Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Is Paris Hilton A Superhero?

Well, she has a cool pink uniform (and a sidekick, Tinkerbelle!). But having a signature outfit, a “look,” in and of itself certainly doesn’t make you a superhero. I don’t think many people would wonder if Tom Wolfe might be a superhero or not.

I am going to consider Paris Hilton as a possible superhero in one particular context.

Modern comics allow for supervillains who are complex, if tragically flawed, human beings. (I’m thinking here of “Lex Luthor: Man Of Steel” as the pinnacle of modern comics.) However, modern comics present superheroes as, typically, one dimensional and, often, not human at all. But superheroes exist not just in comic books. Superheroes got their start in literature with characters like Hercules and Beowulf in ancient texts and characters like Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel in more modern books.

I want to discuss Paris Hilton as a superhero in the context of the novel “Atlas Shrugged”.

“Atlas Shrugged,” in its own terms, is a grand-scale, operatic—that is, comic book-like—story of a smart, creative, energetic and good-hearted young man named John Galt who becomes disgusted with the oppression and corruption of the modern world. Instead of retreating into a Holden Caulfield-like funk, John Galt resolves to change the world. One by one, Galt identifies other people like himself—the smart, creative, energetic and good-hearted “movers and shakers” in the world—and talks philosophy with them. They come to see that by participating in the modern world they are enabling the oppression and corruption to continue and expand. So, one by one, the movers-and-shakers decide to withdraw, to stop participating, to go “on strike.” They go off by themselves and disappear from their normal lives in the world at large, leaving oppressive and corrupt people to fend for themselves, to turn against themselves and destroy each other. (There are also romantic entanglements and a convoluted religious sub-text but those are incidental to the larger events.)

John Galt’s best friend in the novel is a character named Francisco d’Anconia. Francisco has been described this way:

The wealthy and accomplished Francisco is a profoundly intelligent and highly successful man whose whole life is a paradox. He was the first man to join Galt’s strike and serves as its recruiter, living in two worlds as he tries to bring others over to the strikers’ side. Although he is a brilliant businessman, he deliberately destroys d’Anconia Copper and brings down the fortunes of many others with it. And although he has only ever loved Dagny, he plays the part of a promiscuous playboy as a cover for his real activities. He is enthusiastic and benevolent, although much of his strike-related activities cause others, especially Dagny and Rearden, to feel he is mocking and untrustworthy. Francisco has a profound effect on Rearden, whom he genuinely loves, even while knowing Rearden is Dagny’s lover. He serves as Rearden’s protector, arming him with the moral certainty he needs to battle the looters. He seems to appear at Rearden’s side when he is needed most, and saves his life in the mill riots.

“Francisco’s commitment to the strike is absolute, but he suffers a great deal for it. First, he must give up Dagny and allow her to view him as depraved and worthless. Later, he must endure Rearden’s hatred as well, when he is forced to betray him in a copper deal. And he must continually work to destroy the company his family built for generations. But the suffering is worth the price for him, because he is sure that he is right. Eventually, Dagny and Rearden come to understand and admire him, and the strike he devotes his life to works as planned.”

Rather than just withdrawing from the world, Francisco allows himself to appear as exactly what the oppressive and corrupt people of the world want him to be—a tool, a fool to be exploited. However, Francisco uses his skills to manipulate the oppressive and corrupt people themselves so that their machinations repeatedly crush their own enterprises and lead them again and again into greater and greater ruin.

Now, I am certainly not saying Paris Hilton is making a career of undermining the Hilton empire to prevent looters from exploiting it. I am not saying Paris is Francisco. But I am saying the example of Francisco’s “creative destruction” provides an intriguing backdrop against which to view the absurd, pop culture wreckage around Paris Hilton.

Characters like Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan began their public careers within the Disney empire. They were constructed and manipulated creations. They were designed and crafted to strip-mine money from children and adults foolish enough to believe in the Disney creations, or in such desperate denial about reality that they elected to believe in the Disney creations.

Paris put an end to that. Partying with Paris, characters like Britney and Lindsay revealed themselves to be all too human, revealed the Disney reality for the bogus sham it always has been. As sad as it may be seeing the real human beings behind the characters like Britney and Lindsay suffering personal tribulations, the destruction of the false images the pop culture industry had built around them was a genuine service to the world at large.

Shattering the Disney facade was a good deed. It was a good deed on a grand, operatic, comic-book-like scale. It was the kind of good deed a superhero would do.

Paris Hilton’s career, seen as repeated exercises in creative destruction after the fashion of Francisco d’Anconia, is consistent with what the career of a modern superhero might look like.

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