The strange, complicated expectation of media celebrities.
Written by Michael Thomsen (@mike_thomsen)
Minami Minegishi was accused of having a boyfriend. On the same day as a devastating story was published outing her relationship, with accompanying evidence of a long-distance lens photo of Minegishi leaving the young man's house in the failed disguise of baseball cap and surgical mask, she posted an online apology video with a shaved head and a face crumpled in tears.
Minegishi is one of 88 members of the all-woman pop group AKB48, a collective of teenage girls and young women that held the top five positions on the Japanese sales charts for 2011 and 2012, and have sold more than 20 million CDs in total. "I don't believe just doing this means I can be forgiven for what I did, but the first thing I thought was that I don't want to quit AKB48," the 20 year-old said, petitioning for lenience from both fans and band management.
Minegishi's apology has produced a round of marveling at the strangeness and cruelty of Japanese pop culture and its expectations of women. There is a bizarre incongruity in the band's blatantly sexual presentation—from regular appearances in bikinis to commercials where members pass a piece of candy to one another using only their mouths—with management's insistence that all its members have only "one-sided romantic feelings" for people. If not an explicit contractual obligation, it is an implicit mandate that, like a nun married to Christ, every AKB48 member remain loyal to a fantasy of romantic connection with the fans.
In our celebrity culture, it is male celebrities who are far more likely to marry fans. Steve Jobs' second wife was enamored of his early success with Apple while she was still a college student.
As Sam Byford reported in The Verge, the band's business structure is one that depends on fans participating in an ongoing and distantly reciprocal relationship with the musicians. At $40, the price of a full CD is prohibitively high in Japan, but AKB48 manages to sell cheaper singles by including raffle tickets with each copy that could win the fan a meeting with the band, and a voting ticket that allows the faithful to choose who will be the next band leader.
Unsurprisingly, these bizarre impositions of indirect sexual ownership have contributed to a number of incidents in which band members rebelled against their celebrity status. One member was discovered to have been in a relationship with a Japanese porn star, and another was arrested in a park one night while drunk and naked, apparently yelling at police "What's wrong with being naked?" (A fair question.)
The connection between male romantic desire and corporation-driven celebrity is not a figment of Japanese culture, but an overarching tendency that has its own permutations in all cultures. The belief that a fair and logical system can mediate a man's potential access to sex and romance overshadows much of Western culture in its own subtle ways. Writing about Girls in Slate, Daniel Engber described his disbelief in the way a recent episode had ignored the guidance of the invisible hand in the sexual commodities market.
"Narcissistic, childish men sleep with beautiful women all the time in movies and on TV, so why should this coupling be so difficult to fathom?" he asked. "I think it’s because Hannah is especially and assertively ugly in this episode. She’s rude (“what did you do?” she asks Joshua, referring to his broken marriage), self-centered (“I’m too smart and too sensitive”), sexually ungenerous (“no, make me come”), and defiantly ungraceful (naked ping-pong)....How can a girl like that get a guy like this?"
That demonstrated qualities in one area of life directly translate to desirability in another area is part of the Western myth of success. Beauty is social capital, and you cannot take ownership of someone else's social capital without an elaborate barter wherein wealth, intelligence, or power fill in the shortcomings of one's own beauty balance sheet. As an idea, there is nothing especially gendered about this, but in practice, and especially in America, it is men who seem most infatuated with this power dynamic.
In our celebrity culture, it is male celebrities who are far more likely to marry fans. Steve Jobs second wife was enamored of his early success with Apple while she was still a college student. Convinced they were destined to be together, she found a way to meet him and he soon after acquiesced to her fatalistic flattery. Kelly Preston grew up watching John Travolta in the Grease movies and was convinced it was her path in life to marry that man. When she reached Hollywood she created an occasion to introduce herself, and eventually they were married. Likewise, Corey Feldman's most recent wife (now divorced) first fell in love with the boy actor in Stand By Me and later chased him down in LA, where the couple married on a season finale of The Surreal Life. Even Priscilla Presley began as an adoring fan who convinced family friends to introduce her to Elvis, who she was sure would be the love of her life. It is hard to imagine an infatuated boy spending 10 years of his life building to a point where he could meet and seduce Ke$ha being greeted with the same openness.
The machinations of media and celebrity idolization are undergirded by the shadowy and aspirational idea that the universe give to men the gift of beauty in recognition of their intelligence, cleverness, and bravery. A woman being gifted with a beautiful partner is unfair, or at least so long as she's poor and unaccomplished. Minegishi is a hostage to this fantasy in her own way, repaid with fame and wealth for her willingness to stand in as a photoshopped, symmetrical ideal to keep a mass of boys yearning for romantic validation and intimacy that they seem to believe can only come through money and achievement.