Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Dehumanization of (some) Stars

I'm opposed to the whole "star" system by which we have 24/7 news cycles about the couples status of the rich and famous, mostly because I hate the way in which people who are no better than anyone else (and sometimes much worse) are treated like a higher form of life by the media. This irritates me to no end, and for that reason I can't agree entirely with Dr. Lawyer IndianChief's latest post over at (side note: if you're a sports fan with an interest in social issues, I highly reccomend FreeDarko). But it's one of my favorite blog reads of late--it's about the need to tear certain sports stars down, focusing on the NBA and Serena Wiliams and Maria Sharapova.

So much attention was paid to Sharapova's "star" after she won Wimbledon, and with every ad campaign, slinky dress, and public appearance, pundits began making faulty attributions that all of this "fun" was inhibiting her from winning another Grand Slam. That tennis experts even included "Kournikova" in conversations about Sharapova's work ethic is sillier than comparing Yao Ming's work ethic to Yuta Tabuse's because they're both Asian. And Serena, well, the lambasting of her has been all too well-documented. All the time that she takes off, the tournaments she pulls out of at the last minute because of "injuries," the kicking it with Keyshawn, and her stunning ESPY appearances--people feel that she "owes" the sport something, giving her a harder time than Robert Smith or Tiki Barber, and SHE hasn't even retired yet. (Not even to mention the fact how much her being "out of shape" has gotten discussion during this recent tournament).

DLIC has a different analysis of why this is, but I believe this is because we feel threatened by people like Williams and Sharapova. Two non-Anglo powerful women are torn down precisely because their high status threatens the media's image of what is an "ideal". After all, the media system has power over most images in their feature stories (ie, People magazine-type stories, which are suddenly being treated as real news), but they do not have power over who advances to the finals in tennis.

On the other hand, they do have power over the commentary on these stars, and it seems as though the media will do anything to avoid talking about their accomplishments. Jean Kilbourne has done some outstanding work on this issue.

Instead, they focus on Maria Sharapova's physical attractiveness. When you have a truly dominant athlete, focusing on their attractiveness is a way to undercut their accomplishments. The classic example of this is Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, which has actually gone so far as to have female athletes pose.
(Interestingly, although certainly not female, Beckham is given a nasty dose of this as well. This is unsurprising, however, since he displays a radically different form of masculinity than the anger-fueled stereotypes that are usually glorified in athletes).

On the other hand, Serena Williams is treated in a particularly unfeminine manner, and is frequently the victim of stereotypical portrayals of African-American women as "animalistic", and other disparaging remarks about her body that criticize her for her "unmanly" demeanor. I see echoes of the latter in the media's treatments of both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Condoleeza Rice (neither of whom I agree with, but they have certainly been unfairly targeted by the media).

DLIC sees similar treatment in the predominantly African-American population in the NBA.
Psychologist, Nick Haslam, has a compelling theory of dehumanization, which suggests that dehumanization comes in essentially two forms: denying people uniquely human attributes (e.g. moral sensibility), which posits humans as animal-like, or denying people human nature itself (e.g. agency), positing humans as objects or automata. I suggest that the type of NBA-wide dehumanization going on falls somewhere in the middle, constituting a mass infantilization of ballers.

Stern raised the age limit but more and more is treating players like children. The synthetic leather ball fiasco actually constitutes an underrated example of this. Players were denied a SAY. a CHOICE. Rationality, desire--these core human qualities were not necessarily denied, but rather they were ignored, and that angered the hell out of the players.

It's a fascinating set of comments, especially with Haslam's theory about turning humans into animals. It seems as though this is a common label not only for African-American women, but for black men and women. The NBA certainly is a good example of this.

I find the second half of Haslam's theory relevant as well, since changing individuals into automatons is a hallmark of classism. One could argue that Stern's decision to switch balls unilaterally is not really an attack on their stardom per se, but rather a disturbing trend amongst corporations where management reserves the right to make all decisions and denying non-management workers a voice. This mass infantilization of workers across America is generally accepted by the media structure, which is probably why it's so hard to get positive coverage of union activity that demands a say in workplace matters. It is also a particularly insidious subtext to have, since demanding that workers are below management as humans is incredibly dangerous to equal treatment of all human beings.

To summarize--I'm not so sure that I'm comfortable with the "star" system that thoroughly permeates our media. But until then, there is a lot that we can learn about ourselves from analyzing the way we treat our celebrities.

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