Thursday, June 25, 2009 • 12:00 AM Comments ()

Caught on Camera (But Not on Film)

posted by Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

It hasn't been the best week to be a Republican governor cheating on his wife (not great for Republican senators doing the same, either) or a husband with eight young children and a reality show rumored to have cheated on his wife. Governor Mark Sanford's bizarre "disappearance" over the weekend puzzled many and ended, as would be practically inevitable for someone both so visible--and accountable to an entire state--with his secret--an affair he'd been having in Argentina--revealed. He made a rambling admission to that effect. Sanford was the second high-profile Republican to fall in recent days; Senator John Ensign admitted to an extramarital affair just a week earlier. Both were possible contenders for the 2012 Republican Presidential primary race. Neither is, any longer. Most notably, Governor Sanford took the high moral ground publicly on more than one occasion when reaming out Democrats for similar marital (extramarital) missteps. Rumors about Jon Gosselin's alleged affair have been churned through the blogosphere and splashed across tabloid pages this spring. Jon's claim to fame--one he questions during not-so-rambling interviews in front of the cameras filming his TLC reality show, Jon and Kate Plus Eight--is the reality show about he and his soon-to-be-ex-wife raising eight kids, eight year-old twins and five year-old sextuplets. This week, the big anticipated, announcement: the couple has filed for divorce.

Also, this week, R&B singer Chris Brown pleaded guilty to one count of felony assault for physically abuse of his former girlfriend, pop star Rihanna. That incident, Rihanna's injured face caught on camera, sparked a media firestorm this past winter.

The public eye--these days--is truly, glaringly public. This is an understatement, but it seems to need to be mapped out, because so many famous men, famous due to public service, self-induced exposure via the sub-industry within the entertainment industry of reality television or the more mainstream one of music, somehow "forget" that this applies to them. How closely you are followed varies. Chris Brown wasn't quite as voraciously snapped before hooking up with Rihanna. And Governor Sanford's every move was not watched the way Jon Gosselin's was, at least not before the Governor lied about hiking the Appalachian Trail (the one in need of repair that Federal Stimulus dollars could help pay for, funds he rejected). Jon Gosselin, of course, became a more intense subject of scrutiny a few months back after being photographed leaving a young woman's house at 7:30 in the morning. These public debacles aren't, as my friend Penny jokingly refers to going home in nice evening clothing the next morning, garden variety "walk of shame" stuff (my favorite of such moments, a man, probably into his seventies, getting off the bus in New York on New Year's morning, wearing his nice suit--and a big grin). There's nothing charming about infidelity, especially when kids are involved and domestic violence is abhorrent, as the judge's ruling that Brown and Rihanna may not maintain even a cordial long-distance relationship, indicates.

So, while what seems most obvious to say to those in the public gaze is: you can't escape cameras and reporters so don't even try, there is another thing to consider here, and that's why these stories are so compelling (even though they seem so stupid). I've been thinking about that a lot in the last twenty-four hours, after--I must confess--watching the Jon and Kate divorce episode (I DVR'ed it to watch while I exercised). And, worse, I found myself upset about their split. So, I've been thinking about why I was so saddened by their floundering for explanations about their very painful--and, I wish private--marital situation. South Carolina First Lady Jenny Sanford's statement about her husband's infidelity offered a clue, in that statement (ending with resolve to try to repair her marriage and a plea ot the media to leave them alone) through her explanation: "When I found out about my husband’s infidelity I worked immediately to first seek reconciliation through forgiveness, and then to work diligently to repair our marriage. We reached a point where I felt it was important to look my sons in the eyes and maintain my dignity, self-respect, and my basic sense of right and wrong. I therefore asked my husband to leave two weeks ago." Jenny Sanford's desire to maintain her dignity reminds me of what bordered upon backlash when Rihanna did not forcefully condemn Chris Brown (and briefly reunited with him after the infamous incident): once the story is public, we, the public, craves resolution. A woman standing up against abuse--or infiidelity--is much more satisfying than her simply accepting her husband or boyfriend's misdeeds. We forget, because we are waiting for the happy ending, that real life is so much messier than that (and that although we are gleaning entertainment from the stories, we are, in fact, witnessing real lives and their attendant dramas). Women often return, more than once, to their abusers, even if ultimately, they break free. Married couples, even with infidelities, often fracture and reunite before reaching resolution in one direction or another. Real-life relationships are very often messy, complicated, fraught, financially or logistically entwined. And, in fact, regardless of whether the real-life couple splits, especially when children are involved, those relationships can remain messy, complicated, fraught, financially and logistically entwined

Brian Masche, father of sextuplets, and costar of the WE program Raising Sextuplets (which premieres June 25th), explains that he realized the show could serve as a video diary and photo album wrapped into one. More than one interviewer has asked him and his wife, Jenny, what they think about Jon and Kate (the couple feels "sad for them" is the main answer). It's interesting how in this age of so much footage--digital photos, cell phone pictures, bystanders being able to document a revolution in Iran--this is the week that Kodak announced the end of Kodachrome film. These days, digital film is responsible for seventy percent of Kodak's sales while Kodachrome's sales had plunged in recent years, to less than 1% of Kodak’s total film sales. In his 1973 song "Kodachrome," Paul Simon immortalized the film's "nice bright colors." Slide film, from the vantage point of our digital age, represents a couple of things fast becoming antiquated: for one, the idea that you may take an image but not instantly know how it turned out or what you captured. The instantaneous pace of current events and images--from the twenty-four hour news cycle to the Twitter feed to the fact that anyone can be caught on film and have the pictures so immediately broadcast far and wide--changes so much about how we receive--and can process--information. Pause or take time to reflect? Hardly possible any longer, because if you aren't speedy, you lose the chance to respond. Secondly, though, the quality of the colors available ("nice bright") isn't quite the same on digital film. It's close, so close that perhaps it matters not at all. Like the move from typewriters to computers, though, a relationship to physicality changes in the adaption to computer-based and reliant technologies. It isn't bad or good, necessarily, it just is. Perhaps, speed and slickness and a perceptible remove from the tangible are worth noting in light of these scandals, too. Someone like Jon Gosselin achieved fame and financial security for being a father to eight on a lucrative reality television show. Somewhere in there, he lost his connection to work (a development he speaks of with regret) and the competency and purpose that go along with work. A very young woman like Rihanna experiences how fame vaulted her into the limelight in such ways that people's expectations were overwhelming (was she obligated, because of her popularity, to be a role model for young women facing abuse from boyfriends?). Sometimes, it seems the stories we are focused upon are meteoric, dizzying and unreal, even though real people's lives are being followed (even consumed). It's not clear how to untangle ourselves from all of this, but it is clear that we need to take a little more time to imagine what's important about these viral stories, so that we may actually learn from them.

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