Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Just More of That “He Said, She Said”

“We live in a land that you can choose one or the other, same-sex marriage or opposite marriage…and you know what, in my country, and in my family, I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody out there, but that’s how I was raised…”

 

-Carrie Prejean, Former Miss California 2009

 

These words, spoken in response to a question posed by blogger (and then acting judge) Perez Hilton, reignited simmering tensions as the issue of gay marriage was again thrust into the national spotlight during the 2009 Miss USA pageant. Although he had hoped for an answer from Miss Utah (Denizet-Lewis, 2009), Hilton nevertheless took advantage of his opportunity, forcing national attention toward the subject of gay marriage legislation; outspoken, media savvy, and an unapologetic gay man, Hilton had capitalized on his moment, engaging mass audiences in what had become an embroiled topic of conversation. Particularly poignant was the fact that Perez Hilton resided in California, which had just narrowly defeated Proposition 8 (otherwise known as the California Marriage Protection Act) and was, at the time, in the thralls of a back-and-forth battle of escalating appeals. Although questionably worded—the choice of the term “opposite marriage” with its non-normative connotations would come to haunt her in the coming months—Carrie Prejean’s response represented a fairly standard beauty pageant answer to a relevant and noteworthy current issue. Hilton, however, did not seem content with Prejean’s reply and expressed his displeasure in a video blog, calling her a “dumb bitch” (Vasquezama, 2009),[1] a catalytic move that helped vault the incident to the status of a media event.

Based in part on the work of sociologist Simon Cottle, this paper will present a background of mediatized rituals and, as a subset, media events in order to contextualize the Carrie Prejean/Perez Hilton controversy. Concerned more with the unfolding of this particular story, and less with value judgments of “right” and “wrong,” I will also draw upon French philosopher Jean Baudrillard and media theorist John Fiske in order to argue toward a position that seeks to understand how and why discussion of gay marriage came to involve the figures of Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton; I will also strive to demonstrate that although much discussion centered around these two figures for a period of time in 2009, the much ballyhooed incident was in fact indicative of a much larger set of concerns.

Figuring It Out

In some ways, the controversy stemming from the 2009 Miss USA pageant seems somewhat surprising as both Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton appear incredibly unqualified to spearhead discussion of gay marriage; prior to this incident, neither seemed to be respected as a particular expert on the issue of gay rights or identified as a pundit with any sort of political acumen. Yet, despite an arguable lack of obvious credentials, Prejean and Hilton had managed to meet one important criterion:  they were on national television. Although the viewership of the 2009 Miss USA pageant hit a record low (Keveney, 2010), the simple fact that the controversy occurred on a mediated large-scale platform indicated two noteworthy (and interrelated) factors:  (1) the reach of television as a broadcast medium is widespread and singular in its presentation; (2) the only way to experience the event for most people was through media.

The first factor—which is more readily apparent but ultimately less important—came about as a result of developments in communication technologies that allowed for a global system of satellites and near-instantaneous transmission of news and information (Friedman, 1999). Building upon a model that had its roots in the radio and television culture of the early 20th century, mass communication throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries allowed an increasingly large proportion of people to simultaneously experience an occurrence; this idea is significant because it develops a common reference point that then serves as the seed for the germination of a mediatized ritual or a media event. Although recent developments in online culture have increasingly proven to support divergent points of view, broadcast media, by its nature, continues to provide a central communal narrative. Additionally, the scale of exposure is also an important factor to bear in mind as broadcast media can make the difference between niche market and national scope.

More important, however, was the notion that, for most people, the incident only existed in its mediated form. According to media scholar John Fiske, this fact meant that audiences could only operate on and conceptualize what Baudrillard terms “hyperreality,” as opposed to the “real” (Fiske, 1994; Baudrillard, 1994). For people living in a post-modern world, the representation of the exchange mixed with its reality, causing the two levels to become effectively indistinguishable from one another—for viewers, everything about this particular media event was, in short, hyperreal. Moreover, for the majority of the audience, both Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton did not exist as actual people per se, but instead as media personalities; our entire construction of these individuals’ identities stemmed from their portrayals in and though the media.

And, in some ways, the “real” Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton are somewhat immaterial for our purposes as most people involved in the ensuing discussion will never come to know either of these individuals directly—for most of us, the representation is much more powerful and salient; who we perceive these two to be is more important than who they actually are. Speaking to this concept, Fiske introduces the concept of the “figure” as an embodiment of deeply-seeded conflicts, emotions, and/or feelings within a society (1994).[2] Although Fiske uses individuals like O.J. Simpson and Clarence Thomas to make a series of points about figures and racial tensions, we can perhaps employ his thought process to draw similar analogies with Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton regarding the issue of gay marriage.

