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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

Category Archives: Scandals

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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When News of the World ceased operation this year after reports of widespread voicemail hacking, it became clear that some organizations would stop at nothing to obtain intimate details about people’s private lives.

Information about the famous, infamous, or even people involved in well-publicized crime stories has long held value in the marketplace. This dates back to the nineteenth century, when scandals and true crime stories were regular fare in that era’s penny presses. If editors back then had the opportunity to illicitly hear voice mails or read emails, I have no doubt they would have hacked into them when the battles between the Hearst and Pulitzer papers were waged.

But celebrity hacking is not always motivated by money.

A Florida man was recently tracked down by the FBI for breaking into the email accounts of several celebrities. He would comb the internet for information about these individuals, using published personal profiles from publications and their own postings to guess their passwords, gleaning information on their pets, siblings, and other information that celebrities sometimes share about themselves.

He then spied on all of their emails, even intercepting a nude photo one celebrity sent via email, which was posted online. Reports suggest that the man did not attempt to sell the information or blackmail the celebrities.

If money was not his main motivator, what was?

Perhaps it was the illusion of intimacy, of being close or on the inside of the celebrity world. While thanks to the internet and social networking we have likely never had so much access to information about so many people than ever before, it is never enough.

Sociologist Erving Goffman described public life as existing “front stage” and private life as “back stage.” As celebrities increasingly offer access to their lives off-stage, it essentially becomes part of their public life, thus increasing interest further in what they had hoped to keep private.

As I write about in the final chapter of Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, even if an individual celebrity has not participated in a reality show or provided many details about their personal lives, thanks to those who have opened up their lives to the public demand for personal stories is high.

The value placed on privacy means that information about those in the public eye can be sold at a premium, especially if it contradicts a person’s public image….As traditional-style soap operas go off the air, real-life celebrity soap operas have taken their place. (p. 228)

Stories like this also serve as a reminder to the rest of us, that even though strangers might not be interested in our emails or voice mails, in the information age privacy and electronic communication often don’t mix.

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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)


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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In his now prescient book, Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity, Richard Schickel first wrote in 1985 that celebrities feel like people we know, even members of our extended family (p. 265).

With the advent of Facebook and Twitter, those in the public eye can communicate directly with the public, furthering the sense of intimacy. We can learn of a celebrity’s major announcement as it image happens if it starts as an online post, and hear about the most mundane aspects of their daily lives if they choose to share them with us.

Thanks to social networking, if we sign up for celebrities’ feeds we no longer require fan magazines or other celebrity news source to get information; we are in many ways closer to celebrities than ever.

There’s something about that sense of intimacy that is rather compelling—we can feel connected to people who have attained high status, or at least the status of being known by strangers. It may even help us feel like insiders in the world of celebrity. This sense of intimacy likely bolsters a celebrity’s career and financial prospects (especially if they use their posts to pitch products).

Of course there’s a downside to this constant access. Schickel writes in the beginning of his book that a false sense of intimacy had motivated a few imbalanced individuals to stalk—and in some cases kill—famous people in the pre-internet era. Today stalkers can use tweets to find out a victim’s whereabouts in real time.

The danger goes both ways, as Rep. Anthony Weiner learned recently after his online dalliances became public. Taking the idea of “intimate strangers” to a new level, social networking allows those in the public eye to get themselves into much more trouble while leaving an electronic record. Yes, there have always been politicians who had affairs, but today’s electronic environment allows for a wider variety of instantaneous interactions.

Without the mediation of publicists and other advisers, celebrities might find that an offensive off-handed tweet can create major image problems. It may be harder to maintain as well-crafted an image as celebrities might have had during the days of the Hollywood studio system.

As I write in chapter 9 of Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, the internet age has created more opportunities to become famous. It has also made it easier than ever to become infamous.

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Celebrities often have a certain cache about them, so much so that there are typically people who do what they can to be part of their lives. From fans and admirers to those seeking to profit from a celebrity connection, fame can attract people who enjoy basking in the reflected glory of an “anointed one,” who might feel special by claiming insider status in a celebrity’s life.

And while many people choose the company of the famous, children of the famous have no choice in the matter. While I am not aware of any comprehensive study on the experiences of celebrities’ children, it is clear that their family connections bring both opportunities and challenges.

Like anyone from a privileged background, children of celebrities often have resources few other have access to. Private schools, private tutors, the best health care available, and of course material goods are but a few examples of the benefits of having famous parents.

As Wall Street Journal Reporter Daniel Golden found while researching his book The Price of Admission, children of celebrities (and of the wealthy) often get admitted to Ivy League universities despite mediocre grades. Even highly selective schools (he singles out Brown University in particular) are wooed by the glow of celebrity.

Beyond college, celebrity offspring might have industry connections and doors opened for them by family friends that propel their careers. As I write about in Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, we often think of stardom as a reflection of the American ideal of meritocracy. But we often forget that many of today’s biggest celebrities have famous family members (think Charlie Sheen, Angelina Jolie, and George Clooney, to name a few).

This doesn’t mean that these celebrities don’t deserve their fame or didn’t work hard, only that they have had some opportunities few others might. Like Jolie (nee Voight), Nicolas Cage changed his surname (from Coppola), so it is not simply their famous birth names that brought them recognition.

Even without specific connections or the cache of a family name, children of wealth can afford lessons and additional training. Likely unburdened by student loans, they might have less pressure to take a job that pays better than more flexible low-wage jobs like waiting tables that might enable someone to pursue another career at the same time.

But people with famous parents might face significant challenges—like criticism that their success is the result of their lineage rather than their own efforts. A famous name might open doors, but it can also feel like a burden at times, as people might face constant comparison to their famous parents.

Living in Los Angeles, I have had the opportunity to meet several children of celebrities whose parents’ success often overshadows their every accomplishment. Carving out a unique identity can be an added challenge when people expect that they should in some way be similar to their famous parent.

And then there is the matter of infamy. Most of us have that adolescent experience of being embarrassed by our parents at some point growing up, but the scale for children whose family is embroiled in scandal is much greater. The Schwarzenegger children’s every Tweet has become news since their father’s infidelity became public. While many families experience major disruptions like this, most children get to deal with upheavals privately.

While adults may choose to lead public lives—and others make seek to share the afterglow of the spotlight—their children don’t get to make a choice. Just as being born into a family of great wealth brings privilege, having famous parents can also create special challenges.

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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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