High levels of competence, idealism and all-around effectiveness are by now pretty much the norm out there in the land of reality. But this kind of empowered, right-on female role modeling scarcely registers in the pop culture landscape.
There, a young woman sobbing helplessly in the back seat of a police car as she's hauled off to jail is the new Miss America -- the new mass icon of popular fascination.
The culture seems increasingly obsessed with showcasing images of glamorous young women who are falling apart -- sometimes seriously, even fatally.
For a long time, hotel heiress Paris Hilton seemed reasonably cool-headed, if amoral, in the limelight. But cool-headed isn't trendy, so she managed to get herself arrested for drunk driving, broke her probation, went off to jail, was released, was sent back to jail, and is now on display everywhere weeping helplessly at the horror of incarceration.
We've followed (I confess, I've followed) the meltdown of pop music queen Britney Spears with a mixture of concern and voyeurism: A young woman who seemingly has everything -- money, beauty, talent, two gorgeous children -- spirals through one drama after another of near-baby-dropping, surreal sexual exhibitionism, head-shaving, drunkenness, rehab and redemption. And the narrative curve is poised to begin anew.
Actress Lindsay Lohan just sent into the world scenes of herself menacing another young ingenue with a knife -- erotically? maniacally? druggedly? -- and the tabloids are full of pictures of her passed out in the front seat of a car.
And of course there is the tragic end to the spiral of our era's Marilyn Monroe -- Anna Nicole Smith, another woman who had money, fame and beauty but who, at a time when women are raising children successfully under all kinds of circumstances, died of a drug overdose shortly after giving birth to a baby girl.
It's not that there's a new surplus of drug-crazed, alcoholic or unstable starlets. Women (and men) in the entertainment industry have suffered from drug addiction, alcoholism and more since Hollywood was first built among the orange groves. It's that, for complex reasons, the culture is making a narrative of tracking such starlets' out-of-control behavior and turning that -- rather than their dating, shopping and performing -- into the central drama.
And the celebrity media, as writer and editor Tina Brown notes in her new study of the late Princess Diana, are in a symbiotic relationship with their subjects. So these starlets surely are showcasing or reinforcing their out-of-control behavior to stoke media interest. And the spiral grows.Why are we so interested in these kinds of images?