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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

Category Archives: Sociology

Is it just me, or do you find yourself wondering how grown women find so much to fight about on the Real Housewives franchise? Sure, there are people we might not care to hang out with, and once we are out of middle school we usually just avoid people we don’t like rather than engage in confrontation after confrontation.

That means we would not likely not be cast as a "Real Housewife," or any so-called reality television show.

While we might enjoy the drama of their conflicts, there is more to the Real Housewives, sociologically speaking, than meets the eye.

Part of the success of the franchise is that it offers a glimpse into the lives of (mostly) affluent people, allowing us on the inside to see what they consume: the clothes they buy, the furnishings and finishes in their homes, their cars, and their vacations. As I discuss in chapter 9 of Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, non-celebrity participants reinforce the idea that anyone can achieve this level of wealth, that you can be famous—and wealthy—just for being you, the ultimate reinforcement of upward mobility.

Besides getting an inside look at their stuff, which we might alternatively find appealing and excessive, we might also view the participants as sympathetic sometimes and superficial; we get to alternatively judge, despise, and talk about these women with others. (Ironically one of the biggest sources of fights between cast mates stems from believing that others are talking about them behind their backs.)

The Real Housewives enable us to focus on a few hand-picked groups of women to represent the wealthy in America, a group that has been much maligned in recent years and not very well understood, even by sociologists who seldom gain access to study them.

Sociologists define the upper class as those who derive most of their income from investments rather than income, and so it is unlikely that most of the participants in this franchise are truly members of this group. Yet they serve as stand-ins, as do traditional celebrities, allowing us to overlook those who hold not just fabulous possessions and wealth, but power as well.

This franchise also focuses almost exclusively on women. Although husbands and boyfriends are occasional participants, they typically don’t drive the shows’ storylines. Conflicts between the women are central narratives, as are the women’s focus on their appearance, from regularly showing them having their hair and makeup done, working out, shopping and undergoing cosmetic surgery procedures. They have time to lunch and drink in the middle of the day (which producers doubtlessly encourage to lubricate brewing conflicts).

Not only does the way these women are portrayed via editing and casting reinforce regressive notions of femininity, but their constant conflicts reinforce the age old stereotype that women can’t get along. Their fighting seems inevitable due to jealousy or other highly emotional (and seemingly irrational) reasons. Although many of these women are strong, successful entrepreneurs, in the end they are portrayed as self-involved and superficial.

It’s not just the wealthy we are able to judge and criticize by watching, it is wealthy women in particular who are under the microscope. In the process, we might walk away thinking money and women don’t mix, or at least when they do nothing substantial results.

By contrast, consider a truly wealthy woman like Melinda Gates, for example, and the philanthropic work to which she and others like her have devoted their time and money. She and her friends probably wouldn’t create as much drama as the Real Housewives casts do, but their lives would paint a very different picture of what it means to be a woman of means.

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Nick Stevenson of University of Nottingham recently reviewed Celebrity Culture and the American Dream in the journal Contemporary Sociology. Here is an excerpt:

Her readable and well-written book is an interpretation of some 600 popular American film magazines from the early 1900s to the present day. Sternheimer argues that the study of these magazines is far from trivial because of what they reveal about the shared fantasies of the American Dream and more precisely ideas about class mobility and the good society. By looking at the magazines Sternheimer offers a revealing portrait of a society where celebrity operates as a metaphor for the capacity of the individual to achieve and reinvent the self. Celebrity then is about class mobility and serves as a way of masking wider social and economic inequalities. … Sternheimer locates in celebrity the celebration of the individual, but this time less in terms of the confessional, and more in terms of the legitimation of a wider class society. Celebrity culture then has a functional relationship with capitalism. Like gambling, the lottery or quiz games, celebrity works by seemingly offering everyone a chance at getting rich quickly, and yet this then serves to mask deeper more intractable inequalities in terms of welfare provision and life chances.

For a full text of his review, titled “Sociology in the Age of Celebrity,” visit Contemporary Sociology’s homepage.

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Wondering why celebrity relationships (like Kim Kardashian’s marriage and divorce) are such big news? In this interview, I discuss how interest in celebrity relationships reflect broader social changes and anxieties.

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