- Are These Two Images of the Same Person?
I am a huge Seinfeld fan. I’ve seen every episode and it’s a common point of reference between my sister and I. (“Remember the one when Kramer turns his living room into a talk show with the old Merv Griffin set pieces?” or “Hey, remember when Kramer decides to wash dishes and talk on the phone while he takes a shower to save time?”) Needless to say I was pretty taken aback to hear about and then actually see live footage of actor Michael Richards losing it on stage and calling paid customers ‘Niggers’. As a man of color, it hurt me. I felt a certain sense of betrayal — to an extent.
As I perused various message boards, reactions to the performance yielded very polarizing responses. On the video game and tech-related message boards (where folks generally all have an appreciation for technology, but that’s where the similarities often end) I saw some reactions that were as racist as Richard’s act. “What’s wrong with what he said? Black people say it all the time. And they probably would have had forks in their asses.” “Those niggers shouldn’t have interrupted his act!”). On the other end of the spectrum when I perused Black celebrity news sites, I read equally racist remarks. (“Don’t you know that’s how all white people think? He was just brave enough to say it.” “We should kick his ass. ” And, my personal favorite: “Fuck Seinfeld, Elaine, George, the Soup Nazi, Larry David, Newman and anyone else connected to the show!”) OK, I made that last one up, but I’m sharing the general feeling of the comments. Between the techies and the starstruck celebrity watchers, I’m not sure who’s worse.
In my personal conversations with friends and family, thankfully they were a lot more progressive with their thoughts. None of the “kill whitey” stuff, but still echoing sentiments of disappointment. “When I watch Seinfeld again it’s not going to be the same.” “I’m not going to watch the show anymore.” While I was bothered by the performance as much as anyone else, for some strange reason, it doesn’t make me laugh any less at Kramer’s goofy entrances or his raiding of Jerry’s refrigerator. Am I more forgiving than the average person? Perhaps — but that has a lot less to do with why I’m able to laugh at Seinfeld re-runs. Initially I wondered if I had lost some link to my brothers and sisters of African decent who appeared to be much more adamant about the situation than I was. It bothered me a bit. But then it dawned on me. It’s the same reason why I’m able to watch films and television shows with other accused racists and not have my experience completely tarnished. And the sooner than more people do it, the better off we’ll all be. You see, I’ve made a mental decision that is very difficult to achieve in this age of sensational headlines, viral marketing, instant celebrities and reality TV stars. Although it was difficult, I somehow managed to separate celebrity from performance; notoriety from drama. I’ve separated art from fame.
On the surface, I’m sure it sounds rather simple. But when people reflect on their attitudes toward celebrities during their “fall from grace”, it’s much more difficult than it may seem. For those who are convinced that Orenthal James Simpson brutally and mercilously ran a knife through his ex-wife and her boyfriend, watching 1970s commercials of O.J. running through airports or juking and head-faking as he carries a football for the Buffalo Bills will usually elicit huffs, heavy (and very sarcastic) sighs and waves of people leaving the room and most often the ever popular ‘rolling of the eyes’. There are people who won’t listen to Elvis because of accusations that he was racist. And quite a few other actors have been accused of racist actions in public — sometimes via stories from fans of how they treated Black fans poorly or reports of comments overheard in a public setting.
I’ve had conversations with a few friends about this notion of ‘separating art from fame’. Some feel that the two are not mutually exclusive. Others think that while you may try, ultimately the actions or alleged actions of that person will take precedence and taint the performance beyond the point where it can be enjoyed. Now, I’m not going to sound as if I’m completely robotic in my consumption of media. I was flipping through channels just the other day and came across a Seinfeld re-run where Kramer was hamming it up and I found myself drooping my head a bit and then shaking it ever so gently in shame. But I certainly haven’t entertained the ideas that others have — boycotting the show and gathering up all of the DVD copies of Seinfeld for one huge bonfire.
In general, I think one of the true crimes and misuses of technology these days is to try to correct the things which cause us sadness or shame”. September 2001 probably ushered in the most gross abuse of technology in this way. As much as the sight of the towers shortly after those horrific events upset all Americans, was it really necessary to remove the shot of the towers from the beginning of Sex and the City or to bleep the mention of them from The Notorious BIG’s Juicy? Surely we’re mature enough to observe a 2 second location shot and a 5 second mention of the “World Trade” and separate that from the actual 9/11 events? (Stranger that that, we’ve seemingly “matured” beyond the point of not being able to see or hear about the towers to the point now where there were two movies released actually dramatizing the events! But, I digress….)
I feel strongly that the regal, untouchable, ‘we’re not worthy’ status that we bestow upon celebrities — and these days any celebrities — has resulted in us being set up for disappointment. If you look around enough, you’ll see hour long television shows, countless magazines and even dedicated cable channels — all centered around following celebrities, watching their every step and hoping….sometimes praying…that we get to see them in moments where they shed their perfections and allow us to see flaws. E! Entertainment TV, VH1, Entertainment Magazine, TV Guide, People Magazine, Vibe, Vogue, Vanity Fair, Access Hollywood, The View (well, for that matter any daytime talk show), late night talk shows…. and I could go on and on….all have one thing in common: They distance you from the fact that celebrities are just regular folks who happen to do their job in front of a camera (and, in some cases, extremely well) and get paid higher salaries because of their talent and popularity.
