Holy fem-bot, Batman!

Katie Holmes is turning into a zombie in front of our eyes. Pass the popcorn.

Published July 13, 2005 3:40PM (EDT)

It will come as news to no one that there's something hinky about the Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes Relationship Extravaganza. It's a hilarious sham, so transparently ripe for satire that it -- along with a couple of shark attacks and a hurricane -- has managed to distract us from things like the Downing Street memo and how many people are dying in Iraq.

Hooray for Hollywood! Providing sweet relief from reality since World War I!

But it's all fun and games until somebody loses an eye. And if the cover story in August's W magazine is any indication, "Batman Begins" star Holmes has had both her peepers gouged from her gamine face by a sharp Tom Cruise stick. Reading the piece, it's hard to ignore the rather awkward position we, consumers of America's cotton-candy media, have gotten ourselves into. Holmes' goring just officially stopped being fun or funny; suddenly we're not simply fans or spectators, we're accessories, standing idly by in uncomfortable paralysis as she gets her body and mind snatched on a national stage.

In her interview with W's Robert Haskell, the 26-year-old Holmes -- a television star who's been speaking competently to the press for almost a decade now -- comes off as nothing less than a chilling fem-bot, repeating her Cruise-azy scripted shtick over and over and over again, all while being closely monitored by her omnipresent Scientology baby sitter, the skeevy Jessica Rodriguez.

"I've found the man of my dreams," "I've never met anyone like Tom," "Tom is the most incredible man in the world," "Meeting Tom -- I'm just exhilarated. He makes me laugh, we have fun, we understand each other, everything is so aligned. I feel so lucky and so -- like I've been given such a gift ... And it's just really amazing." These are Holmes' non sequitur replies to Haskell's questions about everything and anything, including her recently dissolved five-year relationship with ex-fiancé Chris Klein.

In a 1,700-word piece, Haskell can't get Holmes to talk about anything else, and when he asks her reasonable questions about whether it's been hard to adjust to living with "her man" after knowing him for just six weeks, she nonsensically replies, "He's the man of my dreams."

Anyone remember HAL trilling, "Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do ..."

There's been a lot of speculation about how in on this Holmes has been. But regardless of whether she signed a five-year contract or is truly in love with a movie star 16 years her senior, whose mug she had taped to her teenage bedroom wall, it's creepy to hear a grown woman say things like, "Tom and I will always be in our honeymoon phase." In this cynical age, from an adult who has already been in and out of a five-year relationship, that can't just be naiveté. It sounds more like someone who's been drained of her common sense, divorced from her own instincts about men or the nature of love. Rodriguez even prompts Holmes at one point to tell Haskell, "You adore him."

This beautiful, bright young woman from Middle America is in a dark place. It's so gothic that you can almost see her five years from now, in the dead of night in her neat Stepford subdivision, blood spattering her crisp white apron as she quietly hacks at her husband's stunted body with the MTV Movie Award she won for "disturbing behavior."

Or maybe I just want to be able to see that. Because that would somehow add dramatic, campy levity -- a satisfying cinematic twist -- to what seems to be a very real and very public unraveling that I can't figure out how to process.

It's profoundly sad that Holmes seems not just to have drunk the Kool-Aid, but to be wearing the pitcher it was stirred in over her head. But it's just as sad that because we are celebrity imbibers first and human beings second, we can't bring ourselves to politely look the other way as she stumbles around.

It's tough to make the American public choke on a Hollywood-manufactured story. We throw back our Bennifer and Brangelina cocktails without asking what's in them. Did you hear that Lindsay Lohan recently lost what looks like three-quarters of her body weight thanks to healthy eating and regular exercise? Go on, throw us a bone; we'll chase it.

But even venerable gossip Liz Smith -- a columnist who generally toes the Hollywood line and who has been giving the TomKat hoax an admittedly tepid stamp of approval until now -- finally broke down on Monday and called the W piece, "the scariest piece of celebrity journalism in a long time."

If Liz Smith is calling the W story "scary," if People magazine is publishing polls asking who thinks the Cruise-Holmes relationship is fake, and if W is flirting with Scientology's litigious reputation with the cheeky Holmes headline "Cult Classic" and the lead sentence: "The statistics on arranged marriage are surprising ..." it's clear that the Cruise-Holmes situation has become dire enough that even the manufacturers of this stuff are feeling uneasy about their product.

The soundness of this particular celebrity package is certainly thrown into question with the publication of the Holmes interview, in which the subject cannot fully speak for herself. Rodriguez -- a woman who is not Holmes' publicist and claims not to work for her but to be her "best friend" even though at the time of the interview she'd only known her for six weeks -- coaches the actress and answers questions for her.

When Haskell asks Holmes what she makes of the dubious reaction to her relationship, Rodriguez intercedes, "We don't read that stuff because it's just rude." Rodriguez also says that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie should be as public in their affection as Holmes and Cruise. "Brad and Angelina -- that's just a shame for them, right Katie?" asks Rodriguez. "Yeah, I mean, I'm just so happy," is Holmes' reply. Haskell does not mention whether there's an icy mist emanating from Holmes' clearly frozen brain.

No one could blame W for running the piece; in fact, the magazine's willingness to lay bare what happened in the interview, instead of prettying it up to stay on the good side of Camp Cruise, is commendable.

But it leaves readers in a moral gray area. We work up a lather about Elizabeth Smart or Shasta Groene or any of the other young white women whose abductions we fetishize and fret over. But whether Holmes has willingly entered into a business partnership that forces her to mask her cognitive abilities or whether she's been hoodwinked into believing what she's burbling, it's happening in plain sight, in front of all of us, and we only know how to process it as an awkward form of entertainment.

Haskell interviewed Holmes three days before the announcement of what he calls her conversion to Scientology, though the actress confessed to him that she'd already begun "auditing" -- receiving spiritual counseling from L. Ron Hubbard's church. Thanks to Scientology, Holmes tells Haskell, she is "learning" to celebrate her "own spirit" and her "own being."

But what about her "own career," which is in free fall, now that she's giving up plum lead roles, like that of Andy Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick in "Factory Girl," reportedly because Sedgwick took drugs that Scientologists frown upon? When asked about Cruise's influence over her "Factory Girl" choice, Holmes tells Haskell, "Tom's so supportive and he's such an inspiration."

Holmes tells Haskell that people from her hometown in Ohio who are worried about her "aren't my friends." Then, when an obviously timed diamond necklace arrives from Cruise, she does an ecstatic split (in reference to her beloved's Oprah couch-jump) and announces once again that she's in love. It's the kind of brainwashed confusion -- that those who express concern are not your friends, but those who send gifts in the middle of press ops love you -- that is best explored by a therapist, within a family and with friends. Readers can't do anything to help her. So what are we supposed to feel when we read about it?

I don't know. But it may be time to reconsider the ways we're ingesting our culture. We are so used to seeing "real people" do surreal and insane things -- eating bugs and getting dropped off on dangerous islands and making and breaking engagements like they're first dates -- that nothing makes a dent anymore.

But sometimes people need real help -- like in life, not on television. Katie Holmes may be one of those people. And while my concern for her does not exceed my concern for all the anonymous women who are manipulated or mistreated by organizations or individuals who seek to profit from their mental, emotional or physical weaknesses, it's disquieting to see it unfold on a national stage. Of course there are greater tragedies. People die in unnecessary wars and on subways. But the Holmes story is supposed to fall into the category of things that distract us from all that. That's how it's being fed to us; that's how we're consuming it. What are we supposed to do when our fluff becomes deeply troubling, but remains fluff?

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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Scientology Tom Cruise