April 25, 2009
It's been a notable week in not-really news. Songstress Susan Boyle, who supposedly delivered us from our shallowness by belting out a showstopper without the help of hair dye or eyebrow tweezing, continued to make headlines. The former vice presidential candidate's grandbaby daddy, Levi Johnston, went on "Larry King Live" and managed to say and be asked almost nothing. And Earth Day, with its myriad opportunities for celebrities to talk about CFL bulbs, filled talk shows like so many Styrofoam peanuts in a cardboard box.
The biggest nonstory of the week, however, was the case of Perez Hilton versus Carrie Prejean, who represented California in the Miss USA pageant Sunday. Hilton (ne Mario Armando Lavandeira Jr.) is a blogger and TV personality who made his name by posting snarky comments on photos of tabloid celebrities, outing gay celebrities and calling attention to homophobic actions or remarks made by celebrities.
What does one do with credentials like that? Become a judge in the Miss USA pageant, of course! Not just any judge, but an activist judge. "The question I came up with for the interview portion of Miss USA tonight is SO good!!" Hilton tweeted to his followers before the event.
That question, which Hilton posed to Prejean after she drew his name out of a fishbowl, was this: "Vermont recently became the fourth state to legalize same sex-marriage. Do you think every state should follow suit? Why or why not?"
Prejean answered: "Well, I think it's great that Americans are able to choose one or the other. We live in a land where you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. And you know what, in my country, in my family, I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anyone out there, but that's how I was raised, and that's how I think it should be between a man and a woman."
OK, no big points for eloquence or even accuracy (four states with legal or soon-to-be-legal gay marriage do not constitute a "land"). But was it offensive? Hilton thought so. He gave Prejean a low score; she lost to Miss North Carolina, who answered a question about taxpayer bailouts. Later, on his website, Hilton called Prejean various unprintable words.
Prejean's remarks, taken on their own, were hardly an advertisement for Proposition 8. She didn't sound much different from, ahem, President Obama. During the campaign, he said he was against Proposition 8, in favor of civil unions and believed marriage should be between a man and a woman (apparently he's not yet hip to the term "opposite marriage").
Never mind that Prejean, a Christian, didn't seem terribly invested in seeing her beliefs legislated. As she stood in the high-wattage, 15-minute glare that illuminates nonstories everywhere, she became the newest poster girl for the sanctity of heterosexual marriage. As for Hilton, in attempting to strike down his enemy, he managed to empower her.
Prejean made the TV rounds, talking about how she forgave Hilton and was praying for him. Hilton continued to spew invective, and he made his own share of TV appearances. The winner of the pageant received significantly less airtime.
In other words, Prejean came out the winner, even to many who don't share her views. The irony of that might have lifted the whole episode into a legitimate media story, with a sidebar on the inadvertent satire of other celebs chiming in: "I believe in liberty and freedom for all I believe in gay marriage and the right to bare arms and tabacco!" haphazardly tweeted singer-songwriter Jewel.
But, in the end, Perez versus Prejean amounted to little more than a ridiculous way to discuss gay marriage and an embarrassing waste of outrage. So why did we grab on so hard? Not because columnists and talk-show hosts grafted phony emotional significance onto the story (that's Susan Boyle's racket). Not because it promised legitimate voyeuristic fulfillment (thanks for nothing, Levi). And not even because it made for easy human-interest features (sorry, Earth Day).
No, my guess is that the saga of the blogger and the beauty queen managed to crystallize everything that's irritating about "news" today. It combined pseudo-celebrities, Twitter, political sanctimony, inarticulateness and Internet-enabled vulgarity and dressed it up as the latest battle in the culture wars. We weren't embracing the story; we grabbed on to it to shake it by the shoulders and smack it in the face. Somehow, though, all we managed to do was allow it to rub itself -- repeatedly -- in our faces.
If only Jewel had been a judge. She'd have asked a simple question about the right to bare arms, and the pageant would have gotten the non-attention it deserves. Maybe next year.
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