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Why Sexual Coercion Scandals Are Good News

Celebrity culture has given women the confidence to defy and challenge those with power and influence in show business.


“You brought the flames and you put me through hell.” The words are from the American singer Kesha’s recent track “Prayer” and are, in many people’s opinion, directed squarely at her former producer Dr. Luke, with whom she has been locked in a legal battle for years.

There have been allegations of sexual abuse made by Kesha (pictured above, by rocor) that Dr. Luke (Lukasz Sebastian Gottwald) denies. She signed for his Kemosabe Records, an imprint of Sony, in 2005, when she was 18. Their relationship was fractious pretty much from the outset, though it was creatively fertile and made her a star.

But in 2014, Kesha, or Ke$ha as she was then known, went into rehab and there she told doctors that Dr. Luke had drugged, sexually abused and physically assaulted her. When she emerged, she replaced the $ with an s in her name and filed a lawsuit, accusing him of sexual assault and battery, sexual harassment, gender violence, civil harassment, unfair business and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress in a lawsuit. He countersued for defamation.

A ruling in March concluded that Kesha had entered a contract after the time she alleged the abuse started; this seemed to contradict the singer’s allegations and suggest that Dr. Luke’s alleged abusive behavior was foreseeable. The conflict appears to have subsided, at least for the time being. Dr. Luke continues to produce music.

Indecorous stories about the singer, songwriter and R&B producer R. Kelly have been circulating for several years. The latest broke a couple of weeks ago and centered on his alleged immurement of several young women. According to allegations, these women live in properties in Atlanta and Chicago, owned or rented by Kelly, where every aspect of their lives is controlled — down to what they eat and wear, how they address him (“daddy,” apparently) and when they have sex with him. A parent of one of the captives despaired: “It was as if she was brainwashed. [She] looked like a prisoner … she just kept saying she’s in love and [Kelly] is the one who cares for her … if I get her back, I can get her treatment for victims of cults.”

Men with Power

While there are huge differences in the two cases, there are similarities: In both cases the alleged wrongdoer is a man who is successful in the entertainment industry and respected for his artistic output. The cases bring into grim focus an ugly aspect of show business — men with a certain status can be controlling abusers of the opposite sex.

The focus seems sharper now than ever. Bill Cosby was recently in court accused of numerous offenses. An inconclusive jury verdict resulted in a mistrial, but the stories of drugs, intimidation and sex resonated with other episodes, particularly the many episodes that have emerged in the UK recently. The most infamous of these concerned the television presenter Jimmy Savile, who died in 2011 but was posthumously disgraced after it was found he abused 60 people, aged from 5 to 75.

Embed from Getty Images

Most of us will assume the paradigm is the O.J. Simpson case, which involved the murder of his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and culminated in what many still regard as the trial of the century in 1995. Simpson was cleared but later served nine years behind bars for armed robbery at a Las Vegas casino hotel in 2007. He was recently released.

But these kinds of incidents are probably as old as the entertainment industry itself. Enrico Caruso, the world’s preeminent tenor of the early 20th century and one of the most famous figures of the time, was in 1906 prosecuted for molesting a woman in New York City. At the trial Caruso was said to have imposed himself on six women in total. Caruso was found guilty and fined $10, the maximum amount allowed by law. Since then there have been standout cases. Roman Polanski in 1977, Woody Allen in 1992, Mike Tyson in 1992 (I count sports as part of the entertainment industry). But after the Simpson case, there seems to have been a prevalence of cases involving men who have exploited their status, influence, authority or a combination of all these to abuse women.

This is probably a misleading perception. More likely, we are just more aware of such cases. Why? Obviously, the media are much more likely to pounce on this type of case nowadays. Our appetites are probably more salacious now than ever. We take delight in pronouncing our own judgments in supermarkets or at the office. And the media feed this. But there is more.

Code of Silence

Celebrity culture has delivered many gifts, many of them unwelcome. But an agreeable aspect of its largesse is the confidence it has given women. I’m not talking about confidence in its most general sense, though I do think this has been affected by our preoccupation with celebrities. I mean the confidence to defy and challenge what were once regarded as indomitable show business figures with power and influence enough to get pretty much what they liked and do as they pleased — with anyone they chose.

Women, young and old, have been emboldened because they’re no longer awestricken by the kind of men who in previous eras were popularly regarded as inaccessible, unapproachable and, in some cases, godlike. In any case, there are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of cases that have been buried by Hollywood’s super-efficient publicity machine. Stars, especially male stars, were surrounded by an invisible defensive shield, a shield that dissolved as celebrity culture took shape. The once-remote stars were humanized into celebrities — the kind of people who would stand next to you and chat at a bar.

One of the features of Britain’s Savile case was the apparent hesitance of women in the 1970s to raise a whisper about men in the public eye. They weren’t just star-struck; they were terrified, not by the man, but by his aura – that immanent quality possessed by public figures of the time. Not now, of course: Fans exchange views on social media, take selfies with them and track their movements online. All of which has rendered them more ordinary. And being ordinary means having the same sort of inadequacies and being capable of the same kind of transgressions as anybody else.

Without caricaturing every powerful man in the entertainment industry as a sex-seeking missile, it seems reasonable to assume that the casting couch of Hollywood lore has some basis in reality and that attractive but powerless young women have been awarded roles in return for granting sexual favors.

Whatever happened to the predators? There are probably plenty of them around, though their pursuit of young women has been restrained, paradoxically, by the spate of cases that have dominated news in recent years. Any time a man contemplates making an unwelcome sexual advance on a woman, the possibility that she’ll react with the fury of Judith beheading Holofernes must cross his mind. Flashing before him are thoughts of a career-ending indictment, a shaming court case and even a prison sentence.

Learning about sexual coercion in the entertainment industry horrifies us, but it also reminds us that the days when young women did as they were told and obeyed a code of silence are gone.

*[Ellis Cashmore is the author of Elizabeth Taylor: A Private Life for Public Consumption.]

Sexting: A Reconfiguring of Childhood?

Are we witnessing the disappearance of childhood, at least in the way we’ve understood it for generations?

computer kids

Everyone must at some point wonder if the internet and the apparent dependency it has introduced is a benediction digitally bonded to a curse — or several curses. Barely a week goes by without some cautionary study warning of trolling, addiction, the decline of interpersonal skills and the decomposition of community life, all because we have our eyes fixed to our screens.

The evidence is, as any self-respecting cynic realizes, skewed in favor of tradition: Few researchers are prepared to embrace screens in context. We now have populations that not only have to engage with screens but find it rewarding. They like navigating their ways around cyberspace.

The internet has given us a weightless world of wonder and, for the most part, the supposed negative side effects have the character of the scares that accompanied the growth in the popularity of television in the late 1950s and early 1960s. If the doomsayers of the time were to be believed, it shortened our attention spans, blitzed our cognitive capacities, ruined family life and so on. All of these predictions were ill-founded, as we now know.

Recently though, a report made me realize I’ve been too dismissive. It concerned a 5-year-old English boy who was investigated by police for allegedly sexting. For those who don’t know, sexting means sending sexually explicit photographs, messages or other kinds of materials via smartphones.

The case of the child came to light in the context of a report on the rise in sexting among young people: More than 4,000 children have been dealt with by British police for sexting since 2013. The most common age of these children is 13 or 14, but younger people, as the standout case indicates, are also taking up the practice.

Disappearing Childhood

Every sentient being knows that childhood is disappearing. I’m defining childhood orthodoxly as the state or period of being a child and a child as a human below the age of puberty. In Britain, the age of consent to any form of sexual activity is 16 for both men and women, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

Self-accredited experts on the subject offer advice to parents, much of which is obvious or useless. Apart from the usual suggestions to update software, change passwords and avoid clicking on unusual links, parents are often urged to familiarize themselves with security settings, implement family settings and make children aware of the risks of exchanging information with people they meet online.

