Broken People

Oscar Pistorius, charged this last week with the murder of his girlfriend, is a flawed person. Highly competitive and driven with –as has emerged in the days since Reeva Steenkamp died – a love of the finer things in life his success has allowed him to enjoy.  He is a man, almost like the archetypal European playboy, with a fondness for guns, fast cars and speedboats. But why shouldn’t he be? After all, Pistorius is the ‘fastest man on no legs’ as it has been crudely put; an international icon both for his sporting achievements and his large personality. To suggest that anyone could achieve this status without a compulsive, neurotic drive to succeed and an ego that must be able to soak up praise and criticism in equal measure is to be naive. Equally, why should we not expect such success, achieved by a man still in his twenties, to have gone to his head?

And yet Pistorius’s flaws have been wheeled before us these last few days as if to offer some explanation for the actions he is accused of. Next to every article about a ‘hero fallen,’ there is a snide sidebar talking about his ‘darker side’ or listing events such as his 2009 speedboat crash, vague innuendo about ‘domestic incidents’ and the reprinting of quotes on guns from old transcriptions of interviews that were ignored at the time. Aspects of Pistorius the man that were once part of his ‘character’ or ‘charisma’ are now half-shaped accusations hanging over him, fed to the people en masse as if they provide some explanation for a murder.

In his essay Light Entertainment published in the London Review of Books, Andrew O’Hagan brilliantly details how the media can build up a man to be perfect, the model of a light entertainer, and how society at large, in its search for whole, unbroken role models goes merrily along with this. O’Hagan is writing about Lionel Gamlin (once one of the BBC’s leading ‘light entertainers’), sexual abuse at the BBC and by extension, Jimmy Saville. Despite this, the salient point is relevant when discussing Pistorius or any other individual that finds themselves standing upon the pedestal of public adulation.

Being perfect sells. It sells newspapers and magazines and it sells an image. The only thing that is better than perfection in the eyes of the media is if great adversity has had to be crossed first (such as the adversity of losing both your legs beneath the knees as a toddler). Whether you are winning Paralympic gold a few weeks after becoming the first disabled person to compete in the Olympics, or spending a great part of your life ‘fixing it’ for children, the media has no interest in exploring the darker sides of your character. In turn the consumers of this golden haze have no interest in knowing the cobwebbed corners of a celebrity’s life.  One cannot hope to make a role model out of someone who shares your flaws so they are brushed under the proverbial rug, left to moulder and grow out of the public imagination; until one day they come out, they always come out, and everyone acts shocked. Why did no one notice? is the cry that goes up, conveniently forgetting that no one wanted to ask or ever to look.

The difference between Pistorius and Saville is of course that by the time the media turned on the entertainer he was already dead and had already committed his crimes. Pistorius is alive and, at least in the eyes of the law, innocent until proven guilty. Whatever the media prints about Saville is, however traumatic, old news and serves only to shovel more dirt upon an already filthy reputation. What we are witnessing in the treatment of Oscar Pistorius is another, far more loathsome event, the trial by media of a man already undergoing trial by a court of law. Every detail of his life will be picked over and ‘inside sources’ (surely the most hollow and fake term in journalism) will tell of shocking new developments, many of which have already proven to be factually inaccurate, or flaws in the man’s personality that we all missed, which should have told us this was coming.

This entire show, for a show or performance is all it is, will be played out in an outraged, condescending tone that will ignore every scrap of print or film from previous years that painted Pistorius as his public alter ego –the ‘Blade Runner’ who had overcome adversity to stand atop his own sport and stride, quite literally, where no other amputee had gone before. In its stead will be a new public face for Pistorius, the man who was always going to do something like this. If the papers run out of stories they will turn upon the victim too, although with The Sun going to print with Steenkamp’s near naked body on its front page the day after her death perhaps they already have.

What will we, the readers, say about the new Pistorius? We will, for the most part, accept it. To do otherwise is to admit that for the past four, five, six years we have idolised a man who, whatever we thought, was not perfect. We could never have ‘seen this coming’ but if we join the retrospective hunt for evidence of a psychopathy beneath calm exterior we can ignore the need to admit our part in the affair. Perhaps for those who truly adored Oscar Pistorius it might even feel good to tear through his past life and sit glued to the coverage of his trial.

Pisotrius is not unique in the treatment he has received from the public. Actors, politicians, writers and the celebrities of reality television are all targets of our admiration. The list of public figures that have been raised to impossible heights by a public that has then watched them fall is a long one. We, the British have become masters of this art and we are also the world leaders in ignore our role in this sordid media cycle.

The best example of this is the treatment of Diana Spencer (better known as the Princess of Wales), a woman whose public image could not have been purer had she grown wings and ascended to heaven. The media, driven by the public’s desire to live her life for themselves through the printed press, pursued Diana quite literally to her death. The outpouring of public grief that followed was described by Christopher Hitchens as an example of Britain’s ‘fetish’ of the Royal Family. In this Hitchens is wrong, for while we as a people may have a strange and unhealthy attachment to the House of Windsor, the tributes and flowers that marked the weeks after her death were more actions of a guilty public conscience. Even now, over a decade on from the Parisian car crash that killed Diana it is the paparazzi that are blamed for her death (discounting conspiracy theories) and the fact is quietly ignored that had the public not demanded photos of the ex-Princess in every edition of the news, she would not have been so hounded. Whatever happens to Pistorius, he is destined to be another individual in a line of public figures whose fall from grace will continue to be a shock to us as long as we refuse to admit that such people are, like us, not perfect but broken in some way. That is not to say that one should not admire public figures for their qualities but that we must realise that the athletes and singers, writers and actors and King and Queens that give the world so much colour are just as human and you or me. To expect them to be perfect and not to feel the same pain or sadness that we do is inhuman at best.

