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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

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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