Harry, Meghan and the Curse of Celebrity

The new Netflix series on Harry and Meghan is not exactly playing out according to plan. A few weeks ago, MediaPost TV Columnist Adam Buckman talked about the series, which promised unprecedented intimate view into the lives of the wayward Royal and his partner; it’s aim being, “– to give the rest of us a full-access pass into every nook and cranny of the lives and minds of Harry and Meghan.”

Since then, reviews have been mixed. While it is (according to Netflix) their most watched documentary ever, the world seems to be responding with a collective yawn. It is certainly not turning out to be the PR boost the two were hoping for, at least based on some viewer reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Here is just one sample: “A massive whinge fest based on a string of lies, half-truths, and distortions of reality from two of the most privileged people on the planet.”

What I found interesting in this is the complex concept of celebrity, and how it continues to evolve – or more accurately, devolve – in our culture. This is particularly true when we mix our attitudes of modern celebrity with the hoary construct of royalty.

If it does anything, I think Harry and Meghan shows how the very concept of celebrity has turned toxic and has poisoned whatever nominal value you may find in sustaining a monarchy. And, if we are going to dissect the creeping disease of celebrity, we must go to the root of the problem, the media, because our current concept of celebrity didn’t really exist before modern mass media.

We have evolved to keep an eye on those that are at the top of the societal pyramid. It was a good survival tactic to do so. Our apex figureheads – whether they be heroes or gods – served as role models; a literal case of monkey see, monkey do. But it also ensured political survival. There is a bucketload of psychology tucked up in our brains reinforcing this human trait.

In many mythologies, the line between heroes and gods was pretty fuzzy. Also, interestingly, gods were always carnal creatures. The Greek and Roman mythical gods and heroes ostensibly acted as both role models and moral cautionary tales. With great power came great hedonistic appetites.

This gradually evolved into royalty. With kings and queens, there was a very deliberate physical and societal distance kept between royalty and the average subject.  The messy bits of bad behavior that inevitably come with extreme privilege were always kept well hidden from the average subject.  It pretty much played out that way for thousands of years.

There was a yin and yang duality to this type of celebrity that evolved over time. If we trace the roots of the word notorious, we see the beginnings of this duality and get some hints of when it began to unravel.

Notorious comes from the latin notus – meaning to know. It’s current meaning, to be known for something negative, only started in the 17th century. It seems we could accept the duality of notoriety when it came to the original celebrities – our heroes and gods – but with the rise of Christianity and, later, Puritanism (which also hit its peak in the 17th century) we started a whitewash campaign on our own God’s image This had a trickle-down effect in a more strait-laced society. We held our heroes, our God, as well as our kings and queens to a higher standard. We didn’t want to think of them as carnal creatures.

Then, thanks to the media, things got a lot more complicated.

Up until the 19 century, there was really no thing as a celebrity the way we know them today. Those that care about such things generally agree that French actress Sarah Bernhardt was the first modern celebrity. She became such because she knew how to manipulate media. She was the first to get her picture in the press. She was able to tour the world, with the telegraph spreading the word before her arrival. As the 19th century drew to a close, our modern concept of celebrity as being born.

It took a while for this fascination with celebrity spilled over to monarchies. In the case of the house of Windsor (which is a made-up name. The actual name of the family was Saxe-Coburg – Gotha, a decidedly Germanic name that became problematic when England was at war with Germany in World War I) this problem came to a head rather abruptly with King Edward VIII. This was the first royal who revelled in celebrity and who tried to use the media to his advantage. The worlds of celebrity and royalty collided with his abdication in 1936.

In watching Harry and Meghan, I couldn’t help but recount the many, many collisions between celebrity and the Crown since then. The monarchy has always tried to control their image through the media and one can’t help feeling they have been hopelessly naïve in that attempt. Celebrity feeds on itself – it is the nature of the beast – and control is not an option.

Celebrity gives us the illusion of a false intimacy. We mistakenly believe we know the person who is famous, the same as we know those closest to us in our own social circle. We feel we have the right to judge them based on the distorted image we have of them that comes through the media. Somehow, we believe we know what motivates Harry and Meghan, what their ethics entail, what type of person they are.

I suppose one can’t fault Harry and Meghan for trying – yet again – to add their own narrative to the whirling pool of celebrity that surrounds them. But, if history is any indicator, it’s not really a surprise that it’s not going according to their plan.

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