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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

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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