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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

Tag Archives: sociology

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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The recent death of singer Amy Winehouse at the age of 27 is clearly a tragedy for her family, friends, and fans.

The aftermath and coverage of celebrities who die young remind us that celebrity status is about more than fame and talent. It is also about us.

Sociologically speaking, when a person of renown meets an early demise, they may serve as a cultural touchstone; the person becomes synonymous with a moment in time. They remain forever young, always associated with a specific image, uncomplicated by age and the changes it brings.

Like Winehouse, musicians Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain also died at 27 and have now become symbols of their respective musical eras. image

Of course it is too soon to know whether Winehouse will achieve the same iconic status in death that the others have. In some instances, their lives and music take on new meaning in death. Their record sales may skyrocket too.

A celebrity’s early death also serves as a strong reminder about mortality. Celebrities are often people who seem larger than life, for whom many of the normal rules don’t seem to apply.

Their deaths—especially if drugs or alcohol are involved—are a sharp reminder of their mortality. Ironically, death reminds us that those who appear so powerful are perhaps more vulnerable than imagined.

Celebrity deaths can also reinforce the notion of middle-class virtue. As I write about in the first chapter of Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, celebrity coverage can also serve as a powerful morality tale:

[The] mixed emotions we have about celebrities’ lifestyles also reveal a central contradiction within American culture: the coinciding desire for plenty and the lingering value placed on self-restraint. The Puritan ethic of self-denial, thrift, and austerity…[is] made visible by outrageous celebrity excesses and failure to maintain self-control. (p. 10)

The celebrity with a substance abuse problem embodies this contradiction. Their death can serve as a tragic reminder of the importance of sobriety as well as romanticize the “live fast, die young” ethos.

And for some, the outpouring of love a star my receive posthumously and their elevation to iconic status serves as a powerful siren song…drawing others to try and achieve celebrity status themselves.

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Popularity—the kind we think we left behind after we finished middle school or high school—bears a great deal of resemblance to celebrity culture.

Several sociologists have done research on the concept of popularity, conducting ethnographies in middle and high schools. (Murray Milner Jr.’s Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids, Patricia and Peter Adler’s Peer image Power and School Talk by Donna Eder and Stephen Parker are a few particularly good ones).

While an imperfect analogy, there are some striking similarities between how kids gain status in schools and image how people become celebrities.

The Adlers studied middle schoolers, and found that boys in particular were more likely to be popular if they had savior fare: in other words, they could charm peers and adults alike. The smooth talkers found themselves among the popular set (think George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and decades of other charmers).

For girls in this middle school, appearance was key, especially the clothes they wore. In the middle school Eder & Parker studied the same was true, and interestingly, these girls might have been popular but not well liked. Female celebrities often face the same paradox: admired for their appearance but criticized by men and women alike image for seeming shallow, and “stuck up,” as popular middle school girls were thought to be.

In Eder & Parker’s research, a big part of popularity was being known by others. Visibility in a large school was often tough to achieve, but was the hallmark of popularity. Being known by people that you yourself don’t know is a hallmark of celebrity, and is something that a small percentage of kids might experience growing up.

I’m not aware of any systematic research that examines whether celebrities were more likely to have been the popular kids growing up, but anecdotally we often hear how they weren’t: the beauty who couldn’t get a date, or the leading man who was shy and awkward help us feel like celebrities are “just like us.”

Milner discusses at length how popularity is by nature a scarce resource; if everyone could be popular it would no longer be a mark of status. Celebrity too is a relatively scarce commodity. Although there are many more opportunities in the internet age to become known by strangers, as I write in the last chapter of Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, most people will not be able to monetize being known despite some well-known examples of reality stars and YouTube sensations. Even amongst celebrities there is the distinction between the so-called A list and everyone else.

Adolescent popularity and the sociology of celebrity is an imperfect analogy: most celebrities probably haven’t personally humiliated us in front of our peers, something Milner observed as a way to maintain superiority in the high school pecking order. But there are a lot of similarities.

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For some social scientists, studying celebrity and popular culture may seem frivolous. With weightier issues like poverty, racism, or crime to contend with, the subject of celebrity appears trivial on the surface.

However, celebrity sagas reflect conflicting ideas about relationships, marriage, family, gender, sex and sexuality, race, class, and social mobility—central topics of inquiry for sociologists.

Celebrity culture is about much more than gossip, fame, or talent. It is a reflection of our society’s aspirations and concerns, a blank screen onto which we project all of these issues onto.

In Celebrity Culture and The American Dream I define celebrity culture as:

the atmosphere swirling around celebrities, the private and public conversations we have about them, the lifestyles celebrities unwittingly promote through coverage of their private lives, and the products that become part of this lifestyle.

It is fascinating how celebrity behavior can ignite political debates, arguments about values, and yet also serve as the connective tissue in our diverse (and sometimes fractured) society.

We might not know a lot of the same people in our day-to-day lives—families often live thousands of miles apart, and geographic mobility can prevent us from knowing our neighbors well—but celebrities provide common characters to discuss and sometimes judge.

Many of the central sociological traditions are relevant in celebrity stories too. From the structural functionalist’s focus on social cohesion and the importance of reaffirming shared values, to conflict theory’s emphasis on institutions that mask economic inequality and the promotion of hyper-consumption, we can use celebrity culture to better understand these divergent ways of describing society.

We can also use fans’ interpretations of celebrity sagas to understand how people construct a sense of self through the process of meaning-making of celebrity culture, of key interest to symbolic interactionists.

Celebrity culture is an excellent vehicle for introducing sociological concepts to the uninitiated. Both fun and accessible, there is more to celebrity than simply mindless entertainment.

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