The Revolt of the Invisible Woman

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Merlijn Doomernik/Hollandse Hoogte/Redux
Claire Messud, Amsterdam, 2005

One common tactic of totalitarian regimes is the designation of certain ethnic, economic, or religious groups as “nonpersons” or “former persons.” These unfortunate individuals are then automatically deprived of the rights of citizenship; they can be fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, mistreated, and in some cases even murdered with impunity.

Today a similar though far less violent process seems to be occurring spontaneously in so-called advanced democratic societies. What is known as “the celebrity culture” now separates us into a privileged minority who are recognized as fully and triumphantly human, and a majority who are not. This division partially overlaps with, but is not identical to, the more widely publicized split between the very rich (sometimes called the 1 percent) and the rest. If you are a celebrity, even a minor one, images of and information (or, sometimes, misinformation) about you will appear on TV and the Internet, and in magazines and newspapers—where your name will often be printed in larger letters or darker type than the names of nonpersons. The very title of the popular journal People implies that only those featured in it are real; the rest of us, by definition, are lesser, more shadowy beings.

Perhaps as a result of all this, today more and more of us seem to be afflicted by a kind of celebrity complex. When we get together we tend to gossip not about our own relatives and friends and neighbors and coworkers, but about film and TV and sports stars and members of the British royal family. Individuals whom we know only as flimsy two-dimensional paper shadows, or fleeting electronic impulses on a screen, interest us more than three-dimensional human beings. In advanced cases of celebrity complex, the afflicted persons feel that fame is necessary to self-esteem; if they cannot achieve it themselves, they may define and value themselves most importantly as fans.

Of course we have always been interested in the lives of famous men and women and liked to observe them, without wanting to be famous ourselves, just as we might like to see Niagara Falls without wanting to live there. In the past it was usually enough to be capable in your own life. A good doctor or lawyer, a skilled carpenter or schoolteacher, a successful farmer, a fine cook, an honest and competent journalist or civil servant, were locally recognized and honored. This earlier mindset is visible in the TV series Downton Abbey, where the servants are presented as in no way inferior to their employers in human worth, dignity, and self-respect. Possibly this restful state of affairs is one reason for the popularity of the program and others like it.

When pictures of our family members appear in the local newspaper, most of us are pleased, and may even send them to friends. But such temporary local recognition does not satisfy people with a celebrity complex. They are not interested in being seen as …

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