Mel Gibson and the Problem of Public Privacy

July 10, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More

So Mel Gibson has been exposed (once again) as an intolerant, sexist, abusive person.  A recording of a phone conversation with his former girlfriend is now Out There on the internet and one can listen to Mel spill molten verbiage into her earpiece while she calmly refutes his charges.

All I can wonder is,  So what?

Mel Gibson - Creative Commons

Mel Gibson - Creative Commons

What business is this of ours?  This is private stuff.  People lose control.  Between each other, with strangers, but more often with those closest, people have moments when the mouth ill-advisedly opens and vileness falls out.  The question is, does this define us?  Are we, in fact, only to be defined by our worst moments?

That would seem to be the case for people like Gibson.  The reason, I think, is that for most of us, the Mel Gibsons of the world have no business having shitty days and acting like this.  For most of us, there is just cause for having these kinds of days and attitudes, because for most of us the world is not our oyster and we do not have the luxury of squandering time, friends, and money.  Mel Gibson is wealthy and famous and, at one time, admired.  He ate at the best restaurants, appeared on television, gave interviews, has his picture on the covers of magazines.  Is seen with other people, regularly, who fall into that category of Those Who Have It Made.

They aren’t supposed to have bad days.  They aren’t supposed to be shitty to their lovers.  They aren’t supposed to act like people who are desperate, down on their luck, and bitterly outraged at the world.

The question, though, is, do people who are down on their luck and bitter with their (admittedly pathetic) lot in life act that way?  How would we know?  Joe Asfalt doesn’t get interviewed by People or Us and when he has a falling out with his girlfriend the tabloids do not follow him or them around, looking for a scoop on their latest battle.  When Joe or his girl toss each other out of the house, no one is watching except the neighbors.  So how do we know how they behave?

Maybe we assume they behave that way and it gives pleasure to see Mel Gibson being a jerk.  Makes him “one of us.”  Except he isn’t.

But I don’t really give a damn about the private uglinesses of either Joe Asfalt or Mel Gibson.  It only matters to me when their private shittiness emerges into a public display, as in the case of Tom Cruise’s  asinine, Scientology-driven jeremiads about post-partum depression.  That matters because he is Tom Cruise and, like it or not, people put stock in what he says, and that incident had impact on peoples’ lives, not the least of which was Brooke Shields.  If Mel Gibson went berserk during an interview and made pronouncements about “the proper attire, place, position, and attitude” of women, then I’d care about what he thinks and says, because that would have consequences.

What is unfortunate is that such things affect how we view their work.  It’s not fair, really.  People run the gamut, from really wonderful to really awful, and some of those people are artists.  Some of those artists are really good and create wonderful things, even those artists who may otherwise be reprehensible human beings.  In this regard I can understand the attitude of someone like J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon, who do all they can to keep people out of their private lives.  They don’t do interviews, they don’t make a big deal about themselves in public, they eschew the limelight.  In the case of someone like Salinger, the hermit approach actually contributes to his celebrity, fueling further book sales, because it becomes part of the myth about him.  It would not matter if he had done what he did with exactly that in mind, it would have happened anyway.  Pynchon less so, perhaps.

But I can respect the idea that this was done precisely so the work wasn’t colored by the personality of the artist in ways that have nothing to do with the work.

Society at large has a hunger for the viscera of the artist.  People who may never see a film, read a book, listen to a record with any genuine appreciation for the content of the work will nevertheless pay attention to those things in direct proportion to how much celebrity is attached to the artist.  So much so that we have phenomena like Paris Hilton who is famous for being famous.

I’ve been mulling these ideas over lately because of the reverse question—how well does any artist know his or her audience?

And do they want to?

Demographics seem to drive everything today.  Targeting your audience correctly is the holy grail of promotions.  Is that movie geared toward the 18-to-24 crowd?  Women more than men?  What income bracket?  Education?  In the case of books, this leads me to ask, if they are in “my” demographic target, does that mean they will buy my books because they are predisposed to reading them, or is something much less causally connected, like those people who actually read who are part of that demographic may be more likely to buy my books than people who read who are part of some other demographic…

But what is it about those other demographics that precludes the likelihood that they’ll buy my book?  That they’d more likely buy some other author’s books, based on the perception that he or she writes for the 25-to-45 upper middle class crowd.

Pondering this makes my brain hurt.  Of all the factors that contribute to defining a demographic likely to do A rather than B or C, which factors contribute to a strong likelihood that none of them will fit the demographic that will pay attention to your work.

And if some of those factors have to do with your public persona, then you have to ask which part?  The part that no one is ever supposed to know anything about (like a private phone call to a soon-to-be-ex-lover) or the part that you might tailor exclusively for public consumption.  In which case, isn’t that as much a work of art as the work of art you’re trying to sell?

But at the end of the day, I’m still left wondering just why anyone is really interested in someone’s private life they do not know.  Not, mind you, in the sense of being disinterested in biography as history—the private labyrinths of a Howard Hughes become, over time, fascinating because of the archaeological nature of examining his legacy—but in the sense of trying to find a one-to-one relevance between you and a celebrity.  In that sense, it becomes legitimate to ask what purpose was served by the years of public attention to some like Wynona Judd and her seeming inability to have a happy life.  The feedback loop between personal tragedy, public perception-reception, and attempted “managing” of the personal in order to accommodate a publicity machine creates an ongoing kind of performance art that eventually has less to do with authentic experience and more to do with Artist As Subject, and therefore becomes increasingly artificial, at least in presentation, regardless of any reality—a reality which, under pressure from the attention, retreats further from the limelight and takes on further burdens in the attempt to be private.  You could see the whole thing as a kind of therapy conducted on the couch of public opinion, but to what benefit?  The thing receiving the therapy becomes less the person than the image.

