So I was watching this show on MTV last week, called Newport Harbor. Essentially it is Laguna Beach all over again, just 20 miles up the California coast in another ritzy Orange Country beach town. The cast of the show is made up of a handful of ditzy-but-beautiful blonde girls and a few token surfer dudes who each of the girls will date at one point during the season (which follows their senior year of “high school”). Everything on the show is pristine, nicely coifed, tanned, and very, very rich.
Most episodes of the show, like in Laguna, feature the kids shopping at designer stores, eating at Zagat-rated restaurants, or (in the case of the episode I saw) going on weekend trips to Palm Springs. Of course, no seventeen year old really has the money to live this way, but MTV wants us to think that yes, these kids (most kids in Orange Country, actually) do in fact spend their free time surfing, tanning, gossiping, and eating braised lamb while the rest of us do homework and eat Ramen noodles.
At one point in the Palm Springs episode of Newport, “Allie” asks her father (“Art”) whether his American Express card will work for her during the weekend. “But it’s the gold one and not the platinum!” she complains as she opens the door to her friend’s SUV. Art playfully reassures her that his gold AMEX will be more than enough for one weekend, and he smiles and waves as his daughter drives off with his money.
Such scenes, which deceptively portray a fantasy world where it is normal for parents and teenagers to behave like this, seem to be the bread and butter for MTV these days. On any given day there are at least two episodes of an atrocious—but sickeningly addictive—MTV show called My Super Sweet Sixteen. This show features the most outrageous flaunting of wealth I’ve ever seen. Fifteen year old “princesses” routinely spend upwards of $500,000 of their parents’ money to throw themselves a birthday party certain to be the illest the sophomore class has ever seen, or will ever see.
But it’s not just MTV. Everywhere you look on TV and in pop-culture these days, you see this strangely alluring thing that is a sort of a rich people minstrel show: wealth being exploited for the entertainment of the underclass. Shows like Bravo’s new reality offering, Welcome to the Parker (which is all about the Parker hotel in Palm Springs—the most ridiculously posh playground for celebrities in SoCal), emphasize how gloriously snobby rich people are, while shows like The Fabulous Life (VH1) and Cribs (MTV) keep tabs on which rich celebrity has managed to spend their money the most frivolously. Each of these shows contains the playful cha-ching graphic, which keeps tabs of the “bill” during the course of any episode, making light of the fact that some people manage to spend more money in a year than the entire country of Ethiopia has made in a decade.
And lest we forget the phenomenon of Paris Hilton, a “famous for being rich” celebrity who embodies all of the above. People are always asking, “why are we obsessed with Paris Hilton?” But this has a pretty obvious answer: it’s because we’re obsessed with being rich. It’s the same reason we watch Newport Harbor or buy something that Oprah likes. If we can associate ourselves with wealth (even if we’re really poor) by watching or imitating it, we feel more legitimate, desirable, and important.
The Paris Hilton culture is just the latest incarnation of what Thomas Veblen first coined “conspicuous consumption” in his 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class. Essentially it is the idea that with the onset of expendable income, the new upper and middle classes took to flaunting their “wealth” as a way to demonstrate their social power or significance, whether real or perceived. In other words, people began to buy lots of fancy furniture and art (but chiefly so they could have dinner parties and show it off), and they began to buy expensive clothes and jewelry, mainly to present themselves as more important than they actually were.
Consumerism and the consequent drive to be conspicuous about it is certainly something we all deal with. Living in Los Angeles, a mile away from downtown Beverly Hills, I see it everywhere I look. One time when I was sitting at a bus stop near Rodeo Drive, I played a game in which I counted how many Range Rovers drove by me in the course of a minute (the Range Rover is the current “must-have accessory” in L.A.). I think I counted 6, or maybe 10. Either way, that’s a high volume of grossly over-waxed blingmobiles in the span of a minute. That’s like one every ten seconds.
I’m not sure how many people who drive Range Rovers actually can afford them; but that’s beside the point. Half of the wealth that is flashed in your eyes on any given day isn’t real wealth. It’s all about appearances. Sunglasses are the best way to feign wealth, especially in L.A. (where sunglasses are worn more than socks). Most really good, designer sunglasses are at least $300—which is not that much for the average stockbroker or real estate tycoon. But you can easily find knock-off sunglasses for like ten bucks that look exactly like the massive Prada pair you saw on J.Lo last week. It’s easy to look wealthy and important if you try hard enough.
Nowadays, the measure of someone’s “importance” is often seen in the technological accessory attached to their ear. Whether it’s an iPod, iPhone, or the latest fashion in Bluetooth earpieces (which scream “I’m white collar and too busy and important to use a hand phone!”), people are vying for status via The Sharper Image. It’s all an illusion, though, because no one is so important that “hands free” devices are necessary. Still, it’s the driving illusion of our time.
Christians find themselves in an interesting spot, living in a culture that measures a person’s value or relevance by what model of cell phone they carry. We are followers of a man who once told his disciples that anyone who wanted to follow him must “deny himself” and “take up his cross daily.” Jesus constantly dropped lines such as “what good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?” (Luke 9:23, 25). He also insisted that we not worry about things like food and clothes (Matthew 6: 25-34), and offered counterintuitive little quips about how blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, and the persecuted. Can you imagine an MTV show about nerdy little Christian kids in Irvine who take all of this to heart?
The Christian life is so crazily counter to a life of conspicuous consumption. Ours should be a life of conspicuous rejection of all the bling money can buy. We should be conspicuously consumed with Christ, so much so that we become much more fascinating to watch than Paris Hilton. Instead of a culture that questions their obsession with Paris and Britney, what if the curious questions were about Christians—why are they so utterly, obviously uninterested in what everyone else is living for (self-aggrandizement)? Now that would be a story worthy of reality TV.
Note: This article was first published in the Relevant 850 weekly newsletter.