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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

Monthly Archives: May 2011

Popularity—the kind we think we left behind after we finished middle school or high school—bears a great deal of resemblance to celebrity culture.

Several sociologists have done research on the concept of popularity, conducting ethnographies in middle and high schools. (Murray Milner Jr.’s Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids, Patricia and Peter Adler’s Peer image Power and School Talk by Donna Eder and Stephen Parker are a few particularly good ones).

While an imperfect analogy, there are some striking similarities between how kids gain status in schools and image how people become celebrities.

The Adlers studied middle schoolers, and found that boys in particular were more likely to be popular if they had savior fare: in other words, they could charm peers and adults alike. The smooth talkers found themselves among the popular set (think George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and decades of other charmers).

For girls in this middle school, appearance was key, especially the clothes they wore. In the middle school Eder & Parker studied the same was true, and interestingly, these girls might have been popular but not well liked. Female celebrities often face the same paradox: admired for their appearance but criticized by men and women alike image for seeming shallow, and “stuck up,” as popular middle school girls were thought to be.

In Eder & Parker’s research, a big part of popularity was being known by others. Visibility in a large school was often tough to achieve, but was the hallmark of popularity. Being known by people that you yourself don’t know is a hallmark of celebrity, and is something that a small percentage of kids might experience growing up.

I’m not aware of any systematic research that examines whether celebrities were more likely to have been the popular kids growing up, but anecdotally we often hear how they weren’t: the beauty who couldn’t get a date, or the leading man who was shy and awkward help us feel like celebrities are “just like us.”

Milner discusses at length how popularity is by nature a scarce resource; if everyone could be popular it would no longer be a mark of status. Celebrity too is a relatively scarce commodity. Although there are many more opportunities in the internet age to become known by strangers, as I write in the last chapter of Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, most people will not be able to monetize being known despite some well-known examples of reality stars and YouTube sensations. Even amongst celebrities there is the distinction between the so-called A list and everyone else.

Adolescent popularity and the sociology of celebrity is an imperfect analogy: most celebrities probably haven’t personally humiliated us in front of our peers, something Milner observed as a way to maintain superiority in the high school pecking order. But there are a lot of similarities.


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Celebrities often have a certain cache about them, so much so that there are typically people who do what they can to be part of their lives. From fans and admirers to those seeking to profit from a celebrity connection, fame can attract people who enjoy basking in the reflected glory of an “anointed one,” who might feel special by claiming insider status in a celebrity’s life.

And while many people choose the company of the famous, children of the famous have no choice in the matter. While I am not aware of any comprehensive study on the experiences of celebrities’ children, it is clear that their family connections bring both opportunities and challenges.

Like anyone from a privileged background, children of celebrities often have resources few other have access to. Private schools, private tutors, the best health care available, and of course material goods are but a few examples of the benefits of having famous parents.

As Wall Street Journal Reporter Daniel Golden found while researching his book The Price of Admission, children of celebrities (and of the wealthy) often get admitted to Ivy League universities despite mediocre grades. Even highly selective schools (he singles out Brown University in particular) are wooed by the glow of celebrity.

Beyond college, celebrity offspring might have industry connections and doors opened for them by family friends that propel their careers. As I write about in Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, we often think of stardom as a reflection of the American ideal of meritocracy. But we often forget that many of today’s biggest celebrities have famous family members (think Charlie Sheen, Angelina Jolie, and George Clooney, to name a few).

This doesn’t mean that these celebrities don’t deserve their fame or didn’t work hard, only that they have had some opportunities few others might. Like Jolie (nee Voight), Nicolas Cage changed his surname (from Coppola), so it is not simply their famous birth names that brought them recognition.

Even without specific connections or the cache of a family name, children of wealth can afford lessons and additional training. Likely unburdened by student loans, they might have less pressure to take a job that pays better than more flexible low-wage jobs like waiting tables that might enable someone to pursue another career at the same time.

But people with famous parents might face significant challenges—like criticism that their success is the result of their lineage rather than their own efforts. A famous name might open doors, but it can also feel like a burden at times, as people might face constant comparison to their famous parents.

Living in Los Angeles, I have had the opportunity to meet several children of celebrities whose parents’ success often overshadows their every accomplishment. Carving out a unique identity can be an added challenge when people expect that they should in some way be similar to their famous parent.

