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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

Monthly Archives: April 2011

Ever since I started doing research on celebrity culture, reporters have been asking me a variation of this question: why are we so obsessed with [insert any celebrity who is all over the news at the time]?

Most of the time I politely suggest that is not us who are obsessed, but celebrities provide the news media with an endless amount of cheap content requiring little investigative research on their behalf.

Rarely do I have any data to back this up—it’s just a hunch. Yes, we might linger before changing the channel, or click through on a news website because it might be entertaining, but this isn’t necessarily what the public demands.

With the British royal wedding just days away, breathless reporters live from London tell us about proper attire for the affair and the required etiquette should we happen upon the queen. We can’t get enough—or so they tell us.

That’s what makes the recent New York Times/CBS News Poll so interesting. Finally, data to support my hypothesis.

According to the poll, conducted April 15-20, 68% of Americans said that they have not been following the coverage of the wedding very closely or at all. Just 28% said they were following the coverage somewhat or very closely.

Of the 58% of Americans who reported following the wedding coverage, two-thirds said they would likely watch the wedding, while 37% did not plan on watching.

Of course some people might get wedding fever and decide to watch at the last minute. But it’s a reminder that sometimes our “obsessions” are instead media creations in hopes that we will decide to tune in and increase their ratings.

To some degree, the massive coverage celebrities sometimes garner creates a self-fulfilling prophesy rather than serve as a commentary on American society.

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Did you know that PBS was a pioneer in the reality television business?

An American Family first aired in 1973, featuring a Santa Barbara family and their five children. In addition to offering an inside glimpse into family life, the family experienced major turmoil during the filming.

Wife Pat tells her husband she wants a divorce, and eldest son Lance comes out as gay. Perhaps difficult issues under any circumstance, but considering the public nature of normally private events, they made for dramatic television. (Keep in mind that the American Psychiatric Association had just declassified homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses that year too).

In a bizarre twist of reality becoming a work of fiction, HBO is debuting a film called Cinema Verite on April 23, a dramatization of the behind-the-scenes life of the Loud family during the filming of their family.

(KOCE owns the west coast rights to the series and will rebroadcast the original series starting this weekend).

French sociologist Jean Baudrillard wrote about the Louds in his 1983 book Simulations, referring to the show as a “truth experiment…neither a question of secrecy nor of perversion, but a kind of thrill of the real” (p. 50).

Baudrillard passed away in 2007, but my guess is he would find the latest development to be further evidence of the endless reflection between “reality” and simulation, making the two indistinguishable.

Weren’t we already supposed to glimpse “behind the scenes” during the original series? This alleged distinction is something Baudrillard refers to as “an absurd, paradoxical formula—neither true nor false: but utopian” (p. 50).

Part of the thrill of celebrity culture today is the illusion that we are regularly allowed behind the curtain. But are we?

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Being a celebrity might be lucrative for a person of renown. Beyond individual celebrities or even the entertainment industry itself, celebrity is a major engine of commerce.

At a time when the magazine industry is struggling to stay in business, celebrity-based content is thriving. News magazines like Time and Newsweek have seen their circulations plummet, so much so that the owners of Newsweek sold the 50-year-old magazine last year.

But not so for new celebrity magazine start-ups. Life & Style, launched in 2004, is doing so well that in 2009 it raised its advertising rate base.

Beyond just offering celebrity gossip and profiles, magazines like Life & Style promote products that reflect their content. According to the publisher, Life & Style:

showcases up-to-the-minute Hollywood fashion, beauty, body and lifestyle trends and helps readers incorporate them into their own lives with engaging, informative shopping features and expert advice.

Motion Picture Classic, December 1916

Traditional fashion magazine Mademoiselle ceased publication in 2001, just as a new crop of celebrity magazines arrived.

In Touch began in 2002 and OK! in 2005; Star reinvented itself as a glossy celebrity magazine in 2004.

Celebrities have been selling lifestyle products for at least a century. As you can see from these ads, silent stars frequently hawked beauty products.

Motion Picture Classic, December 1916

Besides featuring celebrities in ads, the magazines included lifestyle features, like photo spreads of wedding gowns as in the June 1918 issue of Photoplay below.

Photoplay, June 1918

Celebrities have been vital in selling a lifestyle of abundance, beauty, and glamour. Even if we don’t care for a celebrity personally, their lifestyle still may be a draw for advertisers.

Besides the ongoing celebrity sagas covered in celebrity gossip and paparazzi shots, we see their outfits, their accessories, their cars, where they dine and vacation. Celebrity is as much about selling products as selling the people themselves.

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Would you pay to see reality show participants in person?

Promoters of “Reality Rocks Expo” are hoping fans will pay $35 to meet people who have appeared on shows like Celebrity Rehab, The Real Housewives, Survivor, and a variety of other programs this weekend at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

There’s nothing new about paying admission to get autographs and meet famous people—its some of the workshops at the expo that are most interesting.

For an additional $25, attendees can attend workshops to learn to “Create, Produce and Pitch your Reality TV Show,” “Brand Yourself: Using Social Media to Advance Your Career in Reality TV,” and meet casting directors.

One workshop in particular stands out: “How To Become A Host/Reality Star – Parlay your 15 minutes of Reality Fame into a Career.”

As I write in the last chapter of Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, so-called reality programs can create the impression that we all have a shot at a career, just for being us. At a time when unemployment has remained stubbornly high, the price of admission and a workshop may seem like a legitimate investment in a career that could potentially pay off big.

As a 2010 Forbes magazine article detailed, a handful of reality stars have been able to cash in big, but as the magazine reported in 2007, most do not. The glut of reality stars means that paychecks for personal appearances have declined for all but the top stars. Some might also become infamous and have trouble finding work after their FIGURE 1.215 minutes are up.

Besides the financial long shot, being on a reality show might have a personal toll, as making one’s private life public can have a downside.

In my research of celebrity fan magazines, one thing remained consistent throughout their century of publication: the promise of a better life. Reality TV also offers the promise. But does it really deliver?

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