Thursday, April 30, 2009

In Bad Taste

We were watching the nonstop news coverage over lunch in the Franklin College cafeteria. It had been a pretty solemn morning; I remember walking across campus with my friend Kelley, the sun bright white on the concrete steps as they spilled out between Old Main and Shirk Hall, stunned that something like this happened in the 3 hours I napped after returning from work at 6 am.

I wrote an essay a year earlier for my freshman composition class, in which I pondered our culture's lack of awareness. My generation and the generations that bookended it really had no desire, energy, or reason to follow current events. We were wound up in our worlds of needing, wanting and having. Everything came so easy for us. I said we needed a wake-up call, a tragedy, a pinion that would make us form opinions.

And it happened. We got our Pearl Harbor, our Vietnam, our Berlin Wall. We got 9/11.

I got over the initial shock after seeing other people, after talking about it, after seeing a few hours of smoking towers and speculation on TV. It was during lunch when I began to see this from a broader perspective. It didn't just stop time, stop our breaths, and stop our perception of the world as we knew it; it started a circus.

Jump back to 4:00 that morning, when I was alone working at the coffee shop, baking pastries and brewing coffee in the few hours before opening. On the radio was a local morning talk show, and the hosts discussed how Reese Witherspoon signed on for a sequel to Legally Blonde, how the Bush twins were out of control socialite party girls, and how George W. Bush was a spit-bubble-blowing, helmet-wearing, monkey-faced retard in general.

By noon, George W. Bush was a Capital L Leader, a gracious, conscientious, iconic dignitary who would bring us through this crisis with aplomb. That's how fast the national opinion changed.

And that's when I knew this situation would turn into a jingoistic porno.

Within the week, factories were pumping out American flags in plastic, polyester, muslin, magnets, lapel pins. Screenprinters designed t-shirts with crying eagles, "In Memoriam" in front of two smoking towers, Osama bin Laden with a bullethole in his forehead. People forwarded emails showing Afghanistan's weather forecast (which was nuclear or "hot as hell" as signified by the mushroom cloud over a cartoon sunburst with a surprised face and melting sunglasses), or emails with crying eagle .gifs, or bin Laden being sodomized, or GW Bush walking along a beach, one set of footprints in the sand behind him...

September 11th was the biggest marketing boon for tchotchke companies the world over. And people ate. it. up. A national tragedy, the deaths of thousands of people - including hundreds of firemen - was turned into the biggest "at least I got the t-shirt" joke in recent history.

Before any of this happened, however, I was having lunch with my friends and watching the news. Scrolling underneath the constant national coverage was the local news...the Jimmy Buffet concert in Indianapolis would be cancelled. No news yet if they will schedule a raincheck performance in light of the circumstances.

That's when I wondered how 9/11 would impact our precious pop culture. So I said, "Guess they should make plans for the next season of Survivor. Survivor: World Trade Center."

Yep. I made my first 9/11 joke on 9/11. And we laughed. We laughed that it's-so-fattening-but-I'll-have-two-anyway laugh. My future boyfriend was at the next table, and he laughed. That's when we met.

I guess you can say that was in bad taste, but considering how the events in pop culture did unfold: people kept ragged American flags on their car windows without retiring them respectfully; people wore their "patriotic" WTC shirts while doing light yard work; the sudden rise of the president from buffoon to Son of God; the racial profiling of M. Night Shyamalan...I think I made the most tasteful joke, if only because it was intentional.

Post-9/11 "patriotism" became a parody of the tragedy itself. Popular opinion has a way of doing that - without any help from my snarky, tasteless comment.

And again, I said it because I saw it coming.


Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped at a time when a LOT of girls were being kidnapped - or at least that's what the hot topic was at the time. Magazines were publishing all these horror stories about the recent kidnappings, with stories from survivors on how they got through their ordeals. Kidnapping pretty white girls was the Caylee Anthony or Swine Flu of its day. I'd like to point out that girls/boys are kidnapped all the time; so maybe this wasn't a "rash" of kidnappings so much as a spotlight on missing jailbait during a slow news month.

The joke isn't that Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped, raped and tortured by a madman and his wife just a few blocks away from her home for a year. The joke isn't that she was so brainwashed that she walked around her hometown in a veil without saying a word. The joke isn't the miracle that she was found and is back home with her family.

THE JOKE is that the media blitz surrounding this case was just as sick and voyeuristic as her ordeal. Am I wrong?

What happened to her was unconscionable. What's worse is that every ABCNNBCBS network morning show had to get the exclusive interview. As soon as she was home, they had to bring her back in the spotlight to describe the horror of her experience. But because she wouldn't talk about it, they did the next best thing: describe it right in front of her. Describe the findings of the police, show pictures of the "campsite" where she remained a sex slave. She sat with her parents as the reporters painted a shitty, Bob-Ross portrait from secondhand details and assumptions. That's the real tragedy - to see your singularly tragic story thru someone else's sadistic telescope, and in front of your Mormon parents who didn't want this for you. And the parents could only say, "We love hearing her harp music fill our home again."

