When I was quite small, I received an international postcard from my grandmother, Mary-Ann. The grumpy old sock was enjoying an extended vacation in Britain, a nation she described on the back of the card as “dreary, but with plenty of gin”. It must have been an influential postcard, because I grew to enjoy both the use of the word “dreary” and the flavour of gin. I also learned with its receipt an important life lesson: important people are nothing like us.
You see, Mary-Ann, possibly in an effort to annoy my anti-monarchist mother, had chosen a postcard depicting the British royal family sitting stiffly on a regal balcony. As I was very young with terrible eyesight, I mistook the person of Elizabeth II for my grandmother. Everyone found this hilarious and for years when my family referred to Mary-Ann in conversation, they’d say, “Or as Helen would know her, Her Majesty! Hahahahaha.”
The joke was not only that I was young, naive and apt not to recognise faces—and honestly, this is pretty funny, e.g. I have long, intimate and entirely inappropriate conversations with strangers whose hair colour happens to be the same as that of someone I know very well. The joke was that you could mistake an everyday person, like Grandma, for someone of note.
This was the world divided when I was a kid. There was Us who lived ordinary lives and Them who enjoyed great power and comfort. We didn’t “relate” to these royal or famous people. Some people, like my mother, resented their privilege. Some other people thought of them as gods. But all of us thought of them as inhabiting a different world. An assessment, I think, that is correct.
We want to believe that we can be like the gods. We long to imagine that one day, we too will be talking our way up to a 50 million-dollar fee.
By the time the nineties rolled around, things had changed. There was a great explosion in celebrity trash mags, all of which promoted the idea that celebrities were “just like us”. The late Princess Diana was a canny media subject and she played to this new hunger to believe that those who lived in great luxury and wielded enormous influence have the same problems as an everyday person.
I have no doubt that these people gifted of power, wealth or captivating beauty are human, of course. They worry about many of the same things we do. But, they do so from within a frame of unusual experience and privilege. That we now so naturally seek to compare our lives to theirs seems to me to be a bit of a tragedy.
I remember thinking that this should have been obvious in the case of the film star Jennifer Lawrence. When J-Law, a person already of uncommon wealth, made her case to be paid as much as her male co-stars public, I was shocked. It’s one thing, of course, to do this in private negotiation. But when she tried to make it my business, tried to turn it into an issue of equal pay for all women, I thought this “we are just like them” stuff had gone entirely too far.
There was a great explosion in celebrity trash mags, all of which promoted the idea that celebrities were “just like us”.
No. We are not just like Them. We everyday gals, consigned to our portions of an already small wage, are nothing like J-Law. Her blow for “equality” is never going to trickle down to a bunch of ladies earning, typically, about a thousand bucks a week. I can’t see how Jennifer Lawrence’s “struggle” to be paid more than 28 million bucks a film would work to get me and my sisters the extra few hundred weekly bucks it would take to see us earn the same as the typical male.
I am sure that J-Law means very well, and simply has a limited understanding of both arithmetic and the conditions that create wage disparity. I am also sure that this moment where she claimed to speak up on behalf of everyday women did her a lot of commercial good. We want to believe that we can be like the gods. We long to imagine that one day, we too will be talking our way up to a 50 million-dollar fee.
Well, we won’t be. Only film stars, sporting heroes and well remunerated persons in the c-suites of Silicon Valley or Wall St earn such bonuses. The people in the last group, in particular, should not have personal access to this kind of dosh. If we keep thinking that investors and bankers live lives just Like Us, we permit them their greedy infraction.
Yesterday, I saw this article about the charming young actor, Bryce Dallas Howard. You couldn’t miss it, really, as it was all over the internet. Again and again, outlets praised her for her “bold” choice to wear a dress with a value of just three hundred dollars. How brave. How sassy. How much more expensive that thing was than a single frock I’ve ever owned.
The story is she’s “just like us” because she bought her costume in a high-street store. The reality is that she, like Lawrence, is carefully building a “just like us” brand. The beautiful gal could have worn Prada for nothing if she’d wanted. Instead, she resolved to feed our great hunger for proof that They are just Us.
Of course, they are, in the sense that they breathe, live, love and fart. But in all other senses, they inhabit a different realm. These people are gods whose rarefied air is sweeter. And we don’t need to resent them for that. But, for the sake of a secular heaven, we must reclaim the wisdom to see ourselves as existing on very unequal terrain.