Reality TV & Social Media: Are Bling Ring Teens Now Tweet/Like/Steal Thieves?

4 years ago

When I was in middle school, shoplifting was a twisted rite of passage for my friends. We were full of angst and surrounded by deep desire for the cool makeup, clothes and accessories (translation: the cool lives) we saw in Seventeen magazine. Those consumer desires met deeper desires for excitement and acceptance. Obviously a bad choice, shoplifting was the consumer version of our eating disorders and drug experiments, yielding us the coveted goods while letting us feel as powerful as we imagined sex would someday be. Our hauls were thrilling and nauseating, secrets that usually stayed hidden in the bottom of our lockers until thrown away.

I'm thankful Seventeen magazine was our only inspiration and very thankful that we didn't have Pinterest feeding us a constant drip of want or the temptation to show off our stolen wares on Facebook.

Fast forward those same adolescent confusions to a blingtastic media environment dominated by Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, the Kardashians and other wildly indulgent people -- famous mostly for being famous -- who overshare their every overly blinged blink and binge. Celebrity swag bag hauls are celebrated on YouTube and recreated on Pinterest, glamorous destinations are photographed by paparazzi and the celebs themselves, and a constant TMZ-fanned social media and Internet publication feed fuels a fan pressure to be wealthy, cool and Photoshop-defined gorgeous. For teen wannabees, the results of limitless exposure to this unrelenting fake glam fountain are bound to be corrosive.

Director Sofia Coppola's new film The Bling Ring tells the story of one monstrous creation of the contemporary celebrity culture. I think the most telling artifact about this movie is the official collection of Pinterest boards it is using for promotion. The Bling Ring is meta-meta commentary about the intersection of new media, vacant celebrity and identity. As someone who struggled with adolescent problems myself and as a mother who has been concerned about raising young adults in the age of celebrity cultdom and social media, I found it fascinating.

The Bling Ring is based on a true story as reported a few years ago in Vanity Fair. In 2008 and 2009, a handful of bored teenagers in southern California were trying to emulate the club-going lives of their idols. They were underage and didn't have as much access to luxury clothing and cash as they needed to play at that level. Surrounded with data about their conquests, they decided to steal the lifestyle that was dangled in front of them.

The young thieves decided the same social media channels and paparazzi machines that inspired them with stories about the wardrobes of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan could help them target when the celebs would be out of town. They successfully broke in to home after home, stealing their own gift bags full of luxury goods, hanging out repetitively at some mansions because doors were left open or keys were left under mats. Often the victims like Paris or The O.C. star Rachel Bilson possessed so much excess, multiple thefts at the same homes went undetected.

Media helped the gang target their victims, but it was also their undoing. The group was finally found out in part because they posted their loot on Facebook. You can read more about the real story behind the movie in Nancy Jo Sale's book or in an excerpt on New York magazine.

Every part of the story of The Bling Ring is creepy and scary, and the exploration raises so many questions. Is this what we have done to some young people by promoting such a morally bankrupt definition of "famous" and by making them feel as though they, too, could become a self-branded fashion and nightlife icon if only they had the right shoes? These kids lived out a secondhand reality show script only made possible by contemporary media fascinations. Do the new reality show stars, bloggers, have a cultural responsibility on these issues of promoting vacant consumerism and self-branding?

Seeing celebrities as above the law may have contributed to the teens' brazenness as well. Surely the thieves knew they could be caught, but they perhaps were aware that getting caught wouldn't be the end of the world -- in fact, if fame is a commodity, infamy is a super-valued currency. House arrest while wearing Louboutins just beneath your ankle cuff? All the biggest names have done it, seriously, #nbd.

The questions behind the Bling Ring story apply to the not-so-rich and not-so-famous, as well. Instagrammed Christmas hauls or photos of television sets, laptops and yes, shoes, can be found all across the economic spectrum, as are Facebook and Twitter updates of activities. Many teen and tween girls especially love to show their daily wardrobes and shopping hauls. Instagram is busting to the seams with their sharing and oversharing. Are they at risk? Seriously, most of us of all ages do this. We show the swimming pool from our vacation destination as our morning view on Facebook just a few scrolls after showing our own wardrobes or our television in an Instagrammed drool over Downton Abbey. Is what we do when we share safe? And if we aren't worried about actual loss, is what we do when we share the sort of flaunting that creates a current of greed that corrupts us all in different ways?

It's worth thinking about and talking to teens about. Are our kids unwittingly advertising the contents of their dorm rooms to other kids who worry they won't fit in if they don't have that iPad or those shoes? Does seeing celebrity goods or shared images from others create desire in them that leads to impulse buying or even shoplifting?

So much to consider. The movie itself isn't groundbreaking cinema, but the themes are rich, and it does a great job of taking a pulsebeat on the intersection of forming identities, media and technology. If The Bling Ring is an example of how reality television, fame culture and social media have affected our teens, I'm wondering if the next best step might be pull the plug, because the movie sort of made me want to try to break into Paris Hilton's house just to Tweet a selfie while dancing in her nightclub room, and I'm not really comfortable with that.

The Bling Ring opens Friday in some cities and across the nation next week.

What do you think?

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