Britney Spears, Michelle Obama, and Sarah Palin as mythic symbols and regular women 
By Dr. Keith Witt
June 20, 2011
Several years ago I did a one-day workshop on my book Shame: the Misunderstood Emotion for Santa Barbara Adult Education. During the presentation, I mentioned Britney Spears as a modern example of the sex-goddess archetype. At the time, she was going through an especially risqué and troubled period in her career, had every move tracked by voracious hordes of paparazzi, and was being portrayed in the media as a fraying-around-the-edges sex/drugs/rock’n’roll diva. This image fit the Marilyn Monroe/Janis Joplin/Courtney Love role of a willful, egocentric sex-goddess recklessly plunging into celebrity while riding the currents of huge talent and erotic radiance. A couple of days later a filmmaker contacted me and asked if I would provide psychological commentary about Britney for a film they were making. “I don’t know,” I replied. “What does Britney think about it?” He hesitated a moment and then said, “We’re not asking her. We’re just making the movie.” My response was a no-brainer. I politely declined, and that was that. There were many reasons why I said no, but the main one was that I knew Britney Spears is not just an archetypal symbol but also a real, complex person. I’ve worked with celebrities over the years, and they share the same issues most of us have—worries about love, health, career, body image, parenting, sex, money, and relationships. Talent, fame, and wealth don’t erase childhood trauma and defenses, or make it any easier to deal with life’s demands. Celebrity is often chaotic and dangerous; in fact, rock stars are five times more likely to die young than the average person. Furthermore, since my mission in life is to help people love better, I try to consider the impact of what I say and do on everyone, whether they are a celebrity or not. When we forget people as breathing, vulnerable individuals who can be hurt by stereotyping and over-simplistic analysis, we risk turning them into objects—one-dimensional caricatures of complicated human beings. For instance, depending on your politics, you might regard Sarah Palin as an egocentric mouthpiece of the cynical, special-interest-driven far right, or as a staunch defender of traditional values. You might see Michelle Obama as an assertive, caring, powerful woman, committed simultaneously to her family, country, and world, or as an arrogant elitist who wants to use government to protect us from ourselves. As symbols they are divisive figures with mythic overtones. Yes, “mythic.” Myths aren’t just about Greek gods; all civilizations have sacred stories where larger-than-life characters confront challenges and ordeals in ways that transmit moral messages of great stuff happening when we make the right decision—think George Washington and the cherry tree, or Davy Crocket and the Alamo—and horrible consequences to bad decisions—think Benedict Arnold betraying his revolutionary friends, or Pandora’s box loosing demons into the world. Myths can be total fantasies like the Greek Gods on Mount Olympus, or they can be based on real people whose stories capture the public imagination. Myths hold great power and guide us more than we think, imparting moral and spiritual depth to our work and lives. Celebrities like Britney, Sara, and Michelle become elevated to mythic status in that they come to personally represent qualities and beliefs. I understand that losing much of your private life and being constantly scrutinized is occasionally infuriating, but it also can be intoxicating stuff. Like most celebrities, all three women have both complained about being misunderstood and judged, and also enthusiastically embraced their emerging mythic identities. Sarah Palin would be the first to admit that her public persona embodies a traditionalist, conformist worldview. She believes Christian teachings trump scientific data, and is openly contemptuous and dismissive of those who don’t share her mythic membership group (Tea Party conservatives). But I suspect that the woman is more than the myth. She cares about her family, has her own dreams, fears, and personal goals, and probably is not as much of a black-and-white thinker with her most intimate family and friends as she is in public. In contrast, Michele Obama’s public persona embodies a rational/pluralistic worldview, which tends to trust reason and science, values merit-based hierarchies over blood lineages, and believes in our government’s responsibilities to make wise decisions to help all Americans and minimize suffering for people everywhere. Once again, I imagine in private she’s a more complex person who struggles with the same issues—like parenting, finding time to be with her husband, and balancing work/exercise/job/friend demands—that many of us deal with daily. Despite their political and personal differences, if Sara, Michelle, and Britney had lunch together, they’d probably enjoy each other’s company. Honestly! All are mothers, are devoted to family, and share the culture of celebrity. They know how to speak from their hearts, even though they clearly disagree about many topics. I can see the three of them relating with each other based on what they have in common rather than their differences, governed by civility and good manners. And if you or I were sitting with them at that table, just hanging out, we’d probably find ourselves spending most of the time discussing children, pop culture, double standards, and how fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Beneath the myths, we’re all human. We all care about family and ourselves. We all want to look good in our new outfit. We are united much more by our shared humanity than separated by our differences of opinion. Most of us want to live the myths that light us up, and know about the mythic figures that fascinate us—such stories are part of our human legacy. On the other hand, in our deepest hearts we know that people are more than their myths, and we would like there to be plenty of love for everyone.
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