So media darling Katie Holmes is still pregnant (about to bear Scientology’s messiah would be my guess), Bennifer II should be ready to deliver any day now and Paris Hilton is dating Mary-Kate Olsen’s ex-boyfriend just weeks after breaking her engagement to that other Paris. In one of his less successful ventures, Woody Allen quipped, “You can learn a lot about a society by who it chooses to celebrate.”

Jess Cox

Imagine the anthropologists of the future.

Now imagine the anthropologists of the present. We live in an enduringly fascinating culture that chooses to revere J.Lo’s booty above international conflict and domestic economic policy. No well-informed Republican, no matter how passionately partisan, can argue the war in Iraq was ultimately well planned and expertly run, but nearly everyone can agree George W. Bush would be a nice guest at a barbeque.

From where exactly – in our genome or in our society – this obsession with personality derives, I couldn’t begin to guess. At some point, perhaps, we all tacitly accept that keeping pace with politics is just much harder than keeping up with the weekend box office. As a pop-culture columnist, how could I argue?

No, the real problem isn’t that we as a society choose to celebrate entertainment culture, it’s that we as the media are getting so inept at feeding the frenzy. Perhaps it’s precisely because of this absurd focus on entertainment, but someone must have decided Americans are mindless and spread the memo.

Consequently, the pop-culture media has become less a mirror for America’s guilty pleasure obsessions and more a sales pitch for party girls and simpering starlets. It’s harder to blame the tabloids. Few people care about Mischa Barton’s breakup or Lindsay Lohan’s car crash, but tabloids are obligated to run the most salacious rumors available. And as I think the defense secretary once said, you go to the press with pictures of the club-hopping celebrities you have, not the ones you want. No one can force Tom Hanks to table dance.

But giving the too-often-maligned tabloids a break this time doesn’t excuse a recent flurry of media attention related to hot starlet-for-sale Keira Knightley. The worst offender might come from The New York Times, who ran a splendidly poetic ode to Knightley’s face. Here’s a taste: “The camera follows her around like a besotted puppy. It flings itself out of windows and over furniture and through walls just to be close to her,” and “when it finally gets her on the sofa or backs her into a corner, it just licks her all over, in an ecstasy of devotion.”

This is hardly the only instance, but I have to believe it’s the most eloquently written. If you trust the press, Knightley is a magnanimous creature of spectacular, incomparable beauty and unaffected sincerity. The problem is, it seems few people trust the press anymore.

Sure, Knightley is beautiful and talented for her age. Her star will continue to rise because Hollywood and the media have decided she’s “It.” But apparently no one has considered the ticket-buying American public in this calculation. By my egregiously unscientific survey of about a dozen non-newspaper-affiliated movie fans, there were none who had positive things to say about the starlet. “She’s not that pretty, I don’t see the big deal” was the No. 1 response.

The big deal is that the media thinks you should adore her. And we’re confused that the promise of seeing her naked and kicking ass in “Domino” was so completely unappealing that the film opened in seventh place, just below the second weekend gross for a Matthew McConaughey vehicle.

And how many times have we been through this with Jude Law now? He’s a wonderful actor, a handsome man, magazines and film critics adore him – gush over every suit and scarf he’s ever worn, praise every witty quote and sharp dialogue delivery he’s ever given – and America shrugs. You won’t pay to see his movies, but we swear, we promise, we demand that he’s a star.

Knightley’s being touted for Oscar this year, and Law’s been to the ceremonies twice now. With a gold statue in her hands, she might be a more credible celebrity, but the box office ultimately has the last word. That indicts plenty of other actors as well; recent “Elizabethtown” stars Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst come to mind. But to name every star solely famous for hype would take an entire column unto itself. Until then, we’ll sit here perplexed as you display far more autonomy than the media think you have any right to.

 

– Andrade could write pages about why we shouldn’t care about Keira Knightley. Get the full story at aandrade@umich.edu.

 

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