The Eyes of JonBenet Ramsey

THE PICTURES OF JonBenet Ramsey that have filled television screens and tabloid covers since her murder--hundreds of them, it seems, every one in some sense the same image--are as resonant as they are grotesque; and they are grotesque beyond words. Here is little JonBenet on the cover of the Star with her big hair and red mouth and dead eyes, all decked out in one of her cowgirl fuck-me get-ups. Here is JonBenet on TV, vamping robotically past the judges just like the big girls do right before they undertake to explain their difficult and heartfelt decision to pray for world peace, or learn a foreign language. Seeing so much of her, it is hard not to wonder what would have become of JonBenet Ramsey if she had lived. One imagines more competitions, more titles, perhaps a few commercial endorsements, followed by a life of monogrammed possessions and faked orgasms as someone's trophy wife. Ruminate on it a while and this prospect feels almost as inexorable as the path of a wind-up toy; there is that little intimation of life in young Miss Ramsey at age 6.

The eyes are the chilling thing. As Doug Ireland pointed out a couple of weeks ago, she had mastered the model's trick of smiling with only her mouth, the better to prevent wrinkles later on. In every picture past the age of 3 or so, her eyes seem bottomlessly empty. Her body knows what to do, but those eyes don't. They want to be mirrors; they know not and care not of what. In this they are still the eyes of a child, albeit one under duress, and it's their innocence that makes them terrible. It is a kind of terminal innocence that promises: I will learn nothing from experience. I will make no claims of my own upon the world. I will remain available to your gaze, whatever it contains, and bear no witness to what it might say about you.

Much has already been written about the sexualization of JonBenet Ramsey and all the other girls in the thousands of little-miss pageants across the country. We would do well not to ignore its obverse, which is the fetishizing of children's innocence--particularly that of girl children--as a means of sustaining the culture's perverse faith in its own unspoiled nature. The cult of innocence is the root of our claim to be a child-loving society, and one of the most salient measures of our child-loathing. The promise of JonBenet on the runway, playing grown-up fantasy object, is the promise of all things desirable, had without responsibility or consequence at the expense of a child: a promise not of her innocence but the onlooker's. This is obscene. But it's hardly more obscene than a quarter of the nation's children living in poverty, or the willful addition of a few million more by the Clinton/Gingrich welfare overhaul, all so that an increasingly well-off minority can enjoy the good life, without responsibility or consequence, at the expense of other people's children. America's contempt for its young is one of the first things to strike visitors from other countries, and one would expect no more or less from a nation that worships so devoutly at the altar of the market--by whose lights children can only be seen as a cash drain and a miserable investment, the payoff taking as long as it typically does. Amid all the crocodile tears being shed over JonBenet Ramsey, we can say that she at least paid off handsomely in use-value during her short life.

NOT SINCE SCHINDLER'S List has a "serious" movie gotten a critical free ride comparable to the one accorded Milos Forman's The People vs. Larry Flynt. It's a better, less formulaic love story than Hollywood usually tells these days, thanks in large part to Courtney Love's edgy performance. But as a paean to the best and freest darn country in the world, which is what it means to be, it's entirely gutless. Here is a movie about the most notorious vulgarian of the 1970s that features nary an exemplar of Hustler's real meat and potatoes, the proudly garish beaver shot; this point is tastefully, as it were, glossed. Nor does the movie bother asking into the larger ethos of the magazine for its readers, a lumpen mass that falls beneath the lofty gaze of Forman and his intended audience of adult-ed civics students. The movie ceaselessly flatters the liberal puffery to which its audience subscribes while taking care never to test it. As Jeffrey Lyons might say, it's the feel-good movie of the season.

THOSE RAT BASTARDS at America Online, where some 8 million unfortunates still get their Internet access, are striking another blow for postmodern customer relations. Just weeks after instituting a flat-fee, unlimited-use billing scheme, AOL president Steve Case demurely requested that people use the service less to give everyone a chance; some 20 attorneys general are weighing fraud actions against Case's company. Now the braintrust at AOL has conceived an ingenious means of keeping the minds of Macintosh users off the inaccessibility of the service: by breaking their computers altogether. Last weekend my fiancee (foolishly, she now admits) downloaded AOL Version 3.0 for Mac. When she installed it, her computer froze and would not restart. She phoned an AOL tech, who told her to phone Apple. The Apple tech told her that this is happening to countless Mac users owing to serious bugs in the 3.0 software--which is still in beta test version, though AOL does not tell you so. She has since spent $250 on a peripheral drive and software to repair the problem, and may yet lose all the data that had been stored on her hard drive. There are days when it seems sad that the kneecapping of CEOs never caught on in this country.

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