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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

Tag Archives: privacy

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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