Thursday, July 17, 2008

One of these things is not like the other.

All right, this is easy: one of these people is young and stunning, and the other is... Hugh Hefner. No, wait — it's Bill Maher, 52, former comedian and current lecturing, overbearing, pompous deliverer of holier-than-thou screeds and polemics on HBO.

It'd be easy to "critique" this photo with shorthand, just-common-sense explanations: she's hot, he's not; she's had work done, he needs a lot of work; she's a gold-digging bubblehead, he's an old lech who deserves to lose everything she takes from him. And both of them are poachers in the racial forbidden zone.

Not so fast. Really, the "problem" with the photo is a lot deeper than the non-relationship it depicts. (Maher has an established track record of draping young, voluptuous black women over his arm for photo-ops and then disposing of them before the digital ink has dried.) Rather than snap to instant judgments like the ones above, WB asks questions: Is there a scenario where the man is neither desperate nor pathetic — or where other men don't bow down and worship Bill for his conquests? It seems that with very few exceptions, the woman is nearly always playing May to a male December. But why is it so shocking and "weird" when the roles are reversed? (Demi Moore, Cher, and Linda Hogan immediately spring to mind.)

What drives old(er) men to go hunting for younger trophies? What attracts the trophies to the hunters? If we say that the man is "using" the woman, doesn't that take away all of her agency to choose for herself? If we say that she's only in it for the money and/or fleeting fame, doesn't that just reduce her to a one-dimensional non-person, a mere stock caricature? What roles do motivation and self-awareness play in all of this?

Snap judgments and shallow multiple-choice rote answers don't come close to determining why this elderly man, for instance, has three younger women as arm candy:

They say, on E!'s Girls Next Door, that they love him. And Hef, in turn, says that he loves them. Viewers know that he's slipping steadily into the final twilight of mental clarity and physical stability, both of which are pretty sad to see in the process of fading. And we know that when he's bedridden and no longer able to recognize his three loves, they might still stay by his side, but E!'s cameras will be nowhere around to document it.

Pop culture doesn't go into those dark corners. It prefers fast equations: old money plus young breasts equals... what, exactly? Eternal youth for Hef, and for Bill? Clearly not. Lasting happiness for the bearers of the breasts? Not a chance. Yet the illusions drive the "reality" of the images we consume, and the reality succeeds because we ourselves are part of the illusion. Death will never come knocking; age will never do to us what it's doing to Bill and has done to Hef. The three Girls Next Door will remain forever young and blond and buxom.

This is Brigitte Bardot, and she is us:

And this is Brigitte Bardot, but we will never be:

We need shorthand explanations and snap critiques. Because the longer, more complex ones lead to realities we'd prefer would stay unreal.

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