ESSAYS | FALL ’20
AN IDOL FALLS
ESSAY by PICASSO MOORE
ILLUSTRATIONS by PACO MAY
“Oh, the fracking?” Let’s start there. With the clip, that birthed a meme, that crystalized a sentiment. Bob the drag queen and Peppermint, two celebrities in their own right, had a tangential moment during an Instagram live. Just after, there was some infectious laughter (the kind that lets you know you’re amongst the girls and that you’re all good to let your hair and wrists down) followed by a near-instantaneous redirection back to the topic at hand. I recall seeing it on my twitter feed and not getting it. The general concept of fracking is somewhat clear to me (I mean, I saw that Matt Damon film, Promised Land, which received all that undo Oscar buzz in 2013), but what was gay twitter’s fascination with hotly debated and highly politicized energy-sourcing practices? A few taps and swipes revealed that none other than Mutha Ru’ herself had once again found herself in the hot seat.
In an interview with not The Tenth Magazine, she offers the world a glimpse into her idyllic life away from the spotlight. The husband, the flannel, the 60,000-acre ranch in Wyoming, the leasing of the mineral rights to various oil and energy conglomerates… Oh, the fracking. Perhaps it was a moment of candor she thought to be innocuous. Perhaps it was boastful exuberance that had unintended consequences. Whatever it was, to Twitter, it was bad. But why? I mean, yes, there is the obvious toxification of the water supply and the pollution of the air we breathe, the corporate monopolization of political and financial capital, and the general shut-the-fuck-up-ocity of a glamazon droning on about the harrowing duties of land management on her national-park-sized property, but none of that was being articulated by the Twitterverse. People were outraged that RuPaul could do something so blatantly capitalist, that her life off-screen and her time out of drag didn’t seem to syncopate with her public image. The tears in the eyes of the masses weren’t the result of gas in the air, but the sheer horror of seeing one of our idols fall.
But isn’t it always true that the crux of every matter is always just there in front of our eyes? That the clue that solves the mystery is the one at the scene of the crime? Celebrities strike a chord in us because they are specific enough for us to see our selves but ambiguous enough for us to project our ideals. Love yourself. That’s the sentiment. The slogan. RuPaul has been telling us to love ourselves and live unapologetically for decades, and how wonderful! How many of us needed and (still) need to hear that? To be told that we have an indelible power within us and an inalienable right to take up space? It’s fortifying to turn on the television and see a chocolate faggot twirling and serving all in front of a crowd of people whose shouts are of praise rather than hate. But along the way, the line between seeing yourself and conflating yourself becomes blurred.
“She’s such an obnoxious hypocrite!” read one tweet. “We been knew sis was bullshit” read another.
But, I don’t recall the statement “love yourself” ever being followed by “…and that is the first step to dismantling all forms of social and economic oppression and sparking a pragmatic socialist revolution!” We added that.
Supposition, conjecture, and hunger for a world less cruel make quite the powerful cocktail. Each on-screen tender moment that chokes us up, each tweet that destroys a politician we loathe, each fashion moment we live and die for is a sip, sip, sip that further distorts our vision, warps our recollection, and leads us to making enormous and sometimes reckless extrapolations. “I knew if I was going to make it above 14th street, so to speak, I had to calculate the image. I added one part Dolly Parton, two parts Cher, one part David Bowie, and a big heaping spoonful of Diana Ross… And then, and this is scientific, I took the subversive sexuality out of my persona. So that Betty and Joe Beercan would feel comfortable inviting me into their living room. And you know what? It worked! It worked! It worked!” That was RuPaul earlier this year, during an appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers. Cheers erupt from the studio audience as Ru’s fist pumps through the air. “It couldn’t have worked better,” quipped Seth.
