Pedestals and the Bittersweetness of Firsts
We had some memorable moments this past week. We got to feel better than one person while in awe of another. Each situation revealed flaws in our collective humanity.
The Differing Perspectives of Two Firsts
Will Smith b*tch-slapped Chris Rock on television for joking about his wife, and Harvard-educated judge, Supreme Court nominee, Ketanji Brown Jackson had a stare down with ignorance.
By all accounts the so-named slap heard round the world was an Oscars first. The closest second to it was in 1973 when John Wayne had to be retrained because he threatened to drag an Indigenous woman from the stage. Marlon Brando had allowed her the platform to accept his award and speak out against the depiction of Native Americans by the entertainment industry.
Reactions to Will Smith’s actions range from his alleged damage to the image of Black men, to kudos for the protection of his wife’s honor. For decades, Smith has been perched on the celebrity pedestal, supported by fans. There are two problems here, the pedestal and the anointing of an unelected representative.
The Problem with the Pedestal
Why are famous people placed on pedestals? The most common reason I found was this one:
It's because of how they're portrayed in TV and in the movies, the media always hypes them up to be better than us normal human beings and that's what brainwashes us. But in reality, they're not that much different than we are, they're human beings just like us when they're not acting on TV or in the movies.
I’ll say it: placing people on pedestals is toxic and ridiculous. Fortunately, I spent my formative career years in television news. After helping a drunk celebrity to stand up for an interview, enduring butt pinches, and receiving inappropriate invitations from a couple of musicians and politicians, it was impossible for me to think of famous people as larger than life.
Gloria Steinem offers an interesting point in her view of pedestals. “A pedestal is as much a prison as any small, confined space.”
So, as we dismount famous people from pedestals, we might also ask the question; is the bad behavior of celebrities relevant to the rest of us? Do they make or change laws, determine who can own a home? Can they impact the human conditions of health, wealthy, liberty, and prosperity? Or are they just doing things that affect them and their families? We must conclude that their actions are not relevant to the lives of the rest of us.
The Whole Race (gender, religion, LGBTQ community) Burden
Notice that if the celebrity is a not a white male, the person is regarded as representative of the entire group.
Will Smith is not all Black men. He’s him, that’s all.
In 2013, NPRs Gene Demby listed four ways that people of color come to represent their entire minority group, willingly or not, a dynamic that white people don't have to deal with – the burden of representing one's people, positively or negatively.
He lists the four ways as follows:
1. The Exemplars
These are the folks who become a kind of shorthand for a group's ascendance or growing cultural clout, or the avatars of that group's aspirations.
2. The Officials ("Who died and made you King of the Negroes?")
While the Exemplars ostensibly achieve prominence through organic support, there are other folks who grab the mic and speak on behalf of Group X.
3. The Iconoclasts
The Iconoclasts are the folks who fashion themselves as dispensers of unpopular Real Talk and who will speak truth to power even if it flies in the face of the perceived critical mass of the people of Group X.
4. Outcasts — "S/he Ain't With Us"
No one is ambivalent about these people. The Outcast has usually done or been accused of doing something grievously, incontrovertibly wrong.
Nominated to sit on the highest court in the land, Ketanji Jackson Brown is the first Black woman to receive this nomination. And while she does not represent all Black women, the way she has been rudely interrupted, asked irrelevant questions, and intentionally misrepresented, resonates with Black women, women, and all non-white males who have dared to venture into the restricted areas of influence or power.
Unlike an actor’s next movie or a singer’s next recording, the Supreme Court nominee impacts our future as Americans and the laws that govern our country. Watching an exercise in dog whistle racist questions posing as an interview reminds us of the double standards and biases that exist to restrict the inclusion of those other than white males in positions of power and influence.
“We’re watching someone in the international spotlight being asked to carry the hopes and dreams of the entire community,” said Dr. Prescod-Weinstein, a professor in women’s and gender studies. “All of us, all the time, are feeling that kind of pressure.”
There is a difference between advancing stereotypes and recognizing barriers erected to intentionally undermine groups. If you are part of a targeted group, you share common experiences with those barriers. I would imagine it’s like war. Soldiers from all walks of life unite to face and protect themselves from attack. They become a group but maintain their individual identity.
On the surface, firsts appear to be celebratory, but they are bittersweet. While highlighting advancement and accomplishment, they remind us of inhumane practices, historical, systemic discrimination, and the calculated denial of rights.
Myra’s Suggested New Rules for Pedestals and Firsts (and for fun)
• Should success as an actor, singer, or athlete come with group leadership responsibility? I say no. Be great at what you do. You’re not a leader, you’re a doer. Let’s not confuse the two. Stay in your lane.
• If you are white or not a member of a disenfranchised group, please don’t ask a person what the group thinks or does.
Example: Hey, Myra, why do Black people (X)?
Answer: I don’t survey Black people for a living. And owing to a culture of Catholicism and the rhythm method, I have thousands of Black relatives whose belief systems and habits I can’t account for on any given day.
• To Will Smith---handle your business. Book more time with the therapist, find new ways to express anger, whatever works. To his wife: know when to whisper to your man, sit yo’ ass down.
• To Chris Rock—like most comedians, you push buttons. You should be able to, but sometimes the buttons push back, whether an angry heckler or an Oscar-winning star.
• Black people: stop turning every well-known person with African ancestry into a so-called leader. You don’t need a leader you need wisdom and a good lawyer.
• Regarding our Supreme Court nominee: put her on the Court, God knows she’d help to raise the bar of late. And anyone who can stare into the eyes of those bigots and smile, can go the distance.
Myra Jolivet is a storyteller. First a TV news anchor and reporter. Then came PR work and consulting. That's where she is today - banging her head against the wall - trying to help CEOs and political candidates tell their stories well. Myra writes a series of murder mysteries She was a kid with an imaginary friend. That says it all.