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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

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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