I had a minor rage incident recently. T’was just a little outburst of incredulous shock: the end result of an insidious combination of rainy weather, boredom, curiosity and YouTube You see, I’d just slogged through a particularly stressful and demoralising week, and instead of enjoying my long-awaited weekend outlets of playing soccer, eating sushi train and drinking afternoon ciders at the pub, howling winds and thumping rain forced me, hermit-like, indoors.
Needing entertainment and some reminder that life was worth living, I decided to finally watch a film I’d been meaning to see for years. After Letters From Iwo Jima left me welled up with tears and wallowing in a dank pit of despair, I turned to the net for some typically senseless, but always entertaining YouTube hilarity. As I was wondered what to search for, I was struck by a sudden thought – a name, a phrase, a meme, or something or other that I’d heard of but knew little about – except that it was somehow popular. So, like a stupid cat poking its nose into a bear trap, I typed the words ‘Honey Boo Boo’ into the search field and clicked the first result that came up. It took less than a minute before the tears returned. However, these were not tears shed from sorrow over the futility and ruin of war… this time they were tears of rage. Tears of angry, salty, what-the-fuck-is-wrong-with-the-world rage.
What – to my increasing horror – I witnessed, was the latest and most heinous of reality television’s crimes to humanity. A truly face-palmingly moronic program about a bizarre family hailing from a ‘Murican backwater so deep that brain cells simply have no choice but to drown. The show primarily followed its protagonist, little seven-year-old Alana ‘Honey Boo Boo’ Thompson, an agonisingly annoying little brat with a sugar habit, who happens to be a full-time children’s beauty pageant contestant. Prodding her along each step of the way was her intellectually-derelict mother June, aka ‘Mama’, who I assume to be the unholy spawn of Cletus from The Simpsons and Jabba the Hutt. Shockingly, I also learned that this show had spun-off from another reality show entitled Toddlers in Tiaras AND that both programs aired on a network called THE LEARNING CHANNEL.
I can’t even… how the… what?
I truly believe that if humanity was stored in a barrel, and you had reached in and scraped your fingers along the bottom, the grimy filth clinging to the underside of your fingernails would still be more worthwhile to modern society than whatever the hell ‘Here Comes Honey Boo Boo’ is meant to represent.
I get that trashy reality TV exists. I get that it’s fake, melodramatic and its characters are one-dimensional epsilon minors of our species. I even get that it’s a guilty pleasure for the rest of us. But this? This is next level exploitation; this is the 21st century way of locking freaks in a cage and carting them from town to town. Things such as this can only emerge from a place suffering a poverty of intelligence and integrity. On every level Honey Boo Boo is shameful, from the controversial axis on which it revolves – children’s beauty pageants – to the patronising mockery encouraged by the producers who make these monkeys dance for a banana with one hand, and rake in the cash from the idiotic laughing masses with the other.
Let’s put aside the silly rednecks and scumbag television producers for a moment and examine at pageantry as a thing. I don’t think it even bears explaining that coating a five-year-old in makeup and making them dance to provocative music is a bad, bad thing. But even the ‘grown-up’ versions, the Miss Universes and the Miss Worlds – really are no different. First of all, the original pageants were held to judge animals by inspecting the undersides of their tails and measuring their teeth – so there’s that. Second of all, the first human ‘beauty’ pageant, run in 1854, was the brainchild of a man named P T Barnam – the same P T Barnam who wrote a book entitled The Art Of Money Getting.
Now, Mr Barnam was a man who unashamedly pandered to the lowest common denominator, and mastered numerous unctuous ways to suck the pennies from people’s pockets. He ran gigantic circuses built on animal abuse and freak show gawking, he staged cheesy plays and was, in general, a champion of low-brow. Not surprisingly, he ended up in politics. To be fair, Mr Barnam did accomplish many great deeds and eventually became quite a generous man who was simply obsessed with grand spectacle. Nevertheless, beauty pageants don’t list among his more culturally-affirming legacies.
