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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

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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