I should perhaps own up at this stage: I’m not a parent. So everything I write has to be understood in this context. I am sure people over the age of 30 have little or no idea what their children do online. They can adjust their settings to the highest level of security and counsel their kids with an earnestness that will make them giggle with disbelief. Children today, probably like children of previous generations, will carry on heedlessly and, if necessary, in wilful contravention of their parents’ advice. That’s what children do. All of which makes the report even more discomforting than it already is. The inescapable conclusion is: We can’t do anything about the growing number of children who choose to pursue what they regard as a rewarding experience. We’re destined to watch helplessly as more and more kids send sexually charged text and images.

This is an ugly question to raise, but are we witnessing the disappearance of childhood, at least in the way we’ve understood it for generations? Childhood never stays the same.

As recently as 100 years ago, children were not the same as they are today. Produced often by accident, they were typically parts of much larger families than today and, should they survive their first 10 years, were sent out to work part-time or full-time and their income became a contribution to the family’s economy.

They were probably loved, though not in the same way that children are today. Orphaned children (of which there were plenty) would hardly be loved at all; they would spend their tender years in orphanages and dispatched to the outside world as quickly as possible. A hundred years before this, kids were sent to work in factories or as chimney sweeps’ assistants (they climbed inside the chimneys). In other words, we’ve understood children and childhood in a particular way since the end of World War II. This may be about to change.

Mark of Maturity

It’s unsettling to imagine children as sexual beings. Britain’s youngest parent was 12 when she gave birth (11 when she conceived, as a result of rape). Rates of teenage pregnancy in the UK have halved in the past two decades and are now at their lowest levels since record keeping began in the late 1960s. Sex and relationship education, contraceptives and changes in the status of pregnancy have been factors — pregnancy may once have been a mark of maturity, but it now carries more stigma than kudos.

But the provision of sex and relationship education and the widening of the availability of contraceptives are, of course, predicated on the assumption that young people are interested in and willing to engage in actual sex. And the widening awareness that their immersion in the net will surely bring will stimulate that interest even more.

Children are, it seems, sexualizing themselves. I mean by this that they are exhibiting themselves in a way they fully realize will be interpreted as erotic. This is disturbing in itself, more so when it’s realized that the images and text, once posted, are no longer under their control. Are children net-savvy enough to know that once they hit “send” their pictures and other materials are in the public domain to be appropriated and used potentially by anybody? I suspect from my own research that many are and many more will become so over the next few years.

But I’m sure none of them has the intellectual or emotional maturity to make what we’d consider an informed decision about whether it’s right. This is a moral choice made by people without the sophistication or experience to comprehend the probable consequences of their actions. Of course, we all make mistakes; that’s how we learn – by responding to errors. There’s not much leeway with sexting: the decision to distribute is irreversible and its consequences, in practical terms, impossible to undo.

A non-parent like me finds this unnerving. So I presume any right-minded parent will be even more disturbed. We waste energy fretting over the imagined ill effects of our preoccupation with screens. For the most part, the alarmists are misguided scaremongers who struggle to keep up. But in this one important respect, there is a demand for creative thought. Somehow we must avert the potential reconfiguring of childhood.

Screens present most of us with agreeable and convenient portals to work and pleasure. To the young, screens are the places where they learn and play. In an ideal world, they should be for observing, not for being observed.

*[Ellis Cashmore is a member of the Screen Society research team investigating the cultural impact of digital media. The current questionnaire is here. The results will be published in 2018 by Palgrave Macmillan.]

Sport: Still a Man’s World?

Serena vượt qua trận chiến của các cô em gái

“Dear John, I adore and respect you but please please keep me out of your statements that are not factually based.” Serena Williams (pictured above) was replying via Twitter to John McEnroe’s impolitic remark that if she ventured to play tennis against men she would be “like, 700” in the rankings.

McEnroe’s statements actually were “factually based.” At least in the way evolution is a factually based. It’s so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter our understanding of it substantially. Similarly, it appears self-evident that a female athlete, no matter how proficient, could be accomplished enough to beat an equivalently proficient male, less still beat a man of her own rank. Williams versus Andy Murray?

Serena gave her own assessment of such a match in 2013 on US television’s David Letterman Show: “If I were to play Andy Murray, I would lose 6-0, 6-0 in five to six minutes, maybe 10 minutes.” She was more confident as an 18-year-old in 1999 when she claimed: “I can beat the men,” and asked for a wild card entry for the Eurocard Open in Stuttgart, then one of the elite tournaments on the men’s circuit. Her entry didn’t materialize.

Yet in sports in which women are allowed to compete against men, they’ve fared quite well. In equestrianism, for example, women and men compete on equal terms in a completely gender-integrated contest: Whether in show jumping, three-day eventing, dressage, enduring and driving disciplines, women regularly beat men. In sailing too, there is integration in solo ocean racing (though, since 1988 women compete in a separate category in Olympic sailing events). There are other sports in which women and men participate such as ultra-marathoning, curling and climbing, but none of these is what we’d call a major sport.

Marathon running is a major sport and up till 2011, women were allowed to run in the same event as men, at least in the city marathons. There were two competitions with the first women home receiving a separate accolade, but, for practical purposes, women ran alongside men. Then the London Marathon, presumably at the behest of television, splintered the races so that female runners started before the men.

In 2003, Britain’s Paula Radcliffe finished the London Marathon in 2:15.25 seconds. The time has not been bettered by any woman since. Running against men, it seems, brought women to their mettle and their performances reflected this. What if they’d have been allowed to continue running with men? We can probably guess they’d never have got on even terms with men. But Radcliffe’s best time would almost certainly have been beaten, several times over.

The Best of Us

Sport has, since the 19th century, been based on the unarguable maxim that competition brings the athletic best out of us. Striving to win something by establishing superiority over others is a sure-fire way of reaching our limits. So, the question we asked of marathons stands with tennis: How would the world’s number one female fare in a head-to-head with the top male had women been playing competitively against men for the past 100 years?

Again, many will argue that the results would be basically the same, the support this time coming from the copious amount of evidence on the physical differences between the sexes — that is, differences which do not refer to social or cultural influences. There are differences in, for example, adipose tissue, respiratory volumes, activity of sweat glands and other areas, but there is also similarity: Women’s bodies respond to training in the same way as men’s. It’s possible that women can close the gap in strength to within 5% — crucial in some though not all sports.

You can probably guess where I am going with this. Say we could turn the clocks back a 100 years and dissolve the distinction between men’s and women’s — or to use a term tennis still favors, ladies’ — competition at Wimbledon and elsewhere, where would we be now? It’s likely that female tennis players would be, at first, annihilated, then well beaten, and perhaps then edged out by men. For how long? Sixty years? Maybe longer. But what about today?

It’s misleading comparing performances in male and female events, which have developed separately. Tennis has for long been open to at least those women of resources sufficient to afford it. Only in the most playful mixed doubles have they been allowed to confront male adversaries. One-off exhibitions between the likes of an aged Bobby Riggs and Billie-Jean King (and, before her, Margaret Court) owed more to theater than competitive sport, though The Battle of the Sexes, as it was hailed by the media in 1973, was a victory of sorts for King. This is the subject of a film to be released later this year.

Men Only

Now, women compete in every sport, even then ones that were once strictly “men only.” The once-exclusive male preserve of combat sports has been breached. Professional women cage fighters appear regularly on major MMA bills; tae kwon do has featured as a competitive event since the 2000 Olympic Games. Women are involved in virtually every form of combat sport.

Over the years, women have not achieved as much as men in terms of prestigious titles or money: The highest paid female athlete is currently Serena Williams, who ranks 50 places behind the highest earning Cristiano Ronaldo. In fact, she is the only woman in the top 100. Yet the conclusion that women can’t achieve the same levels doesn’t follow logically from the original premise that they are biologically different. In fact, it could be argued that, if women had been regarded as equally capable as men physically, then they would perform at similar standards, and that the only reason they don’t is because they’ve been regarded as biologically incapable for so long.

It would be ridiculous to deny that there are differences, but think of the body is a process, not a thing: It is constantly changing physically and culturally, as our personal perceptions. Sporting performance promotes changes in terms of muscular strength and oxygen uptake; changes in diet and climactic conditions induce bodily changes too, of course.

