When you were a child, when people still asked what you wanted to be when you grew up, what did you say? Did you want to be famous?
And when you pictured fame, what did it look like? Was it the quality of being admired, talked about, and eulogized? Was fame attended by riches? Did it signify a worthy life?
Most of us, I’d wager, want to be known for the work we do, to be recognized and maybe even celebrated for what we’ve achieved in our respective fields. But we also realize early on in life that we are not going to be Shah Rukh Khans and Arundhati Roys; we will not be fodder for New York Times’ headlines; we will not sit courtside with Jay-Z; we will not fly in Air Force One. We may have fifteen minutes of fame, but for the most part we will reside far away from the velvet-floored halls of celebrity. We hope that when we die we will be honored by our near and dear, our families and friends, our worlds, in other words, if not by the world at large. We make peace with that, and still we strive for excellence in the lives we are leading.
Or at least, that’s how it used to be. Ordinary people were content to be ordinary. A full life could be lived outside of the spotlight. Nowadays, celebrity is common. It’s easy to become famous, almost harder not to be, and differently intolerable. Newspapers publish so much and so often that being featured or interviewed by one is less a distinction than a requisite of societal membership. Everyone is read, not just writers. Everyone is overexposed, not just movie stars.
In the 2012 bestseller, How Should a Person Be?, Canadian author Sheila Heti offered this response to her titular question: “How should a person be? … I can’t help answering like this: a celebrity … as famous as one can be, but without changing anything. Everyone would know in their hearts that I am the most famous person alive—but not talk about it too much. And for no one to be too interested in taking my picture … No one has to know what I think … and no one has to know the details of my life … It is the quality of fame one is after here, without any of its qualities.”
Should a person be … a celebrity? Taken at her word, Heti’s seemingly flippant response to a rather serious question actually gets at something important about the complexity of fame. On the one hand, the famous person is in everyone’s “hearts.” She is recognized by the world, seen, legible; more to the point, she is the subject of care, attention, and love. When Princess Diana died, the world grieved. When Malala Yousafzai lived, the world rejoiced.
On the other hand, the famous person is subjected to tremendous indignities in the form of paparazzi that “take her picture,” psychologizing journalists who seek to “know what she thinks,” and even the likes of the Wikipedia biography, hungering for “details.” A person should be regarded, Heti is saying, a person should be recognized by the world, but she should also be left alone. She should be appreciated, without being apprehended. We should each have “the quality of fame” of being larger than life, but without being daily reduced into objects of scrutiny.
An impossible dream? Ironically, each of us now has all of the bad stuff that typically attends fame without any of the fundamental human regard that is probably the only worthwhile thing about being famous. We have the intrusions into our privacy, largely self-inflicted, as we publicize our movements and doings on the latest social network. We have the burden of hearing our lives narrated while we’re living them, whether in the blogs we write or the comments and appraisals we solicit. And we tend to observe even our own actions from the remove of a photographic lens, whether literally through cell-phone camera or thanks to that anxiety-producing split subjectivity that seems to be our shared modern condition.
It’s little wonder that the Oxford Dictionary chose “selfie” as the word of 2013. The new challenge of adulthood is not to quell our lingering, childhood dreams of fame while reconciling ourselves to our anonymous, human lives, but rather to stay out of the spotlight, to preserve our privacy, interiority, and silence at all costs.
I think about this when I’m posting yet another picture of my daughter on her personal Tumblr, an excessive and exuberant photographic record of her life, one I keep entirely for the benefit of her doting grandparents, great-grandparents, and uncles, despite my significant reservations about the intrusive cataloging of her adventures in banana-eating and toe-sucking. At not-even ten months of age, she is already being seen, followed, shared, and commented on. I have plans to stop posting photos when she turns one, but will it be too late?
Children of the 21st century won’t wonder if they’re going to grow up to be famous. They’ll wonder how they can wrest back the stories of their lives from the clutches of the celebrity machine.
I once proposed in these pages that being questioned is like being tortured. I think the same is probably true about being famous. It’s not all backstage passes and glowing reviews; it’s more like the rack and the screw. Rather than gaining an exalted vantage on life, today’s celebrity must give herself up to the world to be taken apart, tweeted, followed, imitated, imaged, and ventriloquized. No matter her life’s work, she is easily shaken by the vagaries of public opinion. It’s no wonder that genuinely famous people all around us are imploding under the burdens of their too closely watched lives.
In the words of poet Kay Ryan, “A too closely watched flower / blossoms the wrong color. / Excess attention to the jonquil / turns it gentian. Flowers / need it tranquil to get / their hues right. Some / only open at midnight.”
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.