The king of what? Pedophile jokes?

Death and the media unfairly change society’s perceptions

James Culleton

Just in case you haven’t heard, a pretty famous celebrity died recently. Practically born into the spotlight, Michael Jackson was the good weird as he rose to fame. Different, talented, sexy and marketable, he declared himself the King of Pop to the world after the commercial ground making accomplishments of Off The Wall, Bad and Thriller.

Shortly after the latter however, society changed its opinion as it watched Michael Jackson’s rise and fall as he engaged in a pseudo-obvious mental battle with himself and the media.

Born into the limelight, this psychological war had at first made MJ a talented and accomplished man. But there was a breaking point and since the early ‘90s we have seen MJ slip deeper and deeper into an abyss of mental self-decimation in a drawn out tug-o-war. The highly influential societal figure was a mere fragment of a man for years before his death. But that’s not how society chooses to remember him, regardless of how they treated him. 

His confidence to declare himself the King of Pop was certainly due to good press, but he lost that title with the first pedophilia accusation in 1993 and the proceeding ultra-negative media tempest. I suppose we could all deal with him changing his face after he got vitiligo (a relatively common skin disorder that causes depigmentation around the body), but once the child molestation charges started up, no amount of PR could ever save him.

He became the bad kind of weird. And like most people who are believed to be the bad weird by the majority, they are not considered brethren. The media classifies them as a subclass of human and the majority agree since we don’t feel comfortable thinking about it and would rather have a business define it for us. We absolutely let them define him as he collapsed underneath the weight of his own ego.

After a one-sided Martin Bashir documentary and another child abuse allegation in 2005, we all got a little uncomfortable when one of his songs came on the radio or by fault of the DJ at the bar. Really, who wants to dance to a probable child molester? At this point he was more like a troll who stole your kids as they walked by. The media dehumanized him and we helped. The public and the media make a great tag team when tearing down successful people who don’t know how to deal with themselves. And the issue of whether he deserved it or not isn’t really the problem.

The problem is the romanticizing of the individual and their life after death. As soon as one loses consciousness, we grasp the positive and suppress the negative. For MJ, this has been seen on an utterly massive scale that many seem to be oblivious to. It’s expected that the media will do a complete 180 on a dead celebrity, but to now try and pretend he’s perfect after nearly 20 years of bad press – and successfully convince millions that he is – shows they have an influence few people fully realize.
It’s one thing for millions to stop in their tracks to acknowledge his passing – after all he was a very influential figure at one time – but why are we OK with his greatest enemy saying the eulogy? Society bought the magazines that suggested the “harsh reality” of the MJ situation, and how despite his acquitted trials, the jury was “wrong.” So this begs a question: What role is society really comfortable playing? Are we going to pass judgment as the media presents it to us? Or do we idealize the weirdo as a fallen hero? How can death rationally change how we remember him?

After all, he’s not here to see us pay our respects.

However you feel about his death and the media’s response to it, MJ died as the king of pedophile jokes, not pop, and it was thanks to our buying into the media’s presentation of the issue. If we really want to pay our respects to him, society and the media should acknowledge how harsh we were on him for all those years. To deny that ever happened is to do a moon walk on his grave, no matter how quixotic we imagine death to be.

Matt Austman is a University of Winnipeg student.

Published in Volume 63, Number 29 of The Uniter (July 16, 2009)

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