Athletes, in particular Caster Semenya, have complicated the traditional male-female binary. In 2009, testosterone testing was introduced to identify cases where testosterone levels were elevated above an arbitrary level, a condition termed hyperandrogenism. Semenya was excluded until 2015, when the rule was reversed and she returned. Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, was dropped from the 2014 Commonwealth Games but, at the last minute, successfully appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which ruled that there was insufficient evidence that testosterone increased female athletic performance. Athletics’ governing organization, the IAAF, is due next month to deliver a clarification on this issue.

In our particular culture and this stage in history we understand women and their association with men in one way; in another place and at another time, this relationship may be understood quite differently. It is a matter of convention that we organize sports into women’s and men’s events, just as it’s a convention to award Oscars for the “best actor,” a man, and “best actress,” a term that’s still used to describe the best female actor. 

The Second Sex

There can be no argument about the fact that the experience of women in sports virtually replicates their more general experience. They have been seen and treated as not only different to men, but also inferior in many respects. Historically, women’s position has been subordinate to that of men. They have been systematically excluded from high-ranking, prestigious jobs, made to organize their lives around domestic or private priorities, while men have busied themselves in the public spheres of industry and commerce.

Being the breadwinner, the male has occupied a central position in the family and has tended to use women for supplementary incomes only, or, more importantly, as unpaid homeworkers, making their contribution appear peripheral. Traditionally, females have been encouraged to seek work, but only in the short term: Women’s strivings should be toward getting married, bearing children and raising a family.

Since the late 1960s and the advent of legal abortion and reliable contraception, women in the West have been able to exercise much more choice in their own fertility and this has been accompanied by feminist critiques of male dominance. Studies showed wide discrepancies in earning power and this prompted legislation on both sides of the Atlantic designed to ensure equality in incomes for comparable jobs.

One of the loudest cries of feminists was about the abuses of the female body: Women, it was argued, have not had control over their own bodies; they have been appropriated by men, not only for working, but for display. “Sex objects” were how many women described themselves, ogled at by men and utilized, often dispassionately.

Against this, they recoiled. Even today, at practically any tennis tournament, the media will almost certainly gravitate toward the best-looking rather than best player. Maria Sharapova, for instance, earns about $20m per year from commercial endorsements. Eugenie Bouchard, ranked only 61st in the world, makes nearly $6m a year from ads, suggesting aesthetics often outweigh sports performance for advertisers. Danica Patrick, the stock car racing driver, earns around $6m from endorsements, while cage fighter Ronda Rousey makes a meager $4m from advertising.

Women are underrepresented in politics compared to their total number in the population. They consistently earn less than their equivalent males and are increasingly asked to work part-time. Despite recent changes in the number of places in higher education occupied by women, they tend to opt for subjects, like sociology and art, that won’t necessarily guarantee them jobs in science and industry. When they do penetrate the boundaries of the professions, they find that having to compete in what is, to all intents and purposes, a man’s world, has its hidden disadvantages — what many call the glass ceiling.

Women’s experience has been one of denial: They simply have not been allowed to enter sports, again because of a mistaken belief in their natural predisposition. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries they were considered too frail to withstand the physical exertions of sport. Then they were warned that their reproductive capacities would be harmed by exercise. They were even told to beware of virilization — the development of male physical characteristics, such as muscle bulk, facial hair and a deep voice. Historically, women who excelled at, or even participated in, sports were called “mannish” and regarded as unnatural. Even as recently as 1967, when Kathy Switzer became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon (she applied under “K. V. Switzer”), she was pilloried and, because of her run, the Amateur Athletics Union barred women from all competitions with male runners.

Because of this, the encouragement, facilities, and, importantly, competition available to males from an early age hasn’t been extended to them. In the very few areas where the gates have been recently opened — the marathon being the obvious example — women’s progress has been extraordinary. Given open competition, women could achieve parity with men in virtually all events, apart from those very few that require the rawest of muscle power.

The vast majority of events need fineness of judgment, quickness of reaction, balance, and anticipation; women have no disadvantages in these respects. Their only disadvantage is what many people believe about them: In sports as in life, women will simply never catch up.

*[Ellis Cashmore is the author of Making Sense of Sports. He will be appearing at the Bradford Literature Festival on Sunday, July 9, 2017.]

Halle Berry: ” I’m not going to put a label on it”

Halle Berry

Halle Berry’s changes of mind reflect a restless intellect pulsing with ideas. 

“I had lived this woman’s life from the age of 15 to 65 as she was sexually abused, beaten, treated like dirt. I really felt the injustice and I was called nigger just one time too many on screen,” Halle Berry told The Daily Mail. It was 1993 and she had just finished playing the title role in Alex Haley’s Queen, the concluding part of the Roots saga. “I was going to give up acting and become a full-time civil rights activist.”

She didn’t, of course. She went on to grander roles, more bravura performances and, in 2001, became the first African-American woman to win the best actress Oscar for her role in Monster’s Ball.

Whether the experience of playing the daughter of a slave and a white plantation owner who tries to pass as white in the period after the American Civil War impressed Berry indelibly isn’t certain. Berry had shown an awareness of history when she dedicated her Oscar: “This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. This is for every faceless woman of colour who now has a chance tonight because this door has been opened.”

But in an interview with Teen Vogue‘s Elaine Welteroth, she described receiving the Oscar as one of her “lowest moments.” “I thought it meant something, but I think it meant nothing.”

Still sleekly beautiful as she approaches her 51st birthday, Berry expressed her interest in “making more opportunities for people of colour … and I’m trying to figure out how to help and add more diversity to the academy.” In her own quiet, prepossessing way, Berry has become one of the most thoughtful, yet provocative artists of recent years. She has raised issues that have been uncomfortable to discuss, yet relevant to the experience of African-Americans today. She has reminded us that, whether they like it or not, all black actors are, in some sense, political figures.

For example, in 2011, after splitting up with her partner, a white Canadian, Berry pressed for custody of their daughter. The custody was contested and Berry based her claim on her daughter’s ethnicity: she was black, insisted Berry, drawing on what has become known as the one-drop rule. This is an old idiomatic phrase that stipulates that anyone with any trace of sub-Saharan ancestry, however minute (“one drop”), can’t be considered white and, in the absence of an alternative lineage — for example, Native American, Asian, Arab, Australian Aboriginal — they are considered black.

The rule has no biological or genealogical foundation, though. In 1910, when Tennessee enshrined the rule in law, it was popularly regarded as having scientific status, however spurious. By 1925, almost every state in America had some form of one-drop rule on the statute books. This was four decades before civil rights. Jim Crow segregation was in full force. Anti-miscegenation laws that prohibited unions of people considered to be of different racial types remained until 1967 when the Supreme Court repealed them completely. Berry’s case reflected the interest in “authentic” black culture that spread across popular culture, leading to a redefinition of roles available to black actors and, indeed, a redefinition of blackness itself. It also resonated with historical memories and emotions.

Berry herself had an African-American father and a white mother, who was from Liverpool. Her parents divorced and she was brought up by her mother in Cleveland, Ohio. Prior to the custody argument, she had declared that she considered herself bi-racial, this referring to a child with a black parent and a white parent: “I do identify with my white heritage. I was raised by my white mother and every day of my life I have always been aware of the fact that I am bi-racial.”

Berry had occasionally talked about the particular predicament bi-racial people but had never made an issue of it. At various points, she had also used black, African-American and woman of colour to describe herself. She had, in measured terms, talked about how she never felt accepted as white, despite her white mother. But her appeal to the one-drop rule seemed a bit like a physicist trying to explain the movements of celestial bodies by citing astrology.

Actually, while it seemed irrational, Berry’s explanation of her actions was far removed from any kind of faux biology or pseudoscience. “I’m black and I’m her [daughter’s] mother, and I believe in the one-drop theory. I’m not going to put a label on it. I had to decide for myself and that’s what she’s going to have to decide — how she identifies herself in the world,” she was quoted by Chloe Tilley of BBC World Service.

