"The Athenians regularly maintained a number of degraded and useless beings at the public expense; and when any calamity, such as plague, drought, or famine, befell the city, they sacrificed two of these outcasts as scapegoats." —Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough
Each version of the scapegoat ritual has its own peculiarities, but the essential structure is constant. A person or group is chosen to bear a society's sins or sufferings, and then is killed or exiled, leaving the community purified. In Uganda, Frazer writes, the victims were "maimed and left to die." In Siam, "a woman broken down by debauchery" would be publicly insulted, showered with soil, then thrown "on a dunghill or a hedge of thorns outside the ramparts, forbidding her ever to enter the walls again."
In the United States, by contrast, Paris Hilton received just a few weeks in jail and a few dozen media cycles of personal humiliation. Compared to people who committed commensurate infractions, that's a travesty of justice. But compared to those poor Ugandans, she's getting off easy.
Hilton was sentenced to 45 days' imprisonment for driving with a suspended license. When the local sheriff did something that has been done for thousands of other nonviolent offenders in L.A. County's overcrowded jails, releasing her early to serve her term under house arrest, the cry went up that this was unconscionable, and a tearful, hysterical Hilton was hustled back to a cell. After L.A.'s city attorney joined the chorus calling for her reimprisonment, it came out that his wife had gotten off with a fine after committing a similar offense. He insisted the situations were not comparable, and indeed they weren't: When his spouse got in trouble, no mob was baying for her blood.
Hilton, by contrast, is almost universally hated. I'm not setting myself above everyone else here—I can't stand her either. She plays a very specific public role: the bad girl, spoiled and stupid, privileged and irresponsible, hedonistic in the most dull and predictable ways. Different viewers have different reactions to this, but the typical response is extremely negative. Like Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears, Hilton lets her tabloid audience feel both resentful and superior. Unlike Lohan or Spears, Hilton hasn't accomplished anything that might offset that contempt. Lohan and Spears became famous for acting and singing, respectively, and only then spilled into the more open-ended entertainment of the gossip press; millions of fans have a residual affection for their work that keeps them from being as despised as they could be. But Hilton debuted in the gossip columns. She has appeared in movies and has made an album, but those came later: She isn't a celebrity because she recorded a CD, she recorded a CD because she's a celebrity. And she's a celebrity because people like to loathe her. Being a scapegoat is part of her job.
I assume she knows that. "In ancient Greece," my handy Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend informs me, "the scapegoat was often a volunteer." So it is in America today. I suspect that Hilton isn't really dumb, any more than she's really a blonde—that she not only understands the role she's playing, but deliberately chose to play it. It's telling that her most notable non-pornographic performance, on the "reality" series The Simple Life, painted her as a rich twit unable to function in the real world. Hilton not only signed up for a show that was sure to portray her that way, but she kept coming back to shoot more seasons even after the program's direction was obvious. Either she's preternaturally stupid, or she's in on the joke.
In the gossip press, as in reality TV and celebrity sex tapes, it's unclear where artifice ends and authenticity begins. But if Hilton understands that she's the butt of the joke on her television show, she probably understands the same dynamics are at work in the rest of her media appearances, including the ones dubbed "news." And if she does understand that, and milks it, I'm not sure how willing I am to believe her tears at her sentencing. Is she really upset, or is she just doing what the trite script demands? Does she resent these headlines, or does she love any headline she appears in? Is she worried about what she'll face in jail, or is she looking forward to what comes afterward?
Yes, afterward. Traditionally the scapegoat was killed or exiled for good, but the modern celebrity cycle won't let someone go so easily. After her fall, the victim begins a redemption process, or as it is known in our medicalized age, a rehabilitation process. She loudly reforms herself, begs our forgiveness, appears on talk shows, pitches a product. Paris is prepared: Last week she called Barbara Walters to announce that she had found God, intends to clean up her act, and has started thinking of what's best for "the young girls who looked up to me."
There is historical precedent for this as well. There are religious traditions, most notably Christianity, in which a god takes on the sins of the world, is duly sacrificed, and then comes back. Some medieval Christians applied the same idea to their human scapegoats. Frazer describes a German town that began Lent each year by turning a selected parishioner out of the church. For 40 days he would walk the city, "barefoot, neither entering the churches nor speaking to any one." The day before Good Friday, "he was readmitted to the church and absolved of all sins. The people gave him money. He was called Adam, and was now believed to be in a state of innocence."
No one will ever mistake Paris Hilton for an innocent. But they will re-admit her to her old haunts, and oh, how they'll give her money. This woman has already become a celebrity without doing anything worth celebrating, a sex symbol without exuding any sex appeal, a world-famous criminal without committing a notable crime. Now she can be a scapegoat who never gets sacrificed: the victim of a barbaric ritual who emerges somehow with everything she wants.
Jesse Walker is reason's managing editor.
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