“I wonder if one of the midwives will tweet news of the baby before the official announcement on the easel.” My friend, a professional broadcaster, was wondering out loud. Naively, I hadn’t considered the possibility. “You mean subvert the monarchical protocol?” I asked. It would have meant that potentially a half-billion people would have known the sex of the baby before the official announcement. “The tweeter would’ve ended up in the Tower at one time in history.”
Of course, it didn’t happen, but I’ll bet a few anxious people at the Palace were keeping their fingers crossed while the couriers made their way from St Mary’s to the Palace, where the royal easel stands.
This has been the most eagerly awaited birth in history. I can remember 1982 when Princess Diana gave birth to William and, while I can’t remember the anticipation over the birth of Lady Caroline of Monaco in 1958, I understand this too was an international event. But both births were before social media revolutionized the way we communicate – and think.
There has never been a mediated birth on this scale. By mediated, I mean involving intermediate agencies. The traditional press and broadcast media were geared up for William’s birth. But by current standards, they were restrained, if not cautious. Today’s media are less likely to observe procedure, and, as last year’s Leveson Inquiry shows, prepared to go to any lengths, legal or illegal, for a story.
Today’s media are constituent parts of celebrity culture. And, whether she likes it or not, so is the Duchess of Cambridge. The nearest recent contenders in eagerly-awaited-births are Beyoncé’s Blue Ivy and Kim Kardashian’s North; though neither generated the global interest of the new heir to the throne.
Kate, like Diana, is a knowable figure. She has a similar regal aura, but she combines this with ordinariness. People seem to love her, but not in a worshipful way. It’s almost as if they feel they could stand next to her at the Tesco checkout and strike up a conversation: “What did you make of last night’s X Factor?”
In a way, all the royals are more human nowadays. Before Diana, they were remote, inaccessible, godlike creatures. Diana humanized royals: she gave royalty a human character (there’s a biopic due for release later this year, by the way). When she arrived in the public consciousness, celebrity culture was in its infancy. The spread of celebrities means that we are no longer in awe at prominent figures from politics, entertainment and sport: we know they are just like us, with the same kind of weaknesses, imperfections and inadequacies. We know the royals are not exquisitely, sublimely flawless. And we like them all the more for it. We feel a peculiar kind of intimacy with Kate and her new baby. Most of us will never stand within ten miles of either of them. There’s no irony in that: familiarity and distance are no longer related.
Who believes athletes are squeaky-clean innocents whose most serious vice is a nicotine patch? Then why do people pretend to be surprised when we discover that some high-profile champion has been using dope? Rarely a week goes by without some figure from sports returning a positive test. Since 1988 when Ben Johnson was stripped of his Olympic gold and chased back to Canada in disgrace, there have been many, many supposedly great athletes reduced to “cheats” after the discovery of banned substances. Diego Maradona, Marion Jones, Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong and so many others have been involved in drugs scandals of some kind.
The lesson is clear: athletes across the whole spectrum of sport have indicated their preference to take drugs. And, like it or not, we – and the media – encourage them. Not obviously, of course. But we demand athletic performances that make almost inhuman demands on the body, and are disappointed when we get less. What if we simply allowed athletes to use whatever substances they choose, then ask them to declare what they’ve been taking? Then we could commission research, investigate the substances, their effectiveness, their side-effects and, where necessary, their dangers. We could feed the information back to athletes and advise accordingly. It would create a more open, honest and, most importantly, safer environment. It’s not a popular idea and, in this video, I discuss it on Channel 5 news.
“Absolutely we could beat them, why not?” said Hope Powell, when asked whether the England women’s football team, which she manages, could beat Roy Hodgson’s team. “‘I think physically the guys are obviously a lot stronger than the women, but with technical ability I think we’re as good as the men.” Her comments came a couple of days after Marianne Vos, the most successful female bike racer of all time, and a multiple world and Olympic champion, called for a women-only Tour de France to run parallel with the traditional men’s race.
The contrasting approaches to women’s sport raise an interesting question: could women hold their own in competition with men, or are they destined to compete against each other in separate events? Hope wasn’t advocating an all-out open competition. In fact, she added ‘I think physically the guys are obviously a lot stronger than the women,” before pointing out that technical skill is a factor in football. What she didn’t realize is, according to the few studies on the subject, if you take a woman and a man of equal weight and subject them to the same training regime for, say, six weeks, in the same environment with same diet, the woman’s body will respond in the same way as the man’s. In terms of muscular strength, the woman will remain five percent below the man. But how significant is five percent? With the exceptions of power lifting and weight lifting, sports require skill. The reason why females can’t compete against men has its source in culture, not the physical body.
