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Death, Taxes, and Celebrity
By Steve Gordon
It had been a long night of beer and video games when, at the ripe hour of seven a.m., I finally decided to lay my head down and crash on a friend’s couch. It was the 21st of January. I hit the TV/Video switch on the remote control to let some heavy morning programming lull me into sleep, only to have one of the local Buffalo newscasts hit me through the din: “Lindsay Lohan to atone for drunk driving by working in a morgue.”
I jolted up and let out a resounding, “¡¿Qué?!” (perhaps the least resoundable exclamation available, to be sure), and let the story unfurl before me.
Evidently, Lindsay Lohan was caught drinking and driving a few times in the last year. Evidently, her punishment is that she has to spend eight hours working in a morgue as some kind of punishment. Evidently, it was important to inform Buffalo residents. Evidently, the only way to inform the public was to have the upbeat morning guy report from an actual morgue, interviewing an actual mortician.
The mortician obviously relished in describing the sensations that Lohan will have to endure: the sight of mangled cadavers, the sounds of ribcages cracking open, the smell of death, all with a twisted smile. Typical mortician, basically.
But I was dumbstruck: what kind of punishment is this?
About 36 hours later, I caught another celebrity news report out of the corner of my eye: “Brokeback Mountain star found dead in apartment.”
I chuckled a little bit, imagining a jet engine crashing through Jake Gyllenhaal’s ceiling. But alas, it was the other guy, Heath Ledger. Evidently, and this is according to the first hasty reports that are still pouring out, he’d taken a bunch of sleeping pills. Evidently, his girlfriend had just left him.
Here, the media has the beginning and end of a great tragedy: Ledger’s girlfriend leaves him and he kills himself, in that order. There will be a necessary postscript, of course, involving a cycle of remembrance stories, interviews with other celebrities, and maybe some pieces on depression and suicide by Sanjay Gupta. A formulaic drama complete with commentary.
I hesitate to add to the public speculation machine, but perhaps the media is too quick to formulate the ‘breakup leads to breakdown’ hypothesis. Psychological problems are generally more complex than the assessments that attempt to ascertain them, and the media’s hypothesis might in fact be inverted.
That’s just another assumption, though. To us, celebrities appear as two dimensional characters whose activities unfold in a glamorous public drama. The notion that a beautiful person’s head might not always be filled simple, beautiful thoughts isn’t a very attention-grabbing idea.
We should be wary that a subscription to tabloid ideology might be reductive not only to celebrities, but also to a public that buys into the fable that life progresses like the movies. In a 2005 interview, Ledger elucidated a corner of his complex human mind, saying, “In a way I was spoon-fed a career. It was fully manufactured by a studio that believed it could put me on their posters and turn me into a product.” But we didn’t want statements like this; we wanted a beautiful smile and a wave from the red carpet. In essence we preferred the product.
The media seems to have the Ledger case conveniently wrapped up, though. Lohan, on the other hand, still has a debt to pay to society, and I still have my head wrapped around her bizarre punishment. What purpose does it serve? Deterrence of future crime? On her behalf? On society’s? Could she possibly lower the tax burden by performing a municipal duty? Or is she just going to get in the way and waste the mortician’s time anyway?
If I was in heaven and Lindsay Lohan was standing over my corpse down on earth, I’d reach over and grab God by the collar of his basketball jersey (in heaven I’m going to play basketball with God, like, all the time), and say, “What the fuck, why is the girl from The Parent Trap cracking open my ribcage?! Wait…where am I?”
Our penal system strives to return society to the order that crime destabilizes. The rich will be fined, the sick will be cured, transgressors will be confined, and the unsalvageable will be destroyed.
Lohan assaulted our civic order by careening through our public Hollywood streets with a head full of booze and coke. Now the young actress will have to undergo the uncanny experience of being near real corpses. This punishment, though justified as being somehow deterrent, falls outside the normal punitive process. If the Ghost of Grisly Accidents Past took Lohan on a tour of flaming wreckages and agonizing funerals, we might see an adjusted disposition on her behalf. Instead, she is going to star in a morgue scene with de-lifed bodies – tragedies that have been reduced to the state of set props.
Irresponsible, drugged-fueled rampages are the privilege of those Super Human celebrities. They are an acceptable illegality, because they contribute to our necessary representation of the Rich & Famous. If there is a repercussion, it too is absorbed into the two dimensional fable: a nasty tabloid cover, some public service photo shoot, or a bad cellulite day on the beach.
Ledger and Lohan’s stories coincide not only chronologically – having occurred in the span of a few days – but they also overlap thematically – as two movies starring attractive young actors that you don’t have to pay to see. Our willingness to believe that exposure to disturbing stimuli can infallibly cure recklessness, or that something as complex as a suicidal disposition can be attributed to something as mundane as a breakup, illuminates a dangerously reductionist sense of social reality. Thankfully, this same social body isn’t expected to choose its own leaders…right?
As a side note, and in closing – if there are any other millionaires out there who are thinking about offing themselves, PLEASE send me some of your useless money. I’m 90% sure I know how to buy happiness, and at the very least I am completely sick of Ramen and Natty Ice.
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