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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

Category Archives: History

Recently, Kris Jenner said her reality-tv family is a brand, much like the Kennedys.

This is not the first time the two large families have been compared, and usually in a way that is not favorable to the Kardashians.

A Houston Chronicle story on the SEC and Big 12 bowl matchup said it was like a Kardashian marrying a Kennedy. A US News and World Report story about the problem with the White House Correspondent’s dinner cited the presence of Jenner and daughter Kim as exhibit A, cheapening the importance of politics—the Kennedy “brand.”

Regardless of what we may think about each family, they are useful for helping us understand some of the differences (and similarities) between twentieth and twenty-first century celebrity.

Both families are large and wealthy, providing many “characters” and potentially dramatic adventures in their lives. Following the lives of the wealthy in gossip pages predates both centuries, and is a staple on reality television today. As I write about in Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, part of the fascination with celebrities entails getting an inside peek into what it is like to be rich.

There are some significant differences, though. For one, as a famous twentieth-century family, the Kennedys did not need to use their private lives as a vehicle for their fame. In fact, they often sought privacy in the face of scandal. Jacqueline Kennedy in particular was steadfast in trying to create a private life for her children. Ironically, this likely added to the family’s fame, shrouding the members in a mystique many wanted to learn more about.

While affairs of Kennedy men have become central to the family’s lore, they were not acknowledged publicly. After all, their “brand” is politics and public service, so any Kardashian-style confession in search of public sympathy or telling their side of a gossip item would be out of character.

We might argue that the Kennedys represent much of what we seem to be nostalgic for in celebrity culture today: they were famous for doing things, for becoming an ambassador, members of congress, senators, and of course, president. Many of the Kennedys today are active in a variety of politically-oriented causes.

But they are certainly not strangers to scandal today. And like their parents and grandparents, they are still reluctant to comment publicly about private personal issues.

By contrast, the Kardashians are mostly “famous for being famous,” what critics find to be particularly troublesome about our contemporary celebrity culture. A personal triumph or tragedy becomes a hook for one of their shows, and nothing seems too personal for the family members to discuss on camera.

Just like it’s tempting to view the Kennedys in an idealistic light (the result of JFK and RFK’s excellent branding work) and look sadly upon the demise of well-deserved fame, people back then were certainly “famous for being famous.” We might argue that many Kennedys today are simply famous for their name, a la Paris Hilton.

The main difference: being open about constructing your family as a brand. Both clearly thought about their public image, although only one family talks about it openly and even proudly as a commodity.

There is something sacred about families, and to some it might seem crass for a family to have been commercialized. But we shouldn’t be naive enough to think that Kardashian is the only family that sees itself as a brand.

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Can you find traces of the American Dream at a shopping mall?

You don’t have to look to hard to find the American Dream at Hollywood and Highland, a mall situated in the middle of the tourist attractions on Hollywood Boulevard. The shopping center’s floor features quotes of anonymous showbiz success stories, highlighting their rise from obscurity to stardom.

The mall opened nearly ten years ago, in November 2001, as part of a major revitalization project to clean up a then seedy Hollywood Boulevard. While the project had been in the works for some time, its opening coincided with an attempt to encourage Americans to travel and shop again after the terrorist attacks two months prior.

The floor tiles, like those pictured below, encourage us to keep the American Dream alive:

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“Give the kid a break,” the quote above reads, a staple in celebrity back stories. These quotes reflect the notion that success can happen to virtually anyone who possesses determination, moxie, and a dose of good luck.

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Stories like these are compelling, and tell us about more than Hollywood, but the American Dream itself. As I write in Celebrity Culture and the American Dream:

Hollywood has historically produced the dreams that fuel the continuing belief that America is a place where true social mobility exists…part of the fascination with the private lives of celebrities…involves learning what it is really like to be one of the chosen.

You can even see how your hand and footprints match up with celebrities of the past at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Sharing similar-size hand and foot prints remind us that they are just like us in many ways—and we are just like them. Or so we might hope.

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Celebrity status is fleeting. Nowhere is that more clear than on the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard. Household names can become where-are-they-now trivia questions in a matter of months.

On a recent visit, I noticed stars of many performers who were once perhaps household names during Hollywood’s Golden Age that are now mostly unknown.

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Getting a star on Hollywood Boulevard isn’t cheap. A 2003 report notes that each star cost $15,000 (paid by the star or a sponsor), with $5,000 of that devoted to cleaning and upkeep.

The price of fame has apparently gone up, it now costs $30,000, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Not just anyone can have a star, though. The article mentions that the Walk of Fame currently excludes reality stars (but “television personalities” can have stars….)

A star’s upkeep doesn’t last forever. Some of the stars are in a state of remarkable disrepair. As you can see below, Spanky McFarland’s name (a child star from Our Gang), is all but obliterated by dirt.

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Actress Ella Raines’ star is also dirty and hard to read.

Perhaps a metaphor for celebrity itself, the stars on Hollywood Boulevard are physical manifestations of fame itself. People who were once considered highly important can be all but forgotten by fans, despite the “eternal” star on the walk of fame.

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The Walk of Fame also has blank stars for names yet to be known. Stars occasionally get vandalized, like the one below. And even the blank ones are already cracked and pockmarked by gum and dirt.

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While having a star on Hollywood Boulevard remains a marker of celebrity status, it also reminds us that even the famous can be forgotten.

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When I first started doing research for Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, I wanted to trace the history of celebrity coverage to see how we got here today.

Before I began reading old fan magazines (I ended up reading hundreds over the course of four years) it seemed to me that coverage is now much more invasive, obsessed with celebrity’s private lives and Schadenfreude—building up icons only to tear them down.

What surprised me the most while doing the research was how much less things had changed than I once thought.

Today we tend to think of the 1950s as an era cloaked in innocence. Here are some examples of stories from that decade that might remind us a lot of coverage today.

While not exactly a fan magazine, Confidential—“Uncensored and Off the Record”—exposed celebrity secrets until a 1957 lawsuit effectively stopped it from publishing rumors. This story (left) from a 1954 issue alleged several actresses had cosmetic surgery, just as fare from a contemporary tabloid might.

Pregnancy and babies were big news in the 1950s, much like today. This 1957 Photoplay story featured actress Jeanne Crane checking her weight. One big difference—I did not observe mainstream fan magazines speculating about “baby bumps” and running unflattering pictures as “evidence.”

Magazines did speculate on possible marriages, though, as this 1957 Photoplay article about actress Kim Novak does (Novak did not marry the man mentioned in the article).

And also like today, there were many photo spreads featuring celebrity’s private lives, implying they were “just like us.” Below in this 1954 Photoplay story we see several actresses pictured with their dogs.

OK, celebrity coverage is a lot different today. There is no more studio system controlling a celebrity’s image or the content in mainstream celebrity magazines. And Confidential-style coverage is much more common than it was a half century ago. Television made celebrity coverage daily, and the internet made it instantaneous.

But there are still some thematic threads from the past with us today.

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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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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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