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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Fame and Infamy

My favorite sociologist, Erving Goffman, noted that fame and infamy were opposite sides of the same social equation. Both fame and infamy carry heavy burdens. This is a lesson I hope to never learn as part of me fears I will suddenly became well-known. Luckily very few anthropologist ever become famous and even fewer disabled people ever hit the spot light. I delight in being anonymous yet I am aware one can become an overnight media sensation. If you doubt me, think about Susan Boyle and what she has been through in recent weeks. She became famous in an instant and 200 million people watched her performance on Britain's Got Talent. Camera crews camped outside her home, Larry King and Oprah Winfrey invited her on their shows. She could not leave her home without being trailed by reports. The only thing the mass media likes more than a sudden star is a sudden and dramatic downfall. Susan Boyle has become the latest human bit of cannon fodder. What did Boyle do wrong? She was the runner up--that is she placed second in Britain's Got Talent.

I feel bad for Boyle. Second place is not too shabby. This accomplishment is nothing in the eyes of the media. Worse yet, Boyle struggled with her sudden fame. Depending upon the periodical she was "nasty and mean spirited", "out of control", had an "anxiety attack" or "emotional breakdown". Some media experts have noted the judges on shows like Britain's Got Talent are cruel and that they failed to protect Boyle. In a word, bull. The job of the judges is to be mean and as cutting as humanly possible. In the end what I learned is nothing new: the media can both build and destroy. Susan Boyle is just the latest figure to be ripped to pieces. This is not such a bad thing in my estimation--when you think about it Susan Boyle has proven she is a mere mortal. And is not a large part of disability rights about establishing our humanity?