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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

Monthly Archives: February 2011

It’s no secret that many celebrities struggle with substance use issues. This is nothing new—while studios might have been better able to squelch reports of benders and arrests in the heyday of the studio system, today’s paparazzi-driven celebrity news culture thrives on reporting such news.

But whether such news negatively impacts a celebrity’s career typically depends on two core issues: the celebrity’s “brand” and their ability to continue to be economically productive.1964_04_P52_compressed

If a celebrity’s image is that of a hard-partying rebel, then their drinking or drugging might fit in with their brand. It may not be healthy, but the behavior will likely be accepted by fans. Producers might not mind either if the celebrity continues to make money for them.

Actor Richard Burton, pictured at right, was known for his temper and for drinking. Some of his movie characters, particularly George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, were also drinkers. So his behavior did not threaten his on-screen persona.

Likewise, Charlie Sheen is known for playing bad boys. He has had run-ins with substance use (and the law) for over a decade, which apparently had not completely derailed his career. He was able to contine to star in a top-rated sitcom, despite recent legal and health problems. It was only his public criticism of the show’s creator that seems to be threatening his current job. His private behavior hadn’t seemed to matter before.

By contrast, when a celebrity’s brand has been constructed around their appeal to young people—as Lindsay Lohan’s once was in her Disney movie days—substance abuse offends fans’ sensibilities much more.

The public is more likely to turn on someone when we feel like they are not who they claimed to be. For instance, actress Jane Powell was a star at MGM in the 1940s and 50s with a squeaky-clean image. Characterized as the quintessential postwar wife and mother, when Photoplay discussed rumors of an affair her “career [hung] in the balance.”

In the late 1950s the fan magazines couldn’t get enough of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher’s supposedly ideal family. When Fisher left the Reynolds to marry Elizabeth Taylor, many fans never forgave him.

Investors typically shy away from banking projects with unreliable performers. But if the possible return is attractive enough, the most unstable celebrity might still find themselves employed. And adored.

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The Academy Awards ceremony will be held this Sunday—will you be watching?

You don’t have to be an industry insider to know that ratings for the Academy Awards telecast are much lower now compared with past decades.

Before the widespread availability of cable television in the early 1980s, typically two-thirds of people watching TV tuned in. During the 1980s through the mid-1990s, close to half of all television sets were tuned to the show. Despite an uptick during the past couple years, the percentage has hovered under one quarter of viewers during the 2000s.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been trying boost ratings. Last year, the Academy reverted to a pre-WWII tactic of selecting ten best picture nominees in hopes of creating  more interest in the show.

There are a number of likely reasons for the ratings decline. In our entertainment-saturated society, we have a lot competing for our attention.

But the shifting nature of celebrity itself has likely changed the public’s interest in a decidedly twentieth century television show, one that resembles a mid-century variety show long gone from regular prime time schedules.

In the not-too-distant past, watching the Oscars offered us one of the few opportunities to watch famous people “just being themselves,” not playing a role in a movie. We could try and get a sense of who they really were in the candid shots of them sitting in the audience and from their acceptance speeches.

With the advent of blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and TMZ, we get to see celebrities behind the scenes all the time. In fact, part of the experience of consuming celebrity today involves learning more about their backstage behavior than their onstage performances. The old appeal of watching our favorite movie stars on television seems quaint today.

As the Los Angeles Times reported, during this year’s broadcast fans can pay to view additional live video feeds from backstage, the lobby bar, and the Governors Ball. I’m not sure people will pay for this kind of access, since we’ve become accustomed to getting tweets and behind-the-scenes videos for free.

Reality stars may not have the talent of the Oscar nominees, but they have helped set the expectation of total access. Yes, occasionally an outrageous outfit or speech might shock viewers, but we are used to that by now.

Perhaps the best way to regain viewers for the telecast is to apply twenty-first century celebrity logic to a twentieth century tradition. But this may be an impossible contradiction.

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By now you’ve likely heard that Billy Ray Cyrus told GQ magazine that he regrets allowing his daughter to participate in Hannah Montana, the show that made her both a star and the face of a multi-billion dollar empire.

If the trajectory of her career sounds familiar–the precocious and talented teen that ages out of child stardom by rebelling against the parent-friendly innocent image–that’s because it is.

