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Paris Hilton says that being in lockup for a few weeks was traumatic. I think being shot at in Iraq would be traumatic — not taking a little time off from having every whim satisfied on a whim. Nonetheless, different folks have different levels of trauma-handling ability. She apparently reached hers. (The lovely Paris was sent to jail for driving on a suspended license following a DUI charge. And good for that judge.)
The fact that Paris Hilton takes herself seriously — she once spoke of “retiring” (and I wondered: “From what?”) — is not what’s offensive. Socialites have been doing that for decades, I suppose.
What offends me is that anybody, sometimes it seems everybody, takes her — and, for that matter, her “sisters,” Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan — seriously to the point of obsession.
And so while the young heiress whose claim to acting fame comes from starring in a TV reality show about herself — her real claim to fame is accidentally starring in an Internet sex video — was in jail, we regularly heard about her schedule, her meals, her outbursts. Just before her sentence of some 23 days was up, one headline read: “The World Awaits Paris’ Release.”
Please tell me the World has better things to wait for.
Then she got a prime spot on CNN’s “Larry King Live” this week. Or rather, King got her for a scripted interview. In the world of media, Paris Hilton, especially Paris Hilton right after jail, is what’s known as a huge “get.”
Thanks to media saturation and the Internet, we can see every (ugly) detail of a celebrity’s life. In particular, gone are the days when Tiger Beat ruled magazine picks of young girls (and we read upbeat stories of our favorite young crushes). Now it’s Paris in jail and Lindsay passed out and drooling in a car, almost in real time. Surely at least some young girls are thinking, “Wow — you can act like that and be rich and famous and have fans? Note to self …”
Society has always been obsessed with celebrity and celebrity shallowness; now this is all just easier to get ahold of. In that sense, the Internet gossip sprees are not unlike pornography. The latter has always been there. But when I was growing up, a teenager might get ahold of a Playboy magazine and it had to last the entire neighborhood of high-school boys about two years. Today with the Internet, the floodgates have opened and it’s 24/7.
In an earlier age when the gossip rags had limited pages and television limited channels and news minutes, Paris, who can’t sing or act, might not have made it onto them as easily. Now, the almost infinite media of television and the Internet are aching for content. And she and her cohorts provide it, well, 24/7.
That’s when you realize more than ever that, as a parent, society can’t do our job for us. I don’t try to use Paris Hilton as an object lesson, or at least I don’t stop there. This isn’t really about her. In fact, she might have some really positive qualities — we just would never hear about them in today’s media world. That’s the point: The Paris Hilton coverage is more than anything else a symptom of the problem that our culture values, or at least is obsessed with, the wrong things, and those wrong things are more available than ever.
I want my girls — and my son — to value what matters. I want them to value excellence in any good thing, including the entertainment world. But most of all, I want them to value excellence in character. News flash: I can’t let a world defined by Paris Hilton change what’s true for the “world” of my children and me. A world obsessed with her may make my job harder. But it is still ultimately up to me, no matter how the culture is raising up Paris and her friends, to raise my kids to stand up to the world and think through making wise value judgments on their own.
(Betsy Hart hosts the “It Takes a Parent” radio show on WYLL-AM 1160 in Chicago. She can be reached at www.BetsyHart.net.)