Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: Sarah Palin

Leave Levi Alone!

Even if he doesn’t want to be.

Whether it be through entertainment or politics, the majority of famous people chose to be in the public eye. Not just ‘chose’ but worked their whole careers to get elected to federal government or star alongside Julia Roberts. So all the bitching about the downsides of celebrity gets a little tiring, especially when it seems like a pose. Fetal starlets like Miley Cyrus make music videos whining about the paparazzi almost as soon as they’ve become famous. Miley, you don’t need to be famous if you don’t want to be.

There’s a long line of people, from influential writers like J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee, presidential offspring like Amy Carter (who essentially disappeared after her father left office), and Hollywood legends like Greta Garbo, who spent the final decades of her life glamorously ‘left alone’ in her New York City apartment, who have given up fame. Inarguably, no paparazzi photographer should jump in front of an actress’s car in order to snap her hair extension-pulling screams for TMZ, but that doesn’t negate the fact that most of the people granted that much attention somehow asked for it.

Which is why I felt oddly protective of Levi Johnston. Back in 2008, when we were all still learning who Sarah Palin was (what halcyon days, those!) and news broke that her daughter Bristol was pregnant, it didn’t take the media long to discover who the father was, and his myspace page. Levi’s sweaty hockey picture was posted everywhere, quotes from his profile were taken out of context (until, mercifully, the page disappeared), and, what should have been a private predicament (the accidental pregnancy of two teenagers) became a late-night punch line. Despite my aversion to Republicans, I thought it was highly unfair. (Didn’t hurt, I guess, that I also thought Levi was pretty cute.)

He didn’t chose for his girlfriend’s mother to run for Vice-President, making her family momentarily the world’s most famous Alaskans. Clay Shirky in Here Comes Everyone argued that, even when it seems public, personal blogs or social networking profiles aren’t actually for everyone. He compares it to teenagers talking in the mall food-court: yeah, sure, anyone could listen into their conversation, but it’s not for you and you’re not interested, so why would you? This is true only up to a point. When you’re made famous overnight, that embarrassing website of yours can go from thirty hits to thirty-thousand.

You wonder what it must have been like for a shy, inarticulate young man to attend the Republican National Convention, receiving almost as much attention as his camera-ready would-be future mother-in-law.  It was easy to interpret the deer-in-the-headlights look on his face as that of a ‘shot-gun wedding’ groom’s, but maybe it was the stadium filled to capacity, the bright lights, the screaming delegates in boaters and elephant-themed regalia which was so overwhelming.

“We were planning on getting married a long time ago with or without the kid,” Johnston said, in one of his many interviews. “That was the plan from the start.”

“Well,” I remember my parents saying. “We’ll see what happens if they lose…”

Sure enough, on November 4th, the cooler heads of the American electorate prevailed, and not long afterwards, the cooler heads of the Palin-Johnston family called it off.

And that should have been it. The justification for his fame having been withdrawn, he could have gone back to the Alaskan oil fields to work again as an assistant-technician, saving a couple magazine covers to prove to his future grandkids that he was briefly famous. But it was not to be. Indeed, freed from his engagement and the Palin clan, he had no leash controlling him and the market was white-hot for gossip about Miss Wasilla 1984.

So he went on the Tyra Banks Show, and did an interview with Vanity Fair in which he spread some pretty nasty rumours, including the rather dubious claim that Palin referred to her newborn son with Down’s syndrome as “my retarded baby”. Pretty soon, it was clear I was not the only one to find him handsome. He did some suit modeling, pursued an acting career and befriended (who else?) Kathy Griffin, recently escorting her to the Teen Choice Awards. But of course, most famously, there was the Playgirl photospread. I remember hearing the theory that Playboy generally wouldn’t want A-list actresses and singers to disrobe even if they could get them, that an added bonus for their readers was to sexualize former stars and C-listers, women they could kind of look down upon. This fetishization of loserdom was definitely present in Levi’s pictures, where strategically-placed hockey equipment (including one in which massive gloves cover his crotch) mock his popular jock good looks. ‘Look how far down he’s gone’ you could almost hear middle-aged women and gay men purring.

