Why Do We Love Scandals?

As Laura Kipnis put it, the Lisa Nowak scandal — your classic love triangle, plus astronauts and diapers — was “almost better than fiction.” It’s the first story Kipnis explores in her How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior, which deconstructs the self-destructive, publicly staged, often hugely irrational actions of more or less ordinary people. “I was really trying to figure out my own fascination with the subject – why my eye was always drawn to those stories first when I read the paper,” explained Kipnis, also the author of Against Love: A Polemic. She chatted with Zócalo about what makes a good scandal, why adultery scandals never get old, and whether scandals are ever redemptive for the person involved or for all the people watching.

Q. What makes for the ideal scandal?

How to Become a Scandal by Laura KipnisA. Scandals involving love and betrayal I find particularly compelling, I admit – they’re the closest to home, right? The first two stories in the book are about people who’ve been injured in love in different ways. Adultery scandals do interest me especially (I wrote a previous book on this subject, I should mention), though it’s the most quotidian form of scandal obviously. The main point to consider is that every scandal at some level has to do with people simply failing to negotiate some major social contradiction, but doing it in a particularly public, sometimes almost theatrical way. But the basic contradictions are ones we all face: the conflict between trying to uphold monogamy and wanting sexual freedom is probably fairly common, though if you have enough social prestige and act your conflicts out in public, you can become a national scandal.

But I was also interested in the kinds of scandals where someone previously unknown propelled themselves to national attention. In some of these cases, there’s a fuzzy line between crime and scandal, like with Amy Fisher, the teenager from Long Island who shot her married boyfriend’s wife. Or Lorena Bobbitt, of course. But here are two women acting in violent ways that defy gender stereotypes and in very attention-getting ways – it didn’t matter that they were unknown.

Q. Why don’t we tire of the adultery scandal?

A. For one thing, the temptation and pleasure of moralizing about other peoples transgressions lets us off the hook for transgressions we’ve committed or may be contemplated committing. The great moment in this regard was the Clinton impeachment committee, half of whom turned out to be adulterers themselves, even though they were going on about family values and trying to toss Clinton out of the presidency for moral breeches. Something you do see over and over in scandal is the unmasking of hypocrites. But as far as social transgressions, people get involved in these stories in different ways – you can identify, you can dis-identify, you can moralize, you can feel elevated in the social hierarchy when a powerful or prestigious person falls. At the same time, I think there can also be an element of pleasure in people breaking the rules. We’ve always been fascinated as a culture by criminals and people who transgress social codes. There’s a tinge of  pleasure when the norms get violated and business as usual gets disrupted.

There’s also is a lot of pleasure in exposing people’s secrets. I talk about Freud’s theory of the primal scene in the book: hearing or glimpsing your parents having sex, or the childhood mystery of where babies come from – there’s this urge to unlock sexual secrets that our lives inside the hothouse of the nuclear family prepare us for. It goes back to very early in our psychological functioning. You see the echoes of that in adult life in the scandal-exposing process.

Q. Do scandals reinforce social norms, or can they sometimes change them?

A. Yes I think scandals can shift society, though social norms are also shifting all the time. Certain things are more scandalous now than they once were, and vice versa. Take illegitimate birth, which was once quite scandalous. Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini – that was a huge scandal at the time, and wouldn’t be today. But then adultery is actually far more scandalous than it once was because the expectations of marriage are higher now: people are hyper-sensitive about spousal affairs, which wasn’t always the case. So the rules can get pushed and shifted by scandal, but in either direction.

Q. What drives someone to become a scandal?

Laura Kipnis (c) Julie KaplanA. It varies so much. In writing these cases up, I often felt like a detective. The scandalizers were scattering clues around in public, leaving trails, and I was tracking them like a bloodhound and putting the story together, trying to construct the psychological profile of the person who had done this particular thing. That was a lot of the pleasure of writing, feeling like I got to some essence of kernel of a motive with each of them. But in every scandal, there are conflicts and desires at work that are essentially rebellious and antisocial, though they’re desires we all share. Take monogamy, which is one of our key social norms. Let’s face it, people often want more sex or love or attention or some combination of those things than they’re getting in a marriage. That’s a simple way to think about why somebody gets themselves into a scandal. They just wanted more, and they didn’t negotiate their way around relevant prohibitions with enough finesse. At the same time, there’s often a certain self-destructive element you see in these scandal situations, as if  there was a need to get exposed and punished and humiliated. The point to consider is that there are people doing the same things as these terrible scandalizers, but somehow don’t become scandals. So what determines who gets exposed and who doesn’t? I think it’s more than luck. What you see in a lot of these cases is someone setting him or herself up for exposure, as if they’re seeking punishment.

Q. Can scandals and the punishment for them ever be redemptive?

A. The scandals that seem most interesting to me are the ones where people wreck their lives and don’t recover, there isn’t an easy path to redemption. Though that’s become more rare, I think there is less shame generally about many transgressions than there once was. But there are also people who are humiliated in ways that simply never going to recover from. And for society, that’s probably important. It shows where the boundaries are. But also, scandals are social purity rituals, in which we throw the transgressors out and then feel better about ourselves as a result – cleansed, purified.

Q. What determines who recovers from scandal?

A. I think it depends on the nature of the scandal. Take somebody like Eliot Spitzer: scandal is always going to follow him around, but he’s gone on to have a second act. Monica Lewinsky is always going to be known for these salacious details – the cigar, and so on. But has semi-recovered?  The Lisa Nowak scandal – the astronaut – was particularly shameful because of the element of the diaper. I don’t know if she can recover from that. It seems to depend on how much humiliation was involved and maybe how much irrationality.

I’ve been asked a lot about the other side of this: celebrity culture – people releasing sex tapes and foisting their private life onto the public then going on a talk show to apologize, and I don’t think this really counts as scandal. They’re not significantly violating social norms, at least not ones we really care about. But someone violating significant norms in ways that heap scorn on them – that’s harder to recover from and more what I mean by scandal.

Q. How do larger scandals, say the Catholic Church controversy, operate?

A. In the book I focused more on individual scandals. With the Catholic Church you’re talking about an institutional scandal, which operates along different lines, though of course there are individuals involved. But in these cases, we’re talking about an institution engaged in some kind of conspiracy or complicity in keeping secrets to protect itself. It’s a somewhat different dynamic. I’m sure you could write a case study of each individual priest, and unravel the story of their psychological and sexual formation, and of course there would also be larger point to make about the role of sex in the Catholic Church.

Q. Are Americans uniquely obsessed with scandal?

A. I didn’t try to get cross cultural in the book, because you’d have to know each different culture you were writing about incredibly well to understand its particular social codes. As an American I can write about American scandal because I’m part of this culture: I know its taboos very intimately. What you can say is that every culture has its own taboos and norms, and they differ. Of course, there are also universal taboos: incest and murder. But sexual mores are often pretty different from society to society. Even the way people conduct themselves bodily and what’s considered a bodily transgression is different from culture to culture. In some cultures it’s a scandal for a woman to show her face! So obviously what counts as scandalous can’t be generalized. As to whether Americans are more fascinated, I think every culture is fascinated by its transgresssors.

*Photo of Laura Kipnis by Julie Kaplan, courtesy Henry Holt and Company. Photo of shame-faced man courtesy Rob.


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