By Donna George Storey
As I’ve continued my musings about celebrity culture over the last several months, I’ve noticed that a number of the comments I’ve received explicitly or implicitly question the relevance of celebrity culture to erotica writers. After all, with very few exceptions (E.L. James certainly, Zane maybe) erotica writers are not celebrated millionaires. We aren’t ushered to the best tables in chic restaurants, our clothes are not critiqued by Us magazine. For this let us all be grateful.
However, I think erotica and the fascination with celebrity do have some important elements in common in that they both satisfy a psychic need for a great many people. As I mentioned in my first column on this topic, I’ve always been mystified by why so many people would write to an actor who played a doctor on television for advice on their medical problems. And even people who are not that misguided seem to believe that these complete strangers are worth our time and attention to even the slightest degree.
Because of course, Angelina Jolie could not matter in any significant way to the majority of us beyond a few hours’ entertainment. And yet, judging by measure of the attention and resources devoted to reporting on her life, she clearly does matter.
Well, first I would argue that it is not Angelina or Dolly Parton any real person who matters, it is what she represents to us: a beautiful, glamorous (or powerful, invincible in the case of most male celebrities) being as the object of adoring attention. The celebrity is an idealized self, worshipped simply for existing in such desirable perfection. For that matter, Marcus Welby is the kind, caring, infallible doctor we all wish we had to care for us–and probably don’t.
In my study of celebrity, several authors made the point that in the past people became famous because of something they did to affect history on a grand scale—Julius Caesar, Queen Elizabeth I, Napoleon, Madame Curie. But today the majority of celebrities are famous because they’re good at performing, especially pretending to be someone else on the screen. Not to dismiss the immense difficulty of being a good actor, but what this means is that we are admiring a fantasy, a fiction.
Again a part of me has long been bemused by the seductive falsehood of fame—that a fan can be in any way intimate with a “person” who is made up by PR. But I’ve finally come around to see that we want and need this idealized figure with its soul-satisfying life trajectory of an individual’s struggle to achieve notice then mass acclaim and love followed by a stint in drug rehab then a comeback or two. Celebrity culture thrives because so many people crave the fantasy of intimacy with this chosen creature, of knowing them through images and words. Knowing them—and even more speaking to or getting an autograph from them—gives us a moment in the spotlight by association.
Erotica may be hidden away in nightstand drawers, but it also relies for its power on a fictional intimacy created on the page. Compelling erotica makes us feel we know the characters, that we are with them in their most ecstatic moments. The arousal they feel is mirrored in our own bodies, their pleasure sizzles straight to our own erogenous zones. The encounter is of necessity idealized or at least streamlined in some way—there’s no quicker way to lose the magic than a blow-by-blow description. The story, too, follows a satisfying arc from attraction to consummation. I know there are exceptions, but most erotica does offer at least a spotlight on a secret sexual realm.
Again there are exceptions but most erotica offers us idealized sex, with satisfaction mutually achieved. Sex with no awkwardness, mess or disappointment. Sex as we wish it could be, technically and emotionally.
And while writers here might not need to worry about being mobbed for autographs at restaurants, I’m sure many of us have received a few fan emails from admirers who seek a connection with the creator of a fantasy that touched them. A connection of words and ideas only—although now and then a reader tries to push the boundary further to a personal level (always rebuffed politely and cheerfully in my own case). One might argue that these readers are merely grasping at phantoms, but beneath the “lies” I believe there is something real: a mutual desire in both creator and audience to transcend of the repression and limitations of ordinary life, to be seen as magical and beautiful and loved.
To borrow an insight from a friend of Michael David Gross (author of Starstruck: When a Fan Gets Close to Fame), this reaching out to celebrity represents an internal need, yearning to be seen and appreciated and known for the special person we hope we are.
Next month I’ll conclude my discussion of celebrity with some thoughts on combatting toxic assumptions about success.
Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman and a collection of short
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her
work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com