The giddiness of Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar cheered me up a little bit for sure, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a meaningless movie. It’s just a stakes-free string of gags with no ending. I know people will say, “ugh, it’s supposed to be that way,” which fine, that is on me, if I’m going to spend ninety minutes of my life attempting to focus on something I want there to be some kind of payoff, it’s true. Anyway as I watched I was thinking this is so weird, how Kristen Wiig will do this whole aw-shucks regular ol’ me routine, as if for fun, only to yank off the Golden Girls wig after she’s done filming and go pose for Harper’s Bazaar UK dressed not in Chico’s (a brand Barb and Star like) but in Proenza Schouler, with Margiela boots (“Kristen’s own”).
In the roles of Barb and Star, Wiig and co-star Annie Mumolo—like countless other celebrities, politicians and pundits—are selling the American myth that we live in an egalitarian society where even the humblest people matter, a country where everyone can love a couple of absurd, adorable forty-somethings in their visors and curling-ironed coifs.
It’s only a movie, sure, but the essential dishonesty of Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar exposes the broken heart of American culture. “Stars, they’re just like us!” is a message that falls apart every day in the face of the $5 million house in Silver Lake, the $600 boots, the private jets and the notion of an “A-list.” It’s a special kind of lie, one that led to a society in which Donald Trump could say “I love the poorly educated” with a straight face and “I went to an Ivy League school. I’m very highly educated,” just a few months later, and be confident that millions of Americans would believe him both times.
Meritocracy, the other American myth and the one that power really lives by, insists that you should want to be entirely unlike and better than regular people: more talented, better-looking, funnier, smarter. The wealth and status you amass will prove you’ve won the game. Show off your success via a fancy pad, whether it’s the vulgar kind like Rush Limbaugh’s gilt-encrusted Fifth Avenue penthouse in Manhattan, or Kristen Wiig’s posh mid-century modern house in Pasadena. One of these will appear in Architectural Digest, and the other, very much not; but either way, where does it leave the salt-of-the-earth regular people who brought them there?
When they walk off the soundstage, the populist mask that was on in front of the camera comes off, along with the myth that we live in a fair and just society.
What moral basis can there be for this deranged state of affairs? What values can such a society possibly share, or advance? Here’s the American collapse, brought to you by the bullshit paradox of the powerful, who require ordinary people to like them and identify with them, watch their shows and donate to their campaigns, while simultaneously exerting themselves to demonstrate their own superiority, and get as far away from the rest of us as possible.
Persuading ordinary people to love you by claiming to identify with them isn’t the only way to achieve fame, obviously, there is an aloof and lofty path for self-evidently exceptional, unusual people like Bowie or Patricia Lockwood, SOPHIE or Obama. But entertainers, pundits and politicians alike very often resort to the “populist” strategy: noisily identifying with ordinary citizens in order to gain their sympathy and trust.
In the film of The Devil Wears Prada (2006), Anne Hathaway plays Andrea Sachs, an aspiring journalist who lands a “plum job” at a Manhattan fashion magazine modeled on Vogue, slaving as a PA for the cruel, capricious editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep); the job consists of satisfying the boss’s every unreasonable whim. (Andrea views the gig as a stepping stone to a career in journalism, writing for “somewhere like The New Yorker or Vanity Fair,” and nobody blinks an eye at any of that.) The story hinges on the theft of a Harry Potter manuscript from J.K. Rowling’s publisher, because the boss’s young daughters want to read it now now now, in advance of publication. The successful delivery of the stolen manuscript to these egregious brats earns Andrea her boss’s respect.
Anyone who, in their twenties, worked for weird, terrible rich people (I did this myself) can tell you that a certain amount of the story is accurate; loads of people take brutal demeaning underpaid jobs fresh out of undergrad in hopes of experience and contacts that sometimes materialize, but mainly don’t. In any case, this movie supports the meritocratic lie even more clearly than does Barb and Star.
In the most famous scene, Streep/Priestly explains that the color of Andy’s “lumpy blue sweater” (“not turquoise, not lapis, it’s actually cerulean”) was “selected for her by the people in this room,” because that color first emerged on couture runways, and represents “millions of dollars and countless jobs.” It’s a real Empress’s New Clothes speech, total bushwa, but the whispering Empress was so appealingly imperial that people ate it up unquestioningly.
In a better world (and a better movie), Andrea would have explained to her condescending, no-fun boss that in 1960 Yves St. Laurent imitated street fashion with a Christian Dior collection inspired by the Beats of the Left Bank, setting a cultural earthquake in motion.
Modern culture still comes from the street, and yes, street culture is influenced by couture too, but taste doesn’t originate only with the rich; it’s symbiotic in all directions, moves in waves between “high” and “low,” between music, paintings, films, books, everywhere. Real fashion is people having fun, showing off, shaving their heads, getting tattoos or Doc Martens or kilts or knitting a baby’s hat with kitty-cat ears, or, yes, wearing tangerine culottes on a Florida beach. Take away the fun and what is left, except insolence, greed and starvation? (“Cerulean” I guess.)
People sharing ideas of beauty is part of the evolution of a culture, and it is important, interesting and universal, but The Devil Wears Prada didn’t understand fashion as a dialogue, only as orders from on high—except that its costume designer, Patricia Field, is a real designer, and she did an amazingly weird and excellent job on the clothes. So there’s a fractal reality to the movie, a true understanding literally dressing up the weakness of the story, like a visual corset to contain the flabby rhetoric.
People are interacting and sharing real cultural values and meaning all the time, even within the confines of our sick and meaningless “meritocratic” culture. The only way to heal it is to make one single world for everyone, literally everyone, to live in and enjoy. Not a better, private, special one for the special people, and a worse one for the rest.
Exceptional as he was himself, David Bowie thought so, too. In conversation with Julian Schnabel on Charlie Rose in 1996, he observed that the New York art establishment of the 1980s had taken great pains to keep the mystery of art-making intact. “Once it falls into the hands of the proletariat,” he said, “that the ability to make art is in fact inherent with all of us, it demolishes the idea of art for commerce, and… that’s no good for business.” The graffiti art movement must not be permitted to remain in the hands of the “sea of signers” who’d brought it to life, so the establishment rushed to anoint only a few chosen geniuses like Kenny Scharf, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring.
Later in the same interview, Bowie spoke in favor of the moral force of art. Just being near a work of art will make you a better person, Bowie said. “Somehow, its mystique and its goodness and its high-mindedness will rub off onto you.”
Power can’t have it both ways. If there are exceptional people who are inherently entitled to more than anyone else, then say it plainly, like The Devil Wears Prada did. A toxic, damaging message, but the film delivered it clearly and honestly, unlike the pretend populism of Barb and Star. And then there’s a third way: If we want to live in an egalitarian society, where every life is worth protecting and valuing, then say that, as Zoolander did, a movie whose mystique and goodness and high-mindedness really did rub off on people. Ultimately, if you want to say that everyone counts, you have to believe it; and those in power generally don’t.