(WOMENSENEWS)--Are celebrity stories the new narrative of American life? Have the people we see on reality shows and "Entertainment Tonight" replaced characters created by novelists and filmmakers as the lives we most relate to?
Have Brangelina, Jon and Kate Gosselin and Tiger Woods taken the place of--among others--Jay Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald), Jo Marsh (Louisa May Alcott), Nick Adams (Ernest Hemmingway) and Beloved (Toni Morrison) as the characters we use to make sense of the American story?
That's the argument made by author and critic Neal Gabler in a recent Newsweek cover story. Celebrity narratives, he contends, are in fact a new art form that trumps traditional media, such as books, movies, plays and television shows. Today, in a fractured culture with many niche markets, celebrity is the major way in which we "create a fund of common experience around which we can form a national community."
If this is true, what are the consequences for women?
Celebrity narratives come in two basic forms--stories about famous folk or about those whose life events suddenly flame into media view. They are often tawdry tales, and men behaving badly feature prominently. But female celebrity tales, more often than not, are stories of victimization, abuse and betrayal. Or they are stories of women becoming famous for nothing, except perhaps for having a certain kind of appearance.
Male Celebrities Action-Oriented
Male celebrities are usually more active. Their actions may be disgusting, thuggish or tacky, but they are actions. Tiger Woods bedded comely young women while projecting the image of a wholesome family man. Mark Sanford, governor of South Carolina, claimed to be hiking the Appalachian Trail while pursuing a female "soul mate" in Argentina; meanwhile his wife stayed home to take care of the kids. Rod Blagojevich tried to peddle Barack Obama's Senate seat to the highest bidder while he was governor of Illinois. And when it comes to stories, this is one race John Edwards may have won.
Female celebs rarely seem to be driving their own fates. Two of the recent ones got famous just because they could make babies.
"Octomom" Nadya Suleman delivered eight live infants, created by in vitro fertilization, even though she was unemployed and already the mother of six children. Suleman's own mother questioned her mental stability.
Kate Gosselin, the co-star of "Jon and Kate Plus Eight," got her reality show by delivering sextuplets while she already had a pair of children. Her fracturing marriage gave the show skyrocketing ratings--it was like watching a train wreck.
Victim stories are common among female celebrities. Recently, singer Rihanna got knocked around by her boyfriend Chris Brown, "One Day at a Time" television star Mackenzie Phillips wrote a book about how she was sexually molested by her father, musician John Phillips of the 1960s band the Mamas and the Papas, and actress Marlee Matlin told of the abuse she said to have suffered at the hands of her ex-boyfriend, actor William Hurt.
Famous for Doing Nothing
A lot of women these days are famous for nothing. Paris Hilton, the hotel chain heiress, claimed that she was the new Marilyn Monroe, but Monroe was an actress of high comedic talent whose best films live on. Hilton somehow came into national fame by scrubbing down a car in her teeny weeny bikini in a TV commercial in 2005 for the Southern California-based Carl's Jr. burger chain--hardly the equivalent of "Some Like It Hot."
Meanwhile, actress Heidi Montag recently got major press for undergoing multiple plastic surgeries. The Kardashians, a media-hungry LA celebrity clan, exploit family dysfunction and "The Anna Nicole Show" depicted the doomed actress in the process of unraveling. "The Real Housewives of Orange County" features a group of very rich, very vapid housewives just being rich and vapid.
How many female celebrities could you call "self-actualized," having accomplished something genuine, not simply looking good, having lots of kids or being victims?
Yes, there are some to consider.
Angelina Jolie may be most famous for being joined at the hip with Brad Pitt, but in her own right she's a U.N. ambassador for children and an accomplished actor.
Sarah Palin--whatever you think of her politics--got herself elected governor of Alaska and is making millions with her bestselling book.
Hillary Clinton certainly did it her way, Michelle Obama projects both glamour and smarts and Meryl Streep is famous for being perhaps the best actress on the planet.
The Exceptions, Not the Rule
These are the exceptions, rather than the rule.
If, as Gabler argues, "celebrity is one of the few things that still crosses all lines," uniting Americans with stories about people they all know (or have at least heard of), then their narratives are constantly playing inside our heads.
But the subtext of these stories is that women have limited roles in society, most of them traditional and subservient: beautiful cipher, rich housewife, scorned spouse, abuse victim, mother of many children.
In a "post-feminist" era, when many young women see the feminist movement as too strident, unrelated to their lives or simply as ancient history, the fact that celebrity narratives are so retrograde is mainly overlooked.
However, they deserve our wary gaze. They are of a piece with other narratives that say women have gone too far, that they outnumber men in college classes and are too ambitious, imperiling the family, their own happiness, male status and the natural order of things.
Why, one wonders, don't we see reality shows about women doing the exciting things they do in real life these days: performing cutting-edge surgery, training to be an astronaut, coming under hostile fire as a soldier, keeping the peace as a police officer or running a city as its mayor? Certainly such women would make for much more compelling drama than rich LA housewives.
Don't hold your breath waiting for such reality shows though. Expect more of the same: The next Paris Hilton, the next Anna Nicole, the next woman battered by her famous partner or betrayed by her famous husband, the next rich housewife, the next bevy of women trying to snag a Bachelor.
When it comes to women, "reality" is pretty restrictive.
Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of "Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women" (University Press of New England).