In an article in Sunday's New York Times, Virginia Heffernan criticized our obsession with scrutinizing celebrity beauty, contrasting the prevalence of blogs and websites that allow anonymous readers to analyze every aspect of a star's visage with the practices of old Hollywood media. In the old days, there was an unspoken understanding that the media would help protect the secrets of the beauties that graced their pages, and the public was never given a glimpse into how these stars really looked.
Eventually, someone realized that consumers were far more interested in seeing celebrities at their worst than looking their best, and gave up on protecting the celebrities. With the widespread availability of high-speed internet access, it's nearly impossible to prevent a damaging photo from being uploaded onto millions of computers within hours of its release.
In her article, Heffernan seems to long for the days when actresses were mysterious, their incredible beauty undeviating and unreachable, while we treat today's starlets like specimens to be examined and dissected ("a brow lift here, a boob job there"). The Marilyn's and Ava's and Joan's existed in a fantasy world separate from our own, while the public breakdowns of Lindsay, Paris and Britney highlight that the rich and famous are human like the rest of us (and sometimes make even bigger mistakes).
Initially after reading the piece, I agreed with this analysis. There's no mystery to celebrities anymore, as they're more than willing to expose themselves (emotionally and physically) to the public for a short turn in the spotlight. We know their diet, beauty and relationship secrets. Celebrity interviews often resemble therapy sessions, with Oprah and Barbara Walters showing us the way into a celebrity's soul. Maybe a little fantasy, leaving something to the imagination, would be nice.
But then I considered how empowering it is to know that these gorgeous women aren't naturally flawless. As women, we understand that these starlets represent society's standard of beauty, and that we're constantly being compared to their airbrushed, surgically-enhanced faces. Knowing that these women barely resemble their photographed selves when they're without makeup somehow makes the pressure a little more bearable.
I think it also has a positive effect on men, who are so often totally oblivious to the fact that the woman in the Maxim spread doesn't look that hot when she rolls out of bed every morning. Even guys who don't read celebrity blogs and magazines can't escape the paparazzi images, and eventually it might set in that the photographs lie, and they can't compare every woman to a photoshopped model in a men's magazine.
I'm conflicted on what's better, the way we viewed and understood celebrities in the Golden Age of Hollywood, or the age of Perez Hilton. What do you think?