And then who is being served?  Is this merely entertainment or is there in fact a public function in all this closet-revelation?

One thinks of politicians immediately, in particular with respect to sexual impropriety.  Do the private practices of an individual have anything to do with his or her ability to do a particular job?

I suppose it’s a matter of what job they are required to do.  A senator whose campaign, election, and office concerned fiscal responsibility and who by any measure performs this task competently if not excellently is revealed to keep a mistress or two.  What does the one have to do with the other?  Nothing, really.  Private pecadilloes matter when the impropriety is directly connected with the job—for instance, if said senator had a history of insider trading or embezzlement.

But then those would not be private, would they?  They would involved public factors.  Not sex, but monetary impropriety, even if kept private (and how could it be unless we’re talking about a loan from a brother-in-law that was never repaid?), has a direct public impact.

Another senator whose campaign, election, and subsequent legislation bear on families, divorce laws, obscenity laws, laws governing the dissemination of birth control or the availability of abortion services or even information about birth control and abortion, or perhaps support of a foreign regime in which women are oppressed, then turns out to be cheating on his wife or has a history of using prostitutes.  Well, that bears directly, doesn’t it?  The hypocrisy of a Family Values politician keeping mistresses certainly is relevant to public policy.

As unlikely as it might be that such a politician would be elected, someone who declared openly that he or she has had and may continue to have partners before, during, and outside of marriage would not, in my opinion, raise a question of moral conflict under these circumstances.  We could vote for or against from the beginning, there would be no deception.  Likewise with the politician who had exercised “poor judgment” in fiscal matters.

But the complicating factor in such instances would be how the private matters were disclosed.  This hinges on the question of whether or not a person can and does change over time.  The recently deceased Senator Byrd’s past affiliation with the KKK is an example.  Given the opportunity and time, he demonstrated that, at least in the performance of his office, that circumstance had been left in the past.  Whether he had truly changed in his sentiments is beside the point next to his subsequent public record.

What all this has to do with Mel Gibson is relevant only in the question of when and how the revelation of private failings is legitimate.  Does the knowledge that Mel Gibson can be a foul-mouthed, abusive, sexist racist impact anyone or anything outside his circle of acquaintances?  Because they, presumably, judge him and act accordingly without public input.  Does this kind of “news” serve any function beyond attracting and increasing the kind of attention that sells tabloids?

Because everyone has a part of themselves they would rather keep exclusively between themselves and their chosen intimates.  Would it be fair if all of us were recorded displaying our less wonderful aspects and having said recording sent, say, to prospective employers or the dating services we might use or our new date or to the shopowners and restaurateurs we frequent or to business associates?  If all their dealings with us to date have been positive, how are they supposed to react if something like that were suddenly dropped into their lap?  And how would we defend ourselves from the predictable reactions?

I’m just wondering.



Category: American Culture, Bigotry, Communication, Community, Culture, Current Events, Fraud, Friendships/relationships, hypocrisy, Internet, Language, Media, Politics, Privacy, Psychology Cognition, Sex

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (1)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:


    In Gibson, we are witnessing an especially big fall. Gibson, who has been holding himself out as especially holy for years fell about as far as one could fall. As Chris Kelly wrote:

    "Mel Gibson, the National Review's favorite feminist, comes off kind of poorly in some new audiotapes, secretly recorded by his ex-mistress, in between the times he was punching her. He's clearly a hothead. Okay, and a misogynist. And a racist. And a bully and a douchebag. And, oh, let's just come right out and say it, the guy's a monster."

    I too was repulsed as I read parts of the conversations recorded by Gibson's ex-girlfriend. He's insulting, self-important, got his priorities out of whack, racist, misogynist. He's a lot like many ordinary people, but he occupies (by consent) an especially prominent position in society. BTY, I really don't care who he's having sex with, as long as it's consensual, and I really don't care whether he uses coarse language.

    The equation is that he was WAY up there, holy and mighty, and now he is way down there. This equates to hypocrisy, and we've seen that there is no news outlet that ever bypasses a good story on hypocrisy. I think that the public is ravenous about these sorts of stories because they appear to pull the reader UP by pulling the celebrity DOWN.

    I agree with you on many points. I think that great art and literature are often created by screwed up or even despicable human beings. I assume that many famous creations would be tainted if only the public knew more about the creators. I agree with you that it's often not any of our business. This one was hard to ignore because it was sprayed all over the media.

    I also agree that the public has a difficult time judging celebrities who are shown to be fallible. One bad move shouldn't necessarily destroy a career. We should strive to judge others on the basis of their "batting average." Everyone makes lots of mistakes. No one should be judged on the basis of their worst moment.

    Then again, Gibson's recent tirade was extraordinary. As I read it, I kept thinking that we were seeing much more than an isolated outburst. Rather, we were seeing smoke revealing a blazing fire within. It's hard to believe that such anger would erupt for no good reason. Gibson is a deeply angry man who will need to do a lot of sober self-analysis to figure out who he want to be. I do tend to believe in redemption–I've seen many people turn things around in dramatic fashion. Gibson has a long way to go . . .

    Even if he doesn't turn it around, I might someday watch some of his movies and try to enjoy the art regardless of the artist (I successfully did this a few months ago when I watched Naked Gun II, in which O.J. Simpson starred).

    I hate to sound like a broken record, but the thing that really gripes me about the Gibson story is that our nation is faced with many crises that deserve major sustained play, yet it's Gibson's boorish outburst that grabs all the headlines.

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