A Massive Swelling: Celebrity, Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease and Other Cultural Revelations
by Cintra Wilson
Published by Viking Press
256 pages, 2000
Celebrity Target Practice
Reviewed by Emru Townsend
The machine that feeds the cult of celebrity has long been due for serious scrutiny. I can think of no better person to appoint Head Scrutinizer than Cintra Wilson. For years, her savaging critiques of awards shows, celebrity shindigs and the general state of pop culture have been a favorite staple on Salon. She pulls no punches, which is admittedly easy; she has an unblinkered, keen understanding of how the entertainment industry works and thinks, which is remarkable; and she combines these two traits with a fiery and absurd wit, which is delightful. Like the classic court jester, she can make laugh-out-loud, biting statements ("Maria Shriver's jaw has been replaced with two ironing boards, placed in a 'V.'") and then turn around and make an insightful observation:
I really, really hate the way that the Oscar show producers, whenever a black or Hispanic person is mentioned, immediately cut to a reaction shot of a black or Hispanic person. When Morgan Freeman was talking, the cameras industriously cut to all six black people in the audience, each one nodding seriously. [...] The Oscars need to stop visually quarantining multicolored people. They're not going to infect others outside their own racial on-camera orientation.
So when I found out that she was working on A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease, and Other Cultural Revelations, I knew I had to read it.
A Massive Swelling is a collection of 15 essays loosely tied around the twin themes of what's wrong with the cult of celebrity and the lengths to which people will go to achieve any kind of fame. If you've read Wilson's work before, you won't find many surprises here; in fact, she reworks some ideas from her old columns, like the "reaction shot" nugget above. The essays, however, use the last quarter-century for context and are organized around specific topics such as the sexualization of young music stars or the skewed version of reality at fame's ground zero in Hollywood.
If you haven't been exposed to Wilson before, then you need to read her introduction, helpfully titled "Statement of Intent, or How to Read This Book Without Wanting to Hurt the Author." If you're not used to her style, she can seem quite mean-spirited, even bitter. But the introduction makes it clear: what makes her "yowl in disgust," as she says, is the fact that talent, while helpful, is no longer a prerequisite to fame -- and yet people are all too willing to idolize anyone lucky enough to land a recording or movie contract:
The slandering of iconage is a sport -- not an act of aggression or bitterness, but an exercise. Why should these people not get taunted and roasted? We treat our celebrities, regardless of artistic merit, like an untouchable royal family, which causes most of us to act like dribbling serfs despite the value of our individual lives.
Wilson goes to the taunting and roasting with gusto, as witty and bilious as ever. But at around page 180, eight pages into her deconstruction of the typical Academy Awards ceremony, my eyes began to glaze over. Struggling through, I realized why. While every individual slice was funny/ironic/true/perverse as hell, it was just too much to take. Her Salon rants, topping out at around 2,000-2,500 words, are neat little hand grenades; the chapter I was fretting over was, by my estimate, almost 7,000. That's a long way to carry a grudge and after a while the reader's steam just runs out.
I toughed it out, and ultimately I liked what I read; although she was preaching to the converted, it was nice to see her arguments so neatly laid out while remaining her usual funny self. Still, I would have preferred if she had stuck with shorter essays, and just written more of them using the rat-a-tat-tat guerilla style she brandishes so well. As it is, she digs her heels in for a long siege, and her discomfort with the form is passed on to us. It's too bad, because what she writes is, as always, thought-provoking and hilarious. It's more work than it needs to be, but A Massive Swelling is definitely worth the price of admission. | January 2001