Let me illustrate this with the marathon: the men’s world record is 2:03:38, compared to the 2:15:25 women’s best; in other words, women are about eight percent less proficient. It seems to reinforce the argument that women can never catch up with men. Until we realize that women weren’t officially allowed to run the distance until 1964. Since then the women have improved the record by over 1 hour 12 minutes; in the same period, the men’s record has been reduced by about 21 minutes. The moral of this would seem to be that, when women are allowed to compete openly in an event, they can perform at least on comparable terms with men. Imagine how the world’s number one female would fare in a head-to-head with the top male had women been competing with men for the past 105 years? (The first world marathon time was recorded in 1908). Most people will argue that the results would be basically the same: physical differences between the sexes will always determine the outcome. But let’s consider the impact of cultural change.
We can gain some measure of the rate of women’s progress in sports over the past couple of decades by glancing back at what was once a standard text, Social Aspects of Sport. In the 1983 edition of their book, Eldon Snyder and Elmer Spreitzer wrote about the types of sport women have been encouraged or discouraged from pursuing. “The ‘appropriateness’ of the type of sport continues to reflect the tenets of the Victorian ideal of femininity,” they wrote. They argued that for most of the twentieth century women were permitted to compete in sports that emphasized aesthetics and grace as opposed to strength and speed were acceptable. The rougher pursuits involving head-on collisions were not. There were exceptions, but women who opted for more rugged sports risked being stigmatized as “mannish.”
Now, women compete in every sport, even then ones that were once strictly “men only.” Even the once-exclusive male preserve of combat sports has been breached. Professional women cage fighters appear regularly on major MMA bills; Taekwondo is an Olympic sport, as is women’s boxing. Women are involved in virtually every form of combat sport. Over the years, women have not achieved as much as men; yet the conclusion that women can’t achieve the same levels doesn’t follow logically. 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. And Vos and Powell have, perhaps inadvertently, contributed to this.
It would be ridiculous to deny that there are differences, though they are of significantly less importance than our conceptions about them. The body is a process, not a thing: it’s constantly changing physically and culturally, as our perceptions of it change. Competitive performance promotes changes in terms of muscular strength and oxygen uptake; changes in diet and climactic conditions induce bodily changes too, of course. 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 experience of women in sport 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.
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.
Women’s experience has been one of denial: they simply have not been allowed to enter sports, again because on a mistaken belief in their natural predisposition. Because of this, the encouragement, facilities, and, importantly, competition available to males from an early age hasn’t been extended to them. In the areas where the gates have been 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 sport as in life, women will simply never catch up.
Our captivation with some celebrities just about makes sense. You don’t have to share the fascination with people who make no material impact on our lives to understand it. We live in and are parts of a culture that places great value on people who appear regularly in our media and who engage us in a way most of us find agreeable, if not totally spellbinding.
But figure this out: shopping at my local Aldi recently, I noticed a crowd gathering around a young woman who looked like Kate Middleton. On closer inspection, it wasn’t Kate (at Aldi?) and when she spoke in a Brummie accent, everybody within earshot knew. But she certainly looked like her, at least in a superficial way; she had a bump, and, while she wasn’t dressed in Alexander McQueen and LK Bennett, her overall style was reminiscent of the real Kate’s.
Initially, I wondered if the shoppers gathered around her realized this wasn’t Kate Middleton, but just someone who resembled her and probably made a living impersonating her. Of course. They must have. But then why did they hustle her for photos on their smartphones and ask her for autographs on those Bargains of the Week leaflets Aldi produces? (“Make it out to Sarah and sign it ‘Kate’, will you?) We’re not only fascinated with celebrities, but with people who look like celebrities.
In the 1950s, two American psychologists introduced the term parasocial relationships. Television was then in its infancy and viewers were forming unusual attachments. They were developing “friendships” with tv characters, some fictional and others real (like chat show hosts, or weather presenters). They also cultivated a “hated” towards some of them. Familiarity led to a sense of intimacy. Viewers actually felt they knew the figures they saw on their screens. They interacted with them parasocially. The relationships were and still are strictly one-way.