In resisting conventional census categories or labels such as bi-racial or multiracial, she was not resorting to another label, black, as if returning to a default setting. Black, in her argument (at least, as I interpret it), is no longer a label: it is a response to a label — a response, that is, to not being white. Blackness, on this account, doesn’t describe a colour, a physical condition, a lifestyle or even an ethnic status in the conventional sense: It is a reaction to being regarded as different or distinct.

Black no longer describes a designated group of people: It is the way in which those who have been identified as distinct from and opposite to whites have reacted; their answer. When Berry allowed, “that’s what she’s going to have to decide,” she meant that her daughter has some measure of discretion in the way she responds. Blackness is now a flexible and negotiable action; not the fixed status it once was.

Rachel Dolezal advanced a similar argument when she proclaimed herself black, even though several critics called her a fraud. The Branch President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) thought Dolezal’s argument was too sophisticated for most to understand: Blackness, like whiteness, is a culturally created label that’s often confused with a biological description. If she identifies with blackness, the only fraud is in perpetuating artificial categories invented by Europeans to subordinate slaves in the 17th century.

Similarly, Berry’s wish that her daughter will mature in a world where she can make choices about her own identity, including her ethnic affiliations, and perhaps even change these as she moves from situation to situation, is a difficult one to grasp, but one the world is going to have to. Blackness is not a thing: It is, as I say, a response.

Berry is using her status and intellectual ingenuity to prompt debates that affect not just actors, but everybody. At times, her arguments are worthy, yet confusing; there is surely a contradiction in appealing for choice in ethnicity while citing an ancient, racist justification that would be endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

The volte-face on the Oscars is also perplexing. The virtual exclusion of African-American artists from nominations was dramatically reversed earlier this year, though this seemed suspiciously like Hollywood tokenism. Perhaps this too-obvious lip service payment has convinced her that more structural change is called for. She now says: “I want to start directing, I want to start producing more [and] I want to start being a part of making more opportunities for people of colour.”

Her changes of mind reflect a restless intellect pulsing with ideas. You don’t have to agree with Berry to acknowledge that she is a woman for the hour when popular culture needs to speak to its time.

Ellis Cashmore is the author of “Elizabeth Taylor,” “Beyond Black” and “Celebrity Culture.” He is a visiting professor of sociology at Aston University and has previously worked at the universities of Hong Kong and Tampa.

This article was originally published on Fair Observer.



Q: It’s sixty years this month since the release of the film Giant (40th anniversary poster above). This was a big film in the 1950s, but never ranks among the likes of The Godfather, Casablanca, or Gone With The Wind as a twentieth century classic. But I know you’re going to tell us that it has cultural significance that escapes most of us.
A: It’s only what you’d expect from me, isn’t it? You can see a half-century of popular culture in Giant. Three mortal figures advance towards immortality in this film.
Q: Well, that’s quite a claim. Continue.
A: First, the story. Edna Ferber’s book Giant concerns an oil-and-ranching family modeled on the Kleberg family, who ran (and still run today) the vast King Ranch in South Texas. Giant is the story a simple cowhand who becomes a conniving, bigoted oil tycoon and cattle baron and his strong-willed wife, transplanted from the greenery of her native Maryland, who curbs his Southern vulgarities with her Eastern civility. Serialized in Ladies’ Home Journal beginning in the spring of 1952, Giant was released that fall to immense sales, quickly leaping onto the New York Times best-seller list. But the film based on the novel secretes another story. Warner Brothers, having secured the rights – amid much competition from other studios – to Ferber’s work, cast Rock Hudson in the central role of Bick Benedict, the Texas rancher, Hudson, then 29, was what was known in the mid-1950s as “beefcake,” meaning an outstandingly handsome and muscular man who radiated heterosexual attractiveness. Montgomery Clift, also possessed of exceptional good looks, was earmarked for the role of Jett Rink, the poor dirt farmer who strikes it rich, thought to be based on Glenn McCarthy, who was a flamboyant oil millionaire, known as “King of the Wildcatters” (a wildcatter is a prospector who sinks exploratory oil wells). But the producers were suspicious of his drinking and opted for the then relatively untested method actor James Dean, who made East of Eden (1955) and seemed an acceptable risk. Dean was also handsome, but, in his case, haunted-looking, which was fashionably impressive – he looked, to use a term that originated at the time and has persisted since, cool.
Q: And the role of Leslie?
A: Grace Kelly was a natural for the role of Bick’s wife. The humble, blonde Philadelphia beauty who became Hollywood star had not yet fled to become a European princess and looked perfect. She was about as hot as it was possible to be at the time. She’d been in High Noon, Dial M for Murder and To Catch a Thief. The film’s director George Stevens had briefly considered Elizabeth Taylor, but, at 23, she seemed too young (Kelly was nearly two-and-a-half years older). The story goes that Hudson, possibly wary that hugely popular Kelly might steal his thunder, argued Taylor’s case and eventually got his way. Remember: Taylor was not yet the scandalizing hellcat she became, though, she had gone through her first unruly marriage and was now married to English actor Michael Wilding. But she had not yet taken on a role that was truly adult and the role demanded that she age an improbable twenty-five years over the course of Ferber’s saga.
Q: Now, you describe Hudson as beefcake. But he later became the first Hollywood star to die from Aids. He was gay, if memory serves. So?
A: This was the 1950s. America hadn’t even started contemplating repealing its sodomy laws, as they called them. Hudson was shut tight in the closet. In fact he was married to his agent’s assistant. In those days, they were called “lavender marriages,” meaning they were designed to remove suspicions about an actor’s sexual preferences.
Q: So, there were suspicions about Hudson?
A: In the film industry, for sure. But don’t forget, in the 1950s, Hollywood operated a smooth-functioning publicity operation and allowed only the information it wanted released to escape to the outside world. Had it become known that Hudson was gay – and he didn’t come out until only weeks before his death in 1985 – it would have killed off his professional career instantly.
Q: Did Taylor know?
A: Almost certainly. And, if she didn’t when they started filming, she would have known soon enough, if only because he didn’t make a move on her. She was one of the most desirable women in the world at the time and her marriage was apparently on the rocks. If there had been social media back then, we would have all got rolling reports on them.
Q: And Dean?
A: Well his heterosexual credentials were also called into question, though not as conspicuously as Hudson’s of course. Then again, there the gossip, rumour and hearsay surrounding Dean has never ceased. When someone dies, especially prematurely, it seems to provide the world with licence to think, say and share whatever they choose. Dean was killed in a road accident before filming had even finished. He’d completed his scenes and was driving his Porsche Spyder in Cholame, California. This was 1955. Dean (who was born in 1931), like Marlon Brando (born 1924) was one of those mid-20th century glamor-rebels challenging a society in the throes of a social, cultural and psychological adjustment to peacetime. Their political aspirations were captured in Brando’s answer to, “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” in The Wild One (1953). “What’ve you got?” Elvis was another pin-up rebel without a cause, conviction or purpose. Dean, perhaps more than the others, encoded the mood of his generation. It was a generation that had not yet assimilated changes in the cultural politics of sex: Dean was unequivocally male and that meant his glazed handsomeness was intended to excite young women. It did. But that was just the visible tip of Dean’s ultra cool iceberg. The Dean myth grew bigger, appreciably bigger, than the man. Check this picture of him in crucifiorm mode, with Taylor looking at him almost worshipfully.




Q: Let me pause briefly to reflect: the film featured Hudson, who was, for all the world knew, a straight lady’s man, but who later took on iconic importance when he became the first Aids victim from the Hollywood A-list. There was also Taylor, who, at that time, was still four years away from her scandalous affair with Eddie Fisher, who was best man at her third wedding, and married to one of the world’s most popular girl-next-door types, Debbie Reynolds — and father of her children. And Dean, who died young and handsome and whose image was to adorn millions of posters, tee-shirts, coffee mugs and who was to become the subject of books and movies. He was one of those characters who, as they say, captured the zeitgeist.
A: Correct.
Q: I get it: they were all, in their own ways, icons of the late twentieth century.
A: Yes, though the affair with Fisher was only the start of the Taylor’s notoriety. In the early 1960s, she meet Richard Burton in Italy on the set of Cleopatra (see below). Still married to Fisher, she became involved with the Welsh actor, himself married and with children. The timing of the clandestine affair was perfect in a sense. The Italian photojournalists who later became known to us all as paparazzi were just beginning their exploits and caught Taylor and Burton in flagrante. The image quickly circulated around the world, heralding the arrival of a new type of journalism.


