Didion’s Anti-Heroes: On Howard Hughes, Instagram, and Kim Kardashian West
– by Jacinta Mulders, SPP Writer in Residence
Photo from Kim Kardashian West’s Instagram.
Recently, in the course of reading Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, I came across an essay called ‘7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38’. The essay is about Howard Hughes—it takes its title from the physical address of his ‘communications centre’. Before reading this essay, I had primarily known Hughes as a filmmaker, but I think that’s because I had him confused with Howard Hawks. Wikipedia sets the record straight: there, he is posited quite firmly as a ‘business tycoon’ (although I was right in thinking he has a couple of films to his name). Hughes’ central mission, according to Didion (quoting Fortune) was ‘to preserve his power as the proprietor of the largest pool of industrial wealth still under the absolute control of a single individual.’ Didion goes on to describe some of the urban legends surrounding Hughes and the extravagant ways he conducted himself, both in business and in life. They include: paying a barber to be on permanent standby, insisting negotiations for a particular business transaction be discussed only between midnight and dawn by flashlight in the Palm Springs Municipal Dump; buying large swathes of property in Vegas; commandeering the fifth floor of the Boston Ritz. His behaviour was reckless, expensive, and uncompromising—he operated at a level totally unfettered by financial constraint.
In the course of expounding on Hughes’ life and legacy, Didion asks why ‘we like these stories so’. She asks: ‘Why have we made a folk hero of a man who is the antithesis of all our official heroes’? According to Didion:
Our favourite people and our favourite stories become so not by any inherent virtue, but because they illustrate something deep in the grain, something unadmitted. Shoeless Joe Jackson, Warren Gamaliel Harding, the Titanic: how the mighty are fallen. Charles Lindbergh, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Marilyn Monroe: the beautiful and damned. And Howard Hughes. That we have made a hero out of Howard Hughes tells us something interesting about ourselves, something only dimly remembered, tells us that the secret point of money and power in America is neither the things that money can buy nor power for power’s sake […] but absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy […] [to] live by one’s own rules.
Outwardly, we are scornful of this type of behaviour. Officially, we are taught to admire ‘the rational man, the enlightened man, the man not dependent upon the potentially psychopathic mode of action’. Apparently, this is a point Lionel Trilling made long ago: ‘our educated class has a ready if mild suspiciousness of the profit motive, a belief in progress, science, social legislation, planning and international cooperation.’ But these are not the people who capture our hearts—people like Howard Hughes, and their activities, represent the ‘fatal separation’ that exists between ‘the ideas of our educated liberal class and the deep places of the imagination’. To Didion, Hughes embodies the ‘divergence between our official and unofficial heroes […] the apparently bottomless gulf between what we say we want and what we do want.’
I have done a great disservice to the subtlety and delicacy with which Didion builds her argument—as an essay of only six pages, it would have perhaps been better to suggest that the reader consider it themselves. However, I have introduced it here because I believe it serves as a useful entry point for examining some of our contemporary preoccupations—namely, with social media and modern celebrity culture.
Ostensibly, I hate social media. I think it’s a spectacular waste of time, and regularly chide my father for the hours each day he spends, inert and silent, in the computer room of my parents’ house. I know he’s trawling through photos, of himself, of others, obsessed with the way he comes across. When I challenge him on it, he generally agrees with a dull, one-line sentence—it doesn’t change his behaviour. The impact of social media on his emotional terrain is frighteningly palpable. He’ll often ask me, apropos of nothing, whether I noticed the photos that he’s been tagged in, or has posted online. He becomes recklessly happy after using Facebook Messenger to chat to acquaintances, emerging from the computer room in a state of glee.
I deleted my Instagram because it made me feel bad about myself—my photos would never be as glossy and wholesome as the twenty-something health entrepreneur who posts cacao smoothies ad nauseum and has over 100k followers, nor as cool and current as the young fashion designers and DJs I followed, my club kid friends. When I’m out with my best friends and one of them asks someone else (a boyfriend, an acquaintance) to take a photo of us, I can’t help roll my eyes and protest. Admittedly, this is before I all-too-readily accede, and before I know I too am pulling my hair in front of my face and shaking it all over the place so that my cheeks don’t look too puffy, or, woe betide, I ‘look like a boy’ (real words one of my best friends used to describe my face in prior Facebook photos. It will never happen again.) There’s a part of me that can’t fathom why a Twitter account seems such a necessity for an emerging writer, when the mental framework it puts you in seems particularly antithetical to the headspace needed for good writing; introspective, cogent, clear, not fragmented, distracted, preoccupied with the words and initiatives of other people and other things. Ostensibly, I hate it all. And yet, in the plateau of an afternoon or when I’m by myself at night and feel lonely, I’m just as susceptible to a rapidly spiralling Facebook vortex as anyone else.
