F. Scott Fitzgerald famously once wrote “There are no second acts in American lives.” When Fitzgerald, then a forgotten man on the cusp of death, wrote that back in 1940 it was true. Yet ironically enough, Fitzgerald experienced a huge revival decades later and is now considered one of the great American writers. Therefore, his story serves to exemplify one of the most persuasive and ingrained traits of 21st century America. There are no longer any one-act plays in American lives. Today, every single fleeting celebrity has their 15 minutes of fame extended indefinitely. So we must ask, how did we get here and what does it mean?
Maybe it all started with Fitzgerald, or perhaps it began with Richard Nixon. This nation’s 37th president was infamous for his ability to survive scandals and setbacks from the Checkers speech, to the 1960 election, to even earning respect after Watergate. In fact, the political arena has become one of the main stages for this “never-ending story” phenomenon. For instance, one would have thought that federal indictments would have been the end for politicos Tom DeLay and Rod Blagojevich. But no, respective stints on “Dancing with the Stars” and “The Apprentice”, brought them back and are what most Americans will probably remember them for. Even Eliot Spitzer of call girl ring fame, is set to make a return to honorable discourse as a co-host for a primetime news show on CNN.
Of course, the other major setting for this phenomenon is pop culture. Today, D-list celebrities have their pick of reality shows to join. In fact, now with original reality shows like “The Hills” and “Jersey Shore” celebrities are born so that they can gain popularity, and then create spin-offs, which creates new stars who then create their own spin-offs, and so on and so forth. Before you know it, there is a whole colony of people who are just famous for the sake of being famous.
There seems to be two main causes responsible for this trend in our culture. The first is our media culture demands this phenomenon and therefore created it. Think about it, if there are going to be hundreds of cable channels, then they need shows, and they need people, any people, to star in those shows. Additionally, over the past few years, our news programs have shifted to gossip in order to attract more viewers. And of course, the Internet provides a limitless vacuum of information to fill. So altogether our 24/7, TV-meets-Internet, media requires us to have thousands of celebrities in order to meet the massive insatiable demands of our instant gratification culture.
The second cause, though, may be seen as a more positive explanation. That is, that Americans love a happy ending. In the past, a major figure like Britney Spears for instance, would gradually lose her fame and end up a wreck. Today, though, she can have a “comeback” and be the “new Britney.” Put simply, Americans have become addicted to the sweet and optimistic classic three-act structure: rise, fall, and redemption. This has so become our obsession that we are merely repeating this cycle over and over again. Which begs the question, is repeated sanitized story-telling healthy for us? I can only imagine what Fitzgerald would think.
Nick Field is a junior in the School of Public Affairs and a liberal columnist.