Elizabeth Taylor, 1932-2011


Q: And ultimately, the rise of what we now recognize as celebrity culture.
A: I’d say so. Now do you understand what I mean when I say Hudson, Taylor and Dean were three mortals advancing towards immortality? In a way, all three have left their impressions on our culture.
Q: What made you think of this?
A: I claim no credit. An American journalist Amanda Champagne, who writes for Closer, asked me to comment on the film as we approach its anniversary and, as I was thinking about the production, it occurred to me that the three main actors were far from cultural behemoths in 1956 when the film was released. But, over subsequent decades, each became colossally significant in completely different ways.

Final bell sounds for Muhammad Ali: The Greatest


Ali vs. Fraizer

On October 2, 1980, Muhammad Ali, then aged 38, and Larry Holmes, the heavyweight champion of the world, entered a temporary arena built at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas. A gate of nearly 25,000 had paid $5,766,125, a record in its day. “It wasn’t a fight; it was an execution,” wrote Ali’s biographer Thomas Hauser. After ten sickeningly one-sided rounds, Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee signalled Ali’s retirement. Ali’s aide and confidante Bundini Brown pleaded: “One more round.” But, Dundee snapped back: “Fuck you! No! … The ballgame’s over.”

In a way, he was right: one game had indeed finished. Ali fought only once more. His health had been deteriorating for several years before the ill-advised Holmes fight and the savaging he took repulsed even his sternest critics. Ali the “fearsome warrior,” as Hauser calls him, would disappear, replaced by a “benevolent monarch and ultimately to a benign venerated figure”.

And now that venerated figure has died, aged 74.

Muhammad Ali was also a symbol of black protest, a cipher for the anti-Vietnam movement, a martyr (or traitor, depending on one’s perspective), a self-regarding braggart, and many more things beside. While there have been several sports icons, none have approached Ali in terms of complexity, endowment and sheer potency. Jeffrey Sammons suggests: “Perhaps no single person embodied the ethic of protest and intersected with so many lives, ordinary and extraordinary.”

Born into two nations

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, in the segregated south, Cassius Clay, as he was christened, was made forcibly aware of America’s “two nations,” one black, one white. After winning a gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics, he returned home to be refused service at a restaurant. This kind of incident was to influence his later commitments.

Clay both infuriated and fascinated audiences with his outrageous claims to be the greatest boxer of all times, his belittling of opponents, his poetry and his habit of predicting (often accurately) the round in which his fights would end. “It’s hard to be modest when you’re as great as I am,” he remarked.

Should have seen the other bloke.
PA Wire

He beat Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight title in 1964 and easily dismissed him in the rematch. Between the two fights, he proclaimed his change of name to Muhammad Ali, reflecting his conversion to Islam. While he’d made public his membership of the Nation of Islam (NoI), sometimes known as the Black Muslims, prior to the first Liston fight, few understood the implications. The NoI was led by Elijah Muhammad and had among its most famous followers Malcolm X, who kept company with Ali and who was to be assassinated in 1965.

Among the NoI’s principles was a belief that whites were intent on keeping black people in a state of subjugation and that integration was not only impossible, but undesirable. Blacks and whites should live separately; preferably living in different states. The view was in stark distinction to North America’s melting pot ideal.

Ali’s commitment deepened and the media, which had earlier warmed to his extravagance, turned against him. A rift occurred between Ali and Joe Louis, the former heavyweight champion who was once described as “a credit to his race.” This presaged several other conflicts with other black boxers whom Ali believed had allowed themselves to become assimilated into white America and had failed to face themselves as true black people.

Sting like a bee

The events that followed Ali’s call-up by the military in February 1966 were dramatised by a background of growing resistance to the US involvement in the Vietnam War. Ali’s oft-quoted remark “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong” made headlines around the world. He insisted that his conscience not cowardice guided his decision not to serve in the military and, so, to many others, he became a mighty signifier of pacifism. To others he was just another draft dodger.

At the nadir of his popularity, he fought Ernie Terrell, who, like Patterson, persisted in calling him “Clay.” The fight in Houston had a grim subtext with Ali constantly taunting Terrell. “What’s my name, Uncle Tom?” Ali asked Terrell as he administered a callous beating. Ali prolonged the torment until the 14th round. Media reaction to the fight was wholly negative. Jimmy Cannon, a boxing writer of the day wrote:

It was a bad fight, nasty with the evil of religious fanaticism. This wasn’t an athletic contest. It was a kind of lynching … [Ali] is a vicious propagandist for a spiteful mob that works the religious underworld.

Wilderness years

Ali’s refusal to serve in the armed forces resulted in a five-year legal struggle, during which time Ali was stripped of his title. During his exile, Ali had angered the NoI by announcing his wish to return to boxing if this was ever possible. Elijah, the supreme minister, denounced Ali for playing “the white man’s games of civilisation”. He meant sports.

Other evaluations of sport were gathering force. The black power inspired protests of John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics, combined with the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa had made clear that sport could be used to amplify the experiences of black people the world over. While Ali was a bête noir for many whites and indeed blacks, several civil rights leaders, sports performers and entertainers came out publicly in his defence. He was hailed as their champion.

Given the growing respect he was afforded, he was seen as an influential figure. Ali’s moves were monitored by government intelligence organizations; his conversations were wiretapped. But the mood of the times was changing: he was widely regarded as a martyr by the by-then formidable anti-war movement and practically anyone who felt affinity with civil rights.

His years of exile over, he returned to boxing. But prospect of a smooth transition back to the title was dashed March 1971 by Joe Frazier (see picture above)), who had taken the title in Ali’s absence and defended it with unexpected tenacity in a contest that started one of the most virulent rivalries in sport. Ali had called Frazier a “white man’s champion” and declared: “Any black man who’s for Joe Frazier is a traitor.” Ali lost once to Frazier and beat him twice over the following years, every fight being viciously fought.

Ali had to wait until 1974 before getting another chance at the world title. By this time, Ali, at 32, was not favoured; in fact, many feared for his well being against the hitherto unbeaten George Foreman. The fight in Zaire became immortalised as “The Rumble in the Jungle” and Ali emerged again as champion.

In June 1979, Ali announced his retirement from boxing. At 37, he appeared to have made a graceful exit when he moved to Los Angeles with his third wife Veronica whom he had married two years before. His first marriage lasted less than a year ending in 1966; Ali married again in 1967, again in 1977 and then in 1986 to his current wife Yolanda Williams.

Hauser estimates Ali’s career earnings to 1979 to be “tens of millions of dollars”. Yet, on his retirement, Ali was not wealthy.

Within 15 months of his retirement, Ali returned to the ring, his principal motivation being money. He also made several poor business investments and, while prolonging his sports career seemed suicidal, he managed one more fight, again ending in defeat. He was 39 and had fought 61 times.

In 1984, he disappointed his supporters when he nominally supported Ronald Reagan’s re-election bid. He also endorsed George Bush in 1988. The Republican Party’s policies, particularly in regard to affirmative action programs, were widely seen as detrimental to the interests of African Americans and Ali’s actions were, for many, tantamount to a betrayal.

London Olympics 2012: Ali as global icon.
Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

Ali’s public appearances gave substance to stories of his ill health. By 1987, he was the subject of much medical interest. Slurred speech and uncoordinated bodily movements gave rise to several theories about his condition, which was ultimately revealed as Parkinson’s syndrome. His public appearances became rarer and he became Hauser’s “benign venerated figure.”

Over a period of five decades, Ali excited a variety of responses: admiration and respect, but also condemnation. At different points in his life, he drew the adulation of young people committed to peace, civil rights and black power; and the anger of those pursuing social integration.

