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Trapped in the Amber of Public Image : Culture: For years, Michael Jackson was regarded as a child-man. He is one in a long line of celebrities enveloped by their personas.

<i> Neal Gabler, the author of "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (Anchor/Doubleday), is working on a book about columnist Walter Winchell</i>

Several years before he made “Hook,” director Steven Spielberg had acquired the rights to “Peter Pan” with the intention, according to press reports then, of starring Michael Jackson in the title role.

Though Jackson was in his late 20s at the time, no one faulted the casting, for that is the way we all saw Jackson--at least since his mega-stardom and before the recent allegations of child abuse. He is a kind of child-man, asexual and eternally pre-adolescent, with his childish contralto and his diffident manner. He is also weird, living with a menagerie of animals in a sprawling retreat, but he is otherworldly weird, like E.T., not threateningly weird.

Frankly, I have no idea whether this image bears the slightest resemblance to the real Michael Jackson any more than I have the slightest idea whether or not the allegations are true. And that is precisely the point. Whatever we know of Jackson, whatever we think we know, was formed eons ago as celebrity culture goes, but once formed, images only reluctantly reform themselves.

Jackson may have set about to change his image earlier this year, amid talk that his handlers thought he was being regarded as too weird. Hence, the self-examination with Oprah Winfrey, where he sought to demystify himself. Still, I doubt anyone came away from that broadcast thinking Jackson was just a regular fellow. No, he had already been encased in the amber of image.

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But Jackson is only the latest, not the first, celebrity to be so entrapped. Recent history is littered with dozens of casualties. In literature, F. Scott Fitzgerald come to early renown as the spirit of the Roaring ‘20s. When the Jazz Age ended, he was left the exemplar of that age, expected to carry the banner and wound up an anachronism instead. In politics, Richard Nixon burst upon the national scene as a cutthroat, and though he repeatedly attempted to rehabilitate his image, he could never shake the first impression. He would always be “Tricky Dick.” In the movies, Marilyn Monroe embossed herself on the national consciousness as the sexy naif. As years passed, she grew up, she married intellectual Arthur Miller, she tried essaying more difficult roles, but she would always remain in our eyes what she had first been: the dumb blonde who only later became the tragic blonde.

It was not always so for celebrities. Images on the scale we know them are a relatively recent phenomenon. They date from the late ‘10s and ‘20s, from the emergence of the movies, tabloids and mass-market magazines of the period. They arose because the new national mass culture demanded readily accessible emblems--nouns, really--for a national dialogue. And what the new media quickly discovered was that the most accessible emblems were photographic images.

Everyone, of course, recognized movie stars as visual icons. Studios went to great lengths to create images for their stars, a sort of ideational continuity from one role to the next upon which the public could rely. Clark Gable meant a certain kind of wry masculinity. James Cagney meant kinesics. Bette Davis meant spine. Studios, then, had an enormous investment in protecting these images, in making sure that once an image was established, it not be changed lest the public be confused or disappointed.

As it turned out, movie stars were only an analogue for image-making in the larger culture. By the late ‘20s, the visual cast included politicians, athletes, artists, writers and dozens of others--all of whom the public instantly recognized. Yet, it was more than a matter of the media generating recognizable faces. As one cultural observer put it, the photo images translated into physical ideas: word images. Beer-bellied Babe Ruth was Rabelaisian. Leopold Stokowski with his shaggy manes was an Artist. Hemingway with his bristle was the manly author. Disheveled Albert Einstein was the absent-minded genius. Handsome Charles Lindbergh was the courageous adventurer. These images were so powerful and immutable that they resonate to this day.

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In some ways, there would be no choice but to reduce public figures to images, even though we know we are missing something essential about the personality in the process. But for journalists, and the public they serve, an image is a handle, a shorthand way to get our minds around a personality. To write about Jackson as a child-man obviates the need for any further explanation. Madonna is hedonistic. Enough said. Julia Roberts fragile and confused. Shannon Doherty out of control. Arnold Schwarzenegger highly professional.

But there is another investment journalists have in promulgating images. It has to do with their own psychological satisfactions. Even as celebrities devote time, money and energy to shaping their public facade, the media is the only instrument available and journalists the only confederates. Images allow journalists to set the terms for the personalities they cover, people ordinarily much wealthier and more powerful than themselves. Images are the journalist’s way of possessing the famous and celebrated, sometimes in collaboration with them, sometimes not. For uncooperative celebrities especially, images are the journalist’s revenge.

To take just one example, in Richard Ben Kramer’s dissection of the 1988 presidential campaign, “What It Takes,” he demonstrates how the political media, unable to fathom Gary Hart’s fixation on policy and disdain for intrusive journalism, was immediately labeled “peculiar.” It became his Homeric epithet, “peculiar Gary Hart,” until nothing he could say or do could shake the image. The journalists, so to speak, owned him.

But if journalists have an investment in promulgating images, the public has an investment in perpetuating them--in making sure that Jackson will always be its strange Peter Pan. The familiarity of an image seems to provide the same comfort in the drama of “real life” as it provides in a movie. Image is what we know--is all we know. It is the code that makes conversation about the famous possible. To change an image is to change the entire terms of the conversation.

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Yet, just as journalists may own a personality, then so, too, do the personas gradually envelope the real person. Jackson, whatever he really is, whatever he has really done, must always be the pixilated child-man--unless the press comes to reassess his pixilation as aberration. Like Fitzgerald, Nixon and Monroe, he can’t change the image because the media won’t let him. And neither, perhaps, can we.


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