"And we're just gonna paint a happylittlehouse right over here..."

MOREOVER, the public wanted to know more. In a way, when we read an article with her name in it, we were all hoping to share her experience. Our Special-Victims-United, Forensic Filin' public wanted to know more true crime details. How dare she choose to remain quiet about it?

And my comment was in bad taste?

You, anonymous commenter, certainly devoured a lot of details about her case. You subscribed to the manufactured, manicured, Katie-Couricked and Matt Lauered production of the very real drama of her experience. And you're on a high horse about my tasteless joke?

We two are very similar; it just seems our bad taste is manifested in different ways.

The main point is, my joke comes from the perspective of that not-so-rare breed of stupid, overdramatic emo girls who would kill to have that kind of press coverage. Who wants so much to have her lame existence sensationalized that she doesn't care what she has to go through, just as long as people see her as a hero, feel sorry for her, talk about her, talk to her. And you know those girls are out there.

That's the joke. Get it?

The girl who wants to kill herself just to get a two-page photo spread in the yearbook like that pretty, popular girl 2 grades ahead who shocked everyone by hanging herself in her basement last year. It would be even better if her class built a memorial rock garden for her, too.

The homely classmate who was on the same class trip to Aruba when Natalee Holloway was kidnapped. Only while pretty Miss Holloway was partying at a bar, uglybritches was in her hotel room lancing the watery blisters off her feet while her roommate with the short grandma perm wrote postcards to her parents (whom she'd see before the cards even got there) and snacked on 100 calorie packs of Teddy Grahams. That homely, blistered classmate that smelled of stale sweat? She's thinking what's the use? Even if I did get kidnapped, possibly raped, and abandoned, nobody outside of my immediate family would make a big deal out of it. I wouldn't get a Lifetime movie. I probably wouldn't even get picked up by a Dutch party boy...just some Mexican from the kitchen staff. He'd probably just finger me, tell me I'm gross and then I'd cry, get lost and drown. I never get a break...

JonBenet's pageant rival's bookish sister? Who's older? Whose parents didn't have enough money to put her in pageants when she was a kid, but nowtheyhaveallthemoneyintheworldforBrittany'sstylist,hairandmakeup,andGlamourShots? If IIIIIIIIIII was molested and murdered in my basement on Christmas, that would show them.

Girls are fucked up like that. You know it. Or you wouldn't know it if you had enough self-esteem to never look at things from that perspective. If so, lucky you.

A final note on Elizabeth Smart: I don't feel so bad for her. Yes, what she went through was beyond words, but you have to admit the girl turned lemons into lemonade. She's got a book deal, People Magazine "checks in" with her and her family every year on the anniversary of her kidnapping, she's making cash as a public speaker and and advisor to the government on publications for survivors and tools for law enforcement. And I bet she's pretty happy to have more people at her lame harp concerts than just her parents.

Remember that essay I mentioned way back at the beginning of this epic post? The one about my generation needing to get knocked off its block? Allow me this: Elizabeth Smart was raised a Mormon, with utopian beliefs that her purity, good acts and utter obeisance to God will bring her prosperity and happiness. (I think that's a load of shit, but that's another post.) If this hadn't happened to her, what would her mind look like? Would she have knowledge of the world as cutthroat and challenging as it really is, or would she just easily float through the manufactured mist of an adjunct culture? Is that so bad? Or was this an experience that reinforced her Mormon beliefs - outsiders know not the true way of the Lord and that is why we don't let them into our church now let's find you a husband? Either way, she's turned lemons into lemonade.

And you know what? Maybe I - the writer, not the character - am a little jealous. At least she's got a good network of people that can get her a date.

Me? I'm damaged goods, too, only I didn't get any press coverage or book deals out of it.

Such is the fount of dark humor. The spring of my discontent.

So there's that,



Justin said...

Yes, I'd have to agree. Having sat at that lunch table with you, I think just because we made jokes didn't mean we didn't feel what the rest of the nation, or world, felt. But as you said, the joke was the media, the packaging, the branding of a tragedy. The bald eagle got a brand new outlook on life with his single tear.

But as time has gone on to show, the underbelly of all the profiteering during that time has reared its ugly head.

And to think that all of that was before the real onslaught of Facebook or Twitter - I can only imagine the level of panic/fear/hate that would have come to life out of those utilities.

But you're right - we love a good tragedy in this country. It gives us something to bond over. It gives us something to actually feel about - we all kind of blindly just float through life, pretty complacent but when tragedy strikes, we really get to play the melodrama out. It gives people permission to feel and act out on a grandiose scale.

And the money that can be made off tragedy is amazing. To your point, Elizabeth Smart may have went through a horrible ordeal, but by God did she turn it into enough money to probably never have to work in her life or live very comfortably.

Eric E said...

Your enlightenment freaks makes me uncomfortable and inadequate. Thank you.

Eric E said...

And I did not proofread before submitting. Omit freaks. I was going somewhere else, but changed course.

Laura said...

Eric, I love how sometimes I don't know what you're trying to say.

And I just remembered that one pic you had on myspace: You Gonna Get Raped.

Love you.