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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

Tag Archives: celebrity culture

Can you find traces of the American Dream at a shopping mall?

You don’t have to look to hard to find the American Dream at Hollywood and Highland, a mall situated in the middle of the tourist attractions on Hollywood Boulevard. The shopping center’s floor features quotes of anonymous showbiz success stories, highlighting their rise from obscurity to stardom.

The mall opened nearly ten years ago, in November 2001, as part of a major revitalization project to clean up a then seedy Hollywood Boulevard. While the project had been in the works for some time, its opening coincided with an attempt to encourage Americans to travel and shop again after the terrorist attacks two months prior.

The floor tiles, like those pictured below, encourage us to keep the American Dream alive:

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“Give the kid a break,” the quote above reads, a staple in celebrity back stories. These quotes reflect the notion that success can happen to virtually anyone who possesses determination, moxie, and a dose of good luck.

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Stories like these are compelling, and tell us about more than Hollywood, but the American Dream itself. As I write in Celebrity Culture and the American Dream:

Hollywood has historically produced the dreams that fuel the continuing belief that America is a place where true social mobility exists…part of the fascination with the private lives of celebrities…involves learning what it is really like to be one of the chosen.

You can even see how your hand and footprints match up with celebrities of the past at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Sharing similar-size hand and foot prints remind us that they are just like us in many ways—and we are just like them. Or so we might hope.

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When I first started doing research for Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, I wanted to trace the history of celebrity coverage to see how we got here today.

Before I began reading old fan magazines (I ended up reading hundreds over the course of four years) it seemed to me that coverage is now much more invasive, obsessed with celebrity’s private lives and Schadenfreude—building up icons only to tear them down.

What surprised me the most while doing the research was how much less things had changed than I once thought.

Today we tend to think of the 1950s as an era cloaked in innocence. Here are some examples of stories from that decade that might remind us a lot of coverage today.

While not exactly a fan magazine, Confidential—“Uncensored and Off the Record”—exposed celebrity secrets until a 1957 lawsuit effectively stopped it from publishing rumors. This story (left) from a 1954 issue alleged several actresses had cosmetic surgery, just as fare from a contemporary tabloid might.

Pregnancy and babies were big news in the 1950s, much like today. This 1957 Photoplay story featured actress Jeanne Crane checking her weight. One big difference—I did not observe mainstream fan magazines speculating about “baby bumps” and running unflattering pictures as “evidence.”

Magazines did speculate on possible marriages, though, as this 1957 Photoplay article about actress Kim Novak does (Novak did not marry the man mentioned in the article).

And also like today, there were many photo spreads featuring celebrity’s private lives, implying they were “just like us.” Below in this 1954 Photoplay story we see several actresses pictured with their dogs.

OK, celebrity coverage is a lot different today. There is no more studio system controlling a celebrity’s image or the content in mainstream celebrity magazines. And Confidential-style coverage is much more common than it was a half century ago. Television made celebrity coverage daily, and the internet made it instantaneous.

But there are still some thematic threads from the past with us today.

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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)

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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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Popularity—the kind we think we left behind after we finished middle school or high school—bears a great deal of resemblance to celebrity culture.

Several sociologists have done research on the concept of popularity, conducting ethnographies in middle and high schools. (Murray Milner Jr.’s Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids, Patricia and Peter Adler’s Peer image Power and School Talk by Donna Eder and Stephen Parker are a few particularly good ones).

While an imperfect analogy, there are some striking similarities between how kids gain status in schools and image how people become celebrities.

The Adlers studied middle schoolers, and found that boys in particular were more likely to be popular if they had savior fare: in other words, they could charm peers and adults alike. The smooth talkers found themselves among the popular set (think George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and decades of other charmers).

For girls in this middle school, appearance was key, especially the clothes they wore. In the middle school Eder & Parker studied the same was true, and interestingly, these girls might have been popular but not well liked. Female celebrities often face the same paradox: admired for their appearance but criticized by men and women alike image for seeming shallow, and “stuck up,” as popular middle school girls were thought to be.

In Eder & Parker’s research, a big part of popularity was being known by others. Visibility in a large school was often tough to achieve, but was the hallmark of popularity. Being known by people that you yourself don’t know is a hallmark of celebrity, and is something that a small percentage of kids might experience growing up.

I’m not aware of any systematic research that examines whether celebrities were more likely to have been the popular kids growing up, but anecdotally we often hear how they weren’t: the beauty who couldn’t get a date, or the leading man who was shy and awkward help us feel like celebrities are “just like us.”

Milner discusses at length how popularity is by nature a scarce resource; if everyone could be popular it would no longer be a mark of status. Celebrity too is a relatively scarce commodity. Although there are many more opportunities in the internet age to become known by strangers, as I write in the last chapter of Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, most people will not be able to monetize being known despite some well-known examples of reality stars and YouTube sensations. Even amongst celebrities there is the distinction between the so-called A list and everyone else.

Adolescent popularity and the sociology of celebrity is an imperfect analogy: most celebrities probably haven’t personally humiliated us in front of our peers, something Milner observed as a way to maintain superiority in the high school pecking order. But there are a lot of similarities.

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