The Voice of the People

In line with Fiske’s description of figures as manifestations of underlying contestations, the response from Americans (to both Prejean and Hilton) was swift and vocal; having been provided with a tangible focal point for their perhaps previously unarticulated and unfocused sentiment, individuals on both sides of the debate began to write letters to newspaper editors in order to express their opinions (Rubin, 2009; Morris, 2009). Combing through opinion pieces from the time of the incident, one notices a stark trend:  authors seem less concerned with debating the relative merits of the situation at hand and instead tend to express outrage that others do not see the world as they do.

Eventually, as the months continued, the narrative surrounding Carrie Prejean would grow as Prejean and her supporters began to cite the contentious answer as the reason—notably, not one reason of many possible factors, but the reason—she had placed second in the Miss USA pageant (The Chicago Tribune, 2009); individual citizens like Judith Martin would go a step further and attempt to contextualize the negative response to Prejean’s answer as part of a larger disruptive pro-gay marriage movement (2009). Prejean, it seems, was the victim in all of this, being vilified by a left-leaning minority public who was hypocritically intolerant.

It is at this point that we begin to see the breakdown in communication between opposing perspectives in conjunction with a general unwillingness to understand the other side of the issue:  those supporting Prejean felt justified in their counter-critique of gay marriage supporters, but were in effect calling for advocates of gay marriage to tolerate an ideology that perceived to violated civil rights. From their vantage points, both sides had a valid argument and were not going to back down.

With supporters of Perez Hilton losing much of their moral high ground thanks to the blogger’s aforementioned “dumb bitch” comment, both sides of this issue were rapidly enmeshed in emotional mudslinging as they attempted to shout down the other side. In retrospect, the rapid escalation of the argument (and perhaps our personal investments in the outcome), caused us to forgo a rational discussion of the real issues alluded to by the incident; as academics and professionals, we have learned that we live and die by our ability to argue a point—rhetoric and intelligent discourse are our hallmarks—and we have also come to understand that criticizing ideas is acceptable and appropriate but assailing character is uncouth. Yet, by responding to Prejean’s answer with a personal attack (and simultaneously showcasing the danger of “lay journalism”), Hilton instantaneously altered the course of the conversation and changed the focus of the gay marriage debate as it pertained to this particular case.

Placed on the defensive, Carrie Prejean positioned herself on the side of truth, stating that she had given her honest opinion in response to Perez Hilton’s question and simultaneously invoked faith, becoming, in essence, a martyr figure (The Staff at wowOwow, 2009; Foreign Mail Service, 2009). As a result of this development, popular readings of the First Amendment were also invoked as Prejean’s supporters questioned the preservation of free speech, not seeming to understand that Prejean’s rights were never threatened (Sullivan, 2009). Here again we see that Prejean fulfilled the definition of a figure, serving as a focal point for discontent in America; although the incident itself had little to do with Constitutional rights, the perception that Prejean’s speech was being impinged upon allowed a certain subset of Americans to adopt the event as their own banner moment. Writing a response to the incident later that year, one author noted that Prejean “all too quickly became a heroine for those who are sick and tired of Hollywood and the thought police” (Hagelin, 2009)—clearly, then, Prejean was thought to stand in as champion for all Americans who had grown disenchanted with the (arguably) corrosive factors represented by celebrity culture and the stifling adherence to political correctness. Regardless of our own stance on the issue of gay marriage, the dissent characterized by Prejean indicates that we have, as a country, failed to promote an environment that fosters rational discourse; those on the right feel as though they are unable to adequately express their opinions and this frustration has developed into outright anger as we near the mid-term elections of 2010.

Additionally, casting her experience as a test from God further entrenched Prejean and her supporters as she became infallible—when framed as a choice between lying to win a beauty competition or pleasing God, how could Christians not support Prejean’s choice (offensive as it might or might not be)? Elevating the discussion to the next level, Prejean also sued the operators of Miss California USA for alleged religious discrimination (Business Insurance, 2009). Suddenly, a personal religious trial had become an assault on Christianity; Prejean, no longer a mere defender of personal integrity, became a crusader for Christianity and all it represented (Homan, 2009). Seemingly all too happy to embrace this new direction, the public began to more closely identify Carrie Prejean with traditional Christian values and morals as she became affiliated with conservative groups (Family Research Council Action, 2009).

The repercussions of Carrie Prejean’s new stance were swift and graphic:  within a few weeks, a variety of scandals surfaced—ranging from rumors of breast enhancement surgery to semi-nude photos, bad behavior, and a sex tape—possibly in order to discredit Prejean’s position as a blameless and righteous victim (Coutts, 2009; Abrahamson, 2009; Gensler, 2009). Again raising the notion of Prejean as a figure in the Fiskian sense, we might argue that while it is doubtful that many cared about Prejean’s sex tape per se (i.e., the backlash did not censure Prejean for having/producing a sex tape but rather for being duplicitous), the revelation of the artifact’s existence mattered immensely in regard to the public perception of Prejean’s character. Whether he had intended it or not, by attacking Prejean personally, Perez Hilton had opened the doorway to a moral absolutism that ran counter to his originally stated goal of gay marriage as a legal issue (vasquezama, 2009); instead of being productive, the discussion had become focused on media figures and again fragmented into the prevalent left/right talking points that have propagated throughout the nation in recent years.

