Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: Miss Manners

Hollywood Endings and Fame Monsters

Was any of it real?

After six seasons of hooking up, breaking up and making up, The Hills saga has drawn to a close. The series, which followed a group of leggy Los Angeles women as they searched for love, went shopping, got yelled at by bosses and stared off into space, was the ultimate unreal reality TV show. The filming and awkward incoherence of speech suggested it wasreal life:  the subtitles, present when the cast was gossiping at a loud night club, were helpful in simply trying to figure out what the characters actually meant.

But even the most naive viewer could tell that the situations and editing were as contrived as high theatre. Good girl Lauren Conrad, best-friend-turned-nemesis Heidi Montag and space-cadet Audrina Patridge essentially played versions of themselves, versions which had low-paying fashion internships (while they actually got paid millions by the show) and apparently had no qualms about their most private moments being filmed by MTV.

Dan Levy (handsome hipster son of Eugene) and Jessi Cruickshank built a career out of dissecting their lives on MTV Canada’s The Aftershow. Quaintly, as if they were Miss Manners, they would often focus on what one should do in a social situation: “What do we think, should Audrina tell Ryan about her ex?” The sycophantic panel would put in their two-cents (when they could get a word in edgewise) and the audience would cheer or boo according to the character’s likeability. Most bizarre was when one of the cast-members showed up and answered questions about supposedly-real events in their lives, always inarticulately.

“What was it like witnessing Brody and Kristin fight?”

“It was… weird…” the young woman would say, holding the microphone nervously like a bomb.

The Aftershow played a key role for fans of The Hills, beyond the comfort of having one’s guilty pleasure shared. Dan and Jessi were undeniably real and brought some much-needed Canadian self-deprecation. And they were much better role models than Lauren et al. “It was almost parenting, in a really fun, young, sort of way,” Levy told The Toronto Star recently. “Saying, ‘Hey kids, you can watch the show. We do, but let’s not be Heidi Montag. We can watch Heidi Montag, but let’s not be her.’ ”

In a fitting tribute, Dan and Jessi hosted a glitzy farewell special worthy of Oscar night at LA’s Roosevelt Hotel. Sitting by the pool on white couches, they re-introduced the ladies (who exclusively wore short dresses and high heels) and their much-scruffier men. True to form, the cast didn’t say much, beyond weak plugs for future TV/movie/fashion line careers.

The big scoop of the night was the return of Lauren Conrad, who had been the heart and soul of the show. Along with her classic All American prettiness (not ruined even by her famed mascara-streaked tears) she was the only character with any kind of wit, and the series plummeted when she left after the fifth season. Like a cruel joke, producers cast Lauren’s enemy from Laguna Beach as her replacement, the phenomenally unlikeable Kristin Cavaralli. She was introduced as the archetypal bitch until, in true surreal The Hills fashion, she suddenly became everyone’s best friend. The limp series finale centred on her decision to move somewhere unspecified in Europe because everybody had a boyfriend except her, and hunky Brody Jenner’s lacklustre attempts to get her to stay, as though she was Carrie leaving for Paris and he was Mr. Big.

As if.

In an article about the ‘American Dream’ for Vanity Fair, David Kamp described the “existential ennui of the well-off, attractive, solipsistic kids” of The Hills as the “the curdling of the whole Southern California wish-fulfillment genre on television”. “Here were affluent beach-community teens enriching themselves further not even by acting or working in any real sense, but by allowing themselves to be filmed as they sat by campfires maundering on about, like, how much their lives suck.”

And this “curdling” is viewed all around the world. We have found the perfect export for post-modern America: a television show, essentially an advertisement for stores, clubs and magazines, which not only glamourizes the shopping-bag-swinging-swagger of America’s young elite as they pound the pavement of palm-lined-boulevards, but implies it is completely acceptable to live one’s life on camera, even if it is not one’s real life. No wonder the new generation has no problem posting pictures of themselves in bikinis on facebook, or confessing the most private details to billions on youtube.

But if Lauren Conrad represents the obvious lesson of The Hills (that you too can dominate every area of media, even the New York Times bestseller list, if you are pretty and sunny and shameless), the series also demonstrated the dark side of celebrity, not by who was present on The Aftershow but by who was not (and completely absent from the series finale as well): that two-headed hydra, Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag.

Heidi had been Lauren’s best friend until meeting Spencer and, through back-stabbing gossip, became the show’s central villain, albeit a clueless one with no self-awareness. The couple quickly alienated everyone, but as their friendships declined their fame rose. They went on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! and ‘wrote’ ‘books’ about how to become famous (befriend famous people, it turns out). Like true villains, they supported John McCain. Spencer dabbled in the world of white-boy rap and Heidi got an insane amount of plastic surgery (including eight procedures in one day, which could have killed her), turning her looks from those of an attractive 25-year-old into those of a well-preserved 45-year-old.

They had, simply put, become Hollywood monsters.

