Following the death of legendary Polish sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, Łukasz Muniowski uses his work to explore Sarah Lynn the Disposable Celebrity, trash and right-wing representation of its others.
Celebrity and commodity culture are inseparable. While the claim that celebrities are the new royalty may hold some truth, there are only a few celebrities that actually experience the kind of life associated with royals. Others may aspire to that kind of fame, and are lucky if they catch even a glimpse of it. After all, the media spectacle always needs new, fresh faces to keep viewers captivated. It can always capitalize on those left behind with the aid of the nostalgia industry or via shows like Celebrity Rehab, because that is where the industry’s rejects ultimately land. This is of course an oversimplification of what it means to be a celebrity, but since they are treated like objects insofar as their goal is to be consumed, then the destination of used-up celebrities should be even more obvious. That said, perhaps there is something less generally capitalist and more specifically neoliberal about our celebrity culture.
BoJack Horseman‘s aim is to satirize celebrity in innovative ways, tackling topics like celebrity abortions, workaholism and fake charity. One of the show’s reoccurring jokes is the disposability of celebrities, who are shown nervously clinging to their fame. Each character wants to leave this type of life behind, but they are unable to do so because they are already addicted to admiration and live in fear of being forgotten (in the show the famously reclusive J.D. Salinger is the creator of a celebrity quiz show). Far from discussing all of this infinitely complex comedy, here I focus on just one particular character, even a s seemingly marginal one.
Image for the HKRB by Jeremy Simmons
Sarah Lynn appears in just 8of the 37 episodes and yet is crucial to the presentation of the threat of celebrity culture. Her backstory is that she played the youngest of three kids step-fathered by BoJack in the hit TV show Horsin’ Around. Their special on-screen relationship eventually transcended off-screen as well, as at some point she describes BoJack as a father figure, while he in turn admits that he loves her. The fact that their bond does not stop them from having sex with one another during one of their benders may signify some deeper issues, that I am not qualified, nor interested to examine, as “that’s too much, man.” That was her characters’ catchphrase in Horsin’ Around. That was the line she used in every episode she appeared in. Literally, every episode. Every episode. Do you get it? You will get it when you watch to show. You will also get what I am doing right now.
Whilst BoJack and Sarah Lynn genuinely like each other, their honest admission of this always falls on the other’s deaf ears, as both are so deeply engulfed in Hollywoo egotism that they really do not care enough to listen. Although they want to, they are just unable to focus on another person for the duration of a whole sentence. The most fun that they have is when either discussing or watching old episodes of their show – when their celebrity was fresh and fun, both trying desperately to turn the spotlight on themselves once again. Sarah Lynn does this by forming a power couple with Andrew Garfield or overtly sexualizing her image in order to arouse public interest. Early on BoJack teaches Sarah that without public admiration she will be worthless, developing in her the fear of irrelevance. When he says: “your family will never understand you, your lovers will leave you or try to change you, but you’re fans, you’ll be good to them and they’ll be good to you,” BoJack sums up the mindset of a certain kind of celebrity.
In his article “O przemijaniu trwania” (“On Passing of Duration,” published in the collection Śmieć w kulturze, 2015) Zygmunt Bauman refers to Mary Douglas’ thesis that trash is something out of place, that does not belong. Bauman argues that trash is the by-product of order, so its existence implies that a certain order may not exist, but is by all accounts possible. Nowadays the idea of commodification stretches to time, feelings and, ultimately, people. The neoliberal impulse to finally take control of our lives – which in the most basic terms means for us to work more, whether it be on our (celebrity) careers, bodies or shopping habits – is more dominant than ever before. It is therefore obvious that a character like Sarah Lynn, who is so easily controlled by others and simultaneously does not allow herself to be controlled by social restraints, is considered faulty, therefore disposable – a topic which Bauman touches at large in his book Wasted Lives. Modernity and its Outcasts (2004).
Bauman stresses the growing number of individuals who are not only disposable, but even paralyzed by the thought of one day becoming disposable. He criticizes reality television and game shows for implying that life is a zero-one type of game in which few winners are the only ones that belong, while the losers are sent to the rubbish dump where they fight a constant battle for survival. While Bauman uses his term “human waste” to characterize modern phenomena like the perception of refugees in society and right-wing media (Strangers at Our Door, 2016), it can also be used to characterize individuals like Sarah Lynn, whose failure to adapt inevitably leads to death.
Sarah is pale, has tattoos and stitches. In no way does she resemble the little girl from the show. BoJack wants to save her, but to do so needs to save himself. He obviously does not know how to do either. The main problem is that, just like her audience, he does not see Sarah for who she really is, but remembers and treats her as Sabrina from Horsin’ Around. She just needs to act sad and he immediately does what she wants. He neglected her in the past, when she really needed a role model, so his actions are partially motivated by guilt. It also works the other way round – BoJack’s on-screen declarations are what she remembers as true. Both are victims of the Hollywoo illusion. Fans on the other hand do not have that special relationship with her and naturally, as she becomes thirty, stop caring about her altogether. BoJack calls her only when he’s in need of drugs, but this is actually the only time she wants to meet with him.
Sarah is “human waste,” because there is just no place for her in the so-called real world. She clearly rejects any rules of social conduct by making a spectacle of herself whenever she is in public. Even though her very original catchphrase – “Suck a dick dumbshits!” – may signify that Sarah is not concerned with what anyone thinks, she is actually addicted to always having someone to not even look up to her, but just at her. She is willing to perform whenever someone is interested – like “taking a dump” in public only when someone (Dammit Todd!) is willing to look. She herself has to be relegated to the dump, in order to be used by the neoliberal propaganda as a cautionary tale. In neoliberalism potential is key – it is not who you are, but who you can become. Although her inner demons would not allow her to, Sarah Lynn needs to be presented as someone with all the potential in the world. Look at her, she won an Academy Award, she could have been anyone she wanted, and yet she overdosed. Do not let the same thing happen to you. Focus! Take care of yourself! Produce! Be happy!
Whilst the fictional Sarah Lynn of contemporary cartoon satire should not elicit our sympathy or attention in a way to rival the “human waste” that Bauman discusses, what she shows us is that if we are going to halt the right-wing media’s horrific treatment of its ‘others,’ we need not only to complain about the biased language of the Right (and even the mainstream) but to attack the whole ideology of neoliberalism right at its core. Bauman’s work could be a great help in this endeavor.
Łukasz Muniowski is a doctoral student at the Institute of English Studies, University of Warsaw, Poland. In addition to digital game criticism, he has published articles on Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, Hubert Selby Jr., and Jack Kerouac. His doctoral dissertation focusses on the achievements of leading NBA players after Michael Jordan.
Jeremy Simmons is a writer, artist and game designer who keeps very late hours. His writing explores dreams (and nightmares), time and the inexplicable nature of the human condition. His work has appeared in Best Modern Voices, ShortVine and The News Record, among others.