Although the memory of Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton has somewhat faded in the present, we have continued to see a surge in the disconnect between left- and rightwing politics as the mid-term elections approach:  the rise of the Tea Party (admittedly a diverse group of individuals who are interested in a range of issues) demonstrates the growing separation between competing ideologies in America. While figures like Christine O’Donnell have replaced Prejean in the national spotlight, we continue to see similar themes of God, country, and Constitution reflected in the talking points of the Republican Party. As the issues raised by the figures of Prejean and Hilton in 2009 have not been adequately addressed or resolved, they continue to manifest in the public sphere as points of contention. Having firmly established that Prejean and Hilton reflected the Fiskian conceptualization of the figure, we now turn to work by Simon Cottle in order to further understand how such representations function at the intersection of media and life.

Mediatized Rituals as Disruption

Although some might consider the controversy embodied by Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton to only be suitable for display on infotainment outlets like Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood, we have seen that the back-and-forth pop-culture-based battle evidences very real political issues; although mainstream media might become caught up in discussion of Prejean and Hilton as representations, we can also conceptualize the emergent discourse as an example of a mediatized ritual. Despite a historical resistance to its study (Scannell, 2001), scholars have recently reintroduced the importance of spectacle in everyday political processes, arguing that to delegitimize spectacle is to discount the possible role it plays in people’s lives (Duncombe, 2006; Cottle, 2006).

Employing sociologist Simon Cottle’s argument that mediatized rituals “open up productive spaces for social reflexivity and critique,” we can gain a theoretical perspective on the Prejean/Hilton incident as we see Americans contemplate the discrepancy between how society is and how society should be (2006, p. 411). Although Cottle describes six different classes of mediatized rituals, the most valuable framework comes from the notion of mediatized public crises.[3]

In contrast to a media scandal, which represents a fairly isolated transgression, the story of Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton morphed throughout its deployment to encompass a range of issues as previously demonstrated. Reflective of deeply personal issues (and highly contestable ones!), the Prejean/Hilton controversy embodied a mediated public crisis as the event “exhibit[ed] narrative progression, unfolded over an extended period of time, and [was] theorized in relation to discernible phases” (Cottle, 2006, p. 424). Once conceptualized as a mediated public crisis, we can plot the milestones of the Prejean/Hilton saga in a trajectory that showcases a struggle for validation, legitimacy, acceptance, and ultimately power. Moreover, understanding the incident in the context of an ongoing, and constant, debate over gay marriage and gay rights, we see that the issue was never really about Prejean or Hilton—sooner or later two opposing figures would have said similar things that would have sparked the tinderbox of controversy. Correlation, as they say, is not the same as causation.


[1] The clip of Hilton’s response to Prejean appears on YouTube and was uploaded by user vasquezama, which accounts for the use of lower case in the citation. Attempts to find the original video blog by Hilton referencing the event were unsuccessful.

[2] Although off-topic for this particular paper, I am much more familiar with this same idea in regard to the genre of Horror and the conceptualization of monsters. A particular fan of American Gothic, I see the continued resonance of vampires, zombies, and werewolves as indicative of the fact that we, as Americans, have not yet come to terms with what these figures represent (e.g., death, paranoia, etc.). It is my position that we create monsters in order to grapple with the underlying issues as we are generally less likely to confront concepts like our mortality head on due to their associated cognitive duress. I would also add that a similar function is performed by Science Fiction and its creatures as we attempt to reconcile our feelings toward the integration of technology and scientific advances into our society. For me, Horror touches on our desire to explore these sorts of fears along with other states of liminality, pushing the boundaries as we attempt to expand the extent of the known. We find fascination in Gothic figures of vampires and zombies for they represent a transgression of the norm and find exhilaration in Horror’s potent blend of sex and violence as a means of experiencing violations of the cultural standard without suffering the real life repercussions. Underneath the morality pleas of many horror films lies a valid method of exploration for audiences. Even scenes of torture, which most definitely assume a different meaning in a post-9/11 world, can be understood as a method of exploring what humanity is like at its extremes; both assailant and victim are at limits (albeit very different ones) of the human condition and Horror provides us with a voyeuristic window that allows us to vicariously experience these scenes.

[3] There is admittedly some overlap between categories as noted in Cottle’s paper, with the Prejean/Hilton incident reflecting elements of media scandal and moral panics at various points in the chronology of the controversy. I have focused here on mediatized public crises due to the narrative/unfolding elements of the case study.

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