A classic series of Doonesbury comic strips from the 1970s revolved around a conference at which the subject was media overutilization of the word “superstar” as it related to celebrities. It was decided that from that point on those in the media would limit the use of the term superstar to just one person: Robert Redford. The choice was appropriate at the time as Redford was at his peak and was undeniably a superstar. The current situation in America in regard to the uses of the words celebrity and star cannot help but remind me of that pointed comic strip. Especially when the situation in question is reality shows in general and “Dancing with the Stars” in particular.
Today’s instant celebrity atmosphere in America is such that Andy Warhol’s prediction of everyone becoming famous for 15 minutes seems almost quaint. Today, of course, you have people with no demonstrable talent retaining their fame for weeks at a time on “Dancing with the Stars.” Even more bewildering is that so many of these people had already achieved a level of notoriety substantial enough to warrant being typified as a “star” worth dancing with. Can anyone point out any reason why Kim Kardashian or NeNe Leakes are famous? At least Kim Kardashian has a unique level of infamy as a starting point: the reaction on her dad’s face when the jury returned a verdict of not guilty for O.J. Simpson is really all the evidence needed to realize the Juice almost certainly was guilty as hell.
As for Nene Leakes, well, she was just the Bristol Palin of her stint on “Dancing with the Stars.” As she was mercifully tossed from the show about five weeks past the date she should have been exorcised, she continued her grab for legitimacy as a star by yet again insisting that she was just a housewife from Atlanta with no experience dancing going up against professionals. The truth is that NeNe Leakes started her career path toward “Dancing with the Stars” with a stint as a stripper. It would be easy to say that a stripper certainly must be considered to have had experience as a dancer and that Leakes was being rather dubiously truthful about the reasons she was cast out of “Dancing with the Stars.” Having seen Leakes dance on the show, however, the more correct interpretation would be the Leakes belongs to that select group of strippers who managed to keep their job on stage despite lacking any dancing talent whatever.
Almost as bad as the Kim Kardashian brand of corruption of the term celebrity are those pseudo-celebrities populating the devastated landscape of American television known as reality TV. Reality TV reached its apotheosis as a bastardization of the tried and true American television genre known as the game show. Rather than having to answer question or predict responses to polls or dress up in funny costumes and choose between cash and a mystery prize hidden behind a door, however, the game shows that masqueraded as a glimpse into the reality of American life survived and thrive by pitting one contestant against another and creating phony drama and conflict. Reality TV shows are just as tightly scripted as any sitcom or police crime drama, but that hardly matters. The best thing about this type of reality TV was that these untalented and mostly uncharismatic contestants disappeared from the consciousness when the season ended.
The current generation of Reality TV does not offer such satisfaction. Instead, we are given multiple seasons of shows dedicated to the exploits of the common American worker. We get to see lumberjacks, crab fishermen, pawn store owners and representatives of just about every other vocation known to man acting out phony dramatic situations concocted by some poor screenwriter whose inventive idea for an fictional show was passed over because it would require paying Hollywood actor salaries. Why pay for actors when you can get bearded hick snake oil salesman to speak in a backwoods patois that belies their questionable route to millionaire status for far less actual salary than actually talented people?
It is an endlessly troubling reality that most of the real life workers cast in this generation of Reality TV shows are not just exceptionally uninteresting, but that their utter lack of uniquely distinctive personality is exactly what viewers are supposed to find most appealing. Perhaps, then, the devaluation of the term star as it relates to NeNe Leakes appearing on “Dancing with the Stars” was entirely constructed around the fact that not only could she not dance, but she was whiny, childish and exhibited nothing but factual evidence that her only possibly road to fame would require the asphalt of intelligently choosing a spouse.
Why find an appealing pawn shop worker when your show revolves around the customers who come in searching for the most disgusting and vile of “oddities” to be sold? Was I on vacation when America shouted with one united voice that what they most craved to watch on their television sets were the daily grind of exceptionally repulsive men and women engaged in careers that most people never took the time to think about before the shows about those jobs began to air? To call the cast members of these types of shows “stars” is just another step in the devaluation of the meaning of that term that falls just below calling an American Idol judge a star.
Do you ever wonder if those involved in “Dancing with the Stars” are just engaging in irony with their title. To the best of my knowledge, the number of celebrity contestants who danced on that show that could be call stars at the time of their appearance ranges at about the 5% level. But at least most of the contestants on “Dancing with the Stars” could lay claim to having been a star at one time or another. Or at least they could claim to be famous for displaying some level of talent on TV, record for film. The absolute nadir of the irony of the title “Dancing with the Stars” and the end of the line for the word “star” to have any meaning left to it whatever came when it was announced that Bristol Palin would become a contestant.
Until NeNe Leakes came along. And Leakes will likely occupy the nadir as briefly as did Palin.
There is one good thing about the devaluation of the titular term in “Dancing with the Stars.” It is official now. Everyone in America can rightly call themselves a “star.” If Bristol Palin and NeNe Leakes are worthy of the title, then everyone is.