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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

Monthly Archives: July 2011

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The recent death of singer Amy Winehouse at the age of 27 is clearly a tragedy for her family, friends, and fans.

The aftermath and coverage of celebrities who die young remind us that celebrity status is about more than fame and talent. It is also about us.

Sociologically speaking, when a person of renown meets an early demise, they may serve as a cultural touchstone; the person becomes synonymous with a moment in time. They remain forever young, always associated with a specific image, uncomplicated by age and the changes it brings.

Like Winehouse, musicians Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain also died at 27 and have now become symbols of their respective musical eras. image

Of course it is too soon to know whether Winehouse will achieve the same iconic status in death that the others have. In some instances, their lives and music take on new meaning in death. Their record sales may skyrocket too.

A celebrity’s early death also serves as a strong reminder about mortality. Celebrities are often people who seem larger than life, for whom many of the normal rules don’t seem to apply.

Their deaths—especially if drugs or alcohol are involved—are a sharp reminder of their mortality. Ironically, death reminds us that those who appear so powerful are perhaps more vulnerable than imagined.

Celebrity deaths can also reinforce the notion of middle-class virtue. As I write about in the first chapter of Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, celebrity coverage can also serve as a powerful morality tale:

[The] mixed emotions we have about celebrities’ lifestyles also reveal a central contradiction within American culture: the coinciding desire for plenty and the lingering value placed on self-restraint. The Puritan ethic of self-denial, thrift, and austerity…[is] made visible by outrageous celebrity excesses and failure to maintain self-control. (p. 10)

The celebrity with a substance abuse problem embodies this contradiction. Their death can serve as a tragic reminder of the importance of sobriety as well as romanticize the “live fast, die young” ethos.

And for some, the outpouring of love a star my receive posthumously and their elevation to iconic status serves as a powerful siren song…drawing others to try and achieve celebrity status themselves.

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Casey Anthony was recently acquitted of murdering her toddler daughter, who disappeared about three years ago. The case became a cable news staple, elevating Anthony to national infamy.

Echoing the popularity of so-called reality television, crime dramas involving young women and girls as both victims and offenders capture public attention for many reasons. For one, they provide the thrill of the real, a heightened level of excitement because the events, characters, and outcomes unfold as we watch. These sagas provide cable news networks with cheap, expandable programming and ratings. And as I discussed on KPCC’s AirTalk, such tales often revolve around young white women and girls and highlight the notion of innocence. Those who presumably have it are deemed angelic, while girls and women characterized as lacking innocence (like Anthony) seem to embody evil.

The advent of cable news and the internet’s constant stream of information might erroneously make us think this is a new phenomenon. And yet the infamous have risen to celebrity status for over a century. With the advent of the penny press in the mid-nineteenth century came an intense focus on crime and scandal.

Social critics today might decry that people can become famous today without having talent, but that was true in the past as well. Of course it’s probably easier to parlay infamy into money today, as appearing on a reality show is an option for many of the twenty-first century’s notorious.

Back in the twentieth century, murder cases grabbed public attention too.

In 1906, architect Stanford White (with the mustache below) was allegedly having an affair with chorus girl and model Evelyn Nesbit. image

White was shot and killed by Henry Thaw, Nesbit’s husband, who later plead insanity and was institutionalized for seven years before his release.image

Called the “trial of the century,”  Nesbit’s image as a “Gibson Girl”—a turn-of-the-century representation of ideal womanhood—likely led to this case becoming national news. image

The 1955 film, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing later dramatized the case.

Like many who achieved infamy before her, Anthony will likely have more opportunities to remain in the public eye. She is part of a long history of those who blur the line between fame and infamy.

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