During the next century these pageants expanded from their hokey town fair origins, and with the help of television and institutionalised sexism, became the highly profitable trash parades we see today. Of course the name and the game is ‘beauty’ – but somewhere along the way, that term became far more removed from its literal meaning. ‘Beauty’ connotes elegance and allure, not just a pretty face but a beautiful being. Today’s ‘Miss General Location or Theme’ pageants seem to advertise that to achieve admiration, a woman must venture down a path of teeth bleaching, eating disorders and body-enhancing/ personality-reducing surgical procedures. To make matters worse, it almost sarcastically pretends that intelligence carries any bearing at all on judging criteria. Yeah… The question and answer time is included to give the audience a bit of a laugh, no-one there wants or expects any mind-jolting flashes of perspicacity. The inane questions are invariably designed to lure out inane answers; I mean when would you ever seriously ask an adult what they would do if they were ‘President of the world’? Oh, end world hunger? Have peace for all peoples? Even if a contestant happened to be bright and insightful, she’d unfortunately never be allowed the chance to shine. One, because the questions are dumb and two, because at that point everyone else has tuned out waiting impatiently for the bikini round.
If you need any more convincing, just look at who runs Miss Universe: Donald Trump. A man whose sleaze, bigotry and repugnance knows no bounds. Even Mr Barnam lived in an age where cheesy vaudeville and awful freak shows still maintained a feathery touch of class. The Trump effect, with it crass, charmless Vegas-vibe, only guarantees a complete bankruptcy of dignity.
And so, back to little Honey Boo Boo and her televised saga of child abuse. It’s bad enough that beauty pageants exist for teenagers and adults, but children? The entire concept is based upon critical sexualisation and superficial values, which for adults is wrong and for children is criminal. The halfwit parents who enter their kids into these competitions might say it’s good for raising self-esteem and confidence. In other words, teaching them that self-worth and confidence is smattered over your face in foundation and mascara, and that you are judged and estimated by how you look. Some even defend it by saying it’s no different than, say, signing your kid up to a junior soccer team. How, exactly, participating with peers in a team sport and prancing around in fishnets high on sugar are comparable, I’m not sure. Either it’s an absurd comparison or they play soccer very differently in the States. (That could perhaps explain David Beckham’s five year stint there.)
I’m not going to completely write off the idea of a pageant. It’s just another (and certainly not the worst) manifestation of a natural competitive instinct – and the ignoble but nonetheless pleasurable predilection for casting judgement on others. Of both those counts I am guilty a thousand times. But I just cannot see a positive seed sprouting from under the layers of dirt. It’s trashy, it’s superficial and worst of all, is a grand exercise of false empowerment. What’s more, it’s frustrating that having a problem with these things is so often dismissed as the jealousy of a foot-stomping, frumpy feminist – or, if you are a straight male like me, irrefutable evidence of homosexuality. Well, it’s not seeing a beautiful woman that offends me (though plastic matchsticks aren’t really my thing), but it’s the lamentable fact that so many young women will grow up to believe that donning a glittery little tiara on your head and a ‘Miss Anything’ sash on your shoulder is the greatest achievement a woman could dream of. An ‘achievement’ that is ultimately nothing more than artful exploitation… money-getting, some might even say.
I really hope it doesn’t rain again next weekend.
Why professional athletes make bad role models
UPDATE: Since publishing this article, more sporting ‘heroes’ , with impeccable timing, have gone on a rampage. Or, more likely, a keener post-Armstrong media scrutiny in a gold-rush manner has dug up more nuggets of scandal for the headlines. See: AFL/NRL drug scandal, Australian men’s swim team culture, widespread football matchfixing and of course the OJ Simpson-esque Oscar Pistorius trial.
To many, Lance Armstrong’s confession meant the world had lost another hero… but what really makes a hero in the first place?
