Monday, September 08, 2014

The public eye: Nina Davuluri and Amanda Marcotte

It started with a flower.

Nina Davuluri, Miss America 2014, visited Central High School in York Pennsylvania, and Patrick Farves gave her the flower and asked her to come to the prom with him.

Anyone who has had any involvement with planning a high school prom, or even just observed the process from a distance, knows that while not all high school formal dances aim for this, or achieve it, a cultural expectation exists that those who participate in a prom will find it a magical experience, an excursion into a fairy tale world, a Cinderella dance where all the coaches turn back into pumpkins (or, more accurately, rental stretch hummers) in the morning. Likewise, anyone who shops for food and reads the magazines and tabloids in the checkout lane knows that a whole industry dedicates itself to convincing us that some people, collectively known as celebrities, live in this enchanted world all the time.

An invitation to the prom, therefore, does not necessarily entail a sexual invitation, still less an invitation to any sort of relationship. An invitation to the prom may well mean nothing more than an invitation to share a fantasy. When someone to extend it to a person supposedly living the life of a celebrity, what does that mean? If you treat the proposition as an equation, and cancel out the absurdities on both sides, it comes out to a simple acknowledgement of the other person's humanity. I don't know how Mr. Farves saw his actions; more than anything else, it looks as though he saw the event as a cheerful prank.

But it caught the attention of Amanda Marcotte the feminist blogger, who saw the whole thing in a much darker light.  She has of course the right to see these matters anyway she chooses, but I find her arguments interesting. She wrote:
Every year around prom, there’s a “cute” story wherein a teenage boy gets himself some attention by putting a famous and beautiful celebrity he’s never met on the spot by asking her to prom, knowing full well that she would rather be at home pulling out her toenails than go on a date with some random teenage boy she’s never met.
The passage expresses an interesting repugnance: people don't generally pull out their toenails voluntarily. Marcotte here appears to equate any date with any random teenage boy with torture. She provides an important clue to her thinking later in the piece, when she writes:
I don’t think it’s cute when girls pester Justin Bieber for dates, either.
As someone who wishes Bieber well and hopes he gets his life together, I still have to say: on the record now, and when Ms. Marcotte wrote the piece in question, the problem with pestering Justin Bieber for dates has much less to do with the "pestering", but with the recent behaviour of Justin Bieber. If I had to advise any random young woman about asking Mr. Biever out on a date, I would have something to say about getting into a car with someone who has a charge of drunk driving on his record, I see no reason any young woman who wants to date Justin Bieber should not consider herself attractive enough to set her sights on him.

Just to add to the picture, she describes Ms. Davuluri as
a woman whose physical beauty is her main claim to fame.
I don't know what this would have to do with the appropriateness of Mr. Farves asking her to accompany him to the prom in any case. In fact, Ms. Davaluri has a Bachelor of Science in Cognitive Science from the University of Michigan, where she made the Dean's List and the Honour Society.  She spoke at Central High School on the importance of Science and Math. Ms. Marcotte has a right to her opinion of young men who ask highly accomplished young women to the prom as well, of course; I still find the actual argument she cited interesting.

Looking at Ms. Marcotte's conviction that despite what she said, Ms. Davaluri would rather have mutilated herself than spend prom night with Mr. Farves, I cannot avoid the conclusion that it stems from some variant of Penny Lane's line from Almost Famous: "Famous people are just more interesting." It appears pretty clear that Ms. Marcotte feels, vehemently, that something fundamental separates Ms. Davaluri from the kind of person Mr. Farves should think himself entitled to invite to the prom. Given the lack of notice of Ms. Davuluri's actual accomplishments and actual reason for speaking at Central High in her piece, Ms. Marcotte effectively gives the impression that she thinks that "something" has to do with press agents, limousines, photo opportunities, and the other trappings of a life reflected in the supermarket press.

Since I believe many of the problems of contemporary American (and world) culture and even politics have their origin in the false importance we give to the public eye and to those who successfully attract its attention, I think it important to address the implications of comments such as these when I encounter them.

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