It’s either feast or famine.
Some days I have nothing I want to write about. Some days – like today – I see a whole bunch of things that catch my eye and give me that little tingle that says, “oooh, don’t you want to add fuel to this fire?” Today I happen to be obsessed with two stories in particular. Both have to do with judgment – poor judgment – and the fickle Fun House mirror that is life and social media in 2021.
The first one deals with one of my favorite irrational obsessions, Claudia Conway. I know it’s not cool for a 58-year-old to obsess over a 16-year-old but I am no ordinary 58-year-old and Claudia, to be certain, is (we can only hope!) not a typical 16-year-old. Those of you who have read my blog for a while will be familiar with my earlier posts regarding lovely Claudia. If not, here, you can catch up:
Now that we’re all on the same page, this week’s juicy story has to do with our young heroine’s quest to be a contestant on American Idol. I haven’t watched AI in forever and I didn’t see Claudia’s audition. I will say, however, that in my experience the only AI episodes worth watching, ever, are the first couple weeks: the audition episodes. Once the actual competition is raging, blah, so what? But the auditions are mesmerizing either because the people are so horrific, or they are so talented and interesting. Either way, it’s good television. Sometimes you have a situation where the person is not all that special but they have a good backstory, one that pushes them into consideration whereas perhaps their talent alone probably wouldn’t have.
With regard to Claudia Conway, and apologies to The Mandalorian, this is the way.
It’s unusual, her story. The typical AI “special case” is the young single mom from the depths of poverty. She dropped out of school to have her baby, and got her GED at night while caring for her toddler and her mother, who is almost always laid up with a chronic or terminal illness. Both fathers are gone, because that’s what happens in these scenarios, and the contestant works graveyard shifts waitressing at the diner to barely pay her bills and keep the electricity on at home. Once a month she gets a free night, which she spends with friends at a local dive bar, singing karaoke. Without fail, her turns at the microphone are met with thunderous applause, and men who buy her drinks until the wee hours ply her with compliments alongside cheap beer: “Honey, yer so gooood you should definitely be on that ‘merican Idol! You’d win the whole shootin’ match. You could be a star!” And then, “Barkeep, another round over here.”
That’s the typical story. Claudia’s story is a little different.
The child of privilege, Claudia is unfortunate enough to be the spawn of two Type A conservatives, one with a conscience and the other without. Both parents lap at the spotlight like a dog laps melting ice cream, and thus Claudia has been raised by domestics (undocumented aliens, if life is as ironic as I believe it to be) and the Internet. Since social media is her whole support system, she’s built a following of hundreds of thousands of teens and ‘tweens, plus media pundits on both sides of her parents’ politics, plus serial capitalists lathering at her ability to draw an audience, plus a few perv dads, I’m sure, because one of Claudia’s lures is that she’s a precocious thing and enjoys provoking a reaction.
Claudia has gone off the rails a few times now, typically taking her parents with her. She especially seems to love decimating her mother. Kellyanne Conway is, at least, the parent without a conscience – or a human soul, some believe – so the damage is nominal at worst.
In her latest adventure Claudia has realized her dream of auditioning for American Idol. Her dad, lawyer and co-founder of The Lincoln Project, George Conway, stepped up to escort his princess through the process. I read that he left the audition to find a pharmacy so he could get her Band-Aids for her tortured feet, which had been crammed into uncomfortable high-heeled boots all day. Like I said, I didn’t see it. I don’t need to see it. I don’t have enough interest in either Claudia or her singing career or her talent or her trials or George’s devotion to his teenage daughter to want to watch it. What I AM interested in, though, is the outcry after her appearance and approval (in a 2-1 vote) to go through to the next round of the competition.
The outcry was so loud and immediate that ABC has begun to “rethink” how it will position Claudia’s participation in the competition. A Page Six article says, “Now an insider tells us the network is ‘rethinking how they are going to position Claudia and Kellyanne with promotion. They were big on putting Claudia in all of the promos, but now they are thinking of not putting as much focus on that.’”