The Bible warned us not to worship false idols. I’m not religious and I realise the ancient tome is pretty kooky if read literally, but I will admit that sometimes the bedrock philosophy is solid enough to stand on today. The term ‘false idols’ as carved into Moses’ tablets may have literally meant other gods or faiths, whose worship would presumably result in a bolt of lightning to the eyesocket. Metaphorically, however, it could mean the gratuitous praise of things that offer no soulful fulfilment; to kneel at the altar of the gods of superficially: materialism, vainglory and – shudder – celebrity. It could and should be interpreted as a simple warning. Beware whom or what you put on your personal pedestal, the place where you derive your own values. Don’t be so easily spellbound by those curious forces that make fame and success such seductive attributes in others. Don’t be so quick to worship, for example, certain individuals who captivate the world by overcoming adversity and soaring to unequalled heights of triumph… and then reveal 15 years later that they lied and were all hopped up on goofballs the entire time… The. Entire. Time.
You know who I’m super-subtly referring to here: Lance Armstrong, the disgraced American cyclist who finally confessed his career-long doping sins before Oprah Winfrey and many millions of viewers around the globe. Twelve years of accusations and two years of US federal prosecution couldn’t budge him, but two hours on the couch with Oprah had the skeletons hurtling from the closet. For almost the entirety of his professional career, Armstrong aggressively denied persistent allegations that he ever cheated. The world believed him, and those few who doubted were non-believing, heathen naysayers. But, in June 2012, an investigation by the US Anti-Doping Association sensationally found him guilty of using and distributing performance-enhancing drugs and stripped him of his seven Tour de France titles. It rocked the world to its molten core. Until then, he was not only a prodigy on two wheels but one of the world’s most inspirational figures, particularly to cancer sufferers, his countrymen, and other athletes. He was the shining beacon desperately needed by a sport choked by the sinister fog of controversy. When the awful truth finally passed though the same lips that passionately denied allegations for 14-odd years, it sent the world spiralling into a sea of disillusionment Armstrong’s revelation murdered the infallible sportsman icon, and his confession was a eulogy for the death of all things honourable.
His downfall pulled immense strain on the already-brittle tether between ‘professional athlete’ and ‘role-model’. The same questions arose – should athletes be more responsible as role models? Are they role models? How can we make them more accountable for their actions? The most common argument in this troubled discourse rails along the concept of noblesse oblige; that by virtue of their elite status, athletes are duty-bound to behave honourably. That, however, is ridiculous. Professional sport is a self-serving career – athletes honour their contracts, not some high-minded sense of purpose. Former NBA star Charles Barkley once told reporters, “I’m not a role model… Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids”. He was dead right. No matter how famous or wealthy or influential an athlete becomes, they don’t assume any responsibility as some generic, universal role model.
The onus – and this is important – is on us. ‘Oh, but children look up to them…’ Forget the children. Children have children’s logic. Which is to say, none. Kids will idolise anyone they see on TV, so long as they have outstanding comedic fart timing or appear in a music video. The proper role model for a child is obviously the parental figure, as Mr Barkley rightly observed.
The point here is that even after we outgrow our childish frivolity, we still need role models to guide us. The people we, as adults, choose to idolise and perceive as role models are measures of our own intelligence and maturity. It’s for that reason sport stars can make pretty awful candidates.
A moral victory?
Now, let me be clear – I love sport. I follow virtually every code or discipline; I exchange my money for flags, scarves, hats, shirts and other crap bearing the crest of my favourite teams. My life is incomplete without my soccer, or tennis, or social touch footy. I’ll even throw on a netball bib when the opportunity presents itself. I revel in the highs and lows of competition and for that reason adore a great number of top athletes. I’m amazed and thrilled by their particular skills, their style, and – importantly – their dedication to the pursuit of their passion and their dreams. Names such Lionel Messi, Fernando Alonso and Roger Federer evoke images of greatness in my mind. Great athletes wow me and inspire me to try hard at what I do. So, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take inspiration from professional athletes and their achievements. But as people? Well, I don’t know them – but I can certainly imagine that on some level they are outstandingly selfish people, regardless of how humble and good-spirited they seem – because you must be selfish to succeed in sport. You’re a winner or you’re nothing, literally.
Sport turns success a hardcore fetish. In every corner, victory is obsessed over – from the competitors battling to win, to the flag-waving fans in the stands, to the punters feeding a billion-dollar gambling industry. At the end of the day, sport is no more than as an exhaustive series of numbers: records, rankings, time, distance, kilometres per hour, kilograms, goals, points, runs, baskets, medals, knock-outs, and so on to infinity. Success for an athlete is defined by the statistics beside their name. The ‘greats’ are the best, but does that mean the best are great?
