FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Why We Love Paris Hilton

Anyone not living on Mars for the past year knows who Paris Hilton is. If you don't love (or give a hoot) about the blonde heiress, then you have my apologies for the title of this post. By "we" I mean the collective "we" of society, of course...

Nonetheless, you've probably wondered why in the world people seem so taken with her. She's young, attractive and rich. But then, so are a lot of people in the world, most with vastly higher intellect and aspirations. Keith Gumery, an English professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, has an interesting explanation. He believes that Paris Hilton appeared at precisely the right time to be in synch with our cultural frame of mind:

"People eat this up. Watching rich people [on TV]...[people] think that this is something that they can aspire to. But the people they aspire to be have never done a day's work in their lives. Americans are working more hours with fewer vacation days. And here's Paris, whose life is about preparing to go to that night's party. That's her job.

"It's an escape from people's normal, humdrum living-from-hand-to-mouth existence... It's a form of escapism to see people with no financial worries." (Quote from the Philadelphia Daily News)

In other words, Paris Hilton is a meme, a concept. She's never done anything of note, never contributed to society in any real way. Yet the idea of her -- being young, sexy and unaccountable -- is very powerful. In fact, her unwitting appearance in a sex video -- something that would be personally devastating to most people -- only enhanced her celebrity.

So our fascination with this girl says much more about our society than it does about Paris herself. Perhaps it also explains the runaway success of Donald Trump's reality show The Apprentice. We live in uncertain times, and we're scared. We're constantly confronted with change, much of it not in our best interest. We're at the mercy of the economy, politicians and terrorists. Where, oh where, is our billion-dollar trust fund? Or, at the very least, where is that sugar daddy who will offer us that dream job?

Dr. Gumery believes that Paris Hilton is a flash in the pan. And unless she suddenly reveals some hidden talent or discovers a cure for cancer, he's probably right. But the idea of her is not. That's because the conditions that support that idea are, sadly, here to stay.