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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

Category Archives: Television

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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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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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.


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.


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).


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.


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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Ever since I started doing research on celebrity culture, reporters have been asking me a variation of this question: why are we so obsessed with [insert any celebrity who is all over the news at the time]?

Most of the time I politely suggest that is not us who are obsessed, but celebrities provide the news media with an endless amount of cheap content requiring little investigative research on their behalf.

Rarely do I have any data to back this up—it’s just a hunch. Yes, we might linger before changing the channel, or click through on a news website because it might be entertaining, but this isn’t necessarily what the public demands.

With the British royal wedding just days away, breathless reporters live from London tell us about proper attire for the affair and the required etiquette should we happen upon the queen. We can’t get enough—or so they tell us.

That’s what makes the recent New York Times/CBS News Poll so interesting. Finally, data to support my hypothesis.

According to the poll, conducted April 15-20, 68% of Americans said that they have not been following the coverage of the wedding very closely or at all. Just 28% said they were following the coverage somewhat or very closely.

Of the 58% of Americans who reported following the wedding coverage, two-thirds said they would likely watch the wedding, while 37% did not plan on watching.

Of course some people might get wedding fever and decide to watch at the last minute. But it’s a reminder that sometimes our “obsessions” are instead media creations in hopes that we will decide to tune in and increase their ratings.

To some degree, the massive coverage celebrities sometimes garner creates a self-fulfilling prophesy rather than serve as a commentary on American society.

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Did you know that PBS was a pioneer in the reality television business?

An American Family first aired in 1973, featuring a Santa Barbara family and their five children. In addition to offering an inside glimpse into family life, the family experienced major turmoil during the filming.

Wife Pat tells her husband she wants a divorce, and eldest son Lance comes out as gay. Perhaps difficult issues under any circumstance, but considering the public nature of normally private events, they made for dramatic television. (Keep in mind that the American Psychiatric Association had just declassified homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses that year too).

In a bizarre twist of reality becoming a work of fiction, HBO is debuting a film called Cinema Verite on April 23, a dramatization of the behind-the-scenes life of the Loud family during the filming of their family.

(KOCE owns the west coast rights to the series and will rebroadcast the original series starting this weekend).

French sociologist Jean Baudrillard wrote about the Louds in his 1983 book Simulations, referring to the show as a “truth experiment…neither a question of secrecy nor of perversion, but a kind of thrill of the real” (p. 50).

Baudrillard passed away in 2007, but my guess is he would find the latest development to be further evidence of the endless reflection between “reality” and simulation, making the two indistinguishable.

Weren’t we already supposed to glimpse “behind the scenes” during the original series? This alleged distinction is something Baudrillard refers to as “an absurd, paradoxical formula—neither true nor false: but utopian” (p. 50).

Part of the thrill of celebrity culture today is the illusion that we are regularly allowed behind the curtain. But are we?

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Would you pay to see reality show participants in person?

Promoters of “Reality Rocks Expo” are hoping fans will pay $35 to meet people who have appeared on shows like Celebrity Rehab, The Real Housewives, Survivor, and a variety of other programs this weekend at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

There’s nothing new about paying admission to get autographs and meet famous people—its some of the workshops at the expo that are most interesting.

For an additional $25, attendees can attend workshops to learn to “Create, Produce and Pitch your Reality TV Show,” “Brand Yourself: Using Social Media to Advance Your Career in Reality TV,” and meet casting directors.

One workshop in particular stands out: “How To Become A Host/Reality Star – Parlay your 15 minutes of Reality Fame into a Career.”

As I write in the last chapter of Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, so-called reality programs can create the impression that we all have a shot at a career, just for being us. At a time when unemployment has remained stubbornly high, the price of admission and a workshop may seem like a legitimate investment in a career that could potentially pay off big.

As a 2010 Forbes magazine article detailed, a handful of reality stars have been able to cash in big, but as the magazine reported in 2007, most do not. The glut of reality stars means that paychecks for personal appearances have declined for all but the top stars. Some might also become infamous and have trouble finding work after their FIGURE 1.215 minutes are up.

Besides the financial long shot, being on a reality show might have a personal toll, as making one’s private life public can have a downside.

In my research of celebrity fan magazines, one thing remained consistent throughout their century of publication: the promise of a better life. Reality TV also offers the promise. But does it really deliver?

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The Academy Awards ceremony will be held this Sunday—will you be watching?

You don’t have to be an industry insider to know that ratings for the Academy Awards telecast are much lower now compared with past decades.

Before the widespread availability of cable television in the early 1980s, typically two-thirds of people watching TV tuned in. During the 1980s through the mid-1990s, close to half of all television sets were tuned to the show. Despite an uptick during the past couple years, the percentage has hovered under one quarter of viewers during the 2000s.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been trying boost ratings. Last year, the Academy reverted to a pre-WWII tactic of selecting ten best picture nominees in hopes of creating  more interest in the show.

There are a number of likely reasons for the ratings decline. In our entertainment-saturated society, we have a lot competing for our attention.

But the shifting nature of celebrity itself has likely changed the public’s interest in a decidedly twentieth century television show, one that resembles a mid-century variety show long gone from regular prime time schedules.

In the not-too-distant past, watching the Oscars offered us one of the few opportunities to watch famous people “just being themselves,” not playing a role in a movie. We could try and get a sense of who they really were in the candid shots of them sitting in the audience and from their acceptance speeches.

With the advent of blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and TMZ, we get to see celebrities behind the scenes all the time. In fact, part of the experience of consuming celebrity today involves learning more about their backstage behavior than their onstage performances. The old appeal of watching our favorite movie stars on television seems quaint today.

As the Los Angeles Times reported, during this year’s broadcast fans can pay to view additional live video feeds from backstage, the lobby bar, and the Governors Ball. I’m not sure people will pay for this kind of access, since we’ve become accustomed to getting tweets and behind-the-scenes videos for free.

Reality stars may not have the talent of the Oscar nominees, but they have helped set the expectation of total access. Yes, occasionally an outrageous outfit or speech might shock viewers, but we are used to that by now.

Perhaps the best way to regain viewers for the telecast is to apply twenty-first century celebrity logic to a twentieth century tradition. But this may be an impossible contradiction.

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