Going Paula

Script_pad An episode of Hey, Paula feels like an episode of another kind. Delight gives way to crying which returns to delight.  Girl, call your anthropologist. 

Here’s what he’ll tell you. 

1) Our culture distinguishes between public and private. 

2) This helps us distinguish between "front stage" and a "back stage."

3) Everyone seeks to "manage impressions" on the "front stage."  When this is done well, our social capital increases, and other capitals accrue to us.

4) Everyone works to conceal the "back stage."  When this is done badly, our social capital diminishes and other bad things happen too.

5) The distinction between public and private, and the one between front stage and back stage, has been shifting in our culture in the last 100 years.  Once an iron clad distinction that ruled social life and personal experience, it is now blurred.  Victorians lived and died by this distinction.  It is now, as we might say, "in play."

6) All public figures (actors, politicians, business leaders, public figures) are now obliged to reveal more of the private self in the public persona.  It’s part of the new contract fashioned between leaders and the rest of us.  It’s almost as if we are saying to celebrities:

"if you want us to take you seriously, you have to show us more of who you are.  We need to know who we’re dealing with.  Personal revelation helps.  It’s what you owe us.  It’s part of our due diligence."

7) It is possible, then, to increase one’s social capital, celebrity and credibility by moving the boundary between public and private and revealing more of one’s private life. 

8) But the old rules still apply, and when some people reveal the private self the result is punishment and self-diminishment. 

9) Reality TV has a mixed record as an instrument of revelation.  Stars like Kathy Griffin has used to to good effect.  It has built her standing and celebrity.  But it has been less kind to other celebrities.  I think we are obliged to say that on balance Mr. T’s appearance on the reality program, I Pity the Fool, did more to confirm his obscurity than save him from it. Nick and Jessica returns a split verdict: Jessica, ok.  Nick, not so much. 

10) The question for Paula Abdul was whether reality TV would augment or diminish her standing. 

11) I think every student of popular culture was obliged to sound the horn of caution.  In point of fact, Paula Abdul had already participated in the new culture of "revealed privacy. " Several years of exposure and unrehearsed reaction on American Idol had given the American public a pretty good sense of the "real" Paula Abdul.  Evidently, this was a woman who lead with her emotions, cared about the little guy, came to the defense of the vulnerable, and otherwise qualified as the "people’s Paula." 

12) The question was simple: was there any more to be gained from still greater revelation?    And this question was haunted by the "diminishing returns" suspicion that there couldn’t be enough "revelation capital" left to justify the risk of overexposure. 

13) The empirical outcome is I think indisputable.  The danger of overexposure is clear and with each passing "episode" ever more costly.  When Paula melts down over a missing hair dresser, she puts in jeopardy her "people’s Paula" standing and risks looking like a Princess.

14) I think the larger conclusion is also clear.  It’s time for every public figure to put an anthropologist on retainer. 


McCracken, Grant.  2007.  Kathy Griffin.  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  June 07, 2007. here

2 thoughts on “Going Paula

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  2. Tom Guarriello

    I love the ‘script pad, Dr. McCracken! Your Rx will be very difficult for Ms. Abdul to swallow, given the lack of awareness with which she careens around the public square these days. Lucky, great. Counting on continuing to be lucky, not so much.

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