Similarly, when it’s early in the morning and my head is screwed on correctly, I’m scornful of almost everything contained in the small box to the right hand side of my Facebook Timeline containing ‘Trending’ stories. On the day I’m writing this, it contains the following:
- Kendall Jenner: Model Breaks Instagram Record With Most-Liked Photo
- Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck: Couple Says They Will Divorce After 10 Years of Marriage
- Justin Bieber: Singer Attends Hillsong Church Conference in Sydney
When I’m feeling lucid, these ‘stories’—nothing but noise—exhaust me with their vacuous popularity, for how patently they cater to our basest desires, how irrelevant, out of touch and silly they feel. In March, I remember reading on how Australia’s peak body for Indigenous services was planning its closure after federal funding cuts. According to Facebook, the top trending story of the day was that Kim Kardashian had changed her hair colour.
It’s really easy to criticise these types of stories, just as it’s easy to poke sticks at the vapidity, the glassy-eyed state that Facebook and Instagram perpetuate. But to do so would be to deny their undeniable, untrammelled power. There must be something in these types of stories, something that makes us keep clicking. It’s interesting to think that the currency of this culture might have lineage to the idea Didion identified, back in 1967. Kim Kardashian, the contemporary apex of all of it, serves as a good example for exploring it further.
Kardashian is today’s anti-hero—the object of universal fascination, in much the same way that Hughes was in the 60s. Like those that Didion identified, she’s beautiful, damned, alternatively loved and scorned. She doesn’t apologise for her behaviour, and she certainly doesn’t aspire to any ‘enlightened’ mode of action. Her grandiosity is bolstered by her social media accounts: an unholy roll call of red carpet events, horse and carriage rides, famous faces, flesh. It’s equal parts scrappily accessible and helplessly out of reach. It’s so gaudy, so patently artificial, so unapologetically hedonistic, and yet, we cannot turn away. Though we can critique it to infinity, this does not dull her power. She doesn’t want your praise—only your attention. In this respect, she seems deliberately formed to cater to this internal imagination of which Didion spoke: her life speaks of reckless mobility, extravagance, nonchalant disregard for anyone seeking to pull her down with appeals to rationality or good sense. She capitalises on our desire to go further by being the embodiment of it—even if the end result of all that longing is gaudy and grotesque. If you are Kim Kardashian, you somehow transcend the constraints of real life. With the aid of cosmetic surgery and Photoshop, she’s not even confined by the physical strictures of her own body.
Social media, in general, serves the same function. Through it, we present our lives as something different, and often more patently desirable, than they often really are. Through it, we can take a part of ourselves that we like, put on a pleasing filter, and present this image to the world as if this is exclusively what our life is comprised of: an everlasting roll call of attractive friends, pretty parties and glossy brunches. Of course, in reality, life is not like this. Social media does not give any insight to the vast majority of life that goes on away from the camera lens. It doesn’t even show us what it took to get our photos right: all that posing, frozen faces from various angles, click after click after click. Alexa Chung was recently subject to some online tittering after she was photographed with her boyfriend Alexander Skarsgård in a rose garden: she stands, absurdly posed, while he leans in to snap it with a smartphone. Her posturing looks so silly, so uncomfortable, but Alexa shouldn’t be subject to such scorn—we all know how much this goes on in all our private lives all the time. Maybe, as a celebrity, we expect her to better cover her tracks.
More realistically, this planning is probably what characterises a lot of Kardashian’s time—all that hair and make-up, all those outfits, run-throughs for ‘reality’ TV. Things constantly spun to make them brighter than they are, a type of professional gossamer. To many people, the payoff from all of this seems worth it: it’s comforting to be able to look back on a visual trajectory of yourself and tell yourself you’re doing ok. We have always been drawn to stories where real complexity is obliterated—instead of life in all its knobbly glory, we are fed a constant stream of grandiose and gorgeous. Life is nice when it’s presented to the world as a series of interesting snaps: of sunsets in foreign places, your boyfriend’s best angle. The drudgery of work, the problems with your friends, how much time it took for a café chef to cook the eggs on your Instagram: all of that is helpfully cut out.
No-one’s life is immune to pain, to boredom, regardless of whether they are a celebrity or not. But social media, and the act of absorption in other people’s lives, gives us some momentary reprieve. There, things are certain, easy, uncomplicated. Cumulatively, it caters to our desire to feel as though this restless mess of life is worth something that we can define, or which is easy to clarify. Similarly, if we could be Hughes or Kardashian, things might be better. The reality, as always, is different—unlike an Instagram photo, life is not fixed, nor is it uniformly good. We all age, shift, transform, and pass. And although it may be tempting to lose ourselves in the types of stories we create about ourselves online, or fixate on the lives of those leading apparently freer lives—the greater likelihood is that we all are susceptible to the same dreams, insecurities, and dark paranoias. These internet stories, though a type of shiny whitewash, don’t really speak of very much at all—maybe only our inherent discomfort with the present, how we are forever striving for something we can never attain, or how we sustain ourselves with nostalgia for our past.
Jacinta Mulders works in international human rights law research at Australian National University. Her writing has appeared in Meanjin, Seizure, Oyster, Pollen and TheVine, where she worked as an editor. She plans to commence postgraduate studies in creative writing in late 2015.