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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

Tag Archives: celebrity

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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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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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Celebrity status is fleeting. Nowhere is that more clear than on the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard. Household names can become where-are-they-now trivia questions in a matter of months.

On a recent visit, I noticed stars of many performers who were once perhaps household names during Hollywood’s Golden Age that are now mostly unknown.

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Getting a star on Hollywood Boulevard isn’t cheap. A 2003 report notes that each star cost $15,000 (paid by the star or a sponsor), with $5,000 of that devoted to cleaning and upkeep.

The price of fame has apparently gone up, it now costs $30,000, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Not just anyone can have a star, though. The article mentions that the Walk of Fame currently excludes reality stars (but “television personalities” can have stars….)

A star’s upkeep doesn’t last forever. Some of the stars are in a state of remarkable disrepair. As you can see below, Spanky McFarland’s name (a child star from Our Gang), is all but obliterated by dirt.

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Actress Ella Raines’ star is also dirty and hard to read.

Perhaps a metaphor for celebrity itself, the stars on Hollywood Boulevard are physical manifestations of fame itself. People who were once considered highly important can be all but forgotten by fans, despite the “eternal” star on the walk of fame.

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The Walk of Fame also has blank stars for names yet to be known. Stars occasionally get vandalized, like the one below. And even the blank ones are already cracked and pockmarked by gum and dirt.

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While having a star on Hollywood Boulevard remains a marker of celebrity status, it also reminds us that even the famous can be forgotten.

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