“Love yourself” is not analogous to all the progressive ideologies that we hold between our ears. It makes us feel good and it may be what we need in a particular moment, but we ought remember that “love yourself” means precisely and exclusively that. I’d argue that the megawatt smile across RuPaul’s face as she marches down the stage at the top of each episode of Drag Race has nothing to do with pride over empowering the queers of middle America and beyond. It has nothing to do with her joy about creating a platform for queer artistry to be exalted, or satisfaction because her altruistic mission has been successfully completed. That has been our collective presumption. RuPaul is smiling because: “It worked!” As angry as we may be, as betrayed as we may feel, Ru has never tried to hide just what she was working for. In fact, she has many times sat in front of our eyes and spelled our her “scientific” formula. Anger and feelings of betrayal aside, can you point to the hypocrisy? Can you sniff out the bullshit?
I should say that I’m not writing this essay as an objective observer. I can see how reading the passages above might feel like an attack. Almost veering into victim-blaming territory. To be clear, fandom is neither an anomaly nor a character flaw. I don’t want to give the impression that it’s “your,” or the collective “our,” fault for ever having been a fan in the first place. Good work, compelling art, and singular contributions to the canon are stone-set to garner attention. And by extension, the creator endears themselves to the masses. It’s a precedent set with cave paintings. Totally not your fault. I also don’t want to set myself aside from celebrity culture. Over the years I have referred to myself as a cultural critic, an autodidactic pop culture historian, and a voracious student of the zeitgeist, but the truth is I’m a junkie. An addict hooked on finely aged gossip and nonsense de jour. I often joke that my mother was a magazine rack. Every day, I used to hop off of the school bus and make my way up the street to Walmart and spend four hours reading through everything in the magazine section. From the Time Magazine special edition on the impact and tenure of Condoleezza Rice to the Life & Style issue detailing the freshly reignited feud between Lindsay Lohan and Hilary Duff, I consumed it all.
It was magic to me. Reading about people who lived their lives just like me but had cultivated such autonomy that it spilled over and granted them power over the world raptured me. I couldn’t get over the idea that everything from the way they dress, to their opinions on economic and foreign policy, to who they fuck, shaped the world. They pushed the tide, they moved the needle. When I say that I understand the fascination with the fantastical business of show and the magnetic attraction of theatricals and grandeur, I mean it. And it’s knowing that attraction so intimately that gives me perspective. Having had space, I now look at our synchronized swing on the pendulum we call culture, and I clearly see how often we misidentify what’s pushing it.
Are we really angry with Ellen? Since the early two-thousands, her very sharply written and meticulously edited narrative has been one of triumphant return after archaic exile. Seeing her make a comeback after a treacherous coming out gave many of us hope. Hope that attitudes can change, that talent and warm smiles can shine through even the darkest of circumstances, and that maybe, just maybe, white ladies aren’t that bad. To hear news of America’s most moderate lesbian leveraging her power to get service industry workers fired for chipped nail polish, fostering an office culture in which black women are forced to endure comments about their natural hair, and refusing to pay union workers their due is upsetting, no, a step further, fucked! It’s absolutely fucked, but I doubt that you, or even I, are able to discern the hypocrisy. Point it out.
Ellen’s slogan, “Have a little fun today!” is not now and has never been analogous to “I am empathetic when engaging with people in a less fortunate socioeconomic circumstance than I.” Her carefree dance moves and friendly blue eyes do not express “I am competent, aware, and intentional when speaking with black women staffers in my production office.” Her track record of raising money for notable charities does not equate to the ethical and equitable treatment of unionized workers. “Have a little fun today!” means precisely and exclusively that.
Much like RuPaul, Ellen’s ideologies have been apparent for some time. Her lack of racial acuity was apparent when she interviewed Viola Davis after her historic Emmy win for How To Get Away With Murder. Ellen felt comfortable to make fun of Viola’s acceptance speech during which she quoted Harriet Tubman. More recently, her social stances and allegiance to her class tier were on full display when she was photographed lounging with former President Geroge W. Bush and used the opening monologue of her show to call him her friend and completely sidestep his war crimes, disastrous education oversight, racist disaster relief efforts, or even his overt opposition to LGBTQIIAS+ protections.