In the show’s final season, they had become too dramatic even for The Hills, as Heidi disowned her mother after a teary fight over her surgery (again, with The Hills, we have no idea what’s genuine) and Spencer grew a beard, began believing in the power of crystals and yelled at everyone, all the time. Now, it is rumoured that they are getting a divorce, but it all could be a scheme to build hype for a series of their own.

Neither were present at The Aftershow special, but, presumably out of family loyalty, Spencer’s sister Stephanie and Heidi’s sister Holly showed up, only to inform the hosts that they had not spoken to the couple in months. Holly had to sit through a montage of vintage clips of Heidi and her old face, and broke down in (real?) tears. “She’s the best person in the world,” she gushed. “And I have complete faith that we will be reunited.”

Only later did we learn that Spencer, due to his erratic behaviour, had actually been banned from the special, but had shown up outside the hotel creepily wearing a grey beard and old-man make-up (I guess as a disguise to help sneak in). “I feel like I’ve been hated a lot on this show,” he ranted, “and I came here for some closure!”

The actual ending of the series was far more interesting and self-aware than I would ever expect from the creators. Brody said goodbye to Kristin as her car drove off, presumably to the airport on her way to “Europe”. But just when you expect the credits to begin, the scene of a leafy LA neighbourhood behind Brody becomes a paper backdrop, and is taken down to reveal an urban alleyway. Cameras, microphones and a film crew enter and Brody, breaking character, congratulates them. As the shot pulls away we see that we’re on the back lot of a studio, and Kristin jumps out of her car and runs back to Brody for a hug.

This brilliant ending suggests that the entire thing was an act, that nothing we watched over the last six years was real. Brody admitted as much to Dan and Jessi when he said, “Kristin and I might not even be friends… you don’t know what’s real, it was a TV show.”

While the makers of The Hills left fans questioning the authenticity of the entire saga, they unintentionally, through the real real lives of Spencer and Heidi, provided a cautionary tale of where being addicted to fame can lead.  

Other People: Jacob Kaufman


Jacob was my first friend in high school. He began talking to me one day, an odd occurence to anyone who remembers grade 9, and we haven’t stopped talking since. Our occasional arguments honed my debating skills and crystallized what I believe, but I’m mostly thankful for Jacob’s loyalty and interested nature. He has just finished law school, where he was named valedictorian, and there’s no limit to what he’ll achieve.

MM: What interested you in going into law? Are you going to use it for good or evil?

JK: Well, I graduated with a degree in history and it turned out the big history companies weren’t hiring. Given my skill set I had to choose between a Master’s program, teacher’s college or law school. I’ve always been interested in reading and arguing, so I decided on law. I intend to use my degree for good, though I realize not everyone may concur with my definition of “good”. I strongly believe that lawyers have an ethical obligation to represent their clients to the fullest. Some people see the role of lawyers as social crusaders who will identify what is wrong with society and then advocate through the legal system to fix it.

I see myself more as a butler. Like butlers, lawyers wear dark suits, have a duty of discretion and help rich people with their problems. There is a place for crusading in the legal world, but there’s also a place for working for businesses. Businesses create the jobs that keep our economy strong and I’m proud to be helping do my small part to keep the wheels turning. I’ll be starting work at my law firm in a few weeks and we get to rotate through several different practice areas, so it’ll be interesting to see what I end up liking.

MM: What would you like to be doing in ten years?

JK: I would like to be a partner at the firm I will be working for. It’s a full of great people and interesting work. It’s a little awkward saying that because it’s kind of presumptuous: I don’t even know if I’ll be hired back to be a lawyer there. Still, you work hard and hope for the best. Ultimately, I want to love what I’m doing. You work fairly long hours as a lawyer and if you don’t like what you’re doing, you’re going to be miserable for most of your life. I’d also like to have a garden and own several bottles of nice scotch.

MM: Describe who your parents are and what it was like growing up in the Benson-Kaufman household.

JK: I have two mothers: Miriam Kaufman and Roberta Benson. Miriam is a purple-haired pediatrician; Roberta is a former lawyer who left the field to raise me and my sister. My house was full of books and laughter. The ‘rents tried to limit our tv and candy consumption by restricting us to TVO and PBS and candy to once a week (Saturday! We could get a chocolate bar!). As we got older the rules eased, but to this day I don’t consume a lot of tv or candy.

I suppose people would want to know how it was different having lesbian moms instead of a “normal” family. Well to me, that was normal. I didn’t really get culture shock that most people had a mom and a dad. The thing about my family that did give me culture shock is that my moms are both smart and kind people and so I assumed all adults were smart and kind. It was disappointing to learn otherwise.

I am sometimes asked which is my “real” mom. Well, they both are. Though Miriam is my biological mother, in 1995 my parents and three other lesbian couples launched a Charter challenge so both could be my legal mother . That would probably have been a better answer to the “why do you want to be a lawyer” question than “I want to be a butler.”

