It’s unclear whether the Michael Jackson jury delivered a debilitating blow to the tabloids and “news” shows that make up the Wacko Jacko industry or gave it a fortifying shot in the arm. No one suspects Jackson is innocent in the broader sense of not doing anything his fellow citizens think is weird, but no one should see him as one of America’s Most Wanted or as any kind of actual dangerous criminal. His arrest and trial was an entertainment industry showpiece and it had absoutely nothing to do with justice or law and order. It was like a summer blockbuster that people feel obliged to see though they can muster little real enthusiasm for it. It seemed as though everyone felt like they had to talk about this trial even though no one was especially captivated by it. Just one of the many ways we experience entertainment as coersion, proving yet again how little autonomy we really experience in that field.
By transforming himself into a hermetic gender-ambiguous plastic-surgery disaster, Jackson performed that great service of providing a society with a distracting boogeyman to divert attention from the decidedly dull institutions — banks that discriminate in their loaning practices, elections commissions that disenfranchise the poor, twenty members of political bodies like the Senate who won’t sponsor anti-lynching measures and thereby perpetrate racism’s cloak of respectability in the American South, insurance companies who won’t cover children who they deem to be bad inevestments, oil companies that declare that burning fossil fuels have nothing to do with global warming and invest huge sums in political races to assure that nothing is done about it — that are actually systematically perverting justice and making lives miserable for vast swaths of people. Wacko Jacko gives reporters and media consumers alike something to be preoccupied with so they don’t have to contemplate these dull issues, and for that he should be thanked, not tried.
The argument in favor of the publicity celebrity show trials receive has something to do with their functioning the way myths are supposed to, affording a culture a shared story through which values about certain difficult topics such as the sexualization of children and the unstable foundations of our concepts of gender are worked out. Our society is naturally quite ambivalent about the sexualization of children even as it continues unabated, fomented by the same media outlets who scurry to cater to the public rage at Jackson’s alleged pedophilia. The trial perhaps allows people to feel like the problem is being addressed so they can safely ignore the copious evidence to the contrary. There’s something powerful, too, in seeing someone ambiguously gendered being publicly punished — it makes us all a little more secure in our own sexuality, a little more vigiliant in maintaining our own gender-appropriate postures. It vindicates our own conformity and justifies our own quiet desperation when weirdos are publicly humiliated.