I came back to the States from my holiday in England to find the nation in celebrity carnival mode. London may be convulsed by the Hutton report, but in America it doesn't even register. Over here, the media Mardi Gras began with the sexual-assault accusation against the sloe-eyed superstar Kobe Bryant, which sent every TV crew in America on a camping trip to a Colorado courtroom. In quick succession we got Mike Tyson going bankrupt, Jennifer and Ben hitting the rocks, and the break-out phenomenon of the cable TV show "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," in which five flamers move in on a hapless hetero like a swish SWAT team to give him a lifestyle makeover. It was a 24-7 tsunami of trash even before Arnold Schwarzenegger made his bombshell announcement on the "Tonight Show" that he would run for "Guffner uff de grade stade of Cullifornia." At which point in my house, we shut the TV down and debated something more substantive. The new craze for low-slung, mid-butt-clinging jeans worn by popschlock cover stars: for or against? The consensus here: We like Paris Hilton showing her navel, but feel tragic about Britney Spears' newly flaunted aft-end cleavage.
Most of the new sensations combine two great American obsessions: shopping and dating. "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" is all about inducing a new demographic to spend money. The Kobe Bryant scandal is a spendathon too. No sooner had the not-that-long-suffering Mrs. Bryant appeared at Kobe's side looking all wounded and gorgeous after her husband's indictment than she was gifted for her support with a $4 million rock. Superstar bad behavior can usually be papered over with expensive baubles -- cf., the amount of designer stuff Ben and J.Lo keep raining down on each other whenever there are bad reviews or a tiff.
Meanwhile, the abruptly penciled-in California gubernatorial race is an obvious foray into the territory of Match.com. With 150 faces to choose from, including a frisky granny who says she's running "because I'm 100," the pornographer Larry Flynt, the clapped-out TV actor Gary Coleman, a sumo wrestler, and a radio personality, Jim "Poorman" Trenton, who had the candor to say his campaign is "a good way to meet women," office-seeking is the new interactive leisure activity.
It's great for Arnold that he has solved the problem of his third act. Now that it's clear you don't have to put years into building political credibility like role model Ronald Reagan, other rusting blockbuster stars are sure to follow. Wouldn't a run for the Senate be a better way for Kevin Costner to rinse off his murky career since the 1995 "Waterworld" disaster than hitting the road to promote his embarrassingly modest new movie? Wouldn't secretary of education be a more dignified route for Demi Moore to express her interest in the young?
Arnold had some torpid years sitting around his big house in the hills with the statues of the kids in the garden and the gym filled with bodybuilding memorabilia, hustling his agent to get the third "Terminator" made in an increasingly twinkie culture. The movie has grossed $145 million, but after the insane marketing costs, that's not enough to impress the corporate culture of studio heads wowed by nimble, low-budget hits like "28 Days Later." So a career switch makes sense, and he's managing to finesse the problem of the uncomfortable scrutiny of a movie star entering politics by choosing an election where the campaign is as short as the average promotional junket and the platform is as much about Gray Davis' charm deficit as his fiscal one. California, above all, is the state of the body beautiful, the switchback abs, the Botox babes. Davis couldn't get rid of his prison pallor in a solarium. California was never his glass of Pellegrino.
The conventional wisdom is that when Arnold is forced to "discuss the issues" the Terminator will terminate, but Arnold will probably follow Newt Gingrich's advice on Fox News this week: "Stay away from the details." Anyway, when did the media ever have to be forcibly steered away from the substantive in favor of the trivial? As a veteran of movie-promoting interviews in which he never bothered, like more naive actors, to talk earnestly about his "art," Arnold "gets it" in a way that Al Gore never will. The people's choice surfaced at last in New York to make a long overdue kick-ass speech suggesting we fire George W. Bush, but it was Arnold's day, so he was drowned out, natch.
Perhaps Gore could have a sex change. It would solve the image problem once and for all. In the current climate he would become a folk heroine. Which is strange, because if he had been allowed to take office after the 2000 election we might not have seen the current gay explosion. Conservative or repressive regimes have always been good for alternative cultures. Ike gave us Elvis, Lenny Bruce and Allen Ginsberg. Mrs. Thatcher midwifed the Clash and the Sex Pistols. Reagan ratcheted up rap. Brezhnev begat Havel. The more the Vatican and the Bush cronies wag their fingers, the more the gay lobby accelerates. But the flamboyance of gay images in popular culture looks more and more like a beard for the consolidation of lavender bourgeoisification. What, after all, do gays want these days? To flounce? Come on -- that battle was won long ago. What they want is to settle down, get married, move to the suburbs, adopt a couple of kids, and get into some serious fellowshipping at the local Episcopal church.
Meanwhile, the Republican torch is being passed to an oiled-up, pumped-up, concrete-coiffed former Mr. Universe who, stereotypes to the contrary notwithstanding, happens to be heterosexual (and how!). Political polarization, meet cultural convergence.
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