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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

Monthly Archives: June 2011

Why do we love to watch the rise and fall of celebrities? What does this tell us about our society?

From young pop stars to “celebutantes” to politicians, following people climb to achieve fame only to stumble down that magical staircase has been a national pastime since at least the days of the penny press in the mid-nineteenth century, when scandals often Confidential_cover_Nov_1953dominated news coverage.

Contemporary celebrity tabloids have been around at least since the 1950s, when Confidential magazine was published.

True, the internet era has made these scandals easier to follow and pictures—no matter how graphic—easier to disseminate.

As I write in the first chapter of Celebrity Culture and the American Dream:

Contemporary celebrity stories often serve as modern day morality tales, especially if the main character does not seem to work hard or possess a strong moral core— yet the fates still reward them with riches. This is a constant theme in celebrity gossip: the chosen one is not really worthy after all. (p. 9)

A central part of the American Dream is that those who work hard and have special talents can rise to the top. A series of stories by nineteenth century author Horatio Alger popularized this ideal.

In Alger’s stories the young hero not only works hard, but possesses a strong moral core and thus appears especially deserving of wealth when it arrives.

I argue in the book that we are very conflicted about this moral component among those that achieve fame. Yes, porn stars and sex tape denizens, substance abusers and law-breakers are among the famous, but celebrity scandals help us reconcile this contradiction:

The public flogging that so often follows…serves to reinforce certain moral precepts (about industry, sobriety, and chastity)…. the focus on celebrities’ moral failings reveals an attempt to cling to the ideals of the Alger myth [that wealth is bestowed upon the hardworking and deserving].( p. 9)

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Scandals often focus on unresolved social issues a society is grappling with at any given time.

Former U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner resigned after sending lewd photos on Twitter (and subsequently lying about it). At a time when social networking is still relatively new, there is a good deal of anxiety about how it will change the ways that people relate to one another.

Scandals typically reflect the anxieties of their age. During the unrest of the late 1960s and early 1970s, concerns about drug use and antiwar activism were central topics of scandal. (See photo from Jane Fonda’s 1971 drug bust above, published in the February 1971 issue of Photoplay).

Scandals make for good television—especially in the slow summer season—and can bring in ratings for news organizations. They draw viewers not simply because audiences are shallow, but because scandals typically reflect currents of heightened social concern, as well as questions about whether the famous really deserve it.

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In his now prescient book, Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity, Richard Schickel first wrote in 1985 that celebrities feel like people we know, even members of our extended family (p. 265).

With the advent of Facebook and Twitter, those in the public eye can communicate directly with the public, furthering the sense of intimacy. We can learn of a celebrity’s major announcement as it image happens if it starts as an online post, and hear about the most mundane aspects of their daily lives if they choose to share them with us.

Thanks to social networking, if we sign up for celebrities’ feeds we no longer require fan magazines or other celebrity news source to get information; we are in many ways closer to celebrities than ever.

There’s something about that sense of intimacy that is rather compelling—we can feel connected to people who have attained high status, or at least the status of being known by strangers. It may even help us feel like insiders in the world of celebrity. This sense of intimacy likely bolsters a celebrity’s career and financial prospects (especially if they use their posts to pitch products).

Of course there’s a downside to this constant access. Schickel writes in the beginning of his book that a false sense of intimacy had motivated a few imbalanced individuals to stalk—and in some cases kill—famous people in the pre-internet era. Today stalkers can use tweets to find out a victim’s whereabouts in real time.

The danger goes both ways, as Rep. Anthony Weiner learned recently after his online dalliances became public. Taking the idea of “intimate strangers” to a new level, social networking allows those in the public eye to get themselves into much more trouble while leaving an electronic record. Yes, there have always been politicians who had affairs, but today’s electronic environment allows for a wider variety of instantaneous interactions.

Without the mediation of publicists and other advisers, celebrities might find that an offensive off-handed tweet can create major image problems. It may be harder to maintain as well-crafted an image as celebrities might have had during the days of the Hollywood studio system.

As I write in chapter 9 of Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, the internet age has created more opportunities to become famous. It has also made it easier than ever to become infamous.

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