In a sense, we are all Snooki. The Jersey Shore star—and tanning product spokesperson, and hair-product entrepreneur, and aspiring author—was the subject of a spectacularly blunt profile in last weekend's New York Times, which has already caused its fair share of Internet controversy. But cruel as the piece was, it's hard to dispute its main point: On the surface of it, there's no reason for Snooki to be famous. She's not particularly smart or well-spoken. Her behavior is appalling, and her fashion sense is worse. She doesn't have any discernible talents, other than her ability to make a compelling spectacle of herself. In our current cultural moment, however, that ability is more valuable than almost anything else. And it's something that all of us—not just those of us who happen to be starring on reality TV shows—are having to learn.
Before we proceed, let's talk Snooki. In fact, the Times profile seems to miss some of the most interesting points about its subject. Of course Snooki is loud, crude, and strange-looking. That's what they pay her for. But she also has an impressive gift for commanding attention. In the first episode of the show, as Horyn notes, Snooki "got drunk, threw up and passed out." But by doing so, she invented her own plot line: Everyone else is only sort of drunk, but Snooki is very drunk! Everyone else is on time to work, but Snooki's late! Everyone else is having a party, but Snooki's at home - and can't figure out how to work the duck phone! (It's more engrossing on screen.) The most striking thing about the episode, in retrospect, is that Snooki immediately figured out how to get more than her fair share of screen time. The article notes her "artlessness," but for my money, the only truly "artless" moment in that episode is the moment where Snooki stares the camera down and reveals, "I'm used to being the center of attention." Cut to Snooki taking her clothes off, sliding into the hot tub, and lunging at the male cast members, intent on tongue-kissing each and every one.
It's interesting to compare the Times profile with the New York Magazine's recent profile of James Franco. Franco and Snooki are in some respects very different creatures. Snooki's only job is to be herself; Franco is a very good actor. Snooki is an ambassador of trash culture; Franco aspires to the lofty worlds of art and literature. And whereas Cathy Horyn's profile is openly derisive, the New York Magazine piece is a gushing love letter. Yet it's hard to believe that anyone would have commissioned such a lengthy profile of Franco had he remained a talented, handsome young actor with occasionally unfortunate taste in projects. (Hey, it's the Spider-Man 3 guy! Who was also in, um, Tristan + Isolde?) Luckily for Franco, it's been years since he was known primarily for acting. Nowadays, he's James Franco, the Strangest Man in Show Business.
No one seems to be arguing that Franco's an especially good writer, or artist; no one thinks that he would be allowed to pursue four separate postgraduate degrees if he weren't also a movie star. What fascinates us is his willingness to do it all, and the fact that the results—a short film about a man with a penis for a nose, a stint on General Hospital, a story in which intercourse is described as "like a mommy with her little baby making him feel good"—are so bizarre. Although Franco and Snooki are technically in different lines of work, they're famous for more or less the same thing: Crafting public selves that are strange enough to bring them tons of attention.
Of course, celebrities have always been products, and they've always had to create marketable public images in order to succeed. But learning how to exist publicly is not just for celebrities any more. Thanks to the Internet, it's everybody's job. Professionals are increasingly required to have Facebook profiles, or Twitter accounts, or both: To "be themselves," in public, or at least a version of themselves that will generate business. Young people who are just entering the workplace are being encouraged to de-tag the photos of themselves in which they look especially drunk, or otherwise unsavory, and to be careful about what they say online, on the grounds that potential employers will Google them. They're taught to regard themselves as "brands," whose ability to invite and manipulate attention can't be separated from their success. Those of us who aren't doing this for the sake of a job are doing it for fun; we manage our reputations, make and maintain friendships, and even initiate romantic relationships by putting the best, most charming, and most compelling pieces of ourselves online. The headline of the New York Magazine profile asked, "Is James Franco For Real?" Perhaps a better question would be: Is anyone?
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Now that we're all public figures, our celebrities reflect our collective anxiety about being permanently on stage. Many of the celebrities who manage to hold our attention do so by calling into question the very notions of authenticity and the public self. Lady Gaga produces middling, predictable dance-pop to support her real project: An ongoing performance piece on the nature of celebrity. Megan Fox poses for scantily clad photos in men's magazines, which run next to quotes from Fox about how phony her sex-kitten persona is. These acts ring true, in a way that perfectly bland and sculpted celebrity no longer does, simply because we all know the amount of artifice that goes into winning the public over; to be openly, publicly fake seems like the only real honesty. In the same way, the crass, disastrous "artlessness" of someone like Snooki is soothing; she seems real precisely because we can't believe that anyone would actually try to look that awful.
But before we take Snooki's persona at face value, we should consider the extent to which we're all playing Snooki's game. All of us are, to some extent, starring in a "reality show;" it's just that the show is indistinguishable from our day-to-day lives. It's trendy to call oneself a "performance artist" these days—James Franco does it, as does Lady Gaga, and I'm willing to grant them both the title. But it belongs to Snooki, too. In fact, given the seamlessness of her act, she might just be the best performance artist of us all.