You know the old fables? About frogs? There’s the one about the frog hopping into a pan of water which is cold, then heated slowly until it’s boiling, at which point the frog dies or is already dead? One of those myths that I’d always hoped Mythbusters would tackle, except that killing a frog simply to satisfy my curiosity is a tad perverse. Then there’s the other frog myth where the prince or princess is a frog, and just needs to be kissed to return to royal status.
We’ve had a real life, unkissed frog lately in Susan Boyle. For those who are not living on the net, all power to you. For those of you do, I am not going to give the links to Boyle singing on Britain’s Got Talent, because you’ve already seen the footage. She shot to fame not for her performance on the show, but for the incongruousness of her story – an unkissed virgin, somewhat aged, unglamourous in the extreme…what was she doing in the domain of image and spin?
Her voice, it seemed to all viewers, cut through the ugliness of the audience’s mockery with its beauty. Was this a victory for the ‘real’ person, a blow struck against the fantasies of idols? No, it was another permutation in the development of the celebrity in the world of reality TV. Not content with the actual talent of contestants, there needs to be a compelling narrative – in fact, the whole of reality TV is about the story of the ordinary becoming sanctioned by the celebrity industry. So why did Susan Boyle attract so much attention? I think the difference was the degree to which she had simply not tried to fit in with celebrity image. But her valiant effort will be in vain – already, having had a reported ‘breakdown’, her courage has been recycled into meat for the celebrity media meal. In other words, her sense of being a ‘real’ person, rather than the obviously constructed celebrities, has been used against her in the media’s pursuit of profit.
My response to this is to remind myself that being authentic is not an act or pretension. As someone attempting to articulate what faith in Jesus means now, it is tempting to cultivate authenticity, because that seems to be what the masses want – tired of spin and gloss, the bulk of the population want grittiness and reality. But how can we tell the difference between ‘real realness’ and ‘fake realness’ when so many of our public figures (celebrities, politicians etc) cultivate realness as a marketing strategy? Do we know when we’ve been spun anymore? I would argue that to the extent that we uncritically allow the public media to wash over us in (as Nicci Gerrard put it) a ‘swamp‘ of ‘feeling, instinct, empathy and pity‘. Not that such qualities are unwanted; but they need to be exercised in tension with a critical stance.
One way forward, I believe, to accessing the ‘real real’ is to be in personal and covenantal relationships, not mediated by the lives of those only made intimate to us through the public media, but with actual knowable people. If we don’t do this, and quick, the water will boil dead our capacity for human community.