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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

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.

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