And then there is the matter of infamy. Most of us have that adolescent experience of being embarrassed by our parents at some point growing up, but the scale for children whose family is embroiled in scandal is much greater. The Schwarzenegger children’s every Tweet has become news since their father’s infidelity became public. While many families experience major disruptions like this, most children get to deal with upheavals privately.

While adults may choose to lead public lives—and others make seek to share the afterglow of the spotlight—their children don’t get to make a choice. Just as being born into a family of great wealth brings privilege, having famous parents can also create special challenges.

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The news of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver’s split has been breaking news for the past few days. Why do celebrity break-ups get so much attention?

As characters in an ongoing real-life soap opera, we feel we know them and their “story line.” There hadn’t been news of trouble in this relationship, despite his 2003 admission of groping several women, so it may seem sudden and out of the blue for onlookers.

In my research of celebrity coverage dating back to 1911, I observed coverage of celebrity break-ups as an central part of celebrity stories since the 1930s. Yes, news of a divorce or an ended engagement might have been news before then, but a few social changes likely contributed to the growing interest in analyzing celebrities’ failed relationships.

The experiences and expectations surrounding marriage and relationships have shifted dramatically during the twentieth century, as historian Stephanie Coontz documents so well in her book Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or how Love Conquered Marriage. As marriage became less about economic interdependence and basic survival, it also became less stable.

In many ways, female celebrities were on the vanguard of these changes. They had their own careers and salaries. They had public acclaim at a time when women were still largely thought to be helpmates to men and caretakers of children. Female stars of the early twentieth century had identities beyond marriage and family at a time when few other women did.

Fan magazine articles (and advertisements) warned women of the danger that could await women who focused too much on careers FIGURE 2.4 P 12.29 p119 and not enough on their families. A man would spend extra time at the office to avoid a wife who failed to properly maintain her “hygiene,” according to an ad for Lysol. Women were the home wreckers of Hollywood, according to an article that blamed recently divorced celebrity women for their relationships’ end.

Women are not always blamed for the end of a relationship today, but the attention paid to celebrity relationships reflects our continued anxieties about whether marriages can really last. If people who have money, beauty, and fame struggle with their unions, what hope do mere mortals have?

As marriage has become defined more as an emotional partnership rather than an economic one, it is inherently less stable, but as Coontz concludes likely to be more satisfying. In fact, contrary to popular belief, divorce rates have been falling in recent years. As you can see from the graph below, divorce rates peaked in the early 1980s but have since declined.

Nonetheless, anxieties about marriage and relationships persist. And news about what people once thought was a strong union only heightens these worries.

Celebrity break-ups are plot points in ongoing celebrity dramas, but they reflect concerns about social change, just as they have for nearly a century.

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It’s tempting to go to a news organization’s website, often loaded with celebrity gossip, and presume that they’re just giving the public what we want. Are they?

While audiences bear some complicity in consuming celebrity gossip, there are a few other important reasons that news organizations regularly feature celebrity stories too.

As I discuss in chapter 9 of Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, celebrity “news” provides cheap filler content at a time when news budgets have been cut. According to the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, newspaper advertising revenues have dropped dramatically as well. Celebrity stories take relatively few (if any) resources and are easy for audiences to follow.

When television networks first broadcast news reports, they were not under nearly as much pressure to earn profits and ratings. Considered public service rather than entertainment, news broadcasts were significantly shorter than today, especially considering the proliferation of 24-hour news networks and the internet.

News-oriented magazines have seen their circulations plummet in recent years. As I note in chapter 9, ad revenues declined significantly for the eight best-selling news magazines, including Time, Newsweek (which was recently sold), and U.S. News & World Report.

By contrast, magazines that feature celebrity content like People and US not only outsell news magazines, but their circulations are steady or increasing. Several new magazines, like In Touch and Life & Style have thrived in this otherwise dismal economic climate for magazines.

As I argue throughout my book, celebrity stories serve a purpose beyond mindless entertainment. And yet they should by no means replace traditional journalism, which is vital for any democracy. Journalism is struggling to reinvent itself as a profitable enterprise during the internet age. As profit and loss sheets increasingly dictate content, we are likely to see more, not less, celebrity stories in the news.

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