Nobody achieves any form of greatness without incredible sacrifice. Sacrifice, though, can still be a selfish act. It just depends on who eventually is to reap the rewards. Athletes make tremendous sacrifices to their lives, socially, financially and emotionally – nobody simply breezes their way to a bag of gold medals and photo on the Weet-Bix tin. But single-minded dedication to the pursuit of glory is exactly that – single-minded. Elite athletes are certainly driven people, hard-working and ambitious people… but does that make them good people?
We decide the answer to those pseudo-rhetorical questions, but to do so properly we must understand there’s difference between admiring an achievement and admiring the person who achieved it. I believe that to truly hold someone in the highest esteem and call them a role-model, their achievements and their journey are no more important factors than the deepest motivations in their hearts. Ambitions and goals are good things but there’s a fine line between personal aspiration and self-aggrandising greed. You shouldn’t necessarily identify a role model by the loftiness of their success; but by the direction in which their moral compass points. Ambition to someone truly great, is not to set out to conquer the world, but to contribute to it in a meaningful way – be it pushing the boundaries of science; advocating social justice and change; or simply striving to make life somehow better for others. There’s an old Greek proverb that declares, ‘a society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in’. It’s not about environmentalism, but altruism. A cyclist doesn’t enter the Tour de France to impart some positive effect on the world of cycling – they pedal away for days desperate to be the dude on the podium in the yellow duds being smooched on either cheek by some French hotties.
Jocks and nerds
So, why do we gravitate towards the athletically-gifted members of our species? From the moment we introduce ourselves to this world as drool-soaked, babbling blank-slates, we observe and imitate with awe. Our simian DNA instructs us to learn by example. It begins with our parents, our siblings and then maybe our schoolyard friends, until eventually we achieve self-awareness of this vast world around us, and notice how it’s populated by regular people like us, and larger-than-life figures who inexplicably arouse our fascination. We take a real shine to people whose imprint on us speaks more for fantasy than practicality. We call them celebrities and channel a disproportionate amount of adoration to them. It’s a lamentable aspect of today’s society, as renowned historian Daniel Boorstin said many years ago:
“Celebrity-worship and hero-worship should not be confused. Yet we confuse them every day, and by doing so we come dangerously close to depriving ourselves of all real models. We lose sight of the men and women who do not simply seem great because they are famous but are famous because they are great. We come closer and closer to degrading all fame into notoriety.”
Sport stars are a unique brand of celebrity. We live vicariously through them to taste not just glamour, but glory. We cheer and scream from the grandstands and share the euphoria of victory, but just imagine being the one in the centre, showered in confetti and holding the trophy aloft while Emilio Estevez looks on proudly. Who wouldn’t want to rule the world for even a fleeting second? Athletes have been these heroes for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks portrayed them as physical superhumans, commemorating them in marble as they would Zeus or Apollo. Today is no different – we still call them gladiators, warriors and champions. We commemorate them in posters, advertisements, action figures, brands. So rousing is the unique, intoxicating drama of sport that it’s impossible not to admire the protagonists.
Is this a bad thing? Not really – there’s nothing wrong with passion, but the absurdity of an obsessive love of sport stars becomes apparent when the image of heroism is shattered by a shameful act. How can you idolise someone whom you can’t respect as a person? They abandon you, leaving you disenchanted and tasting scowling, bitter betrayal. That’s the risk of idolising even the most pious superstars of sport. Four years ago, who’d have envisaged the names Woods and Armstrong to mean what they do now? Nobody. And that makes us the fools. If these titanic figures run afoul on their own iceberg-sized hubris, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to go down with the ship.
Ultimately, it’s our own fault if we go through life revering superficial qualities over true character. After all, it’s easy to bear witness to and be seduced by impressive feats of physicality or skill and overlook feats of intellect or compassion. How many Nobel laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, Victoria Cross medallists or Templeton Prize winners can you name? These are extraordinary people who have achieved extraordinary things – but, for obvious reasons you’ll be buggered to find posters of them to adorn your walls (with the possible exception 1961 Nobel prize-winner Rudolf Mossbauer – it wasn’t only gamma radiation that succumbed to the Mossbauer Effect, if you know what I mean).
