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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

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)


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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