Mary Grabar

Depression emerges from the grimness of money, superficial love, sexual exploitation.

So with our stories, whether in books or over the airwaves, that have no message. There is no right or wrong. There are no wages of sin. Since the beginning of the twentieth century we watch (and read, but less and less) without judgment stories that are presented as a slice of life, without any moral meaning. If we are literary sophisticates, we read literature that demonstrates a writer’s cleverness and share his jaded view and predigested political bromides on sex, race, and class. As for the visual media, we stare and stare, but don’t know why or what to make of it.

As Smith attempted to exploit the system and a dying man so was she exploited in the end. This kind of stuff happens in the books worth reading. Anna Nicole wannabes wait in the wings. For not only in the media, but in the educational system we are trained to value spectacle. Calls for papers on “spectacle” and sex come from the University of Pennsylvania’s list for English professors. Academics in all seriousness discuss Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s sex life at conferences.

The feminists in academia have been promoting the use of the body as empowerment. Scholarly journals have been publishing articles about sex workers for years. In fact, a “Sex Workers Art Show” has been touring since January 25, with the majority of its stops on twenty college campuses, such as the College of William and Mary, the University of Pennsylvania, and Bard College. The shows, funded by student fees and women’s studies departments, feature prostitutes, displays of sex toys, and women stripping to g-strings and pasties.

Yes, nudity and sex work are considered legitimate endeavors of academic study. One of the performers, Stephen Elliott, a former stripper, pens autobiographical fiction about sadomasochism and teaches a creative writing workshop sponsored by the literary journal Tinhouse, when he is not writing his column for the Huffington Post. Sex work is mainstream. It is the stuff of academic papers and literary writing in English departments. Anna Nicole Smith is an American success story both in the culture that worships Donald Trump and Hugh Hefner and in the culture that sends Ph.D.’s to conferences. Smith was an strong, self-made woman who worked the system to her advantage, like any “sex worker,” goes the logic. An American success story. A feminist in the tradition of Madonna.

Or is she?

In the classroom today, the idea of literature conveying a moral message is disparaged. Political criteria—the trinity of race, class, and gender--are applied to even explicitly religious texts of the Middle Ages, such as the morality play, “Everyman.”

In this play, “Everyman” is abandoned by all his friends and his attributes like wealth and talent, as he is about to die. Of course, “man” here indicates mankind, all human beings.

But it is a morality play and its intention is to teach a lesson. That is what stories do. They show us what happens to other people. Aristotle wrote that tragedy draws us in because we empathize with otherwise noble people who have tragic flaws. By watching their downfalls unfold we experience a catharsis.

The tragedy of Anna Nicole Smith’s story, though, lies with the audience that no longer can recognize such a thing as tragedy or the lesson to be learned from her story—that selling one’s body and soul is not “empowerment.”

Mary Grabar

Mary Grabar earned her Ph.D. in English from the University of Georgia and teaches in Atlanta. She is organizing the Resistance to the Re-Education of America at Her writing can be found at