IT’S A SIGN of the times that many of us first heard of Nelson Mandela’s passing on Twitter. Great democratic tool that it is, news outlets, cultural commenters and ordinary mourners clamoured to express their thoughts on the man and his legacy, and for a while there everyone’s feed was a jumble of quotes, memories and analysis. Mandela was one of the greats. There is a unity to our thoughts when a great person dies. We feel like we must say something, anything, to honour that person, to state to those around us: I get it. I felt it too.
So when Paris Hilton, superbrat par excellence, tweeted that she was saddened to hear of Mandela’s passing because she was inspired by his “I Have A Dream” speech, people were unsurprised. Appalled, amused, or incensed, yes. Stupid lass can’t tell the difference between Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. In jostling to pay her respects she displayed her ignorance – typical mindless tool! But not surprised; no, no one was surprised. Paris Hilton? Would you put it past her?
But, as it turns out, the tweet didn’t come from Hilton. It was a hoax.
It suited her persona perfectly, because Paris works hard at playing the risible airhead, but on this occasion she was the victim of a malicious or misjudged satire ‘shop. What was it that Mark Twain said? “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still pulling its boots on?” Or was that Winston Churchill? No matter*. It’s a good one; that’s all that counts.
The previous go-to blonde joke was Mariah Carey
Paris Hilton isn’t the first celebrity to be enthusiastically misquoted. The previous go-to blonde joke was Mariah Carey, and a couple of right doozies have been ascribed to her gentle idiocy: one, that she tearfully told reporters on the passing of the King of Jordan that he was the greatest basketball player of all time; and two, that starving children made her cry because she wished she could be as skinny as they were. More recently, Tom Cruise was quoted as comparing acting with serving in Afghanistan, for which he was set to be pulled apart by wild horses until everyone realised he’d said no such thing.
It can go darker than that. Fugees star Lauren Hill was widely quoted as having said she’d rather die than have a white person buy one of her records, something I admit I fell for when I first heard it, but in my defence it was the ‘90s, I was a child and my brain cells had been fried by repeated viewings of Sister Act 2 (I now try to limit myself to the original).
And speaking of religious razzle-dazzle, popular pontiff Francis was quoted as having said that “women are naturally unfit for political office.” The quote was bunkum, malicious in intent and utterly unnecessary. If someone wishes to criticise the Catholic Church, there are plenty of legitimate ways to initiate debate. Likewise (although in more frivolous terms), if someone wishes to poke fun at Tom Cruise or Mariah Carey or Paris Hilton, there are plenty of real deeds they can be taken to task for. I’m lost on the Lauren Hill example, because someone wishing to point out that African Americans are all bubbling “reverse racists” really shouldn’t be given any extra air, lest their gaseous gormlessness prove explosive.
Do people so badly need reassurance that they’re ‘smarter’?
One would wonder if the truly stupid person is the one who rushes to accept celebrity clangers just because they so badly need reassurance that they’re smarter than the undeserving idol. It’s a bit like taking headlines from The Onion as real stories.
So is it just a readiness to believe the worst, born of begrudgery, that allows us to fall for outrageous celebrity quotes? It’s likely that’s a part of it, because deep down we’re all committed commies who get fierce annoyed when we see others get attention for doing stuff we’re damn sure we could do better. I have to admit that I’m fast approaching the stage where I want to kick all the Newbridge Silverware off Amy Huberman’s perfect table because I’m a seething pile of domestic anxiety and she has no business looking that serene before a dinner party.
On the other hand, there is a desperation in modern celebrity, a desire to stay in the headlines in a world with a very short attention span. After all, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about (Oscar Wilde, guys), and so there is a breed of celebrity whose number consistently and consciously say shocking things in order to steady the spotlight that little bit longer. Kim Kardashian is the reigning champion, though her paramour Kanye West is also a dab hand. Young Miley went all out in such a crusade this year, and it’s worked out very nicely for her. There might not be artistic merit, or any moral worth, in playing the clown, but it pays well.
Opinions have become currency
Round about the time that Paris Hilton was angrily denouncing the fake tweet that made an ass out of her without her authorisation, a Twitter-famous glamour model called Chelsea Ferguson (very NSFW) tweeted that she was sorry to hear of Mandela’s death, as The Shawshank Redemption was one of her favourite films. It appeared very tongue-in-cheek and Chelsea retweeted some of the abusive replies she received, so we can conclude that she’d been playing off that “dumb broad” stereotype as an impish, tasteless joke. She seems to have the requisite thick skin, at least.
The passing of Nelson Mandela is such big news as to be one of the few communal events we experience every year, and celebrities are as much part of our tribe as anyone else. Everyone’s entitled to express their feelings. But celebrity culture is now so heavily weighted towards scattershot applicability that opinions have become currency: weak currency, but unfortunately valid in their own way. OK, so Paris Hilton didn’t send that silly tweet, but she’s sent plenty of silly tweets in the past. Believing she’s capable of such frothy nonsense isn’t a stretch. It’s kind of the straightjacket she’s sewn herself into.
These days, everyone feels they have to say something to stay relevant, no matter how vacuous or offensive it is, no matter whose legacy we’re supposed to be honouring. And round and round we go. It’s all a bit meta.
* The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred Shapiro attributes this to preacher Charles Spurgeon, who was working from an old proverb. You learn something useless every day.
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