Written by Mike Mariani.
The day before New Year’s Eve this past year, Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher had had enough. Snipers, trolls, and vicious, vain young people had been picking apart her physical appearance after watching the latest Star Wars installment, The Force Awakens. The film had grossed $1 billion in its first 12 days, so a lot of people saw the actress portraying the iconic Princess Leia, a full 32 years after her last appearance in that global-gaze-courting role. As it turns out, that global gaze is capable of extreme levels of maliciousness and vanity. Fisher was attacked on Twitter for “not aging well,” among other mean-spirited aspersions. The onslaught was so relentless that she eventually struck back. On December 30, Fisher sent out a tweet that, for my money, was worth more to the human race than all the previous body-shaming remarks combined. Her tweet (necessarily smoothed out of choppy Twitter argot): “Youth and beauty are not accomplishments, they’re the temporary byproducts of time and/or DNA.”
Bang. Just like that, Fisher nails to the wall a reality that our society and culture secretly if explicitly ignores with flair and abandon: youth, beauty, and perfect health are things completely out of one’s control, and therefore utterly independent of anything that might be deemed an accomplishment or achievement. And yet we celebrate them as if they were worthy of reverence, adulation, and worship. Why? Because of the surreptitious power of sex and sexual objectification in a hyper-capitalist culture. If consumers and businesspeople cannot sexually objectify something, even a little bit, then it becomes unattractive, banal, and abject. It’s the price of a culture that does not privilege moral character. Fisher’s tweet land like a homemade bomb, makeshift, fierce, and destructive of illusions. If only its blast radius could have extended further.
The media landscape in 2016 is more complex and sprawling than it has ever been. A world that was once dominated by television has shifted, dramatically, as social media continues to make people’s lives more saturated with information, opinions, controversies, micro-scandals, and illusions. It’s that last part that is probably the most insidious, toxic, and disingenuous. Social media’s primary tentacles—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and Pinterest—can be useful in some ways: they connect people, interests, subcultures; they can serve as consolidating forces around which activism, social justice, and post-modern “campaigns” can coalesce.
This is how we like to think of social media—as the technological engine that started Black Lives Matter, #BringBackOurGirls, #OscarsSoWhite, and other important movements around significant moral issues. Beneath these very worthy crusades, however, there is an undercurrent that runs in much the same way as traditional media. In some ways, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram serve as showcases for the most virulent strains of that youth and beauty Fisher exposed for what they are, mere accidents of time, circumstance, and the wheel of fortune. But in many corners of social media, youth and beauty are worshipped as though they were the greatest achievements our civilization has to offer. Victoria’s Secret models, reality TV celebrities, Kylie Jenner, Selena Gomez, Kim Kardashian, Taylor Swift. You’d be incredibly hard-pressed to find an average-, or even normal-, looking person among the most popular Twitter and Instagram accounts. It’s true that some of these social media “influencers” are talented in ways besides merely aspiring to artificial aesthetic perfection, but is that really why they’re so popular? I would argue not. Alas, social media takes its cue from the advertising industry more than anything else, that invisible behemoth that has subconsciously affected the way tens of millions of people perceive attraction, success, sex, beauty, and themselves. In short, it exalts youth and beauty.
This exaltation of youth, beauty, airbrushed and idealized angles and curves, the simulacra of aesthetic harmony, can be deeply toxic to our sense of self. The more sensitive among us take these images to heart; feel that we must pursue the same rare, unnatural physiques and narrow, homogenous incarnations of beauty. This is how the poisonous undercurrents of “thinspiration,” “thinspo,” “proana,” and other secret sanctionings of anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders covertly flourish in the social media landscape. We become the fractured mirror reflection of those “celebrities” that our culture worships, aspiring to the same standard of attractiveness, but so often shattered by bewildering, inadequate results. Reality always pales next to illusion.
The perfection that this American century’s cultural imagery peddles is one of these illusions. Perfection is artificiality; artificiality is, almost always, disguised as perfection. The only things real are our own flesh and blood, our own imperfections, struggles, moments of hidden anguish, bewilderment, and perseverance. Social media and celebrity culture can never measure up to the poignant force of real human lives, their flaws and ambiguities. And it is on that spectrum, on which we all falter and strive, that identity, sexuality, self-esteem, and reciprocation truly exist. To grapple with the flickering images of beautiful people, questioning oneself and how one measures up, is an inevitability of modern life. But as Carrie Fisher demonstrated with such fierce, dignified grace, it is the real bodies, the real aging and complexities and vicissitudes of time that we owe our allegiance to. The tawdry fantasies spun on social media, in fashion advertising, and flashed on our television screens are fabrications, tall tales full of sugar-sweet glamour, a word that itself originally meant “illusion.” I don’t pretend to understand the complexities, nuances, and deep-seated pathologies that weave together to produce the deceiving inner voice of eating disorders, but I do know that people have a right to battle their demons and overcome their struggles without having to fight on a second front against the artificial portraits of physical beauty, happiness, and success that spring from our screens, reminding us how easy life is for people who don’t really exist.