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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

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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