A Tabloid Story Told In the Face of Perversity

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 15, 2005

You can be certain that when the nation's two most prominent tabloids come up with exactly the same headline, the ever-elusive zeitgeist has been pinned down, butterfly style, for a moment. The New York Post and the New York Daily News responded to the Michael Jackson acquittal with the same three words, printed with only a single comma's difference. "Boy, oh, boy!" screamed the Post. "Boy, oh boy!" cried the News. Two iterations of "boy," and one of "oh," capturing readers' presumed horror at the crime and exasperation at the verdict. Rarely is the tabloid distillation so tart.

They also ran almost identical pictures, a closeup of an ashen Jackson, wearing a morbid black tie on a wing collar and sunglasses. Almost identical, but not quite. The Post's Jackson looked 10 years younger than the News's Jackson, whose facial coloring was a few shades grayer, whose eyes were glassier, whose little neck wattle was definitely more pronounced. The Post also appeared to capture the reflection of a metal detector in the pop-star's glasses, suggesting an even darker portal, the prison gate, through which he might have passed had the prosecution won the day.

Together, they show the degree to which the camera is the weapon of last resort against celebrity. The camera is, of course, essential to the making of celebrities, but it can also break them with extraordinary speed and efficiency. The perp walk, the mug shot and photographs such as those that ran yesterday are a populist scourge against people who are presumed to live by laws more lax and accommodating than those to which mere mortals are subject.

Hence the fascination with Web sites such as the Smoking Gun ( http://thesmokinggun.com/ ), which specialize in glaringly lit images of wild-haired and humiliated stars and starlets, captured after a DWI, drug or domestic abuse bust. The truth that is fetishized is "candor": "Without the aid of fancy lighting, makeup, and wardrobe, these little works of mug shot art -- taken with Instamatic, Polaroid, and digital cameras at law enforcement agencies nationwide -- are perhaps the most candid photos of celebrities (and other public figures) that you'll see," reads text on the Smoking Gun Web site.

Every photograph, however, is constructed to some degree, even mug shots (which are one of the least "candid" forms of photography around, given the bureaucratic care with which the face is limited to its bare essentials). And the two photographs that graced the fronts of the New York tabloids are constructed, too. Perversity is their message. The image brands Jackson as perverse, a branding made necessary by the lack of the more official marker of humiliation, conviction and prison time. And the definition of perversity is the wanton disregard, on the part of the pervert, of standard categories. The Post makes Jackson preternaturally boyish; the News makes him freakishly old. The almost identical headlines keep the confusion of perversion going: He is a boy who is an old man who likes boys. Boy, oh boy, indeed.

If you focused exclusively on Jackson's face, as both the Daily News and Post photographs did, you can't be certain if Jackson was entering the courthouse -- at the very nadir of his journey as an antihero of celebrity -- or leaving it, a free man. Other photographs, including the one that ran in The Washington Post, included more information--Jackson's hand touching his heart in a gesture of thanks, or the jubilation of his supporters surrounding him.

If you didn't read the small type of the two tabloids' subheads ("Jacko cleared of kid molest," said the Post, "Relief for Jacko as he's found not guilty," began the News) you would naturally assume that he wasn't acquitted at all. The actual truth of the Daily News's image--which makes him look miserable, yet was taken after he received the good news--didn't seem to matter, because the truth of what happened Monday afternoon had been cropped to a message that was, for many, preferable: Guilty, guilty, guilty.

And that's the point. The Daily News photo, which might be dubbed Jackson's Dorian Gray shot, suggests to the reader that the former king of pop will live in his own private hell, even if the jurors, as agents of society, refused to condemn him to the earthly hell of prison. The Post photo, by including the reflection of the metal detector, suggests a shadowy perpetual incarceration, as if Michael Jackson's soul must remain imprisoned in the strange and awful persona that is Michael Jackson's destiny.

These photographs join all those images of post-acquittal O.J., lonely on the golf links, in asking for us the big question : What would it be like to live with guilt and lies for the rest of your life? In both cases, neither the guilt nor the lies have been established by a court, and the celebrity is presumed innocent. But the photograph is used to reassure us that we all know better than the jury.

One last detail they share: In both photos a wisp of Jackson's hair brushes against his glasses and his cheek. That wandering hair does what so many people, mesmerized by the Jackson spectacle, both crave and fear to do. It touches Jackson's face, the site of his greatest perversity (it is black, it is white, it is innocent, it is false).

It also calls attention to the body of Jackson who, even though he wasn't convicted, will never be free of the taint of charges of child molestation. The body (container of the soul, which the photograph also assures us is in torment) is under constant suspicion. He will never have a normal body again, and not just because he's altered it through surgery.

His body will be watched, not as we watch most celebrities' bodies (with desire, usually), but with an enduring repugnance and vigilance. Michael Jackson may or may not be a pervert, but (with the aid of the camera and hostile image makers) he has in the mind of the skeptical public a pervert's body: a walking, fleshen scandal that must be kept under perpetual surveillance lest its demons be released upon the world.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company