One the one hand, minors who become rich and famous upset the balance of power within their families and with adults in general. When the child has a career that dramatically out-earns his or her parents, it is tempting for parents to suspend normal judgment. This is complicated by other adults who have a vested financial interest in decisions that parents might not otherwise support (like having their teenage daughter pose for a racy photo shoot).

Even if a young star is restricted to a tight spending allowance, they might have the ability to do things without their parents’ approval. Gaining access to a bar or nightclub without showing ID may be illegal, but having a young celebrity clientele adds to the cache of a nightspot. And parents might enjoy being part of the celebrity lifestyle, which they would not otherwise have access to without their child star.

Child stars may experience a deep confusion about who they are. During the years that most of us work to figure that out, they might have image makers telling them who they should be. And when they inevitably change, they might go from feeling universally loved to loathed. It is a difficult path to walk, a path that we watch over and over

Yes, it is tempting to focus on who is to blame: parents? Agents, managers, producers? The child star him or herself? Likely all of the above.

From a sociological perspective, the downward spiral of the child star serves a purpose. It allows us to observe–and condemn–people who can’t seem to manage their abundance. The child star also represents someone who seems to get too much too soon, having the wealth many who have worked for years can only imagine.

The frequency with which we see this cycle repeated tells us that the downfall of the child star is about more than the proverbial train wreck, but is a reflection of vestiges of the Puritan Ethic lingering in our culture. Hard work, delayed gratification, self-control, and managing abundance are all issues child star scandals typically touch on. We can complain about someone else’s parenting skills, someone else’s life choices, and maintain feelings of moral superiority.

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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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A celebrity gets arrested. Again.

The result is predictable: breaking news coverage, interrupted scheduled programming, and a chorus of commentators weighing in on what should happen to said celebrity.

In some ways it really doesn’t matter who the celebrity may be or what they may have done, sociologically speaking. What’s instructive is the societal reaction.

Celebrities serve a purpose for the rest of us. They give us a common denominator to talk about, a chance to reinforce and debate values and shifting norms. Whether it’s debates about breaking the law, substance use, or sex, celebrity missteps provides a chance for us to publicly debate what is otherwise private behavior.

We hear more about celebrities’ private lives in part because it has never been easier to know more about so many people, thanks to gossip blogs and Twitter. Celebrity stories also provide traditional news outlets cheap content in times of tight budgets.

File:Arbuckle.jpg Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

But celebrity scandals are nothing new. Sex scandals have rocked Hollywood practically from its inception. In 1921, “Fatty” Arbuckle (pictured at left) became the center of a scandal after he had a raucous weekend in San Francisco, and a woman died a few days after partying with Arbuckle. He was accused of rape and manslaughter, and although he was acquitted his reputation was destroyed.

 
The case drew attention to the allegedly loose morals in Hollywood, and led to fears that movies would harm the moral fiber of Americans. This led to threats of censorship and ultimately a new code governing the production of movies between 1930 and 1968.
 
It’s not an accident that the Arbuckle scandal captured national attention when it did. The nation was experiencing major social changes: a move away from Victorianism coupled with economic growth led to more sexual freedom. With the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment women could now vote, marking significant shifts in the gender order. The Arbuckle case seemed to be a warning of what could happen to young women who fraternized with men without supervision.
 
Celebrity scandals have been spectacles for decades now. They may be shocking, titillating, and engrossing real-life dramas. But they also reveal deeper sociological issues worth exploring.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first movie fan magazine. When Motion Picture Story Magazine debuted in movie theater lobbies in 1911, it bore little resemblence to celebrity magazines today.

The magazines contained hardly any information about the individual “picture players” at first. Their main  purpose was to promote the new movie industry, not the people in them. In fact, the first movies didn’t even have credits. Instead, movie magazines provided summaries of the plots of the latest pictures to entice readers to buy tickets. If you bought one of these magazines, you would see very few pictures (except for some movie stills) and a lot of text. Very different from today!

Soon readers began asking about the players: were they married? What made their hair so pretty? Her skin so smooth? The magazines’ publishers caught on, and before long movie magazines included more and more information about performers. The magazines asked readers to write in and vote for their favorite players, who soon became mainstays in the magazines. The coverage in the 1910s was almost universally positive–mainly because the movie studios themselves underwrote the first magazines, and studio publicists also provided much of the material. “Gossip” items focused on the players’ hobbies, newest purchases or vacations, and of course news about their upcoming roles.

It’s tempting to think that there were no scandals, no troubling celebrity behavior back then. There certainly was…just not in the earliest movie magazines.