40 comments
  1. You write so well, this article is spot on. “To expect them to be perfect and not to feel the same pain or sadness that we do is inhuman at best.” – perfectly concluded.

  2. nanc said:

    I really appreciate your metered, balanced view on this. Thank you.

  3. Thank you — that was all important that we know that. If youth is wasted on the young, as the saying goes, then important feedback on the media and how it has too much power to make or break, is wasted on the press. Your article doesn’t fall on deaf ears nor to selectively turned-off cameras, though it may seem this way at first. But word is out, thanks to poignant posts like yours that something is amiss when delivering the truth these days. Basically because it’s not the “truth”, its already second-hand news, and further more thanks to technology, it’s second-hand news delivered at break-neck speed, with the neck of the targeted ‘celebrity until it hurts” being on the line– if the media is at all lucky. And so, once again thank you– you are brilliant and important writer.

  4. Lu said:

    Excellently written and well put. To build people up, only to tear them down without any regards to how they cope/don’t cope – smacks of a society-wide narcissism that is way out of control. Sure, most celebrities are more narcissistic than others and enjoy the limelight – but the media?? Biggest narcissistic entity of the lot. An athlete is an athlete – to revere them to be anything more special than that is a danger. Just look how Lance Armstrong “disappointed” us all…

  5. Roshni said:

    Thoughtful and brilliantly-written. I’ve always thought about how we see only the good aspects of celebrities and their lives…how we tend to forget that they might have flaws, problems and can be as imperfect as we are. You’ve put it into words wonderfully. Great post! Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

  6. Agreed 100% ! I’d like to piggy-back on your response and add not only is it inhumane; but it just isn’t logical. I mean, they’re human! Just like US..folks put these celebrities UP on a pedestal as IF having talent makes them “perfect”. OMG don’t ya’ll have talent as well? Certainly I do; and I know without a doubt..I’m not perfect. Nor do I want to be; I think being perfect would be absolutely boring as hell. Plus, I’ve yet to meet anyone that is perfect on this planet. Bottom line IS there are NO excuses for what this guy @Pistorius did. Legs or no legs, celebrity or not..he should face the SAME punishment as anyone else who kills in cold blood. Exclamation mark. Period

  7. My father always said that people love to watch you climb the ladder, but are waiting at the bottom to watch you fall.

  8. I feel so sorry for him. His life is ruined and he can never get it back. I really looked up to him as a runner.

  9. lorkin26 said:

    Verry well said, this is spot on!!!

  10. Well stated; humanity is flawed. People can’t fall very far if other people refuse to place them up so high. Enjoyed your post.

  11. Absolutely excellent. Perfect example of how the media push these characters to a high pedestal and create a perfect human. Which I will add we all believe. The higher people are put, the further they have to fall. The media love a person in the public eye, we love them. The media slate them, we now hate them. Prime example of how media controls what we think and feel.

  12. I am blown away by the eloquence of your writing. I agree completely, we have a tendency to idolize and glorify celebrities. I’m no less guilty of it; I do it to singers, writers, journalists, and I have to periodically remind myself of their humanity, otherwise not only is it unfair to them and to the rest of us, but it’s also hard on me to see my heroes fall. This happens to children a lot: they idolize a singer or an actor, and then are crushed when something comes out about them.

  13. ruby3811 said:

    What the media gives us is a sad commentary on human behavior, both on how celebrities behave and the reader demands. I love that you highlight the resposibility of those reading and thus demanding the attention the media then delivers.

  14. Jess said:

    Great post! Congrats on being FP’d!

  15. It’s such a fascinating topic, and you’ve written it in such an insightful way. Thanks for the good read!

  16. Fay said:

    Very well written post. It is sad the the media seems to have such a hold over certain individuals rendering them no longer ‘normal’ human beings. However then we would have to dig up the definition of ‘normal’!!

    Congrats on the FP!

  17. This is such a great article I ever read pertaining Oscar’s saga well done sisi.

  18. Its that “Go getter” bullshit.. we’re all conned into believing we have to “be the best we can be” etc and few of us are built for success, or for failure..

  19. and as the Dalai Lama says – “The world doesn’t need more ‘successful people.’ The world desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds.”

  20. Damian Alin said:

    Awesome post…..Absolutely excellent.

  21. your only successfull if you feel successful. too many people being advertised as or are chasing being advertised as a success with no regard to the absolutely rational fact that looking successful may have nothing to do with weather or not you feel as successful as you look. you can be rich and famous and feel entirely unsuccessful. thanks for the post.

  22. Very well written. I learned all about Oscar Pistorius in school, found his story moving but when I heard of what he had committed I was very disappointed. He could have accomplished so much

  23. This was a very fine article, that has supported itself for years.

  24. Ann said:

    A very meaningful post.. Every word of it is true.. It is time people understood that celebrities too have a normal life with problems like us. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  25. An eloquently written essay. Logical drawn conclusions and an excellent underlying essay on “why perfectionism is not something we should seek”.

  26. Do we strive to be good in popular opinion, or do we become us and let the cards fall where they may. Media, opinion, lies in how others view us, not the way we see ourselves. I guess the real question should be is what is more powerful? We all have our own finish lines to cross, at the end of it all, this too will be an insignificant detail to the rest of us. Be honest, who even knew the name Pistorius before this even started?

  27. The fact that they are just people who live in a world and a way that has little if anything to do with the masses makes me wonder why interest and emotions are wasted on them. Time is our most valuable commodity. Choosing to spend it on one thing equates to that much less time to spend on another. You’re a fine writer so I kept reading, but I bet you know people more worthy of your words than this “alleged” killer.

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