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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

Monthly Archives: March 2011

Want to be famous? The weathered cliché “be careful what you wish for” is particularly salient in the era of YouTube, where uploading a video can lead to international recognition. Instant stardom is possible, but so is instant  infamy.

You have probably heard about two recent examples, one where a student posted a rant about Asian students at her university, and another by thirteen-year-old Rebecca Black, whose music video went viral after many called it the worst song ever.

We probably know people who share angry thoughts about various ethnic groups and went to middle school with kids who thought they were talented singers (or actors, athletes, poets, or artists….). But fortunately for those of us who came of age before YouTube, any fallout from our peers was limited in scale. People might have made fun of others behind their backs (remember a few years ago when concerns about gossiping cliques reigned in the headlines?), but now the internet means that anyone with a computer can contribute their insults.

And yet Rebecca Black has been able to get media coverage any newcomer would kill for. She has been on The Tonight Show and apparently has a record deal. But one would image all of the hateful comments she has received online—which I choose not to repeat here—would be hard for anyone to handle, especially a thirteen-year-old who had not been in the public eye before.

Before the internet, the doors to fame were guarded by gatekeepers: agents, managers, casting directors, A&R reps, and editors to name a few. Talented people who failed to get the approval of these gatekeepers would find themselves on the outside, with few options other than to keep trying to impress the gatekeepers. And hateful comments would likely be limited to letters, handled by editors, a studio or agent, and maybe the occasional obscene phone call, resolved by changing one’s number.

The gatekeepers aren’t gone, but the entrances to fame (and infamy) are more porous today. We can go around them—sometimes at our peril, and sometimes without even meaning to. And the critics no longer need a byline to express their disapproval.

In Celebrity Culture and the American Dream I write about how the internet age offers more “jobs” in the fame industry, but not all of these jobs pay well, if anything. Stories about those who found fame via the internet, like Justin Bieber, help promote the idea of limitless upward mobility at a time when the economy stagnates, and the gap between the wealthiest Americans and the rest of us widens.

In fact, one wonders if the infamous—like the student who posted her rant about Asians—will face serious economic setbacks in the future due to the notoriety a single video created. Whether we like it or not, in the internet age we are all public figures.

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Elizabeth Taylor’s recent passing means that she is making headlines again, something she has done for over half a century.

In my study of celebrity fan magazines I came across her name and image repeatedly, especially after she transitioned from being a child star to an acclaimed actress as an adult.

Taylor’s life in fan magazines reflects the major changes celebrity coverage underwent from World War II to the present. While stars under contract with the major studios could typically count on favorable coverage, as the studios’ power crumbled in the late 1950s—the height of Taylor’s movie career—gradually coverage became more critical. And Taylor was on the vanguard of this shift.

Her 1950 marriage to Nicky Hilton at age eighteen took place at a time when many teens married. (The median age of first marriage in 1950 was 20.3 according to Census data). In the years after the war, fan magazines often swooned over celebrity marriages and babies, even those to teens.

When Taylor and Hilton divorced a year later, the typically star-friendly Photoplay pounced, running an article called “Liz: Spoiled Brat or Mixed-Up Teenager.” The story not only criticized her for seeming to marry impetuously, but appeared to take her divorce particularly hard. “The fairy tale’s over,” concluded the author.

Other celebrities who divorced during the postwar years received similar negative coverage, especially if a female celebrity appeared unwilling to put marriage and family ahead of career and fame.

But this would be tame compared with what lay ahead. When Eddie 1958_09_COVER compressedFisher left wife Debbie Reynolds to marry Taylor, she and Fisher were blamed for destroying what had been perceived as America’s golden couple. Reynolds and Fisher appeared in many fan magazines, such as the 1958 Photoplay cover at right, starring as the “ideal” young postwar couple.

Taylor and Fisher’s relationship would come to an infamous end in 1962 after she and Cleopatra co-star Richard Burton were caught at the end of a telephoto lens, kissing on a yacht.

Published in Life magazine, this picture helped usher in the era of paparazzi and “gotcha” celebrity coverage. As the studio system gradually faded away and the powerful institutions that once offered some protection against negative publicity faltered, Taylor found herself on the frontlines in the new world of celebrity coverage. She and Burton became frequent fodder for fan magazines.

“How long can Burton hold Liz—and his liquor too?” a 1964 Photoplay story asked. Was he having an affair? Did they have an open marriage? These speculative stories published in the 1970s reveal the significant changes that took place in celebrity coverage. Her weight gain also made headlines years before it became commonplace to slam celebrities for their changing bodies.

While conducting the research, one of my research assistants commented that she was surprised that fan magazines had been so hard on celebrities back then, especially one that we have known as a grand dame of Hollywood in recent years. Taylor paved the path that many celebrities today experience, learning how to navigate life in the public eye.

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In my research of fan magazines dating back a century, one of the central tensions in celebrity coverage has been whether celebrities are really “just like us” or uniquely different. Are they mortals or demigods?

In some respects, being famous sets one apart by virtue of definition: in Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, I define celebrity as “anyone who is watched, noticed, and known by a critical mass of strangers” (p. 2). This is purposely a broad definition, since celebrities can (and do) exist within smaller groups and may remain largely unknown in other groups, but still enjoy the benefits of limited celebrity status.

In fan magazines throughout history, celebrities have been regarded as special, important, and worthy of public attention. That makes them different from the collective “us,” obviously.

They seem to lead struggling along compressed.jpg magical lives at times, and many can afford a lifestyle only available for the wealthiest earners. As the story “Struggling Along on $50,000 a Year” (at right) from the February 1928 issue of Motion Picture Classic sarcastically notes, celebrities had to make do with just enough to pay their servants, buy mansions, and maintain their fabulous wardrobes. (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, $50,000 is the equivalent of nearly $650,000 in 2011 dollars).

And yet this “just like us” theme persists. In the earliest fan magazines, this theme meant to reassure readers that “picture players” were morally upright in a time when the movies and their performers were often viewed with suspicion.

As movies gained legitimacy, fan magazines let readers know that the new movie industry represented economic opportunity, and that successFIGURE 1.2 was right around the corner. As in this ad below—from the February 1916 issue of Motion Picture Classic—readers were invited to write and act in the movies and earn their fortune too.

Today the suggestion that we too can make it big is more subtle, but it is still here. Rather than an ad asking readers to write a screenplay, the “just like us” paparazzi shots of a celebrity shopping or taking a child to school reminds readers that celebrities are mere mortals, and not so far removed from everyone else. If they can make it, maybe we can too. And if they experienced dramatic upward mobility in their rise to stardom, perhaps it is proof that the rags-to-riches story is not just a fairy tale.

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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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