Refocus the spotlight

February 26, 2003|By Jeff Manza

STANFORD, Calif. -- It's hard to imagine that there could be anyone who both cares and does not already know that Michael Jackson leads a very strange life.

Yet the lurid details of Mr. Jackson's life continue to fascinate us, as they have for nearly 20 years. Media coverage of him has reached yet another fevered pitch after the interview and documentary by British journalist Martin Bashir that spurred several prime-time TV shows that focused on Mr. Jackson.

This latest media blitz has provided a few more minor details about a life that we already knew quite a lot about. But aside from the obvious lowbrow titillation, there are many important lessons in the Jackson story that are easy to miss. Almost all of the most "freakish" aspects of Mr. Jackson's life have roots in broader social forces in American society today, not just Mr. Jackson himself. We would do well to ponder some of these.

Consider Mr. Jackson's widely documented and obviously excessive plastic surgeries. A largely self-regulated wing of the medical industry enables one or more surgeons to extract a great deal of money from Mr. Jackson while tearing up his face and doing clearly visible long-term damage. Why isn't that surgeon (and the industry itself), rather than Mr. Jackson, on the receiving end of media scrutiny?

Similarly, while the startling changes in Mr. Jackson's skin tone are reportedly related to a physical malady, there may be other factors at work that pushed Mr. Jackson to consciously lighten his skin (and perhaps shrink his nose as well) to the point where he is barely recognizable. Living in a racial order in which "whiteness" continues to be a prized commodity surely seems to have contributed to the process.

Mr. Jackson's difficulties as an adult can undoubtedly be traced in part to the well-documented battering (physical and emotional) he received from his father.

The current documentaries have been all too quick to offer pop psychology explanations for his quirky behavior. But look closer at the material in the Jackson documentaries and you might also see a powerful indictment of the global machinery of fame and the impact it has on individuals.

Unlike most child stars whose careers fizzle, Mr. Jackson has never been allowed to leave the public stage. The rapid growth of tabloid journalism, at the very moment when Mr. Jackson was the biggest pop star in the world, has been an important part of his making and unmaking. His every move is dissected and photographed, and interpretations are offered with or without facts (probably more often the latter).

The cost has been high and surely affected Mr. Jackson's capacity to form personal relationships. Ensconced in a huge suite at a Las Vegas hotel for several months, Mr. Jackson explains to Mr. Bashir that he likes Vegas because of the excitement, even though he can only watch from the window. When he does try to get out, frenzied mobs quickly become unbearable for him. On tour in Berlin, he arrives unannounced at a zoo with his children. Within minutes, he is overwhelmed by onlookers and is barely able to reach the monkey cage before the crush of the crowd forces him out.

Mr. Jackson's obsession with children has to be seen at least partially in light of this. It is hard not to wonder why he and his advisers have not figured out how to protect him from the appearance of impropriety.

And to be sure, I would not want my children attending a slumber party at the Neverland ranch. But it is fairly clear from the Bashir documentary that it is only with young children that Mr. Jackson is able to have normal human relationships. When underprivileged public schools visit the house and grounds, the kids seem to treat Mr. Jackson like a cool but otherwise ordinary adult. They do not tear his clothes as the adults do or treat him as an object to exploit.

Finally, consider Mr. Jackson's widely discussed and disparaged sexuality (or lack thereof). Constant media gaze beginning before puberty has surely made it difficult for Mr. Jackson to participate in normal romantic life. Demands for public displays of sexuality, coupled with powerful norms of heterosexual masculinity, push Mr. Jackson into awkward public displays. His repeated crotch grabbing in his music videos seem nothing more than a desperate -- but understandable -- effort to respond to the rumors and innuendoes.

It's too easy to say that enough is enough, that the tabloids (as well as the national networks) should knock off and let Mr. Jackson live his remaining years in peace. Beyond that, however, it would be fitting for the very institutions that have made Mr. Jackson such a mega-star -- and now such a certified national freak -- to themselves become the object of critical scrutiny.

Jeff Manza, an associate professor of sociology at Northwestern University, is currently a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.

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