The C List, or How to Weigh Social Capital

While the kids at Columbine High were being given preschool sensitivity training in order to prevent retaliation by the nerds, grown-ups in New York were up to their own cruder version of high school cliquism, carving up guest lists into elite and pariah.

At a party in the Hamptons, attendees who wished to relieve themselves were obliged to use Portosan potties, dotted around the lawn, while friends and celebrities on the A list were given access to powder rooms and a glimpse at the objets d’art within.

At the Talk inaugural party on Liberty Island, journalists and writers who considered themselves boldface names (and in most gatherings would have been) were upstaged by the Miramax-Hollywood crowd. Megawatt movie stars and rap icons were ferried over on the Star Barge while their B-list lower-profile co-invitees were shuttled across New York Harbor like anonymous boat people.

According to a report in this paper, Tina Brown, casting about for guests in the doldrums of August, had invited women whose kids had play dates with Ms. Brown’s own children, which leads to a whole category: the C list, brought in as filler. And a new avenue for self-promotion: tot networking. “Darling, you be nice to Tina’s little girl,” we can imagine one socially or journalistically ambitious mother admonishing, “and say something cute and subtle, like ‘Are you inviting Mommy to the play date at the Statue of Liberty?’”

I first encountered this tiered party system at the Cannes Film Festival when, at a casino blast for Madonna, the star and her satellites sat in a cordoned-off area and some of us plebes were invited in one by one for an audience. Of course, Cannes is to cliquism what the Vatican is to Roman Catholicism, and with its myriad categories of guests and hangers-on and minutely calibrated privileges has more circles than Dante’s Inferno. Cannes’ pass system-a rainbow of different colors entitling bearers to all or only a restricted list of screenings-is guaranteed to create aggrievement all around, and anyone who hasn’t gotten a thorough snubbing the first day will find ample opportunities thereafter. For the sake of “atmosphere,” journalists prostrate themselves to get invitations to parties they wouldn’t walk across the street to attend in New York.

I had further cause to marvel at the Gallic aptitude for pecking-order politics during my seven years of programming the Sarasota French Film Festival. In preparations for what was to be its last year, amid the perennial French-American budget war, the Floridians came up with a money-saving plan: A chartered plane would fly the French contingent-producers, directors, stars and journalists- and the paying visitors to the festival. The idea would have saved thousands of dollars, but the French nixed it: The stars would have had to sit with the common folk. Bad enough that they had to “fly commercial”!

Of course, compared to the French, for whom negotiating the world of bureaucratic politics is as innate a skill as talking or breathing, we are mere novices. At the Sarasota festival, the films, their quality and reception were of secondary importance to questions like who would ride in the limousine with the minister of culture, with Catherine Deneuve, Alain Delon … fill in the dignitary’s name. But the Hollywood branch of glitterati semiotics is catching up fast in the ever more elaborate proliferation of perks for stars-private planes, luxury accommodations, number of family members and hangers-on included. And some film writers are still nursing a grudge from middle school days when, bookish and unathletic, they didn’t get picked for the softball team. Todd Solondz ( Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness ) and Wes Anderson ( Rushmore ) are typical of the many Hollywood luminaries who are taking revenge on their high school tormentors with delayed cinematic gratification of every nerd’s fantasy.

In addition, the gold rush atmosphere of the 90′s has given rise to the worst excesses of the caste system: Money trumps virtue every time, grunge rockers are bigger than non-wrestling governors. But then, it’s more democratic than hierarchy based on old money or bloodlines. What counts is the size of the glow, the visibility of the profile, as determined by a scale in which E! for Entertainment outsizes E for enlightenment.

Today, the losers would seem even more likely to strike back. Where once the nobility was kept more or less safely out of view, television now rubs the noses of the have-nots in images of the winners. Gianni Versace and John Lennon were familiar to their stalkers, almost inviting revenge. “I draw no petty social lines,” says the deacon portentously in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury . But don’t we all? Isn’t it the way we establish and re-establish our place in the ever shifting sands of the social order; isn’t snubbing a demoted other part of the bargain, since no matter how “in” we may feel, who of us has enough social capital to risk sponsoring a loser? The cruelty of cliques is a fact of life. Watch children on the playground when two become three. In very short order, one will be expelled and there will be two again, and the ostracized will be demonized (“yucky!”) to justify this violent expunging, to prevent contamination.

To acknowledge such elitist urges violates our liberal democratic instincts, but the need for hierarchy of some kind seems endemic. We develop tact and armor; we outgrow our blatantly Darwinian earlier selves. In a kind of developmental amnesia, we idealize childhood in an attempt to paper over the nasty snubs we inflicted and endured. But the scummy little demon remains within.

The opportunities for hurt feelings proliferate. Just getting invited to an A-list party isn’t enough. For you may find yourself seated at a B table, or you may be at an A table at which there are no other A celebrities, signifying that the party wasn’t worth coming to in the first place! Better to have been in Siberia. Better to have not been invited at all.