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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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During a recent radio interview I was asked a great question: why are Americans interested in British royalty, since they represent the antithesis of democracy?

Certainly the British are more interested in their royal family than we are, as gossip about its members get intense coverage even without an impending royal wedding. Although we claimed independence from the British 235 years ago, we still enjoy some of their pop culture like The Office, Pop Idol (or American Idol as we know it), and even Antiques Roadshow.

As I write about in Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, American celebrity coverage has changed quite a bit over the last century, but one element is pretty consistent. Celebrities seem to embody proof that we can all rise to the top, become fabulously wealthy and admired. In my research of fan magazines from the 1910s to the present, that message was threaded throughout both fan magazine articles and ads.

But there are contradictions here too. While some magazines have features that insist celebrities are “just like us,” their wealth and fame make them profoundly different from everyone else.

Sure, they might be humble and down-to-earth individually, but fans sometimes presume stars have magical qualities and feel honored or even overcome with emotion to be in their presence. Something like getting to meet an actual prince or princess.

In some ways, coverage of celebrities bears much resemblance to coverage of the British royal family. We can peak behind the scenes and see how the privileged live, then bask in their problems and feel better about our status as commoners.

A royal wedding not only allows observers to vicariously bask in the mass consumption, but it represents an opening into an otherwise closed status. Marrying a prince is the ultimate fairy tale of upward mobility. Becoming a celebrity seems like the next best thing if becoming royalty is not an option.

But sometimes the illusion that anyone can make it big shatters. Rather than looking critically at the illusion, we tend to target our disappointment at celebrities themselves.

In a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed, Neal Gabler argues that part of the reason Charlie Sheen received so much negative attention was because his behavior challenged the idea that celebrities are just like us:

Entertain us, and we’ll grant you fame, riches and adoration — so long as you remain one of us. Violate that contract at the peril of your career. Abide by it, like, say, Tom Hanks, and you will be rewarded with longevity. All we ask is that you be, or at least appear to be, normal.

Sheen’s openness about his life of excess reminds us that he is not everyman, Gabler notes.

And yet part of the pleasure of following celebrities—and royals’—lives is bound in their apparent ordinary extraordinariness. They are human, but at the same time deified by virtue of the public’s interest. And they serve as great characters in our never-ending real-life soap opera, excess and all.

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One question I have been asked a lot lately: what’s with the fascination of watching celebrities appear to self-destruct before our eyes?

There are many answers to this question, but one may be particularly relevant. Celebrity meltdowns—which we can more or less follow in real time now—seem compelling because they are packaged as real-life dramas.

At a time when traditional scripted soap operas of the past are fading away, we instead have real-life melodramas that defy some of the old conventions of story telling. Unlike a traditional soap opera, which airs at the same time and same channel, celebrity scandals play out around the clock, with the constant updates from Twitter, TMZ, and traditional news outlets. They have no boundaries or limits, and because they are real we are more emotionally invested.

The celebrity scandal as drama follows the logic of so-called reality television as well: something that can be exciting because it spills out into real life, the characters are actual people presumably not concocted by writers. (Author Neal Gabler wrote about this in his book, Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality.)

Just as soaps’ story lines often brought characters into court to defend their freedom and to the hospital to fight for their lives, celebrity dramas include these life-and-death scenarios, along with multiple marriages, divorce, and children.

While the twentieth century style of storytelling still has a place in popular culture, this hyper-mediated brand of storytelling represents what the late French sociologist Jean Baudrillard and others would argue is the result of our Postmodern Condition, one where the “real” and the simulated have merged and are no longer distinguishable as separate entities.

Perhaps part of the success of Two and a Half Men was that the character “Charlie” seemed to reflect the real Charlie Sheen. Much to producers’ chagrin, Sheen’s real life drama has become part of the sitcom…that is, if they were ever really separate.

But are these real-life dramas really real? A CNN.COM story asks if this isn’t all an act. Sheen’s newly created Twitter Account will be used to

pitch products to its millions of followers.  The CNN story reminds us of Joaquin Phoenix’s hoax from 2009, where he pretended to be going through a drug-induced meltdown in order to promote a movie.

Whether celebrity scandals are calculated career moves designed to get our attention or genuine cries for help, they are destined to keep getting our attention, at least for now.

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Lady Gaga appeared on 60 Minutes last night, and told interviewer Anderson Cooper that she was a student of the sociology of fame.

As a sociologist, I would give her an A.

(Click here to watch the full interview)

Putting aside her musical talent, which she clearly has, Lady Gaga has made being famous itself an art. In creating a character, she recognizes that she is performing even while off stage.

In reality, celebrities—and the rest of us—are engaged in some sort of performance whenever we enter a social space. Sociologist Erving Goffman wrote of social interaction as a form of theater, called the dramaturgical perspective.

Lady Gaga is not only aware of this, but uses her life as part of a carefully crafted performance. In the 60 Minutes interview she tells Cooper that she contemplates the purpose of every outrageous outfit she wears, and that ironically creating this persona has helped to carve out a sense of privacy.

Typically, celebrities engage in a specific kind of performance called the “celebrity interview,” where they often attempt provide the illusion of allowing us into their backstage social space. As Lady Gaga tells Cooper, these assumed confessions are usually just as crafted as any other performance (she calls them lies).

Part Lady Gaga’s mastery of the sociology of fame stems from her ability to conflate the real with the performance. When asked who she really is, she asserts that this is really her. As a postmodern performance artist, she asserts that her character Lady Gaga represents who she is more than when she identified primarily as Stefani Germanotta, her given name.

In a quest to discover who the celebrity “really” is, gossips and paparazzi collude to reveal celebrities’ secret selves, to show us what celebrities presumably don’t want us to know. Lady Gaga has succeeded, so far anyway, in shocking the public through her costumes, revelations, and disclosures to throw the celebrity “news” machine off of its usual game.

I confess that I am more of an observer than a fan of her performance, but she seems to be able to turn the logic of fame on its head, defining her public persona on her own terms rather than being defined by the industry.

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