Friday, March 7, 2014

John Travolta, old women, and other post-Oscars shark bait

Post-Oscars party
The piece I began writing for this space turned out to be so big, awkward, clunky and sprawling that to finish it in time was becoming, as Anne Lamott would say, "like putting an octopus to bed". 

So I'm just going to post about John Travolta and Kim Novak and Liza Minnelli instead. 

Is it important that John Travolta mispronounced the name of Idina Menzel last Sunday? No. Do we really care? No. Is it news? Of course not. Do we care that Kim Novak looks old? Or that Liza Minelli was ill-informed about her Oscar outfit? No. We don't. It barely rises to the level of a distraction.  But you'd think it was worth our attention from the social media feeding frenzy that began minutes after the Oscars and didn't let up for days. 

I'll go off topic for a moment to make this observation: The most vicious comments came from media-savvy people who appear to be in their twenties and thirties. Much as I adore this generation - because they are the huggiest, kissiest, loveiest and selfie-est of any I've observed - they also popularized the phrases "don't judge" and, "don't hate" and in general seem very attuned to the feelings they feel in the places they're at. Is it all just a secret, attunement-handshake, offered only by one twenty or thirty-something to another?


When, and why, did people become unsatisfied with being merely snarky and develop such an appetite for meanness?

Because we are. We're mean. We're past funny-mean, we're vicious-mean. When it comes to skewering people who can't punch our faces for the things we say, we are appallingly insensitive and disrespectful.

As Slate magazine reported, "81-year-old Vertigo star Kim Novak - who was roundly mocked for turning up onstage, two decades after her last movie, exhibiting extensive plastic surgery - might as well be dead."

From comedian Rob Delaney: "Will they have time to edit Kim Novak into the In Memoriam section?"

And, also from the Slate piece, "...Matthew McConaughey's mother, who last night aspired only to the role of proud parent, was eviscerated for rocking a keyhole-neck gown that gave the world a peek at her cleavage...which Twitter commentators deemed "leathery," "ancient," "inappropriate," and "terrifying."


Liza Minnelli, considered to be a model for female impersonators and drag artists, was described by Ellen DeGeneres as "the best Liza Minnelli impersonator I've ever seen," and then, referred to as "Sir."

Everyone loves Ellen. But if it was funny for Ellen to see Liza's smile drop from her face in embarrassment, well, for me anyway,  it kind of takes away from that sweet gesture of buying the car for the single-mother server.

There's always a little schadenfreude going on when giant people stumble, but I feel for John Travolta. He was reportedly mortified, and the stories of crowds-of-Travolta-fans-so-huge-during-the-filming-of Saturday-Night-Fever-they-had-to-film-at-four in-the-morning aside, it must have stung to realize the appetite that exists for your public humiliation. Forget that you've endured a failing marriage and the death of a child and have donated tens of thousands to charities  which support first responders, special needs children, environment, and families grieving the loss of members. You're John Travolta. You are a celebrity with a lot of money and your own plane. To Buzzfeed, with you and your bad wig.

I'm a user and a fan of social media and I've seen how easy it is for people to be vicious without consequence on the internet. If it were not, last Sunday's Oscar "highlights" would have been a hiccup. What intrigues me is why we become mean, and I think I realize why.  

Because we want attention. On the internet, we are seventh-graders who would rather be a mean girl's friend, than a kind one. We can be noticed now at the drop of a cruel comment, and in the meantime, if only in our own minds, we can be little celebrities ourselves if our newsfeeds and comment threads heat up enough. 

Maybe my octopus-piece is making me impatient. But when people delight in holding up another's faux pas to the light, or when people attack someone for showing themselves to the world as they are, and in so doing, launch a tweeting trend that becomes a social media chew-fest, well, I grow a little ashamed of us.

I would bet that many of the commenters who ran this trend into the ground are also people who champion anti-bullying laws and will teach their children to respect the feelings and places of others.

Or maybe they aren't. 

On the upside, John Travolta may have inadvertently advanced the career of Idina Menzel with all that focus on her correct name. 

I hope so. It would be a very nice way to say I'm sorry. And bad wig or not, he showed the class to want to apologize for his verbal misstep.

Sharks on the other hand, wait for the next feeding.


  1. You are so right, Susan. Social media is a big bully with outstretched arms. People can hide behind it and be cruel. Unfortunately, being in the spotlight makes you so, so vulnerable to criticism, social media or not.

  2. True. I can't imagine how thick your skin has to be to endure such vicious press.

  3. As I was reading your post I was coming to the exact conclusion you did. Attention is the watchword of the decade - forget selfie. And the best way to get attention of social media is to be provocative, controversial, naked or, as you say, mean. Great post.

  4. Very well written. Thank you. We can be bullies so easily now and that is exactly what appeared to happen in these cases. You wet spot on in your words.

  5. I was watching my two-year-old granddaughter last night as she did cute little two-year-old things to try to make us all laugh. Making people laugh seems to be a inborn thing. But why does it have to be vicious. Has everything that's sweet and funny already been said?

  6. Diane, very true observations about humor,and those lengths we'll go to (for good and bad reasons) to be make someone laugh.