Every time a famous person does something stupid, I cringe. Not because famous people should be good role models and avoid screwing up their lives (although that would be nice). I cringe because the media appeals to the worst in humanity by exploiting famous people's flaws.
As I drove to the gym this morning, the radio DJ talked about Charlie Sheen. He said he wanted to start his own show with Charlie Sheen and catch a piece of this big publicity wave for himself. His co-host said it was fascinating while it lasted, but the whole Charlie Sheen Thing was getting old. On the treadmill at the gym, I listened to my own music, but the wall of TVs in front of me displayed image after image of Charlie Sheen; one where he was holding a frog (I don't even want to know...okay, I am a little curious), and two others where he was all angry, his face contorted as he most likely said some ugly things.
I've faced this same situation with other famous people in the past. Tiger Woods, Hugh Grant, Bill Clinton, Lindsay Lohan, Harrison Ford, and countless other famous people have appeared on TV and the tabloids with dirty secrets revealed. Something as small as John Travolta might be bald to as big as Kobe Bryant might be a rapist.
I am drawn to knowing about it. It must feed some need, because I crave it. I don't crave it as much as the next guy, but a small piece of me still wants it. My eyes are drawn to the tabloids and television. My ears are drawn to the radio. My fingers itch to open up People Magazine in the doctor's waiting room.
So, feeling the need, I ask myself, what hunger does this feed? And is it the best way to feed that hunger?
First, knowing their dark secrets lets me feel superior to someone I previously placed in an ivory tower of wonderfulness. Famous people are heroes in a lot of ways to average people like me. I wish I was them, or at least dating them (or maybe just had their money, house and really cool acting job). When they screw up financially, morally, etc., it relieves me of those illusions that they are better than me.
If only it could end there, but no. I've spent too long at the bottom of this self-conceived hierarchy. I want to enjoy my turn on top. At least I'm not as bad as Charlie Sheen, I say to myself. I don't do drugs. I don't screw my coworkers. I don't broadcast really stupid and career-killing things to the whole world.
This is a problem for me. When I feel better about my flaws in comparison to Charlie Sheen, I don't feel the need to fix my flaws at all. Comparisons skew the truth. And the truth is I can do better and should keep trying to do better. Being less screwed up than Charlie Sheen is not a laurel I want to rest on.
Once I root out this need to feel better than screwed up famous people, I still want to keep listening. So I have to keep digging and figure out why. So I don't feel superior anymore, but I feel...sympathy. I feel bad for Charlie Sheen. I feel bad for all famous people out there who get their mistakes plastered all over the media, who get exploited by every Today Show and Tabloid. Even if they are helping and pushing for this exhibition of their own misery, shouldn't somebody stop them instead of taking advantage of their low point, their temporary insanity?
Does watching with this kind of mindset make me a better person? I do have a sense of their humanity, right? But then, I think, so does the father who cries into his beer at the bar because he loves his children so much, the same children he is not spending time with because he is at the bar drinking.
This is a problem for me. I am cultivating feelings for people I don't know, so I can't act on those feelings without becoming a crazy-stalking-fan-type. And feelings exist to fuel action. Feel free to contest this statement, but I really, really believe it myself. If I care about Charlie Sheen but have no plans to act on that caring, then what's the point? It's a waste of perfectly good emotional fuel I could be using on REAL PEOPLE. Whether Charlie Sheen is actually real or just a holographic cyborg, I couldn't tell you. But my neighbor is a real person. My family is full of real people. Even the guy in front of me at the grocery store is real. Caring about those people will motivate me to act decently toward them, because I actually interact with them (and I don't have to be a crazy-stalker-fan-type to do so).
So what can I do about Charlie Sheen? I can stop listening. I can stop supporting the media entities that broadcast his misery to feed my misguided need for superiority or passive emotional connections. I don't need to feel superior to Charlie Sheen. He's just another guy, not an ex-ivory-tower fallen angel. I don't need to throw bushels-full of heartfelt feelings at him, either. I'm saving my feelings for people and situations that allow me to act. Also, I'm really starting to wonder if Charlie Sheen is in fact a holographic cyborg. The kind that started malfunctioning after coming into contact with an ordinary frog.