In irrelevant and overdone news recently to hand, two unfairly attractive people were married. Of course, that smoking-hot human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin wed smoking-hot matinee idol George Clooney was a fact unlikely to escape the fantasy attentions of a middle-aged audience desperate for sex role models in their age range. I am one of many 40-somethings planning an ardent night of masturbation in their honour. So one cannot hope that this sexy matter would go without notice.

One could hope, though, that it could go without a serious notice, save perhaps for an article or three speculating on Clooney’s political ambition. That an actor gifted of such statesmanlike glamour widely tipped to run as governor of California has found a current-era Bouvier — beautiful, acceptably foreign, likely to redecorate the White House in 10 kinds of tasteful taupe — to his emerging Kennedy is worth a little investigation.

What really isn’t, though, is the news that Alamuddin has changed her name to Clooney.

Of course, this is not a utopian world in which the media prioritises coverage according to the public interest. To yell at the global news machine and ask it to behave is as pointless as standing in the middle of the ASX and demanding that it run on ethics instead of capital. You don’t hold a mirror up to news media and ask it to have a good hard think about itself these days unless you are deluded that thought is possible in an age fuelled not by morals but by SEO. But it is when such an insubstantial topic masquerades as such a substantial one that we should plead with media organisations to at least be a little more naked in their hunger for clicks. The fact of celebrity news is in itself not particularly terrible. Celebrity news in the drag of Important Cultural Narrative, however, is another tragic matter.

This year has been one particularly beset by “intelligent” interpretation of celebrity texts. The New York Times explored Beyonce’s Feminism and Why It Matters. The Atlantic explored Katy Perry’s Lack of Feminism and Why it Matters. The Sydney Morning Herald explored Ian Thorpe’s Homosexuality and Why it Matters. Every celebrity act can Matter, it seems, in an era of news that is as enamoured of the idea of trickle-down awareness as it is of trickle-down wealth.

The hypothesis of media effects is so rarely critiqued and broadly accepted that even quite bright journalists do not pause before filing some nonsense on MasterChef and why it matters. This is an age of discourse about discourse, and news providers are now happy to be at a dozen removes from the reality of nutrition or sexual identity or gender equality, and write stories about stories, so that not only our social attitudes but our social realities are now assumed to be based on what happens in emerging and traditional media.

“The voodoo economics of celebrity gossip has a useful function for conservative media, but it just seems dumb in 15 ways when, say, the putatively progressive Tracey Spicer writes (another) open letter pleading, on behalf of feminism, with Clooney (nee Alamuddin) to keep her own name.”

Why bother with data on, say, homelessness among young homosexuals when some celebrated gay has received a poorly spelled death threat? Re-posting one’s hate mail is now a virtual guarantee of new social media followers and gives its recipient a good chance of paid work. Journalism is a hasty business with no time to check boring facts with boring experts when thrilling celebrities stand in for old-fashioned investigation. And as journalism turns to easy proofs of suspected truths, these truths become not only less verifiable but less important. In other words, if the only evidence that is provided of a materially important topic like homelessness among homosexual youth is Bad Attitudes in Media, then the only solution to such a materially important topic is Good Attitudes in Media. So we end up in this hall of mirrors being happy so long as no homosexual celebrities are receiving hate mail and convinced that the appearance of tolerance in popular forums will lead to the instant provision of homes for people who need them.

This view of media effects can be seen in the work of Andrew Bolt, who will often cherry-pick the idle comments of a not terribly bright writer or celebrity to “prove” whatever point about killing the poor he is making that week. But Bolt provides a very natural ideological home for such techniques. The notion that “attitudes” and, so, a real social reality can be easily observed in the unreal confines of social and news media is intrinsically right-wing. It is, as aforementioned, a trickle-down view of power and holds that a narrative with the most capital, or clicks, is the one that has the most sway. This is culture with a supply-side view.

The voodoo economics of celebrity gossip has a useful function for conservative media, but it just seems dumb in 15 ways when, say, the putatively progressive Tracey Spicer writes (another) open letter pleading, on behalf of feminism, with Clooney (nee Alamuddin) to keep her own name. Even if we do accept that the rejection of the patronym is a feminist act — and I don’t; I think that everyone who gets married should change their name to “Voluntary Prisoner of Convention”, but this and my view that arguing about changing one’s name at marriage is a bit like campaigning for a choice of linens at Manus Island is possibly irrelevant to my broader argument about media effects — why not focus on the 90% of married Australian women who still elect to take their spouse’s name?  Clearly, generations of very famous women who never thought to alter their names at marriage — and Elizabeth Taylor rejected the chance to change her name on no fewer than eight occasions and could have been a Burton twice –have influenced “real” women marginally if at all.  Perhaps this “issue” does not reside in celebrity. Perhaps very little reality does reside in the lives of celebrity, the bile upchucked by mainstream news sites and in the hashtags of social media. Perhaps only the truly conservative should try to situate social power in these sites.

But the meta view is now second nature to progressives, as we have seen in the thousands of tedious editorials about Alamuddin Clooney. There are few places, of course, so meta as The Guardian, whose rarefied Comment is Free section is almost entirely based on Twitter tantrums and conservative news as social reality. These media are in the business not of reflecting reality but of building infinite brands. In its own act of deluded “reality”, The Guardian has elected to run a popular piece on Alamuddin that suggests her decision to accept her husband’s name is not important. Of course, there is no question that the story is still important, but it is important at an even greater remove from reality in that it evinces our need to “shift away from aggressive dialectic and towards respectful sharing of narratives”. In other words, we should still tell these stories, but we should tell them respectfully.

FFS. If we tell these stories at all, the fact of them being either respectful or aggressive is irrelevant. They should be told with truth. Which is by placing them unambiguously in a section marked “meaningless midlife fantasy sex stories”.

Peter Fray

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