So, am I saying that it’s a bad thing to be starstruck occasionally? Of course not. I worked at an airport for a few summers and probably the best thing about that experience was watching stars and marvelling at how much shorter or taller or less attractive they were than what I had seen on Entertainment Tonight. It’s a fun thing to see folks in person whose performances you’ve admired or who’ve made you laugh or cry over the years. The danger starts when we make the leap from admiring the performance to making conclusions about who the person behind that character really is. Millions of people watch Oprah every day. They’ve watched Oprah interview everyone from celebrities to ordinary folks who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Recently we’ve even watched her on a road trip with her “BFF”, Gail. So, what would it to do Americans to see footage of Oprah picking her nose? How about flipping off a child who asked for her autograph? Or perhaps shouting obscenities at someone who didn’t bring her tea with just the right amount of Splenda in it? How about calling one of her assistants a “dumb nigger”? Or how about another celbrity? Let’s use someone that people like. How about Ellen Degeneres? I mean, everybody loves Ellen. How can you not? She’s so cheery and silly and warm on her show. Well, what if we saw footage of Ellen kicking a puppy? Or in a private conversation over dinner overheard saying, “…and so the car salesman, who clearly didn’t recognize me had the nerve to ask me if I was aware that the Mercedes 600 was $100,000 more than the 500? I felt like saying, ‘Nigger, do you know how much money I’m worth??‘”
Now, these are just dramatizations — none of these actually happened (let’s hope). But the truth of the matter is, if they did say or do these things, their stock would go down — considerably. But should it? Well, in these two cases I can understand how TV talk show hosts would be valued less after this behavior since what they do is largely comprised of them trying to project their personality out to the audience. But let’s substitute Oprah and Ellen for Robert DeNiro and Steve Carrell? Surely people would stop watching the Office. And there’s no telling how much sales of Goodfellas, The Godfather or Heat on DVD would decrease.
I guess if I’m being truthful, I’d have to really appreciate the actor/actresses ability to continue to support him/her after racist remarks. But the point that I’m trying to drive home is this: when you get to the point where you’re able to put celebrities and celebrity status within the proper context in life, you’ll have a much easier time the next time a celebrity does something which calls their character into question. Let’s be completely honest: no matter how many episodes of Entertainment Tonight you watch, you don’t know the real Tom Cruise. You can watch a hundred hours of TV-ready footage and you still don’t know the real Samuel L. Jackson. (For that matter, you don’t know the real Mary Hart or John Tesh either!) We simply don’t know these folks. And unless we happen to meet them in the checkout line, start a conversation, have them realize that we have a lot in common and start spending lots of time together, the truth is that we never will really know these folks. Truthfully, you probably know more real information about your daughter’s teacher or the lady who checks you out at the supermarket more than we do Brad Pitt or Selma Hayek. After all — those are folks that you’ve actually had a conversation with.
When you pose for a picture, do you lift up you shirt to reveal that scar on your back? Or turn to the side and show your backside with the extra twenty pounds that you’ve been meaning to lose? Of course not. We all make efforts to show our good side — particularly in front of the camera. We want to reveal that which shows us in a favorable light. Hopefully this is something that isn’t lost on the folks who watch red carpet interviews or videotape episodes of Access Hollywood. Yes, Denzel Washington seems like a really nice guy. And yes, I think it’s wonderful that he supports the Police Athletic League. But does this mean that he’s never looked across from his wife at the dinner table and said, “I wish all the Mexicans in L.A. would just go back across the border.” It would be really hard to imagine. But the truth is, we really can’t say.
So before you throw out that DVD box set of Seinfeld season 3, evaluate what you’re admiring. Are you laughing at Michael Richards? Or are you laughing because somehow the physical and psychotic humor of the character that he portrays pushes a button inside that just makes you laugh? Hopefully it’s the latter. And sure, you’ll sigh the next time you see him and remember him telling people who’ve paid to see him perform that in 1950 they’d be “upside down with forks in their asses” — realizing that statements like that come from a deep dark place that’s much more sinister than simply saying the word ‘nigger’. But as you ponder on that, ponder on all the other actors and actresses who are probably at their dinner table right now telling their family they don’t understand why ‘niggers are so sensitive about this Kramer thing’. It’s happening. As much as people say that I look through the world with rose-colored glasses, I’m sure that it’s happening.
Should we all hide our eyes and dispose of our copies of “The Gladiator” or “Sophie’s Choice” when we hear that Russell Crowe or Meryl Streep used some racial epithet? Sure, we’ll be disappointed. We’ll probably think twice about supporting their future projects. But when we watch those performances, we should still marvel at their acting and emotional ability and understand that regardless of the courage that Maximus Meridius or Sophie Zawistowski portrays on screen, it usually has little to do with the moral fiber or integrity of the person behind the mask. Actors themselves will tell you that they portray parts that allow them to go places that they’d rarely get to go in real life. And we took this to mean “go into space” or “command and army”. Perhaps some just want to lead lives of characters who have strong moral values — in hopes that it might rub off a bit and transfer over into their real life relationships? So let’s deal with the characters as characters and let’s stop looking at actors and seeing more than what’s really there. Let’s seem them as they are: people who sit down to use the bathroom, get sick, have to eat to survive and, as my mother would say, “put their pants on one leg at a time just like you and me.” And when we can begin to think like that, trust me, there will be a lot less to worry about the next time one of these videos or sound bytes spreads across the web.