Ali engaged with the central issues that preoccupied America: race and war. But it would be remiss to understand him as a symbol of social healing; much of his mission was to expose and, perhaps, to deepen divisions. He preached peace, yet aligned himself with a movement that sanctioned racial separation and the subordination of women. He accepted a role with the liberal Democratic administration of Jimmy Carter, yet later sided with reactionaries, Reagan and Bush. He advocated black pride, yet disparaged and dehumanised fellow blacks. He taught the importance of self-determination, yet allowed himself to be sucked into so many doubtful business deals that he was forced to prolong his career to the point where his dignity was effaced. Like any towering symbol, he had very human contradictions.

Ellis Cashmore, Visiting Professor, Aston University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

MYTH-MAKING: Elizabeth Taylor, Liz Smith and the birth of celebrity culture

Ellis Cashmore discusses reactions to his new book with his commissioning editor at Bloomsbury, Katie Gallof.

Media of Elizabeth Taylor

Katie Gallof: Well your new book on Elizabeth Taylor is provoking some reaction, isn’t it? It seems you’ve captivated some reviewers, and infuriated others. Liz Smith, in particular, has moved from the first response to the second. What goes on here?

Ellis Cashmore: First let me introduce Liz Smith, @LizSmth, who, in all probability doesn’t need much of an introduction. She’s the most experienced and arguably most respected society journalist in the world and, even in her nineties, files an influential column called New York Social Diary in which she chronicles the lives of celebrities. To call her a gossip columnist – which I do in the book – is really like describing the Sistine Chapel as a church. She is the doyen of celebrity journalists.

KG: She was a friend of Elizabeth Taylor, right?

EC: Absolutely. A confidante too, I would surmise. Certainly, Liz Smith covered Elizabeth Taylor’s career in depth and for a period of time that qualifies her to comment authoritatively on virtually any aspect of her life.

KG: And your book is, of course, about Taylor’s life, but also the cultural changes she both lived through and, in her way, instigated.

EC: Yes, my argument is that Taylor ushered in what we now call celebrity culture: audiences were as fascinated by her private life as they were by her dramatic performances and she was adept at manipulating the media in a way that suited her own ends perfectly. In a genuine sense, she helped cultivate our appetite for scandal, particularly with her tempestuous romance with Richard Burton. We take this for granted now, of course. But La Liz, as Liz Smith calls her, was the first Hollywood star to capture fans in this way. Incidentally, Liz Smith wrote about Taylor and Burton: ““They trusted me and eventually I became the only journalist who could get to them.”

KG: So what did Liz Smith think about your book?

EC: In her column New York Social Diary, she offered her view that I “intelligently and dramatically” address the changing status of fame, specifically how Taylor benefited from scandals that would have ruined lesser stars, whether Taylor deliberately started those scandals, if she delighted in or squirmed from the global fame she acquired and how she turned her fame to her own purposes. In a lovely phrase, Liz Smith notes my analysis of “How she [Taylor] made mythology out of her travails and happiness.” You can imagine how thrilled I was when she concluded: “I found myself agreeing with most of his conclusions, perhaps because I myself had come to believe, and had written those same conclusions, over the many, many years I knew and had unprecedented access to the star of stars.”

KG: Praise indeed from someone who has been writing about the stars for at least four decades. I understand she launched her renowned New York Daily News column in 1976.

EC: Yes. In fact, she implicitly invited me to contact her for further information when she wrote that her input could have “made his good book better.” I don’t doubt this.

KG: So what’s changed?

EC: Three days later in another New York Social Diary column, Liz Smith wrote that the more she thought about my book’s references to her, the more “pissed-off” she became. Naturally, it wasn’t my intention to upset her and I don’t think there was any inaccuracy in my account. But I recorded how she was present at many pivotal events in Taylor’s career and was closer to her than any other journalist. This led some writers to assume she lost some objectivity and became too chummy. This wasn’t my criticism: in fact, it came from Ann Gerhart, who, in 1993, wrote critically after Liz Smith had emceed a press conference at which Taylor introduced her range of fragrances: “Now, the veteran gossip columnist is a celebrity in her own right, by virtue of her years of access and hefty salary, and many times she has hosted various functions to raise money for charity. But a journalist serving as a flack, helping an interview subject hustle a commercial venture, that’s something entirely different and smacked, to us, of ethics violations.”

KG: That was certainly a stinging censure.

EC: It was, though, in a sense, journalists can, indeed have to become familiar, if not friendly with their subjects. Remember Gerhart’s remarks were 23 years ago. Today, we consumers expect journalists to provide insider accounts of the most personal details of celebrities’ private lives. This is not sycophancy, but Liz Smith was ahead of her time in this respect.  I know she grumbles that many critics have given her “bitchy write-ups,” but I’m hoping she doesn’t include me. In writing the book, I’ve tried to be analytical and detached.

KG: I notice that, at the end of the book, you include her in the roll of influential individuals who, in their own way, shaped Taylor and, in turn, the world in which she lived.

EC: Indeed I do. The whole book is as much about times of Elizabeth Taylor, as well as her life. She was inseparable from her cultural context and, of course, Liz Smith was part of that context. I quote her poignant phrase after Taylor died: “She was only 79, but had lived a thousand years, had fired up and exhausted endless fantasies for herself and the millions who watched her.”


Katie Gallof is Bloomsbury’s Senior Commissioning Editor for Film and Media Studies. She’s based in New York.  @BloomsburyMedia

Ellis Cashmore is author of Elizabeth Taylor: A Private Life for Public Consumption and Beyond Black: Race and Celebrity in Obama’s America. He is a visiting professor of sociology at Aston University  @elliscashmore


Q: Simon Cowell’s blood must be boiling: he gave Gary Barlow a job on The X Factor, while he was away between 2011 and 2013, and now Barlow is planning a rival talent show for BBC. We won’t be able to move for talent shows.   At the moment we’re reaching the business end of The Voice (below). Once that concludes, we’ll have Britain’s Got Talent, then Cowell’s mainstay The X Factor. Can we take this much talent?

The Voice

 A: I think the concept has plenty of mileage, but The X Factor is showing its age and could founder after another series, especially if the mooted Barlow series succeeds. We shouldn’t underestimate The X Factor, of course: the once-monumental show was, and perhaps still is, a television phenomenon. No programme has consistently pulled in audiences like Cowell’s show. At its peak, in 2010, it drew 19.4 million viewers — that’s over 30 percent of the UK’s total population. But it’s been sliding since and, last year, one of its programmes drew just 5.25m, the lowest since X Factor’s first ever show in September 2004. And remember, it straddles the whole demographic spectrum, bringing viewers of all ages and both genders to their screens for Saturday nights.
Q: I confess I find it simultaneously kind and cruel. It gives wannabes their chance but often uses them simply to mock. I know this was deliberate and, in a sense, this was part of the show’s attraction. But other talent shows are not so vicious. I mean, there are no lacerating put-downs on The Voice and criticism on BGT tends to be good-humoured.
A: And I wonder if that’s the problem. We enjoy critique. We even enjoy Cowell’s likening of some singers to karaoke performers or cabaret artists — as if these were the lowest of the low. And this has been part of the X Factor narrative. Yet familiarity is not always a good thing. Perhaps BBC is thinking along the same lines. Barlow is a constructive critic: he doesn’t pull his punches, but he’s nowhere near as acerbic as Cowell (below).

simon_cowell (1)

