No matter how much we try not to be, we're all exposed to the celebrity culture in some form or another. Even if it's only peripherally, we follow the exploits of Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, and Britney Spears as they careen from one tabloid breakdown to the next, never seeming to stop to even take a breath. Dr. Drew Pinsky has counselled many celebrities through their addictions and other psychoses, so he's a man who knows what he's talking about. But is all of this celebrity detritus affecting us as a society? Dr. Drew (as he's commonly known) addresses this subject in The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism Is Seducing America, an excellent book describing not only how excessively narcissistic celebrities are creating their own downfall but also affecting the broader cultural and societal mental health as well.
One of the major points Dr. Drew wants to make is to define narcissism. It doesn't generally mean what we believe it to mean. To quote the back cover (as well as somewhere in the book): "What is narcissism? It's not what you think it is: It's not ego. It's not self-love. It's self-loathing. Envy. Insecurity. Self-destruction." Narcissistic people create images of themselves to broadcast to the world, trying desperately to have those images be loved by the general populace or by their peers. Deep down, they are insecure and don't think much of themselves. Narcissistic celebrities inflict these psychoses onto society at large, and many times it brings them to (or even over) the brink of disaster.
Dr. Drew has had many celebrity patients, both in his well-received television shows like Celebrity Rehab as well as in his private practice. As he should, he avoids talking about any details he may have learned via those routes, except in the most general terms ("some patients…" etc). Those he hasn't counselled, though, he does do his best to analyze in this book. He brings up the usual suspects mentioned above, as well as Nicole Ritchie and others who seem to be at home in the tabloids. A study he and his co-author, Dr. S. Mark Young, conducted about celebrity narcissism is also included, where a narcissism survey was given to 200 celebrities (142 males and 58 females) as well as to 200 MBA students (same gender make-up). This test demonstrated that celebrities are generally 17 percent more narcissistic than the general population. Pinsky then goes on to break down the results by gender, profession (actor, reality-show star, musician, comedian) and other ways. This was extremely interesting to read about, and even more interesting that some celebrities consented to have their scores made public (Howard Stern is only 15 out of 40, with 40 being the most narcissistic?)
The most important part of the book, however, is how this celebrity narcissism is affecting the rest of us. This quote brings it all home to me:
"The interdependence between celebrities and the media is a dangerous bargain. The more a celebrity attracts the attention of the media, the more famous he or she becomes. The more dysfunctionally the celebrity behaves, the more interest he or she generates from the tabloids. The more the audience finds out, the more we want to know. And the cost of it all – to the vulnerable celebrities on one side of the mirror, and the impressionable viewers on the other – is impossible to estimate." (pp. 41-42)
As Pinsky points out, we all have narcissistic tendencies in one form or another, but most of us are able to channel those tendencies into positive things. However, the "Mirror Effect," as Pinsky calls it, of the constant media barrage of celebrity bad and narcissistic behavior, is likely to affect those of us who already are leaning toward narcissism. Pinsky defines the Mirror Effect as "a tendency to obsess over those damaging celebrity stories – and mirror them back in our own behaviors." Impressionable children and teenagers, already "fraught with insecurity and hardwired for constant drama," see constant celebrity bad behavior, behavior that is largely excused or not punished, and start acting in a similar fashion. Since they idolize the celebrity and see their bad behavior lead to more fame rather than consequences, they start to feel like that it's okay to act like that as well.
The media comes under heavy criticism in The Mirror Effect. Pinsky talks about how, in the past, Hollywood stars' private lives were actually kept private, except for strictly controlled snippets to keep fans interested. The studios and the media were complicit in this, hiding homosexuality, love affairs, and other misbehavior. Today, the media is all over a juicy story as soon as a rumor comes up, covering it in all its gory details and seemingly reveling in the celebrity's misfortune. The media builds the celebrity into a star then does its best to tear them down. Many in the general public follow the rise and fall of these people with bated breath, finding the final collapse of the star exhilarating. They never seem to think about the psychoses the star may have that are causing this behavior, never wondering what might be going wrong.
Pinsky does an excellent job bringing all this together, first concentrating on the celebrities themselves and then bringing it into society itself. He talks about whether or not becoming a celebrity creates narcissistic tendencies in said person, or whether the tendencies themselves cause the person to try and become a celebrity. It's an interesting question, and I find I agree with his answers to it. Pinsky concludes with helpful tips for parents who are raising teenagers, to hopefully avoid them succumbing to the Mirror Effect trap.
The only real flaw I could see in The Mirror Effect is that Pinsky tends to repeat information, sometimes just a few pages after it's first mentioned. I don't mind an author doing this when it's the point he or she is repeatedly stressing, but I'm speaking mainly about general information in this criticism. Sometimes authors repeat factual information to support their point, seemingly not realizing that we already know this because the same information was given to us 20 pages ago.
Still, Pinsky isn't a big offender in this category, and it doesn't detract from the valuable points that he's making. I don't follow celebrity culture religiously, but it's impossible to avoid when it makes mainstream news as well. I have to say that a few times when I've seen a major figure self-destruct in front of the cameras, I've had a "Wow, she deserved that" feeling in my head as I moved on to something else. It's residual, but it's there. The Mirror Effect has changed that for me. While the automatic reaction may be hard to eliminate from my mind, my second thought will be "I wonder why she is doing that." I don't believe there is any way to turn back the clock and stop the media "up and down" cycle of celebrity coverage, but books like Dr. Drew's will hopefully help keep the celebrity problem from expanding into even more of a societal problem. At least we've taken some baby steps in that direction.