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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

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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