Last week Jennifer Lopez performed at a birthday party for Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, the dictator of Turkmenistan. For Foreign Policy, I analyze the anxiety behind the outrage that ensued:
Celebrities and dictators have a lot in common. They lead lavish lifestyles acquired by questionable means, insulated from the everyday people whom they claim to represent. “Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got/ I’m still Jenny from the block,” Lopez sang, a sentiment little different from that of Berdimuhamedov who commented that his “biography is in many respects typical of people of my generation.” Celebrities and dictators engage in contrived pageantry — Lopez with her tabloid relationships, Berdimuhamedov and his rigged horse races — and surround themselves with acolytes who tell them they can do no wrong. Their bloated presence is felt everywhere.
Most importantly, celebrities and dictators are rarely punished for bad behavior. They violate social, moral, and legal codes and not only get away with it, but find their reputations and opportunities enhanced. “I’m tired of pretending I’m not special. I’m tired of pretending I’m not a total bitchin’ rock star from Mars,” Charlie Sheen famously proclaimed in what was perceived at the time as an epic career meltdown — but which culminated in a new TV series buoyed by the publicity.
Celebrity dictatorship scandals hit home because they remind us that those with money and power sin without consequence. In places like Turkmenistan, we are powerless to fight the dictator. But we can take down the celebrity outside of our social borders, and by extension, the casual greed which he or she embodies — a morality tale satisfying to a public otherwise uneasy with discussing privilege, power and class.