It’s called parasocial because para means beyond, as in paranormal. The viewer’s attachment might only have been as strong as a beam of light from a cathode ray tube. Yet it was experienced as strong and meaningful. It’s an old idea but it’s still relevant and helps explain why, for example, Lady Gaga’s 39 million twitter followers feel they have their own special relationship with Stef. Practically all of us have parasocial realtionships; they are unavoidable. Just reading a newspaper or listening to the radio involves us in learning about the adventures of Kerry Katona or Nigella Lawson. But trying to comprehend the relationship, not with celebrities, but with people who just look like celebrities is bewildering.
And before you dismiss my Kate@Aldi moment as a one-off episode, consider the plight of Xenna Kristian who has the looks and voice that allow her to perform as a Taylor Swift lookalike. In May, she was beaten up by people who, it seemed, just didn’t like Taylor Swift or the way she looked.
The chances of meeting a celebrity who arouses strong emotions, ranging from loving to loathing, in us are remote. For the most part our parasocial relationships remain distant and remote. Sofia Coppola’s new film The Bling Ring is about a group of Californian teenagers, who in 2008 and 2009 burgled the homes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and other celebs not so much to steal their jewellery and clothes (though they did do this), but to be that bit closer to them. Obviously, most of us don’t resort to such extreme measures, but we share longing to lessen the distance between us and them.
So when we see someone who might be a celebrity, we get excited. It’s a short-lived excitement, of course: it probably lasts a few seconds before we realize that it’s just somebody who looks like a celebrity. That in itself is enough though. By some weird alchemy, we remind ourselves this is an imposter, then, almost instantly, move towards them with an interrogatory impulse, “So what?” They become an inviting blank slate on which we write our own fantasies. Most are benign, like the photos and autographs; some are malicious, as Xenna/Taylor reminds us. We blur the characters in kaleidoscopic patterns so that their real identity doesn’t make too much difference. Celebrity culture gets no crazier than this.
When you think about it, celebrities are not real people, anyway. They are largely products of our imaginations, so we can make them do or say as we wish. The “real person” has become immaterial. In fact, the “real” anything has become immaterial. If I’d waited in Aldi long enough, I’d have come across a shopper carrying a bag that closely resembles a Hermès or Louis Vuitton number, but which is knockoff. Everyone knows. And no one thinks it’s the genuine article any more than they believe a tribute artist or band is the real thing. They’re simulacra – representations of something or someone. We’re savvy enough to know this and still not care. Same with celebrities: it doesn’t matter if “Kate” isn’t the Kate: she’s close enough – the rest we can trust to our phones, our signed leaflets and our imaginations.
Jib Fowles, an emeritus professor of communication from University of Houston in Texas, has spent his professional life researching the effects of advertising. His work is brilliantly counter-intuitive. For example, in response to the question how well do television commercials work? Fowles writes: “The answer is both not very and quite a bit, depending on how the situation is perceived.” Fowles rounds up evidence to conclude: “Not only don’t commercials make an impression on us, but as strange as it may seem, no experimental evidence exists that they get us to buy anything.”
Strange indeed; especially as companies like Unilever and General Motors regularly spend 10-12 percent of their annual sales receipts on the following year’s per advertising, with about 40 per cent on tv commercials. The size of the audience is, as Fowles puts it, the key: “All but about 10% of the money spent on television commercials is wasted.” Only that percentage of tv viewers retains product knowledge after watching an ad. Even then, only ten percent of that sub-group might actually go out and buy the product. But that percentage is from a total population of millions.
I wonder what Fowles would make of an ad currently playing on Australian television. The commercial isn’t trying to persuade us to buy anything, but simply to be careful. It’s part of a public safety campaign sponsored by Melbourne’s Metro Trains and it takes the form of a cartoon in which a blobby, androgynous character performs heroically suicidal acts to the background of a song that provides helpful suggestions on “Dumb ways to die.” Like: Sell both your kidneys on the internet … eat a tube of Superglue … dress up like a moose during hunting season.
As I’m writing, the commercial has 52,086,475 views on YouTube. It’s ingeniously original, engagingly witty and, unlike other ads, implores consumers not to behave in the way it wants. You can’t imagine too many product manufacturers being so intrepid as to advise viewers not to buy its wares for over two minutes.
We tend to look at advertisements as works of art and evaluate their creativity, innovative freshness, and aesthetic appeal. But advertisers are interested in only one thing: do they change consumers’ behavior in the way they want? The Aussie ad wants people to behave with more caution and avoid dying – in a dumb way. I wonder what Fowles makes of it. I’ll write to him and let you know what he says.