Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Family Chic

I know the conservative blogosphere prides itself on its on being above the pop culture frey, leaving that to tabloids and celebrity magazines. We are interested in ideas, cultural trends and political issues, and tire quickly of quips like “splitsville” and “fashion feux pas”. For many of us, the decadence of celebrity culture may be a sign that our culture is, in some sense, sick, infatuated with people of little talent propped up for superficial reasons. But it is hard to deny that pop culture reflects the values and mores that culture deems relevant; after all, it is popular. So I watched with some interest as two pop divas seemed to be in competition over who could create a family life first.

It is interesting to me that Jessica Simpson’s career was successful, but unremarkable until her television show, “Newlyweds.” Here was a show that celebrated marriage and presented an honest approach to what married life was about: moments of joy as well as moments of annoyance. Though the show garnered high ratings in part because of Jessica’s ditzy blonde routine, I also have a suspicion that viewers were glad to see celebrities sharing their own values towards marriage and family, even if it became clear later that this couple might not be the best of role models. The show combined the celebrity lifestyle with the hopes that so many of us have: to be married and contribute to the family tree.

Then there is the Britney Spears pregnancy and subsequent marriage, a career move I am convinced was a rebuttal to Queen Jessica taking over the pop throne. Some say I’m crazy, but I wouldn’t doubt that it was a shrewd professional decision more than a biological clock ticking. Either way, Spears produced a television show of her own, not about her career as much as her love life. The whirlwind of falling in love and starting a family was, again, thought to be wonderful television fodder. Her show happened to flop, and now charges about her being an unsafe mother have made it difficult for her to cash in on any public support she may have earned by being a mom.

But I’m not interested in the details as much as the fact that somewhere along the way, having a family came to be seen as something of a cool thing to do. Granted, celebrity marriages (and divorces) have always captured the public’s attention, but I don’t remember two starlets in the prime of their fragile careers parading the family life to this extent. It’s one thing to be married; it’s something else when that becomes a cornerstone of your career, the plotlines for your television show and sole reason for gracing “People” magazine. Somewhere along the way, traditional values became cool again. Marriage, family, kids and values that accompany them like commitment, sacrifice and honor were prized over independence, selfishness and carelessness. Well, at least they were for a short while.

Now, this does not mean that these values found particularly good vehicles in Simpson and Spears. In fact, the defunct marriage of Simpson suggests that, as many in Middle America might have suggested, traditional values and the celebrity culture lifestyle just can’t be combined. Which, in a way, is my point: the concept of family has become chic, but the actuality of marriage and raising children is still very much at odds with celebrity culture. Marriage and parenting are often unglamorous, thankless and self-sacrificing jobs, three concepts celebrities have little familiarity with.

Something is chic because it is stylish for the moment, but not necessarily any longer than that. Family chic represents a style that says one of the things that’s cool now is the family life, but the real stuff of family life, the hard stuff, seems to be inconvenient. Movies that highlight if not celebrate adultery like “Brokeback Mountain” call into question those old-fashioned values of commitment and self-sacrifice while honoring values like “being true to yourself.” This is not the stuff strong families are made of.

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