It also gave Sarah Palin the rhetorical upper-hand, something she doesn’t have most of the time, as she took faux-pity on him and his “aspiring porn career.”

The only good thing he ever did was speak out against the naivety of abstinence-only education. “Abstinence is a great idea,” he told The Early Show. “But I also think you need to enforce, you know, condoms and birth control and other things like that to have safe sex. I don’t just think telling young kids, ‘you can’t have sex’ – it’s not going to work. It’s not realistic.” This was a far cry from his ex Bristol, who didn’t allow the hypocrisy of getting accidentally pregnant stop her from promoting no sex before marriage, a stunning bit of ‘do what I say, not what I do.’

Speaking of Bristol, I haven’t even gotten to his recent reunion with the mother of his child, a wedding announcement splashily played out on the covers of Us Weekly, allegedly before Palin was told. This was followed by rumours of Levi impregnating another young woman (denied), the second calling off of a wedding, and another slew of magazine covers.

Bristol and Levy: the Heidi and Spencer of the Bering Strait.

When, during the filming of her reality TV show, the half-term former Governor of Alaska was confronted by a protestor, angry at Palin’s abandonment of the state in favour of being a “celebrity”, Bristol, on hand for the show, interrupted, “How is she a celebrity?”

Oh, I don’t know, Bristol, it might have something to do with REALITY TV and US FREAKIN’ WEEKLY!

Now, in a nice politics-celebrity-politics circle, Levi wants to be mayor of Wasilla, the town that first elected Palin. He’s not letting his inexperience stop him. (Why should it? Palin’s didn’t.) “It’s for real,” he said. “I’m going to go there and do what I can. Obviously that’s where I grew up and that’s my home. It’s always going to be home to me. [My son] Tripp’s going to grow up there and I want to change a few things.” For his part, the current mayor of Wasilla Verne Rupright gave him some advice: “I think it would be wise for him to get a high school diploma and keep his clothes on. The voters like that!” But the better dead-pane zinger goes to his ex Bristol, who said “I’m glad that Levi has not given up on completing his education and is looking for steady employment.” Nice.

Bristol, who claims that the final straw for their relationship came when Levi shot a music video mocking the Palin family, said that Levi is “obsessed with the limelight and I got played.” Obviously, the money is a very real factor for stretching one’s 15 minutes into a permanent career. A cameo in a music video or a shirtless pose with hockey stick gets Levi a larger paycheck than he might otherwise have ever seen in his life. (Which is pathetic, that’s how it is.)

But is there something more than just the money? Is fame, after the initial leave-me-alone, I’m-just-like-everyone-else, deer-in-the-headlights protestations, actually addictive? At least actors, even the most mediocre ones, have a craft, are contributing something. Levi Johnston, like Jon and Kate Gosselin and their eight children, became famous not for a personal accomplishment, but out of extraordinary circumstances, and now needs to keep finding different avenues (nudey shoots, interviews, mayor of Wasilla) to keep his celebrity flowing.

The fame justifies the means.

Run away, Levi. You’re still getting attention now because you’re cute and we’ve all had the name Sarah Palin permanently programmed in our skulls to pay attention to, like O.J. Simpson before her. But it can only get worse from here. Like the Mediterranean rent-boys at the horrifying end of Suddenly Last Summer (or, if you will, the female rollerbladers in that Robbie Williams video), we demand more and more from our celebrities until we cannibalistically pull them to shreds. Go back to Alaska, work in oil or hunt animals if you have to. To retire from the fame game, rather than continue to take off your clothes and pimp your family dramas, would turn you into someone actually worth ‘celebrating’.

Advertisements

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.

Yes ‘Tee’ Can!

