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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

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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