Presidents, politicians and world leaders are bound to become at least partial pop-culture icons, constantly the target of highly critical media attention. But at what point does the cultural overlap run the risk of diluting the political process?
GQ recently enlisted new contributing editor/hot-tempered supermodel Naomi Campbell to interview Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, presumably to boost the magazine’s political edge. But how a fancy-fluff publication plans to utilize a less-than-credible voice to depict a deeply controversial figure remains to be seen. When GQ talks politics, it does so in the same swooning language it uses to debate this season’s pinstripe suit jackets. In a feature article on presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, writer Jason Horowitz seems more concerned with the “silk blouses” and “orange cheese cubes” dotting the scene of a political event than the real topic at hand.
According to Reuters, Campbell’s interview with Chavez ranged from the Spice Girls and Castro’s wardrobe to Jesus Christ as the foremost revolutionary figure. What exactly Campbell is after here is somewhat unclear, but perhaps more curious is her unique position as interviewer. Chavez has been notoriously difficult with American contacts – journalists, politicians or otherwise – but Campbell falls outside his blacklisted label. Born in London and the daughter of a Jamaican dancer and father of Afro-Caribbean and Chinese heritage, Campbell’s association with the United States rests largely in the fashion and music industries.
(Also on Campbell’s agenda is a possible meeting with Fidel Castro, though it hasn’t been reported whether the project has been put into motion.)
Several months ago Chavez expressed interest in meeting with another American celebrity, Sean Penn, and apparently respects him for being well-informed global politics. Maybe it’s the haze of Hollywood stardom that puts the American actor on neutral grounds with Chavez, or maybe there’s a link that a disillusioned public refuses to recognize. And caught in the stereotypical assumption that L.A. celebs lack the intellectual capacity to tackle politics head-on, it’s unlikely that a politician would feel particularly threatened.
The real issue becomes less of a limelight abuse situation than a questionable method of credible reporting and criticism.
If GQ seems to be on the border of serious news reporting, try Glamour on for size. The women’s magazine has incorporated a campaign blog to its site. It’s called Glamocracy, and it’s very . pink. With mini stars flanking each writer’s name and ads for a 30-Day makeover running down the side of the page, it’s not easy to keep a straight face. Like GQ, Glamour’s news reporting stays in line with the tone of the rest of the magazine, delivering a political message through casual gabbing and personal asides. (Glamour’s other blogs cover fashion, beauty, sex advice and health.)
I don’t mean to imply that pop-culture publications are incapable of providing legitimate coverage, but the line between accessible and irrelevant has become increasingly blurred.
In isolated instances, the circumstances of such reporting can sound downright ridiculous. Glamour analyzing Hillary’s tearful moments isn’t pressing coverage, but for many readers, it may be what works. With so much attention of the press centered on the 2008 campaigns, the relaxed tone of popular publications could be a much-needed break from the hourly policy rants on CNN. And when you look at the list of pop-culture elements seeping into politics in big and small ways, it’s hardly surprising that a seemingly niche market is actually what the public wants.
From Reagan’s white “Marlboro Man” cowboy hat (continued in both Bush administrations) to Arnold Schwarzenegger taking office as governor of California; from Jon Stewart becoming a pre-eminent news source to Oprah’s backing of Obama: Now more than ever, there’s a precedent for pop-culture politics.
The appropriation of pop culture to politics does not weaken the system, nor does the incorporation of a common symbolic language make the political world any less significant. The simple recognition that a campaign is subject to further examination than political science theorists can offer is a starting point to fully realizing the extent to which politics operate within a particular social environment.
So how much influence do the entertainment and advertising industries really have over politics? If you consider the union of charisma and dollar signs, neither public arena is all that removed from the other. You might turn the channel on Oprah, but for millions of people, the woman sells. Maybe Glamour’s news spin seems frivolous, but for thousands of subscribers, it’s what readers want. The level of political interest only matters to a point. At the very least, information that can feel complexly esoteric is, in some form, available to a wider audience that might not have otherwise made time to understand the political climate that surrounds them.
The TV viewers, the magazine readers – everyone who walks through their day inundated with ads – they aren’t just consumers. Many of them are also voters.
Wanna feel Chavez’s muscles? E-mail Hartman at firstname.lastname@example.org.