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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

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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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By definition, celebrities seem larger than life. As I write about in Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, they take on roles in real-life dramas that play out in public. Sometimes it is only when they die that we remember that they are only human.

Perhaps part of the lure of celebrity is the quest for a semblance of immortality, to be known during our lifetime and not forgotten after.

The recent passing of Whitney Houston came as a shock in part because of her age, but also because celebrity deaths often feel a bit impossible. Someone who seems to be woven into the fabric of our personal and collective memories may appear superhuman, with life experiences to which few have access. It may seem as though their heightened existence could protect them from something as common as death.

Part of the sadness that comes with the death of a major celebrity is a sense of personal loss, even if most of us never actually met the celebrity. We might feel a sense of connection with them if they remind us of part of our own lost past—the retrospectives of Whitney Houston have largely focused on the 1980s and 90s—and put us is in touch with our own inevitable mortality. 

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While watching various networks’ coverage of the 2011 Emmy Awards, I noticed that under the “Live” banner read “Hollywood, California.” But the event was actually held in downtown Los Angeles, not Hollywood.

This is not unusual—awards shows have been held around town over the years, in Pasadena (at the Civic Auditorium) and in Exposition Park (at the Shrine Auditorium), most notably.

There is a section of Los Angeles called Hollywood. I once lived there, and much of it is anything but a representation of the Eden the name conjures.

Out of town guests would always be disappointed when seeing my old neighborhood and reluctant to do much walking in the area. Blocks upon blocks of apartment buildings in various states of repair do not represent the celebrity lifestyle Hollywood is supposed to embody.

Hollywood is less a physical place than an idea.

But an idea can only go so far for tourists, so spaces have been created representing Hollywood in order to allow people to “consume Hollywood” during visits to the Los Angeles area.

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The Hollywood and Highland complex, which I recently blogged about, was largely created to draw tourists to some of Hollywood’s destinations, like Grauman’s Chinese Theater, pictured above.

Visiting physical spaces, sociologically speaking, can be viewed as  similar to pilgrimages where travelers feel personal connections with important cultural and religious places and events.

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In addition to the famous concrete footprints and signatures of celebrities, these spaces draw performers dressed like movie characters who pose for pictures with tourists for tips.

Often struggling to achieve the Hollywood dream themselves, the characters have been banned by the Los Angeles City Council after complaints that performers are too aggressive with tourists when seeking tips. (A person in a SpongeBob Squarepants costume was recently caught on video fighting with two women as well).

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Besides Hollywood Boulevard, Rodeo Drive has been a long-time tourist destination. In fact, visitors will typically find far more camera-toting visitors than actual celebrities shopping.

Hoping to lure tourists who might splurge for the occasional big ticket item, shopping has traditionally been one way people can consume celebrity culture, in this case, quite literally. As I write about in Celebrity Culture and the American Dream:

Celebrities’ consumption habits become associated with high status and an aspirational lifestyle….Even if we feel disdain for an individual celebrity, as members of an elite status community they serve as examples of what wealth and status might bring. We can hate them and still love the stuff they own. (pp.10-11)

Buying the same goods that celebrities might, using the same beauty products we hear they use is a powerful engine boosting our consumer-driven economy.

Shopping at the same stores we think celebrities really shop at is another part of the pilgrimage, a way to feel closer to celebrities.

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As you can see in the photo above, taken outside a store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, visitors are drawn to take pictures of the display of high-priced shoes and handbags. Inside the store there were no actual shoppers.

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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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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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