Q: Personally, I like Cowell’s disparagement: it’s blunt, honest and a rebuff for the narcissistic culture that encourages an anyone-can-make-it attitude among young people. Some of the contestants are chillingly reminded that, while everyone wants to be a celebrity, some of us are destined to remain anonymous.
A: I tend to agree; but tastes change. At least, the decline in ratings suggest so. Reality tv broadly continues to prosper, mainly because we find authenticity rewarding. The X Factor welded this authenticity to what we nowadays call fandom — that is, the collective of admirers or followers of the famous. Cowell took an old idea and gave fans the ability to decide who should win. The X Factor has more in common with sport than conventional entertainment: every week voting fans democratically decide who gets eliminated until, like a Darwinian struggle, whoever they think is the strongest survives.
Q: There’s something else: the voters are actually doing market research for Cowell. They tell him who they like and who they don’t like. So when he launched One Direction, Olly Murs and Leona Lewis, it was in the certain knowledge that they’d already created huge fan bases.
A: True. But the show has had its fair show of flops and The Voice seems to be an end-point for winners. Fans vote for them, but then turn away. Perhaps that’s really what the want. Leanne Mitchell had poor album sales  and  Jermain Jackman‘s first single limped only to 75 in the chart.
Q: Let me get this straight: you mean audiences like X Factor winners when they are on the show, but don’t like the prospect of them becoming world-conquering superstars independently?
A: Maybe. I think the failure of X Factor’s 2014 winner Ben Haenow could be a sign that fans like the feeling that they control the destiny of singers. Once the show is over, they just have to sit back and watch the likes of Harry Styles et al. becoming huge stars without their support. It’s like electing someone Prime Minister, then feeling helpless while they rule the country. I’ll be surprised if any future winners of The X Factor or any other talent show, duplicate the success of 1D, Leona Lewis (both from The X Factor) or Susan Boyle, who leapt to fame from BGT.
Q: The redtop newspapers love talent shows, don’t they?
A: It’s not only the redtop newspapers. The Sun and the Mirror certainly give most coverage to the shows, particularly any scandal, no matter how minor, surrounding the panel or the contestants; but all the newspapers grant them space. The relationship is symbiotic: the newspapers get a steady supply of stories, while the shows benefit from the exposure. And it’s not just traditional media.
Q: Social media wasn’t really around when The X Factor started, was it?
A: Not on any great scale. Today, twitter can help new artists and allow established stars to thrive. I think twitter, together with Vine and Instagram, can short circuit talent shows. This makes me think that, in future, talent shows — at least the ones that are going to flourish — will need to integrate television and social media. I don’t think this is just a case of hashtagging   and so on. I think the shows’ producers will have to exercise their minds creatively to come up with a closer interaction, cooperation or joint engagement. The alternative is to look old-fashioned and — dare I say it? — irrelevant. I don’t underestimate the ingenuity of the shows’ producers: I suspect they will innovate in a way that keeps us glued to our tvs on Saturday nights, though I think the days of 15m+ tv viewers has passed. Of course, tv itself may be passing too: all the signs are that we’re watching content via our tablets, smartphones or whatever portable devices will appear in the future. We’re also watching whenever we please: catchup tv means that we can choose the time to watch. I imagine all the shows are grappling with a form flexible enough to accommodate new viewing habits. The challenge is to retain the democratic character: the audience feels in control of talent shows at the moment. They can elevate someone to stardom or consign them to oblivion. I think this is important in separating talent shows from ordinary entertainment programmes.
Q: You sound ambivalent about the future of talent shows. Are you?
A: Well, I’m mindful that American Idol, which is the US equivalent of The X Factor, and features Cowell on its panel, is currently in its final run. It’s been going for 15-years. The show originated as a version of the UK’s Pop Idol, which played for two series between 2001-03, before The X Factor started up. An American version of The X Factor lasted only two years, 2011 to 2013, while American Idol thrived, at one point drawing 40 million viewers (for comparison, last January’s Super Bowl drew an average of 114.4 million viewers).
Q: And you think this presages problems for the talent shows?
A: Like any other television genre, there’s a point where you can have too much of a good thing. There are, at the last count, 147 versions of The X Factor around the world, for example. But we live at a time when people demand constant change and renewal; they want novelty, freshness and originality. Talent shows had all these. Now they’re looking a bit stale. Shows are going to have to mutate and adapt to new environments. Those that change in a way we find agreeable, will continue; but I think others will struggle. At the moment the landscape is very congested: we have talent shows almost every week of the year. I think The Voice, when revamped by ITV, will be interesting. I also think The X Factor will come back fighting after the worst year in its history. Whether BGT and the new Gary Barlow series will respond remains to be seen. The battle between the shows could be more interesting than the on-stage battles.



Q: In your book Beyond Black, you argued that Beyoncé was the epitome of today’s celebrity-as-commodity: someone who has almost surrendered her humanity to turn herself into an all-purpose industry that can sell practically any product. There’s no doubt about that. But, after her apparently newfound blackness (as revealed at the halftime Super Bowl show, see above), I have a new question: can she sell the end racism?

A: There’s a short answer and a long one. Let me start with the short: No. Beyoncé Knowles-Carter is a phenomenon, someone who has lived her life as a business; every move she makes is scrupulously thought-through,  every decision is subject to rigorous analysis, every interview   she gives (and there are precious few) is subject to her approval. This is a woman to whom spontaneity and randomness are like crosses to a vampire. She likes control over every aspect of her industry — and she is an industry, of course. She can sell anything, whether Samsung phones, L’Oréal lipstick, American Express cards … the list goes on. Oh yes, and her own music, of course. Since 2006, when Destiny’s Child split up, she has sold 118 million records worldwide.

Q: But, as I recall, your argument was that Bey’s avoidance of getting involved in any social issue that is even faintly controversial is the key to her commercial success. You also said that all black celebrities have conditional status in the sense that they are kind of allowed to be successful on the condition that they don’t get talk too loudly about social issues. In particular about racism. This seems to have changed now. Beyoncé appears to have some sort of epiphany —  a moment of sudden revelation — and is prepared to define herself as black. This is something she’s never done before.

A: You’re right: Beyoncé has never openly described herself as black and has even explicitly denied that she is on the same cultural landscape as the rest of us. In a 2009 interview with Vogue asked her “if she had ever experienced any of the racism in the music business.” She answered: “My father had to fight those battles. I didn’t. And now I’m large enough—I’m universal—that no one’s paying attention to what race I am. I’ve kind of proven myself. I’m past that.” Now she seems to have decided that the time is right to open up on this issue. In her new video Formation, she addresses the race issue, straddling a New Orleans police car, which eventually gets submerged (with her on its roof) And at the end of the video, a line of riot-gear-clad police officers surrender, hands raised, to a dancing black child in a hoodie, and the camera then pans over a graffito: Stop Shooting Us. She released the track just before her show the Super Bowl’s half-time; her performance was loaded with black power symbols and what some interpreted as a protest against the police’s treatment of blacks in America (see below).

Q: Since the Trayvon Martin shooting in 2012, there has been a series of encounters involving unarmed African Americans on the losing end of a gun or a confrontation with police. Jordan Davis, 17, was shot and killed in 2012. Renisha McBride, 19, shot and killed in 2013. Eric Garner, 43, was killed in chokehold New York City in 2014, by police officer Daniel Pantaleo. John Crawford, 22, was shot and killed by police in 2014. Michael Brown shot and killed in Ferguson in 2014, by then-police officer Darren Wilson. Tamir Rice, 12, was killed in Cleveland in, 2014, by police officer Timothy A. Loehmann. The killers of Davis and McBride were found guilty and are in prison. The police officers involved in the killings of Crawford, Garner and Brown were not indicted. The officer who killed Tamir is on restricted duty.

A: And everyone in America and beyond knows about these killings and understands the ill-feeling they have created.  I think this is why Beyoncé has incorporated black emblems into her music: it became artificial for her to keep insisting racial issues didn’t interest her, or she transcended these kinds of matters. My guess is that her advisors suggested it was time for her to make some kind of statement, however stylized it may be. Rather than give interviews on the subject of police and black people, she’s woven them in her music and onstage performances. As a result, the world has been taken by surprise, Bey has attracted global publicity and she finds herself in a huge controversy — just as tickets go on sale for her world tour (it kicks off in Sunderland in June, by the way) and releases her new Formation album.

Q: Surely you can’t be suggesting that this is just a marketing strategy.

