Gina Carano and Our Culture of Lazy Shame
From the witch trials to the tabloids, human nature has always hungered for humiliation—so long as it isn't too much work.
No child of the ’90s was able to escape Britney Spears. She was ubiquitous, impossible to avoid even if you didn’t much care for that oh baybah baybah style of mass-manufactured tonal candy, even if you thought the entire pop explosion of that decade was a bit fake (it was). Spears seemed to be everywhere and everything at once: singer, dancer, celebrity, TV guest, beauty standard, sex symbol, teenage crush, brand name, cover model, and (in one very inadvisable instance) movie star.
Today, Spears is back in the news, sending ’90s kids everywhere into fits of nostalgia (we ’90s kids spend most of our time in fits of nostalgia). The former pop star is the subject of a new documentary called “Framing Britney Spears.” The film is ostensibly about her ongoing court battle with her father, though it also takes us back to a very different time in her life: her late-2000s self-immolation, when she shaved her head and kept going out in public without underwear on. The movie dredges all this up not to re-humiliate her, but to cast a critical light on those who bullied and exploited her. That these were often the same celebrity courtiers who had exalted her only a decade before can make her seem almost like a vestal sacrifice, dressed in white and celebrated only to be torn down and destroyed.
The sheer callousness chronicled in the documentary is staggering, enough to make a hero out of anyone who showed Spears even a glimmer of compassion. Former late-night TV host Craig Ferguson has been praised simply because he swore off making fun of her during a monologue. Another surprisingly sensitive treatment came from the usually ruthless South Park, which in 2008 depicted Spears as the victim of a ritual a la Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” in which once a year a pop star is bullied to death as a harvest sacrifice. The most memorable scene from that episode found a half-headless Spears (long story) in a field with camera-snapping paparazzi closing in, screaming until she eventually lay down and succumbed.
The theme of all this is shame. Spears’s treatment was more than just a good-natured ribbing; it was something deeper and darker, a gratuitous public shaming, meted out because she had the nerve to misbehave after having been denied anything that could charitably be called a childhood. Watching the documentary today, it’s striking how far we haven’t come. We still do this, all the time. As a society, we’ve agreed to at least some rules about most of our human impulses, from hunger to leisure to sex. Yet when it comes to shame, we don’t seem to have any kind of framework in place. For public humiliations, it’s a free market.
Shame as a tendency is deeply engraved into our nature. The idea of a scapegoat, an actual goat that’s (ironically) spared slaughter and released into the wild as atonement for sins, is mentioned in the Book of Leviticus and believed to trace back to the 24th century B.C. Jump ahead to ancient Athens and you find shame as a political mechanism, with citizens once a year allowed to ostracize people from the city. There’s a wonderful story, likely apocryphal, in which an Athenian known for his good deeds as Aristides the Just confronts a peasant who’s about to vote for him to be ostracized. Aristides asks why. “Oh nothing,” says the peasant, “I don’t even know him. I’m just sick and tired of hearing everybody refer to him as ‘The Just.'”
Therein lies another reality about shame, especially among we rebellious Westerners: It isn’t just a way to victimize the weak, but also to take the piss out of the powerful. It’s a kind of populist weapon, a way of tearing down those whom we judge to have gotten too big for their own good. There’s something viscerally satisfying about seeing a pompous leader stripped down to rags and paraded through the streets. All the more so if he’s guilty of hypocrisy, having fallen short of the same ethical code he was supposed to exemplify. Shame is thus a fundamentally moralistic thing, a way of signaling one’s superiority over another. The Salem witch hunters were men of God fighting the devil; Britney’s tsk-tskers were good bourgeois sorts who might have let their kids watch TRL but who would never shack up with some proto-MAGA hick like Kevin Federline.
Fast-forward to 2021 and we like to think we’ve moved beyond shame. We even sometimes use the word “shameless” as a wry compliment, evidence of our pluralistic willingness to tolerate deviant behavior. Yet out of that void of manners has come a morality all its own, centered on that very same idea of tolerance, with fundamentalists on hand to shame anyone who strays outside its bounds. This new shaming is focused less on conduct than on opinions. It’s carried out not in the town square or the gossip periodicals, but on Twitter, where mobs are ever on patrol for those in need of a good ostracizing. It imagines itself in the tradition of the Athenian peasant, slagging off the powerful in the name of the little guy. Yet it deceives itself: It is the powerful; even big business trembles before its judgments.
The latest target of such shaming is Gina Carano, the former MMA fighter and co-star of the show The Mandalorian. Carano didn’t shave her head—that would have been fine—but she did do something even more outré, namely questioning the effectiveness of masks and positing the existence of voter fraud, among other high crimes and misdemeanors. Because this goes against what all upright people are now supposed to think, Carano was subjected to a vitriolic social media shaming. She was called not just wrong but a bad actress, a moron, a racist, a transphobe; #CancelGinaCarano began trending on Twitter. Disney, a deeply evil and stupid corporation greedily running into the ground everything it touches from the Magic Kingdom to Star Wars, which also happens to distribute The Mandalorian, promptly caved. Carano was sacked.
Spears and Carano were shamed for different reasons, one for her personal behavior gone public, the other for her politics. But beneath the two incidents lies a common denominator, that need to assert moral superiority over another. This isn’t to bemoan Carano’s supposed victimhood—she’s going to be fine. It also isn’t to claim that only woke leftists shame—the right does it, too (though not as often, and its relative lack of cultural power makes it less effective). It’s simply to point out that what we once did to Britney we’ve in essence done again, slow-walking Carano down the street while the townsfolk jeer and throw cabbage.
The good news about shame is that its haze of unreason can dissipate rather quickly. It took only four years after the Salem witch trials for a dozen of its former jurors to sign a declaration of regret. It took only 13 years after the Spears ordeal for American pop culture to take a hard look at itself. Will Carano one day merit a similar revision? After the passions of the present culture war have cooled? The line on Spears is that society attacked her because she was a strong and successful woman; that certainly applies to MMA fighter Carano. Yet even if we do revisit Carano’s treatment, it may be that by then we’ve only moved on to shaming someone else. Once we shamed Spears out of sexism; now we shame anyone whom we arbitrarily deem to be a sexist. The criteria shift, but the bloodthirst remains the same.
That’s the thing about shame: It’s easy. The reason “The Lottery”—the short story on which that South Park episode is based—is so chilling is the same reason that all of Shirley Jackson’s fiction is chilling: the intermingling of the horrible with the mundane. The titular lottery, the selection of a human sacrifice, is done annually and is thus routine; one old-timer proudly announces that this is his seventy-seventh time. The townspeople chatter with each other while those who lead the ceremony fumble through various rules. Even after the victim is selected, ending her life only means lobbing a few stones. Likewise, there is a yawning disconnect between how simple it is to send a hateful tweet—or snap a photo or vote for an ostracism—and the profound disruption it can cause the victim in real life.
In the end, it’s all a bit pathetic, really. We shame not just because we’re human but because it’s one of the laziest forms of catharsis we have.