The Runaway Bride Cashes In
Along with the news that Mark Felt’s family has signed a book deal, though a modest one, for some form of “Deep Throat” memoirs, comes the expected but revolting news that so-called “runaway bride” Jennifer Wilbanks will receive something in the realm of a half-million dollars for the media rights to her [pick one] a) story b) national humiliation 3) silly stunt 4) betrayal of her family and community.
It is a constant challenge to ethicists everywhere that bad behavior really does pay off sometimes, and Wilbanks is just the most recent example. G. Gordon Liddy, Joey Buttafucco, Monica Lewinski, Paris Hilton, Jason Blair, Jessica Hahn the list of those who managed to cash in on the infamy created by egregious misbehavior is long and contains virtually nobody that anyone in their right mind would want to be trapped on a desert island with. Still, America’s relentless and apparently incurable obsession with celebrity makes people like Jennifer Wilbanks a marketable commodity.
Recognizing that the reported $500,000 fee given to Wilbanks and her fiancée would be a temptation to most of us, is it a temptation that she and John Mason should have refused?
In a word, yes. Accepting the money makes a complete mockery of any apologies or regret expressed by Wilbanks in the wake of her bizarre disappearance; one cannot sincerely reject one’s misdeeds and then accept payment for them. It also represents a full embrace of the celebrity identity the misadventure conferred on her: Jennifer Wilbanks, Weirdo Runaway Bride With Freaky Eyes. She could choose to go on from this fiasco, make amends to her community, become a productive member of it, and leave whatever shreds of infamy remain for future “Whatever Became Of ?” cable TV shows in 2015. But with this deal, she and maybe-eventually-husband Mason officially accept media freak status, and the implied values that go with it: “Humiliate me, ridicule me, have me played by Tori Spelling, but show me the money.” As for her family, community, and future children, their dignity has been sold along with Jennifer’s.
The decision to take the money represents a clear verdict that money is worth more than ethical values to these two newly-minted celebrities. Mayor Shirley Lasseter of Duluth, Georgia, which is the town that set off a nation-wide search for their missing bride while Jennifer blithely navel-gazed in Las Vegas, said she hoped that Wilbanks would give the money to charity. She was not reported as saying that she also hopes Wilbanks would sprout albatross feathers and fly to Pluto, but that wish is just about as likely to be realized.
“I just think it’s sinful that we are allowed to profit over wrongdoings,” the mayor said. “I think every cent she makes needs to be given to organizations for missing children and adults so it can be used to help someone in a situation which she created falsely.”
That would certainly be the virtuous and ethical thing to do, but how many of us would be able to rise to that standard, especially when the clear message sent by the media and the consuming public is that we can be richly rewarded for bad behavior, if it gets enough publicity? Let’s see: on one side, contrition, apologies, and restitution, and on the other, a half-million dollar pay-off and an indefinite extension of the fifteen minutes of fame. Which is the right choice? That’s obvious. But it sure isn’t the easy choice, the popular choice, or the likely choice.
This is because American society overwhelmingly says that the big money pay-off is the smart choice, that Wilbanks and others would be chumps not to take their infamy to the bank. Her decision, as essentially unethical as it is, is a direct reflection of the cultural consensus that everything, even essential ethical values, has a price. We can join Jennifer’s neighbors in their anger over her enrichment, but she is only reflecting a cultural hierarchy that puts money and fame at the top of our values system, and media-driven societal obsession with celebrity that makes bad behavior profitable. That’s where the real anger should be directed.