The 2008 American election was a big deal for my family. Like many people around the world, we were transfixed by the personalities, the drama, the historical precedents broken and the opportunity to start anew after eight years of Bush. As a family of political junkies, with two newspapers daily, CNN constantly on the TV and my filling my parents in on what the blogosphere was saying, we were particularly obsessed. During the long primary process, my family’s support was evenly divided; my Mom, a dedicated feminist, supported Hillary Clinton, while my Dad and I favoured Barack Obama. This led to some light-hearted rows in which both candidates’ main spin lines would be repeated ad nauseum and my Grandmother, thinking we were all nuts, would attempt to change the channel to country music.

I want to put my Obama tee-shirt into context. When I finally bought it the summer before the election, I was not doing so out of any jump-on-the-bandwagon trendiness. This would not be a repeat of my misguided Che Guevara tee-shirt circa 2002. I had thought long and hard about my support for the senator from Illinois and as a Canadian ineligible to vote or even to donate money south of the border (my Dad looked into it), I wanted to show my support the best way I knew how: through fashion.

I went to Queen Street and had a tee-shirt made with a pixilated portrait of Obama smiling handsomely. Only when it was finished did I discover that the design was in white and was just barely visible on the light blue tee-shirt I had picked out. The iconic face only became recognizable on close inspection (something like the Shroud of Turin), but I came to appreciate that this would be an Obama tee-shirt no one else had. I wore it proudly, always aware that someone might start a fight with me, but confident that I could defend my candidate and tee-shirt choice.

The last weekend of summer, my family and I were half out the door for our cottage when I read online that John McCain had announced his running mate. “Who the heck is Sarah Palin?” I thought as I grabbed my backpack and headed down to the car. A week later, I reluctantly watched the Republican National Convention to get the scoop on Alaska’s governor for my parents who were still on Lake Simcoe. I watched Palin’s confrontational and sarcastic speech gape-mouthed. “She’s making fun of community organizers!” I cried to my Dad via cell phone. “She’s just… awful!” Eventually, I had to change the channel.

The very next day was my first at the University of Toronto. I knew many of my fellow grad students would want to impress by dressing smart but casual, in button up shirts and corduroy jackets. When I woke up, the “traditional Alaskan wind song” (as Tina Fey would later call it) of Palin’s voice was still seared into my brain, and in protest I grabbed my Obama tee-shirt. “On this day of all days,” I thought, “I am proud to wear this!” The backlash from my new peers, either for political reasons or because my political sincerity was undeniably nerdy, never materialized. Instead, some of the first friends I made in the program approached me because of the shirt and indulged me as I ranted about Palin’s speech the night before.

On election night, there was only one choice of what to wear, but weary of jinxing the outcome, I covered it up in a hoodie. (“Watching CNN will be insufferable if they don’t elect him,” I said. “If they don’t elect him, CNN gets turned off…forever,” my Dad replied ominously.) When they announced Obama’s win, early in the night but years in the waiting, I couldn’t believe it was all over. As my family opened sparkling wine, I added to my tee-shirt a button that said “Yes We Did.”

A year and a half later, the tee-shirt hangs in my closet, a memento of that exciting time. President Obama’s first year in office had its ups and downs, and while my support for him has never wavered, I don’t know when I will wear the tee-shirt again. Showing support for a candidate during an election is one thing; wearing a tee-shirt with the person who now heads the American government signifies something completely different. A tee-shirt supporting the president seems thuddingly uncool, even when the president is cool himself. Perhaps I will wear it again when he runs for re-election and I feel he needs my support again against whichever climate-change denier gets the Republican nomination. And if I keep the shirt long enough, it may accrue hipster status, like memorabilia with Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan, although the diminishment of Obama into a camp relic would be depressing to any of us who got excited in 2008.

A friend recently returned from a trip to Washington, D.C. and told me of tee-shirts being sold in the airport which said, “Don’t blame me, I voted for McCain-Palin.” “Oh my god!” I exclaimed, “I would totally wear one of those.” Then I felt the need to add, “As a joke, of course.” What a difference a year makes.