“HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR.” That now legendary New York Post headline has always made me wince, even 32 years later. The body belonged to someone, someone who, God willing, had loved ones. Why belittle the tragedy of the death with dark, aggressive dark humor?
On Tuesday, I read the Post’s obit of Vincent A. Musetto, the editor who wrote what the paper’s Steve Cuozzo called the greatest headline in its history, which, he said, captured “with unflinching precision, the city’s accelerating tailspin into an abyss of atrocious crime and chaos.” He also quoted Peter Shaw, who had noted in The National Review that, “the juxtaposition of two apparently unrelated kinds of toplessness conjoined sex and death even as they are conjoined in reality.” Those two statements, one on the times, one on the eternal human condition, made me rethink the headline. It expressed not just the caustic wit of a sensational editorial mind-set, but, in the old journalistic credo of show-don’t-tell, deep cultural perspective. In that sense, it was journalism at its most significant.
On Thursday I picked up the Post on my way to work. I almost asked for my dollar back when I read the page one headline. You’ve seen it: the picture of a well-polished, carefully accessorized blonde woman gazing into a cellphone while in the foreground, pallbearers tend to a brown wooden casket; at the lower right of the page, an inset of a beautiful, smiling blonde girl. The headline: #MYDEADKID.
I’m not a media critic and it’s neither my place nor my inclination to assess how other outlets cover news, particularly news beyond the fashion sphere. Yet, today more than ever, different segments of popular culture converge — the amorphous “style” being one. After my initial recoil at the headline, I was hit by a second New York Post epiphany in two days, this one more timely than the first. Rather than a cold descent into hurtful humor, this headline, too, is powerful, a clinical indictment of our increasingly self-absorbed, self-promotional culture. In 1983, the societal assessment took five words; in 2015, fittingly, 10 characters and some pictures.
I’ve never seen “The Queen of Versailles,” the documentary chronicling the pre- and post-economic crash lifestyle of supposed billionaires Jackie and David Siegel, including their goal of building the largest privately owned house in the U.S.; I don’t watch “Celebrity Wife Swap.” I know nothing of Jackie Siegel’s personality or proclivities other than what I inferred from the Post’s pictures. I’m not questioning her parenting or her level of grief. To most of us, the loss of a child is unimaginable, and the truism holds: Everyone grieves in his or her own way. This woman must be devastated by the death of her daughter.
Yet, how can one not wonder at the behavior as depicted in this story? The Post said Siegel appears to be photographing her daughter’s casket; I don’t think that’s at all clear. She could be taking a selfie; she could be reading a text. She is using her phone and holding a tall drink of something in view of the casket of her daughter who died suddenly. She’s done up in a low-cut, curvy black lace dress with metallic threads that glisten in the sunlight. In the page one photo, her head is bare; inside pictures show her with a big, Gibson Girl horsehair hat and a change of sunglasses, apparently for hat-on (frameless) and hat-off (big black frames). It’s a getup Alexis Carrington, and no one else I can think of, might have worn to a loved one’s funeral.
Again, I’m not judging Jackie Siegel’s grief. But these pictures speak more than 1,000 words, and they say that, in this woman’s life, no event is too painful, too tragic, too private to promote.
We live in an age of narcissism. Everybody wants to be famous and everybody seems to have a chance — depending upon one’s interpretation of “fame.” Most stardom requires tenacity and a healthy self-image. Sometimes that combo springs from real talent as we once understood the word (Beyoncé), and sometimes, from force of will and a more modernist take on talent (the Kardashians). One can attain lesser degrees of fame by perfecting a street-style persona; blogging beauty advice to peers; Instagramming one’s cat, shoes and, especially, one’s self, or by going to the extreme in some aspect of life, whether hoarding, birthing 19 children, weighing 600 pounds or setting out to build the biggest house in the U.S. and finding a camera crew to follow you along the way. The Duggars are experiencing a big dose of the downside of endless self-promotion. You can’t shamelessly whore out your family of 21 — not counting sons-in-law and grandchild — and then cry foul when a different media outlet reveals the family skeleton. But there’s at least the chance and the hope that the parents’ own protective instincts focus on their daughters first and the family franchise second.
They’re everywhere, those who seem to value the quest for fame and attention above all else: the “Housewives” who, from the show promos at least, live in cheesy cocktail dresses and perfect blowouts; the Braxtons; the sixteen-and-pregnant girls; the Duck people (until reality did them in). Dignity? Invocation of the word implies dinosaur status.
Yet for all of the shameless self-promotion that has infiltrated so much of life today, approaching the funeral of your 18-year-old daughter as a fashion photo-op feels like a horrible new low. Let’s hope that the Post identified only one woman’s misguided lapse rather than the next acceptable level of societal narcissism in those 10 gross characters, #MYDEADKID.