The Winner Fakes All
The Lance Armstrong media maelstrom was so violent that it almost erased from our memories the past (and inevitable future) athletic falls from grace. The list is huge, but let’s start with Tiger Woods. The squeaky-clean, Disney-approved savant of golf, made a gigantic splash a few years back when it was revealed he was as proficient with infidelity as he was his fairway approaches. Neither his reputation nor his game has recovered since. Major League Baseball is still affected by the mid-2000’s Barry Bonds/Mark McGuire/Sammy Sosa steroid saga, particularly whenever home-run records are mentioned… which in baseball is pretty much always. American quintuple gold medal sprinter, Marion Jones forfeited her glory in 2007 after she was also exposed as a big-time user of the juice. O.J Simpson… full-stop.
And no, it’s not just those from the U-S-A (‘U-S-A!’) either; in 2000, South African cricket legend Hansie Cronje was caught fixing matches, earning him a life ban. In 1994 Michael Schumacher won his first (of seven) world Formula One world championships by literally crashing his opponent into a wall – he somehow escaped punishment, but no-one ever forgot. Even the beautiful game has an ugly side. Diego Maradona – regarded by most as the world’s greatest footballer – eventually degenerated into a drug-addled lunatic; current England wonder striker Wayne Rooney was busted on separate occasions cheating on his wife with prostitutes, while former England skipper John Terry went and shagged his own teammate’s wife, taking a leaf from the playbook of former AFL great Wayne Carey. The less said about rugby players the better… The list goes on and remember, these are only the big fish who get caught. The amount unreported or unresolved anecdotal evidence of misconduct on or off the field is alarming. It’s systemic, from the lowly grades to the elite leagues, in team sports especially. This type of deviant behaviour is another topic unto itself, but goes to show that the egocentric mental conditioning for intense competition can manifest itself elsewhere, in less-savoury ways.
‘For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?’
Scandals or not, the world needs sport. In its many forms it creates camaraderie; it is a healthy pastime; a stimulating entertainment and at its very core, teaches good human values. But choose carefully to whom you bestow the word ‘hero’. That title carries a contradiction. Should it be someone whose desire is to conquer the world, or someone who wishes to make the world better for others? Athletes become heroes for themselves, not for us or any other. No famous athlete ever aspired to greatness so as to improve the lives of others. Save for the occasional sick kid in hospital.
So, is it really an omen that civilization is in freefall because a once-respected professional cyclist cheated in order to win, and lied for as long as he could get away with? Of course bloody not. It’s foolish to trust blindly the word of somebody who’s conditioned to covet success and victory above all else. Armstrong proved that eventually the yearning for glory can overpower all honourable intentions – like an Anakin Skywalker in lycra. There are better-qualified people in far less-glamorous circles who can shoulder the collective hopes for human dignity. Think about those risking their lives fighting for equality and freedom against oppression [Burmese woman]; think about those committed to expanding our understanding of the universe; think about the philanthropists, the thinkers, the real movers and shakers. Think even of everyday people who are just really freaking wonderful. Athletes, as remarkable and awe-inspiring as they can be, must do more than break records, sign autographs and do the odd charitable deed to deserve our deepest, sincerest admiration.
History teaches us that the most persevering judgement rests with one’s character. You can accumulate all the glory, all the wealth and all the adoration – but all it takes is one loose thread in your moral fibre and everything about you is unravelled. Athletes are humans and humans are prone to error. So many influences can draw an athlete to poor judgement, and it doesn’t necessarily make them objectively evil people, but that is why when we look to someone for true personal inspiration, it’s wise to look outside a world obsessed with ego and success. Instead, look to the impressively courageous, the awesomely intelligent or the inspirationally kind. It’s easier to find such people outside the world of sport. A good place to start is with another bit of advice carved into Moses’ tablet – honour thy father and thy mother.
Winning a wardrobe full of yellow jerseys is one mark of success; but being a good and dependable person is an even better one.