ABC is owned by Disney, remember, and The Mouse is nothing if not consistent about the lines of decency they will cross when it comes to their produced entertainment content. When they purchased Hamilton for broadcast on Disney Plus, Lin Manuel Miranda famously had to delete one of the “fucks” from the film version of the award winning musical because of ratings requirements that would otherwise earn the film an “R” rating.
So when parents and pundits scream “exploitation,” which is a horrible word when grouped in the same sentence as “16-year-old,” of course ABC is going to push pause and reconsider their strategy. But is it exploitation?
Spoiler alert: Nope.
Exploitation is what Claudia has done, leveraging her outspoken, high profile parents to create a persona that’s – at best – inappropriate for someone of her age and circumstance.
Exploitation is what George and Kellyanne have done, making a public spectacle of announcing their decision to temporarily retire from their full time gigs to become full time parents, because that is what’s important.
Exploitation is the belief that Claudia's journey is just another talented teen with a golden throat and dreams a mile high.
Claudia created herself as a brand, people. She was neglected long enough for this to happen, and then aided by parents who had no idea how to put the Claudia back in the bottle. Brand Claudia – not sweet 16 teenager Claudia – wanted a career arc as a singer, and when she chose American Idol as her vehicle instead of The Voice or X Factor or America’s Got Talent or Dancing With the Stars or any one of another dozen clones, all ABC did was say, “Yes, little lady, come right this way.” All they had to do was shut up, congratulate themselves for their good fortune and fire up the printing presses.
That is not exploitation. That is gratitude when the universe hands you a gift.
Be angry, if you want. Be horrified, if you must. But leave ABC and the producers out of it. Because while it’s arguably every decent human being’s job to help protect 16-year-olds from making bad decisions, the footnote to that rule states, “Except when the 16-year-old is a member of an intact, privileged, affluent, connected, white, highly public nuclear family whose matriarch and patriarch are known primarily for leveraging news and social media to reinforce their own widely disparate agendas.” In that case, all bets are off.
At some point in the past, Kellyanne and George had an opportunity to be parents, which they declined to do. When they attempted to seize that opportunity it was too late, and the spectacle that ensued exacerbated the problem. Now they are positioning themselves as caring parents, supporting the wholesome dream their daughter has of being an American Idol. But the dark reality is, all they can do is sit back and let Claudia drive the bus at this point. And pray they don’t crash through the guardrail along the way.
Kellyanne and George Conway are not the only bad parents in the news. The second news item that set me off is Smilin’ Ted Cruz, the most pathetic of the first-tier Donald Trump sycophants ever to draw breath. Well, maybe one of the top two or three. No, nevermind, the most pathetic.
I say Senator Cruz is pathetic because after being destroyed by Donald Trump in his bid for President in 2016; after locating his balls, standing up for himself and declining to endorse Trump for President at the Republican National Convention; and after Trump tweeted pictures of his and Ted’s wives, side by side, and said, “The images are worth a thousand words,” Teddy nonetheless fell in line with his party’s GOP, fell in line with the President and Trumpism, fell in line with supporting – and then defending – insurrection against democracy and our national Capitol.
I say pathetic because Donald Trump has said the following things about Ted Cruz, publicly, recorded and documented:
- “(he’s) the single biggest liar I have ever dealt with in my life.”
- “He's like a little baby. Soft, weak, little baby…”
- “He's a nasty, nasty guy."
- “I actually think he's a very unstable person.”
- “Ted Cruz is a total hypocrite and, until recently, a Canadian citizen…”(Cruz was born in Canada to an American mother, and has always been a US citizen, as well as a Canadian citizen.)
- “…he's got a mental problem.”
- “He's choking like a dog because he's losing so badly.”
You can chock all of that up to politics and to Donald Trump being the world’s most visible and (formerly) powerful vulgarian, but the guy called his wife ugly. He put his mail order supermodel bride out there next to Mrs. Ted Cruz and said, “suck it, Ted.” That is some cold, cold business. Who does that?
Apparently, in 2016, Cruz said: "I am not in the habit of supporting people who attack my wife and attack my father. ... that pledge was not a blanket commitment that if you go and slander and attack Heidi, that I'm going to nonetheless come like a servile puppy dog and say, 'thank you very much for maligning my wife and my father.’”
