Following the 2016 election, some readers have accused me of being out of touch with the Real America — that mythic locale inhabited by people who vote like them and watch the same TV shows they do.
“Duck Dynasty,” for example, a program I watched on an assignment that bears about as close a resemblance to the rural South as “Gomer Pyle” did to the U.S. Marines. Real Americans supposedly love that show, a cornball sitcom about a family of heavily bearded children who get into harmless scrapes involving guns and explosives.
No thanks. My own children are grown.
So in an effort to measure my Real America quotient, I recently took a year-end celebrity quiz in the morning newspaper. You know, which celebrities got married, divorced, won awards, had children, got cancelled, excommunicated or pistol-whipped during 2016?
Just kidding. To my knowledge, no red carpet habitues actually got shunned by the Pope or beaten senseless, although somebody called Kim Kardashian apparently did get robbed of her jewels at gunpoint.
I believe she’s one of several sisters famous for having, well, massive personal assets that she displays as widely as possible. Or that may be one of her sisters. I can’t be sure.
Anyway, one of four fellow notables supposedly said, “I literally am thinking about her every day like she’s my friend, even though I don’t know her.”
I was confident it wasn’t Melania Trump, and I doubted Helen Mirren could possibly say anything so cosmically dumb, but no, the correct answer wasn’t Lindsay Lohan. The culprit was Lena Dunham, who I’ve kind of heard of, although “Girls,” her HBO program, is like a Narcotics Anonymous meeting without the laughs.
That was as close as I got to a correct answer. My score on the quiz was a big fat zero. My Real America score is zip, zero, nada. Nothing.
Many celebrities I’d never heard of at all. Others, well, I recognized their names, but knew only that I had no ambition to know more.
Kanye West. Enough said.
And why did Justin Bieber quit Instagram? Who knew? Who cares?
Which of four “celebs was not at Taylor Swift’s Fourth of July beach bash?”
Never heard of any of them, sad to say. I guessed “Gigi Hadid,” because that sounded like an exotic babe with Kardashian-esque personal assets, who’d attract too much attention in a bathing suit.
Wrong again. Gigi attended.
“How did Ryan Seacrest sign off on the finale of ‘American Idol’?”
No clue. Never watched it. Couldn’t pick him out of a police lineup.
Anyway, I’ve evidently disappeared completely over the celebrity event horizon. I fear there’s no coming back. Indeed, I cherish the memory of a long-ago faculty party where a woman indignantly accused me of being “the kind of man who watches ‘Charlie’s Angels.”’
“Never seen it,” I said.
I must have offended by indicating an appreciation of female beauty. Never mind that Homer’s “Iliad,” the oldest narrative in the Western tradition, centers upon the intoxicating allure of Helen of Troy — “the face that launched a thousand ships,” as Christopher Marlowe put it. To a certain kind of professor, it’s nevertheless a forbidden theme.
She expressed incredulity.
My wife rescued me. “I don’t believe he ever has seen it,” she said.
It’s of such moments that enduring love is made.
Not that I’m above popular culture. If challenged, I’m sure I could have named the entire Chicago Cubs roster. The Rolling Stones haven’t made an album I didn’t own. We rarely missed an episode of “Mary Tyler Moore.” My sons called “All in the Family” “the man like grandpa show,” based upon Carroll O’Connor’s uncanny impersonation of my New Jersey father.
But “Charlie’s Angels” was too vapid by half. To put it another way, Mary Tyler Moore, yes. Helen Mirren, definitely. Kim Kardashian? An airhead famous for being shameless. There’s an awful lot of that going around these days.
Even so, as a Facebook friend recently reminded me, even the most vapid of celebrities have their role. “Nothing new under the sun,” she wrote. “These stories of celebs function as an overlay on reality, like Norse or Greek mythology. All the posturing, quarreling demiurges and hamadryads are channeling our primal need for storytelling and making sense of the woeful world.”
I’m sure that’s right. Living as I do in Arkansas, I have always felt that Bill and Hillary Clinton — life-sized figures in Little Rock — were transmogrified by fame in the popular imagination, like figures in classical myth hurled into the stars by some petulant god. It’s been a fascinating process to observe.
As for Real America, maybe if I’d ever seen a single episode of “The Apprentice” or “Celebrity Apprentice,” I might have seen the preposterous figure of Donald J. Trump coming.
But I surely did not.
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