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O Magazine

Why do we like
punishing celebs?

By Óscar del Pozo

Last year, any foreigner visiting our country who turned the TV on must have been surprised, shocked and flabbergasted by the media covering given to Isabel Pantoja’s first permissions to leave prison. The life of the singer, who was condemned to two years for money laundering and entered prison in November 2014, is a national obsession difficult to understand for someone who hasn’t lived here in the last 30 years. The media covered those permissions as if they were quite an event, but madness reached its fever pitch on the days in which the singer of Se me enamora el alma went back to prison for the third and fourth times: morning TV programmes broadcasted live the car ride from her Cantora residence to the penitentiary centre at Alcalá de Guadaira. All the viewer could see was a car on a road. 

Why do we like punishing celebs? – O Production Company

Illustration by Guillem Dols

During her stay in prison, Pantoja made the news every day, even though we never knew anything of what was really happening behind bars. Not only Telecinco, the channel which has exploited the interest for her figure the most, talked about her, but all the rest did too: Corazón, the programme of La 1 de TVE (a public medium we all pay, let’s not forget that) often opened with the following headline: “Isabel Pantoja’s first permission is around the corner”, or “Isabel Pantoja’s second permission is around the corner.” That is, they had absolutely nothing to say, but the people in charge thought that was much more interesting thing that any other piece of news about other national or international celebs. The reasonable doubt is: why?

Two years ago, South Africa saw a trial become a media circus: athlete Oscar Pistorius was accused of intentionally murdering his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp. He acknowledged having shot four times the door of his bathroom, but said he thought behind it was an intruder, not Steenkamp. However, both the prosecutor and millions of people around the world thought he was lying and he did want to kill his fiancée. When the trial ended there seemed to be no proof to support that thesis, and Pistorius was found guilty of involuntary homicide. But the South-African public opinion and tabloids wanted a harsher sentence. In the chronicles he wrote on the case for El País, the master of journalists John Carlin described the mood in South Africa thus: “The great majority of the whites aren’t convinced that Pistorius wanted to murder Steenkamp, but they demand, generally with resentment, for him to be punished with the sentence: life sentence.” In December 2015, the court of appeal annulled the sentence and declared him guilty of murder. Last August 7th he tried to commit suicide in his cell. 

Before this, Pistorius was a national hero and an example of personal self-improvement (he was born with a genetic malformation and both his legs were amputated when he was a child), but now spectators saw him as a monster. His case, like Isabel Pantoja’s and many other before (Mexican singer Gloria Trevi locked up accused for minor corruption,  American football player O. J. Simpson accused of murdering his wife, actress Lindsay Lohan trialled for drunk and drugged driving…), prove up to what point we like to witness the falling from grace of a celebrity: deep down we want them to be punished, we want to see them suffer. But… why? The key resides in a French philosopher who died at the beginning of the eighties and didn’t get to know any of those stories: Michel Foucault.

In one of his works, Discipline and Punish, the French philosopher explains that we live in a “disciplinary society.” Since we are kids, we are taught discipline, at school, in the family household, and, as adults, in the work place. Thus, we learn to obey our parents and bosses, to be clean, to treat people politely and not discourteously or intolerantly, to not miss a day’s work or be late… and a thousand things more. Through discipline, our conduct is straightened, and we create a hierarchy between “good” and “bad” people. And for this discipline to be always effective, we always watch each other. We are all, at the same time, watchers and watched. 

Each day, the other’s gaze observes you, registers you, controls you. And at the same time, our gaze observes, registers and controls others. We feel the pressure of the control of the others at all times: that bastard boss always breathing down your neck, that work colleague you know that talks about you behind your back, that mother or father questioning your habits and way of life, that boyfriend criticising you fir wearing clothes that are too tight, that person who hates you and you don’t know why, the friend with whom you argue and how tells you you’re selfish… All those who have some power over us punish us to make us pay for our “faults,” even if in a subtle way, with coldness or disdain. In those cases they try to reduce our status, they degrade us in our rank (at work or any other place) or simply humiliate us.

My theory is that television and the media allow us for a moment to free ourselves from that constant pressure, being us the ones who watch and punish in the intimacy of our homes, from the safety of our sofa. There no one watches us and we can project our damaged self-esteem on the celeb, we can be the ones judging and sentence for faults that are not our own. Besides, the more people witness their mortification, the hardest it is. Our things imply few people, they’re nothing compared to the celebrity’s public humiliation. And that’s comforting.

When in programmes such as Sálvame Deluxe they put a guest through the lie detector and then to the relentless interrogatory of its collaborators, what the people in charge of the programme are looking for is the same effect in the audience. It’s like and improvised and dramatized trial: sometimes the celeb leaves unharmed and others is thrown to the lions of public humiliation (but s/he agrees to it, since s/he accepts going to the programme and being paid for it). We call it “trash TV”, I suspect because the show puts us in touch with a side of ourselves we don’t like to acknowledge: our need to project ourselves in other people’s disgrace. I’m sure the day Deluxe stops, a similar programme will take its place. In fact, this format started with Tómbola, around 1997. Besides, public punishment has been a constant throughout History: from the tortures the Inquisition inflicted on heretics to the chains of the condemned that existed up to the 19th century, where criminals were subjected to insults and threats by the common people.

In The Walker, one of his less known films, Paul Schrader summarised it all up in a single script line: “Before, when they caught a many lying, they hanged him by the balls. Now they invite him to appear on TV.” We think we have evolved a great deal but, essentially, we’re still the same.