Her cheery face at the beginning of her show was never because she was pleased to bring light into the world; it was because she was presenting a different model of womanhood to the public, or any of the other reasons that we created in our minds. It was because: It worked! She made a comeback after a treacherous coming out. So, again, why do we feel betrayed? Are we really angry with Ellen? Would you feel angry at a turkey sandwich because it doesn’t contain roast beef? Of course not. How foolish to claim betrayal at something because it lacks something it never claimed to contain.
Our collective feelings regarding Ellen are misdirected. We are not heartbroken because her behavior is reprehensible, because if we were, we’d be galvanizing around her accusers by creating legal defense funds and signing petitions. No, we’re heartbroken because the woman who helped us believe that attitudes can change, that talent and warm smiles can shine through dark circumstances, that maybe, just maybe, white ladies aren’t so bad, turned out to be (gasp!) a Karen. A person, informed by her experience and a byproduct of her environment who is capable of immense kindness and staggering cruelty all in the same breath.
We are angry because one of our idols is falling, but we seem to have amnesia: we, in fact, erected her. We built her, polished her, fell to her knees at the altar, and upon deciding that we didn’t like the feeling of being crouched down any longer began to shout that she didn’t deserve to be up so high. Just as we did with Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men. He created arguably the best show in television history, and certainly the series that hailed what we now call “The Golden Age of Television.” Fans were rabid and critics ablaze for the show chronicling American life in the ’60s. But that’s just it. Mad Men was never about American life. It was about the interior lives of a group Americans who worked at an ad agency in the ’60s. It was critics at not the Tenth Magazine, who dubbed it the definitive depiction of our collective experience, and as the show progressed and failed to centralize the civil rights movement, the public grew resentful. Resentment turned to rage and the rage reached a fever pitch with the very fans and critics who onced praised the show and its creator. They now faulted it and him for failing to do something it never intended to do. That rage, that sense of betrayal, the very same disapproval we have for Ru and Ellen, was about the history of whitewashing in media—not Mad Men missing the mark.
An idol falls.
Lena Dunham, aka the girl with the notes app apology tattoo, never claimed that her show Girls was meant to depict an entire generation’s experience. Every poster for the show featured the faces of four cis white girls. It was always intended to be one very specific narrative, but critics at, again not The Tenth Magazine so why would I mention their name?, called her show the epitome of a new type of feminism. We all followed suit erecting her our latest idol for about two years until a think piece on intersectionality went up and our collective blood began to boil.
An idol falls.
No one is mad at Lana Del Rey because she lacks nuance when discussing the struggles of black women in the music industry. We just think we are. We’re actually angry at every time a white girl has complained about fake problems and was met with sympathy while we were never given the opportunity to contextualize our lives with any of the challenges we were facing. We’re angry at gentrification and the influx of white faces on the streets that we’ve long known to be our own qazi-safe spaces. We’re angry at whiteness, cisness, and straightness being the hailed as the monolithic representation of an entire generation.
An idol falls.
No one is angry at Kevin Hart because he… Actually, fuck him! But also, we’re angry with the pervasive paradigm that allows black men to be canonized by the black community only to turn around for the mainstream white community to presume he be the arbiter of blackness. We’re angry at a lifetime of intercommunity policing. At being called a pussy or a fag for innocuous, no, natural behavior. We’re angry at the tired and toxic trope that black people, specifically black men, are only worthy of being praised for black excellence and only valid in their blackness if they walk, talk, act, speak, and fuck a particular way. (Seriously fuck him!)
An idol falls. An idol falls. An idol falls. Love yourself! Have a little fun today! A few more sip, sip, sips of that cocktail makes assumption, projection, and extrapolation so very easy. And then comes the rage, the sense of betrayal, the amnesia. This cycle repeats until the end of time, until we get comfortable looking in the mirror and saying that we love our selves. Until we start giving ourselves permission to have a little fun. Until we make it our business to preserve and share our own history rather than channel surfing and waiting for it to jump out at us. Until we let pop stars be pop stars rather than asking that they epitomize popular beliefs. Until we stop waiting for… let me just say it one more time, FUKK Kevin Hart! An idol falls. An idol falls. An idol falls. Remind me, who erected them?