Jewish World Review Nov. 17, 2003/22 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764
The battle of the blondes
Jessica Lynch and Elizabeth Smart as
portrayed on the small screen are
appropriate heroines for our times (i.e.,
ratings month.) Their stories stoop to
the lowest common denominators of
sensation, tawdry sentimentalism and
phony innuendo, camouflagedwith
emotional color.We're supposed to be
uplifted and inspired.
Saying that is not meant to criticize
either of the young women in real life,
but their stories as presented on the
screen tell a tale of distortion and
exploitation. The exploiters are not
those who lived through the story, but
those who massaged it, manipulated it,
pushed it and produced it, and the
culture that relishes "reality drama," no
matter how much bunk passes for fact.
Everyone's sympathies go out to
Jessica Lynch, who did not ask to be
held hostage to hero worship and does
not consider herself a heroine. She
suffered grievous physical wounds.
Who can blame Mohammed Odeh
Al-Rehaief, the Iraqi man responsible
for her rescue, for selling his story? But
the television tale does not bear his
name and it was made without Jessica's
cooperation. She is merely a bit player
to swell the action. It could have been
called "An Iraqi to the Rescue," but
then, who would have cared?
Jessica, a country girl from a town
called Palestine in West Virginia, joined
the army to see the world. She had the
bad luck to take a wrong turn at the
wrong time. She was forced to face the
enemy armed only with a gun choked
by sand. Is anyone making money on
her story contributing any of it to the
families of the soldiers who died with
her, making the story possible?
In an irony of these squalid times,
Jessica had to share the screen on the
same night with Elizabeth Smart.
Elizabeth even wanted to play herself in
the television movie. What could have
been better than becoming a performer
in your own "autobiography"?
Contemporary fame is often more
real in performance than in a life
actually lived. Many young Hollywood
twinklers become images of others and
never have to forge characters of their
own. Elizabeth Smart's mother, surely
as tiresome a backstage mother as
there ever was, showed unexpected
discretion by not allowing a tale of sexual molestation to be
told about her daughter. She would let Elizabeth do that
later, if she chooses.
And no doubt, she will. Rape is the most bankable event
in our culture, more valuable than murder and a lot more
valuable than mere mayhem. Jessica Lynch has no memory of
being raped; Iraqi doctors at the hospital insist they found no
evidence at all that she ever was. But it's in her book. "It was
the parents who felt the that the details of her condition and
of the sexual assault needed to be in the book," Rick Bragg,
author of her authorized biography of Jessica Lynch, explains
to Time magazine. The parents calculated that the book would
be "incomplete" without it. They were probably right.
Fame may last for only 15 minutes, in Andy Warhol's
famous calculation, but it arrives quickly and requires instant
attention, lest it vanish before it can be fully exploited. The
stories of these two women were written quickly, following
soon after the two homecomings.
Fame even has its analysts and historians. Leo Braudy
writes in "The Frenzy of Renown" that society is "so suffused
with images, the tricks and gestures of the surface have
become easily detachable from whatever substance they once
signified." Rape, as Gertrude Stein would no doubt have told
us, is a rape is a rape.
It makes little difference why we're famous. Details that
once would have been considered an intrusion on privacy are
aggressively made public now so they can be turned into a
major motion picture. The gradations of privacy that were
once controlled by the moral prescriptions of humility,
self-respect and personal peace have been flattened to an
all-inclusive bravado. One size fits all.
The television critics reduced the portraits of Jessica and
Elizabeth to the "battle of the blondes." Hollywood once
air-brushed blemishes and hushed up details, particularly
sexual details. Children were especially sheltered from public
exposure. Now, heroines are presented with warts and all. If
the bankable blemishes aren't really there, Hollywood will paint
them in. Humiliation is a badge of honor. Suffering isn't real
unless everybody knows about it.
This does not inspire pity and fear, so much as expose the
greed and envy that invariably accompanies fame. The
producers of the Jessica Lynch and Elizabeth Smart stories
aren't sure of the size of the jackpot, but they're confident
that they've hit it.
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