The community has been very good to be, so I’m volunteering with Out On Bay Street, an organization that, inter alia, runs a conference that links queer and allied business, law and consulting students with businesses and law firms. We’re trying to branch out and provide networking and mentorship opportunities throughout the entire year. I’m the corporate secretary, which means I get business cards and everything!

MM: What book should everyone start reading tomorrow?

JK:  There’s a lot of candidates, but I think I’d assign How To Lie With Statistics. This cute and short 1950’s book is more retro than a Queen St. hipster, but it conveys an important message. The book analyzes all the Procrustean tricks used to contort the data to make it say what the contorter wants. As a society we’ve largely beat illiteracy, but we still have a problem with innumeracy. This book is a good first step to helping solve that problem. Certainly, it would be great in high school media literacy classes.

MM:  We argued sometimes in high school, but you are significantly less neo-con than you were then. Any opinions that you regret?

JK: While I could nitpick individual opinions that I was wrong on – the Iraq War springs to mind – I think I regret my overarching thought process of certainty. I knew the right answer to everything. I was intoxicated with books like Freedom To Chose by Milton Friedman or Parliament of Whores by P.J. O’Rourke. Well, as it turns out, life is complex. Hopefully, I’ve learned a little humility in not just seeing the world in black and white terms. Now, I still believe firmly in some moral absolutes and have strong opinions. But I always try to challenge my own opinions and learn more about those I disagree with. Understanding, after all, is not agreeing.

MM: Why did you become a vegetarian? What’s the most difficult thing about it?

JK: I have been a vegetarian for about 21 years and a full vegetarian (i.e. no fish) for 16 years. I know exactly why I became a full vegetarian: it was to win a childhood argument. I was somewhat of a self-righteous vegetarian back then and one of my friends decided to challenge me on it. “Oh yeah,” he said, “Well you eat fish and that’s the same.” “No it isn’t,“ I shot back. “How is it different?” “Fine! I won’t eat fish.” I haven’t eaten seafood since, which I guess also shows the lengths I’ll go to win an argument.

In terms of why I first became a vegetarian I guess it was a confluence of many factors. My parents are vegetarian, but there were also ethical and environmental considerations. Ghandi once said “Be the change you want to see in the world.” While individual consumption choices can’t make a difference, I do try to follow this maxim. I don’t think that everyone needs to be a vegetarian, but I do think we’d all be better off if everyone ate less meat and animal products. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a matter of having “meatless” days, why not have, say, tofu sautéed in beef stock? Or mushroom and chicken pasta instead of just chicken?

Being a vegetarian is actually pretty easy, especially in a cosmopolitan city like Toronto. The main difficulty involves eating in restaurants. Most restaurants usually have a vegetarian selection, but many do not… or have the dreaded grilled vegetarian plate. I always hate asking for a meat dish without the meat because in a non-trivial number of cases someone in the kitchen slips up and sends it out with meat anyway.

MM: Why do you own so many Miss Manners books?

I am a big fan of Judith Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners. For the uninitiated, Miss Manners is a etiquette advice columnist. She has a rapier wit and is very self-aware. Her advice ranges from one part sarcastic / one part snobby / one part genuinely useful. For example:

“Dear Miss Manners:

I have been invited to a baby shower for a friend’s second child. The first one is just turning 2 years old. I always thought baby showers were for your first child and you used the baby items again for your second child. To me it seems they are begging for gifts. My daughter claims this is the norm these days. What is your opinion?

That your daughter is right: Begging for gifts is normal these days. It is also vulgar, of course.”

This is from her online column, of course. In her books, those that seek her aid are addressed as “Gentle Reader”.

MM: Predictions for the a) Toronto Mayoral election, b) next Canadian federal election and c) American presidential election.

JK: My predictions are pretty milquetoast, I’m afraid:
a) Smitherman, but you never know. There is a lot of populist anger in the city right now and Ford might be able to ride that to victory.
b) Another Conservative minority government.
c) Obama/Biden narrowly beats Palin/Pawlenty.

MM: What was the most embarrassing thing that happened during your time at Queens?

JK: I’m not going to give any drinking stories, because – by definition – if you’re drunk enough to do something that be “the most embarrassing thing”, you’re drunk enough not to be embarrassed. I guess then, the most embarrassing thing happened in my dorm in the first few weeks of my first year. I had gotten into the shower and it was perfect. Too often, to shower is to exist in a state of unpleasant dichotomies: too hot or too cold; too forceful or too low pressure. On that day, however, everything was in a state of perfect harmony.

And so, I stayed in the shower for probably half an hour. Singing. Now, I don’t have a great voice but I was just so exuberated regarding the wonderfulness of the water. I sung my way through a not insignificant portion of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan before I, regretfully, put on my towel and opened the door. To see about half my floor standing around the entrance in a semi-circle. Don’t panic, I thought, there could be any number of reasons why they would be here.

And then the slow clap started.

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