The last minute revelations by the Los Angeles Times of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s pattern of sexual harassment apparently did little to deflate his pumped-up image as the savior of California. How ironic is it that most people, including women, would overlook the content of the story when a newspaper like the Los Angeles Times can run such a front-page feature followed by pages and pages of ads for weight-watching, liposuction, breast enhancement, and every other form of body manipulation intended to make the average schlub into a star or starlet? The obsession with body image in a celebrity struck state and society is hardly news in and of itself. However, in order to understand how the California electorate fell for Arnold, one needs to consider the emotional power of the visual culture of narcissism.
Certainly, Schwarzenegger’s background as body-builder and screen-action hero appealed to those who are driven to seek success and power through the re-invention of the muscular self – a trait common more to men, but increasingly appealing to Laura Croft-crafted women. That Arnold choose to leave those gray gestapo skies of Austria and travel to the land of sunshine and golden opportunity made his success story attractive even to non-white immigrants whose travels were undoubtedly fraught with more difficulties. As a perfect embodiment of muscle-bound will-to-succeed, Schwarzenegger entered the public stage at precisely the moment when the narcissistic and ornamental tendencies of American culture reigned supreme. Looking good, or more significantly, looking menacing proved to be Arnold’s ticket to celebrity status.
Along the way, Schwarzenegger managed to pick-up a trophy wife while continuing his “playful” habits of groping and humiliating scores of women who were often too cowed by his power and status to press charges. That such women came forward in the recall campaign at the last moment only underscores the protective testosterone shield that Hollywood still manages to marshal for its male stars. That many California women were prepared to write off the accusations as last minute “dirty politics” only reinforces the sense that having a high-profile “stand-by-her-man” wife with close media friends and allies, such as Opra Winfrey, can counteract much of the misogynistic thrust of Arnold’s boorish behavior.
More significant, however, to deflecting criticisms of Schwarzenegger’s past aggressive behavior towards women, his complete lack of preparedness for a political office, and his chumminess with corporate and clubby Republicans is the entertainment ethic that pervades California and US politics. Bombarded by visual images that obliterate any sense of the past or even logic, the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time public is easily snookered into accepting the screen image they see against any in-depth analysis of what is behind the image. They’ve seen enough Nazis on tv and in the movies to know that Arnold could never be one even if he had a youthful flirtation with Hitler’s spell-binding fascism. Besides, Hitler was that scrawny little guy with a silly mustache, not the handsome virile man with a winsome smile like Arnold.
Of course, what better embodiment of sunny and healthy change for California from the gray Gray Davis or the rotund Bustamante than Arnold, the happy he-man. Desiring someone who can take control and make the world better in a flash, California voters endorsed the Republican putsch. Righteously resentful of opportunistic and calculating politicians like Davis and Bustamante, the electorate in California have put their body politic in the groping hands of a political novice whose screen image seems to promise the hopes of terminating their woes.
Woe to those who look to Arnold as their savior even though, in the words of Howard Zinn, “the idea of saviors has been built into the entire culture beyond politics.” As Zinn further notes, “to look to stars” means “surrendering our own strength, demeaning our own ability, obliterating our own selves.” But, hey, in the narcissistic glow of politics as entertainment, Californians have demonstrated that they’d rather be groped and instantly gratified than taking control of their own lives and future. Maybe, they’ll wake up when reality hits the fan. Then again, never underestimate the power of images to trump reality in a body politic enervated by media manipulation and needy narcissism.
FRAN SHOR teaches at Wayne State University and is a peace and justice activist. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org