Huh. Funny, ‘cause that’s just what you did, Ted. Exactly that.
But all of this has nothing to do with Ted being a bad dad. No, the bad dad part came this week as millions of Texas residents, residents of the state Ted Cruz serves, the people who pay his salary, were freezing in unprecedented winter weather. Freezing inside the massive failure of the state’s power grid. Wandering snow covered streets looking for wood to burn to stay alive. At the height of this, after a “tough week,” Ted Cruz and his wife were seen boarding a plane to Cancun for an impromptu family holiday.
As images of the family Cruz winging to paradise raced across the Twitterverse, people lost their minds. In an era where outrage is just another word for nothing left to lose, it’s easy to misstep. It’s easy to be tone deaf. Of course when you’re a career politician with an army of well-paid handlers, it should arguably be harder to do so, but let’s have some perspective and cut Ted a break. With cameras and computers everywhere and a 24-hour news cycle, everyone can trip over their shoelaces sometimes.
I mentioned my wife used to direct middle school musicals. I have heard her say, “Everybody messes up. It’s how you recover that makes the difference.” Ted Cruz should have been in a middle school musical in my school district, because he never learned this lesson. Caught red-handed (because his winter skin was suddenly sunburned, get it?), first Ted lied and said he was only escorting his family there, and flying back the next day – a lie he later recanted, reluctantly, when personal texts between his family and others were published. Then, he threw the Dad card: He agreed it was a bad move, insensitive at best. But he did it, like any good father would, to placate his daughters, ages 10 and 12.
Now Ted Cruz may be a great dad. He may be a dad willing to do anything – literally anything – for his kids’ well-being. To lay down his life if necessary. I empathize with this. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for my kids, I believe that wholeheartedly. But as a father I know the main job of a parent is to teach children how to be good human beings.
“It doesn’t matter who you are inside, it’s what you do that defines you.” That’s the message from Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. It’s one of the movies my son and I share among our favorites. And this lesson from the movie is one my son has latched onto – all by himself, by the way – and embraced as an adult, which makes me proud beyond belief.
When I was a kid I remember a poster in my pediatrician’s office. It said, Children Learn What They Live. You may remember it, it's a poem by Dorothy Lew Nolte. It says, among other things:
- If a child lives with criticism, He learns to condemn.
- If a child lives with shame, He learns to feel guilty.
- If a child lives with fairness, He learns justice.
- If a child lives with acceptance and friendship, He learns to find love in the world.
What does a child who lives with callous self-absorption and no fixed moral center learn, I wonder? I guess we can watch and find out in a decade or so.
So Ted Cruz made a stupid, selfish decision. He thought NOT FOR ONE SECOND about the people who pay him to represent them, and made a bad decision. Then he lied about it. Then he blamed it on his children, his younger than teenage children, who he – as a good father – was obligated to indulge by getting them out of harm’s way and into a bathing suit.
It isn’t really about being a bad parent at all, once you step back and look at it in its entirety. Ted Cruz has been a public servant his whole life, but intent on serving himself. When it served him to stand up for his family against brutish Donald Trump, he did. When it served him to cower like a “servile puppy dog,” he did. When it served him to abandon the Constitution to curry favor – or preserve it – he did. When he was caught being a self-absorbed, privileged phony, he owned up to nothing other than being devoted to his children.
I am amazed, jaw-droppingly amazed, at how many repulsive people there are. I never imagined it. And I think Donald Trump may be to thank for this: not for the number of repulsive people, certainly, but for giving them the courage to drop their guard and embrace their selfishness, embrace their racism, embrace their callous disregard for others, including – and in some cases, especially – those they are called upon to serve.
I want to live in a world where parents take responsibility for themselves, which ultimately breeds children who will – hopefully, with guidance and work and luck – learn to take responsibility for themselves. I want to live in a world where we are allowed to fail, as long as we agree to be motivated by the desire to do good; to prioritize others’ needs alongside our own. I want to live in a world where Claudia Conway is a high school sophomore and Ted Cruz is not a public servant.
We can do better; I know we can. We have to do better.