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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

Category Archives: Other

The news of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver’s split has been breaking news for the past few days. Why do celebrity break-ups get so much attention?

As characters in an ongoing real-life soap opera, we feel we know them and their “story line.” There hadn’t been news of trouble in this relationship, despite his 2003 admission of groping several women, so it may seem sudden and out of the blue for onlookers.

In my research of celebrity coverage dating back to 1911, I observed coverage of celebrity break-ups as an central part of celebrity stories since the 1930s. Yes, news of a divorce or an ended engagement might have been news before then, but a few social changes likely contributed to the growing interest in analyzing celebrities’ failed relationships.

The experiences and expectations surrounding marriage and relationships have shifted dramatically during the twentieth century, as historian Stephanie Coontz documents so well in her book Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or how Love Conquered Marriage. As marriage became less about economic interdependence and basic survival, it also became less stable.

In many ways, female celebrities were on the vanguard of these changes. They had their own careers and salaries. They had public acclaim at a time when women were still largely thought to be helpmates to men and caretakers of children. Female stars of the early twentieth century had identities beyond marriage and family at a time when few other women did.

Fan magazine articles (and advertisements) warned women of the danger that could await women who focused too much on careers FIGURE 2.4 P 12.29 p119 and not enough on their families. A man would spend extra time at the office to avoid a wife who failed to properly maintain her “hygiene,” according to an ad for Lysol. Women were the home wreckers of Hollywood, according to an article that blamed recently divorced celebrity women for their relationships’ end.

Women are not always blamed for the end of a relationship today, but the attention paid to celebrity relationships reflects our continued anxieties about whether marriages can really last. If people who have money, beauty, and fame struggle with their unions, what hope do mere mortals have?

As marriage has become defined more as an emotional partnership rather than an economic one, it is inherently less stable, but as Coontz concludes likely to be more satisfying. In fact, contrary to popular belief, divorce rates have been falling in recent years. As you can see from the graph below, divorce rates peaked in the early 1980s but have since declined.

Nonetheless, anxieties about marriage and relationships persist. And news about what people once thought was a strong union only heightens these worries.

Celebrity break-ups are plot points in ongoing celebrity dramas, but they reflect concerns about social change, just as they have for nearly a century.

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Lady Gaga appeared on 60 Minutes last night, and told interviewer Anderson Cooper that she was a student of the sociology of fame.

As a sociologist, I would give her an A.

(Click here to watch the full interview)

Putting aside her musical talent, which she clearly has, Lady Gaga has made being famous itself an art. In creating a character, she recognizes that she is performing even while off stage.

In reality, celebrities—and the rest of us—are engaged in some sort of performance whenever we enter a social space. Sociologist Erving Goffman wrote of social interaction as a form of theater, called the dramaturgical perspective.

Lady Gaga is not only aware of this, but uses her life as part of a carefully crafted performance. In the 60 Minutes interview she tells Cooper that she contemplates the purpose of every outrageous outfit she wears, and that ironically creating this persona has helped to carve out a sense of privacy.

Typically, celebrities engage in a specific kind of performance called the “celebrity interview,” where they often attempt provide the illusion of allowing us into their backstage social space. As Lady Gaga tells Cooper, these assumed confessions are usually just as crafted as any other performance (she calls them lies).

Part Lady Gaga’s mastery of the sociology of fame stems from her ability to conflate the real with the performance. When asked who she really is, she asserts that this is really her. As a postmodern performance artist, she asserts that her character Lady Gaga represents who she is more than when she identified primarily as Stefani Germanotta, her given name.

In a quest to discover who the celebrity “really” is, gossips and paparazzi collude to reveal celebrities’ secret selves, to show us what celebrities presumably don’t want us to know. Lady Gaga has succeeded, so far anyway, in shocking the public through her costumes, revelations, and disclosures to throw the celebrity “news” machine off of its usual game.

I confess that I am more of an observer than a fan of her performance, but she seems to be able to turn the logic of fame on its head, defining her public persona on her own terms rather than being defined by the industry.

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