocent Shirley Temples gone?