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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

Is it just me, or do you find yourself wondering how grown women find so much to fight about on the Real Housewives franchise? Sure, there are people we might not care to hang out with, and once we are out of middle school we usually just avoid people we don’t like rather than engage in confrontation after confrontation.

That means we would not likely not be cast as a "Real Housewife," or any so-called reality television show.

While we might enjoy the drama of their conflicts, there is more to the Real Housewives, sociologically speaking, than meets the eye.

Part of the success of the franchise is that it offers a glimpse into the lives of (mostly) affluent people, allowing us on the inside to see what they consume: the clothes they buy, the furnishings and finishes in their homes, their cars, and their vacations. As I discuss in chapter 9 of Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, non-celebrity participants reinforce the idea that anyone can achieve this level of wealth, that you can be famous—and wealthy—just for being you, the ultimate reinforcement of upward mobility.

Besides getting an inside look at their stuff, which we might alternatively find appealing and excessive, we might also view the participants as sympathetic sometimes and superficial; we get to alternatively judge, despise, and talk about these women with others. (Ironically one of the biggest sources of fights between cast mates stems from believing that others are talking about them behind their backs.)

The Real Housewives enable us to focus on a few hand-picked groups of women to represent the wealthy in America, a group that has been much maligned in recent years and not very well understood, even by sociologists who seldom gain access to study them.

Sociologists define the upper class as those who derive most of their income from investments rather than income, and so it is unlikely that most of the participants in this franchise are truly members of this group. Yet they serve as stand-ins, as do traditional celebrities, allowing us to overlook those who hold not just fabulous possessions and wealth, but power as well.

This franchise also focuses almost exclusively on women. Although husbands and boyfriends are occasional participants, they typically don’t drive the shows’ storylines. Conflicts between the women are central narratives, as are the women’s focus on their appearance, from regularly showing them having their hair and makeup done, working out, shopping and undergoing cosmetic surgery procedures. They have time to lunch and drink in the middle of the day (which producers doubtlessly encourage to lubricate brewing conflicts).

Not only does the way these women are portrayed via editing and casting reinforce regressive notions of femininity, but their constant conflicts reinforce the age old stereotype that women can’t get along. Their fighting seems inevitable due to jealousy or other highly emotional (and seemingly irrational) reasons. Although many of these women are strong, successful entrepreneurs, in the end they are portrayed as self-involved and superficial.

It’s not just the wealthy we are able to judge and criticize by watching, it is wealthy women in particular who are under the microscope. In the process, we might walk away thinking money and women don’t mix, or at least when they do nothing substantial results.

By contrast, consider a truly wealthy woman like Melinda Gates, for example, and the philanthropic work to which she and others like her have devoted their time and money. She and her friends probably wouldn’t create as much drama as the Real Housewives casts do, but their lives would paint a very different picture of what it means to be a woman of means.

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Recently, Kris Jenner said her reality-tv family is a brand, much like the Kennedys.

This is not the first time the two large families have been compared, and usually in a way that is not favorable to the Kardashians.

A Houston Chronicle story on the SEC and Big 12 bowl matchup said it was like a Kardashian marrying a Kennedy. A US News and World Report story about the problem with the White House Correspondent’s dinner cited the presence of Jenner and daughter Kim as exhibit A, cheapening the importance of politics—the Kennedy “brand.”

Regardless of what we may think about each family, they are useful for helping us understand some of the differences (and similarities) between twentieth and twenty-first century celebrity.

Both families are large and wealthy, providing many “characters” and potentially dramatic adventures in their lives. Following the lives of the wealthy in gossip pages predates both centuries, and is a staple on reality television today. As I write about in Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, part of the fascination with celebrities entails getting an inside peek into what it is like to be rich.

There are some significant differences, though. For one, as a famous twentieth-century family, the Kennedys did not need to use their private lives as a vehicle for their fame. In fact, they often sought privacy in the face of scandal. Jacqueline Kennedy in particular was steadfast in trying to create a private life for her children. Ironically, this likely added to the family’s fame, shrouding the members in a mystique many wanted to learn more about.

While affairs of Kennedy men have become central to the family’s lore, they were not acknowledged publicly. After all, their “brand” is politics and public service, so any Kardashian-style confession in search of public sympathy or telling their side of a gossip item would be out of character.

We might argue that the Kennedys represent much of what we seem to be nostalgic for in celebrity culture today: they were famous for doing things, for becoming an ambassador, members of congress, senators, and of course, president. Many of the Kennedys today are active in a variety of politically-oriented causes.

But they are certainly not strangers to scandal today. And like their parents and grandparents, they are still reluctant to comment publicly about private personal issues.

By contrast, the Kardashians are mostly “famous for being famous,” what critics find to be particularly troublesome about our contemporary celebrity culture. A personal triumph or tragedy becomes a hook for one of their shows, and nothing seems too personal for the family members to discuss on camera.

Just like it’s tempting to view the Kennedys in an idealistic light (the result of JFK and RFK’s excellent branding work) and look sadly upon the demise of well-deserved fame, people back then were certainly “famous for being famous.” We might argue that many Kennedys today are simply famous for their name, a la Paris Hilton.

The main difference: being open about constructing your family as a brand. Both clearly thought about their public image, although only one family talks about it openly and even proudly as a commodity.

There is something sacred about families, and to some it might seem crass for a family to have been commercialized. But we shouldn’t be naive enough to think that Kardashian is the only family that sees itself as a brand.

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By definition, celebrities seem larger than life. As I write about in Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, they take on roles in real-life dramas that play out in public. Sometimes it is only when they die that we remember that they are only human.

Perhaps part of the lure of celebrity is the quest for a semblance of immortality, to be known during our lifetime and not forgotten after.

The recent passing of Whitney Houston came as a shock in part because of her age, but also because celebrity deaths often feel a bit impossible. Someone who seems to be woven into the fabric of our personal and collective memories may appear superhuman, with life experiences to which few have access. It may seem as though their heightened existence could protect them from something as common as death.

Part of the sadness that comes with the death of a major celebrity is a sense of personal loss, even if most of us never actually met the celebrity. We might feel a sense of connection with them if they remind us of part of our own lost past—the retrospectives of Whitney Houston have largely focused on the 1980s and 90s—and put us is in touch with our own inevitable mortality. 

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Nick Stevenson of University of Nottingham recently reviewed Celebrity Culture and the American Dream in the journal Contemporary Sociology. Here is an excerpt:

Her readable and well-written book is an interpretation of some 600 popular American film magazines from the early 1900s to the present day. Sternheimer argues that the study of these magazines is far from trivial because of what they reveal about the shared fantasies of the American Dream and more precisely ideas about class mobility and the good society. By looking at the magazines Sternheimer offers a revealing portrait of a society where celebrity operates as a metaphor for the capacity of the individual to achieve and reinvent the self. Celebrity then is about class mobility and serves as a way of masking wider social and economic inequalities. … Sternheimer locates in celebrity the celebration of the individual, but this time less in terms of the confessional, and more in terms of the legitimation of a wider class society. Celebrity culture then has a functional relationship with capitalism. Like gambling, the lottery or quiz games, celebrity works by seemingly offering everyone a chance at getting rich quickly, and yet this then serves to mask deeper more intractable inequalities in terms of welfare provision and life chances.

For a full text of his review, titled “Sociology in the Age of Celebrity,” visit Contemporary Sociology’s homepage.

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Wondering why celebrity relationships (like Kim Kardashian’s marriage and divorce) are such big news? In this interview, I discuss how interest in celebrity relationships reflect broader social changes and anxieties.

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