A: Perhaps not just a marketing strategy, but certainly a development that’s beneficial for her marketing strategy. I’ve no idea what Beyoncé genuinely thinks and feels. Who does? Her interviews are typically not enlightening and she is not discussing either the Super Bowl show or the video. As in the past, she lets others generate publicity for her.  The former Mayor of New York Rudy Giulani screamed it was “outrageous” she used the Super Bowl “to attack police officers, who are the people who protect her and protect us and keep us alive”.  America’s Saturday Night Live show has parodied her with its “Where were you ?

Q: As you’ve argued before, celebrities today thrive on controversy and the kind of scandals that would have ruined the careers of film stars and rock singers in the twentieth century. Presumably, this is no different.

A: I suspect this is a calculation more than a gamble. Beyoncé is so globally adored that it’s difficult to think of any kind of scandal that would hurt her. She can say or do pretty much as she pleases and get away with it. The kind of conditional status that applies to most other black celebrities simply doesn’t work with her. She’s never said she is black, anyway. I’ve no doubt that she won’t clarify her intentions any time soon. Anyway, she’s too busy selling us stuff. But stuff isn’t the same as an end to racism — and this is my long answer to the main question. Celebrities can draw attention to big issues and can, in some cases, force the media to take notice. But there are limits to their influence. Beyoncé is a prodigious seller of merchandise, but thoughts are harder to sell than lipstick and breakfast cereal.

Beyoncé - Formation



Pearl Izumi Tour Series - Kirkcaldy (4)

Q: Is cheating fair?

A: “The rules of fair play do not apply in love and war.” This isn’t an answer: it’s a quote from John Lily’s Euphues (1578). A contemporary of Shakespeare, Lily could have had no clue how his phrase would become so widely used as a mitigation of cheating. Of the many modifications, one stands out: “All’s fair in war, I believe,” claims the central character John Pendleton Kennedy’s 1954 novel of the American Revolution, Horse-shoe Robinson. “But it don’t signify a man is good.” OK, this is hardly a definitive statement, but it does highlight how the rules of fair play might be acceptably broken in some circumstances, though without necessarily making the violation morally right, or exculpating the offender (i.e. signifying he or she “is good”).

Q: That’s actually a better answer than I’d expected. I was hinting at the recent case of “mechanical doping,” as they’re calling it. A motor concealed in a bike at the world cyclo-cross championships suggests competitors are prepared to try any means, fair or foul, to gain an advantage. It is banned in competitive cycling and the UCI, cycling’s governing body, has acknowledged it is a problem. Cycling is still trying to come to terms with performance enhancing drugs, of course. This is another form of cheating, isn’t it? After all, to cheat is to deceive, trick, swindle or flout the rules designed to maintain conditions of impartiality. So how can this be fair in any situation?

A: To answer this we need to establish the circumstances in which cheating takes place, and the conditions under which cheating is practiced – the context of cheating. Prior to professionalism, the aim of sporting competition was to perform at the highest level our bodies and minds permitted. Rules were designed as guiding principles, directions regarding appropriate behavior. Participants played on their honor: they trusted each other to be fair and honest. In a sense, the rules were superfluous. Later, when winning became the ultimate goal, rules became limits – boundaries of permissible behavior; they were supposed to govern conduct and specify what we could and couldn’t do. Rules not players governed acceptable conduct. It’s impossible to be precise about the time of the change in ethos. Sports such as association football and baseball were both professional in the nineteenth century, whereas rugby union didn’t go open until 1995. The Olympics were amateur for much of the IOC’s history; but, during 1986-92, it introduced amendments in its charter that effectively permitted professionals to compete. Even allowing for this unevenness, we can surmise that, while competitors in all sports were committed to doing their utmost to win, those who competed for money rather than glory alone had to deal with temptation.

Q: We’re always hearing phrases like, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” and “Football is a matter of life or death? … It’s more important than that.” Competitors are encouraged to adopt a professional win-at-all-costs attitude. So, it could be argued that the athlete who is prepared to risk disqualification and the defeat, shame and sometimes humiliation in order to win embodies the very qualities that define competitive sports in the 21st century, right?

A: I’d say so. Cheating is an undesirable but inevitable consequence of professionalism. You could say it’s an admirable characteristic of determined competitors who are prepared to do whatever it takes to win.

Q: So how does cheating manifest today?

A: I’d say in three main ways:

(1) An intentional infraction designed and executed to gain an unfair advantage. Perhaps the most notorious unpunished instance of disguised cheating was Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal, when he palmed the ball into the goal of the England football team in a 1986 World Cup game. Video evidence showed that the Argentinean player used his hand illegally and probably intentionally. The referee didn’t see it and awarded a goal amid much protest. Maradona didn’t confess his sin to the referee. For that matter, he’s never openly acknowledged it. There are too many cases of this kind to chart here. But let me just give one more, this time from boxing. In 1983, the unbeaten Billy Collins, then 21, took a terrible pounding from the normally light-hitting Luis Resto, who was 20-7-2 at the time. Collins’ injuries were so bad that he didn’t fight again and was killed in a car accident nine months later. It was found that padding had been removed from Resto’s gloves. Resto was banned from boxing and, later, convicted of assault, conspiracy and criminal possession of a deadly weapon (his fists). His cornerman, Panama Al Lewis was convicted of assault, conspiracy, tampering with a sports contest and criminal possession of a deadly weapon. They both served 2 years in prison.

2) An unintentional infraction that goes unnoticed by game officials and which the offending player fails to report. It’s difficult to imagine an instance when a coach would not condone cheating if there was a guarantee that it would go undetected and an advantage to be gained. In a 1997 game of football, Liverpool player Robbie Fowler was awarded a penalty after the referee ruled that Arsenal’s goalkeeper David Seaman had fouled him. Fowler informed the referee that Seaman had not fouled him, but the referee was adamant that the penalty stood and Fowler duly took it. While Fowler’s spotkick was saved and driven home on the rebound, one wonders what might have happened had the player remained true to his original confession and deliberately sliced the ball wide of the goal. Even if the original intention of the athlete was not to cheat, the structure of the game actually inhibits him or her from doing much else.

(3) When rules are observed, but the spirit of competition is compromised. During her losing match against Steffi Graf in the French Open final of 1999, Martina Hingis (a) demanded that the umpire inspect a mark on the clay surface after her forehand landed adjacent to the baseline, (b) went for a 5-minute toilet break at the start of the third set and (c) served underarm when facing match point on two occasions. While the actions did contravene the rules, they prompted Graf to ask the umpire: “We play tennis, OK?” A dramatic fall by Arsenal player Eduardo in 2009 was the subject of intense, yet ultimately inconclusive scrutiny. Playing against Celtic in the European Champions League, the player tumbled after what appeared to be minimal contact with an opponent, and was awarded a penalty, from which his team scored. A retrospective charge of diving, or “simulation,” yielded a two-match ban from Uefa; this was subsequently overturned when governing organization failed to prove its case. Whether the player deliberately deceived the referee remains a talking point, though the absence of sanction suggests that the official view was that Eduardo was fouled and simply exaggerated his fall. Soccer players are so notorious for this that Fifa introduced rules that forced all injured (or pseudo-injured) players to be stretchered off the field of play before they could resume playing. Boxers employ a comparable strategem, exaggerating the effects of low blows to gain time to recover when under pressure.

Q: From what you’re saying, it seems instrumental qualities, such as prudence and calculation, are now parts of the character of professional sport. So were there no cheats before money became a factor?

A: There were, but perhaps not so many as today. Earlier this week, Lawrence Donegan, author of Four Iron in the Soul, who called me about a story he was writing on cheating in sport for the New York Times. I emphasized the importance of the filthy lucre, but added that we should guard against assuming amateurs were pure and virtuous. In 1976, for example, when the Olympics were amateur, Boris Onischenko, in a desperate bid for gold in his last Olympics, wired a switch under his leather grip, which triggered a hit when pressed during the fencing event of the modern pentathlon. He was disqualified after officials noticed that hits were registering even though his foil wasn’t even touching his opponent. Money is the primary variable in motivational mixture behind cheating, but prestige, distinction and the status winning brings to the victor are also ingredients.