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Celebrities As A Cultural Phenomenon

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Celebrities Are More Than Just Popular Culture

Imagine our society without celebrities. What would be on the covers of the magazines lining the checkout aisle at the grocery store? Would talk shows or award shows like the Grammy’s even exist? Many, if not all, aspects of our popular culture are dependent upon the existence of celebrities. Before defining celebrity culture, we first must define “celebrity”. Many people are quick to call celebrities people who are simply “famous for being famous,” but there’s more to it than just being well-known. Celebrity requires glamor, beauty, wealth, in addition to simply fame or talent (“The culture of celebrity”). A society that highly values and idolizes this concept of celebrity results in the creation of a celebrity culture. Therefore, celebrity culture is becoming increasingly widespread in America, as it is essentially a “modern phenomenon that emerged amid such twentieth-century trends as urbanization and the rapid development of consumer culture.” (“Celebrity Culture”). The advancement of technology in the 20th and 21st century has increased the prevalence of celebrity culture in America, which, in turn, adds value to society as a whole.

As previously mentioned, technology is a huge contributing factor to the rise in celebrity culture. The concept behind celebrity culture is not necessarily a new idea, people have always idolized those who are perceived to be superior to them. Whether it’s religious figures, kings and queens, or scientists, “cultural, anthropological and historical studies show us that human societies have always had a need to ‘worship’ things.” (Bryner). That being said, technology has taken it to a new level by facilitating this process, meanwhile our changing culture has created its own types of idols to “worship”: the rich, the talented, the beautiful. Advancements in technology have created more mediums for celebrities to become exposed to society. For instance, with social media, such as Twitter and Instagram, where information is constantly updated, our interaction and exposure to celebrities is more accessible than ever. The fact that there are so many new ways for people to keep up to date and in touch with celebrities’ lives allow us to create the illusion that we are closer to these celebrities because we know so much about them (Bryner, 2). With more information on celebrities and their personal lives, they become less mysterious which may cause us to look at them at our own level. This, in turn, demonstrates why we are so interested in them and, consequently, why they dominate pop culture and entertainment.

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So there’s no denying that celebrity culture is everywhere, but why is it so alluring and what is the reason for the interest? Another explanation for the ever-increasing predominance of celebrity phenomenon is due to innate psychological instinct. As humans, we “crave social interaction with others”, along with this, “we pay closest attention to the prestigious.” Therefore, in a sense, celebrity culture is a result of our psychological instincts, because people will find social relationships even if they are imaginary, such as a fan’s perceived relationship with their favorite celebrity (Bryner). As humans, we focus on the prestigious, successful and beautiful because it comes down to the psychology of learning how to gain rewards or avoid punishment. (Bryner). There are several functions of celebrity culture, but one is “to advertise those who do well, and to reward those people and, ultimately, to generate inspiration among those who watch them from a distance.” (“The culture of celebrity”). In which case, we watch celebrities, because we want to be like them or we want what they have, due to their evident success in life. After considering this perspective, it is plausible that celebrities not only add value to society, but they are also necessary, in our modern society, in order to foster the human social instinct to admire idols.

There’s no hiding the fact that not every famous person in our media today possesses remarkable talent. That being said, the majority of them do, actors, singers, athletes, writers, comedians, the list is ever-expanding as we come to recognize more and more traits as celebrity-worthy talents. In fact, these celebrities reflect our current societal values. As Marshall articulates in his book, Celebrity and Power, “the term celebrity has a metaphor for value in our modern society…specifically, it describes a type of value that can be articulated through an individual and celebrated publicly as important and significant.” (7). Different cultures recognize various characteristics as important, and the public figures that people show a strong appreciation for often reflect these characteristics. Thus, celebrities embody the values that we consider to be significant in our society. For instance, celebrities are often talented, beautiful, and wealthy, this reveals how we consider these traits to hold an utmost importance in our culture. Overall celebrity culture, “provides us with portraits of people who can guide us to what matters, in ourselves and the world.” (Boton). The concept of celebrity gives us a model that portrays what we aspire to be, which also explains why it is no surprise that we are interested in following their actions.

The virtually essential presence of celebrities in our society begs the question: what kind of importance do these idols contribute to our culture as a whole? For one thing, celebrities serve as a remarkable source of inspiration in many different ways. It may seem like a simple concept, but the inspiration that an idol provides can be extremely beneficial. Not only do celebrities inspire in the typical sense of following your dreams, but they can also inspire us to act on a social change. For example, the It Gets Better campaign features many celebrities in their advertisements supporting the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community while raising awareness for the project. The It Gets Better movement is essentially the promotion of tens of thousands of different Youtube videos made by typical users as well as different celebrities, activists, media personalities and politicians, including Barack Obama. The videos are supposed give a message of hope and are meant to inspire LGBT youth that, despite the bullying or loneliness they may be facing currently, it gets better in the future. (“About It Gets Better”). Another example of this promotion of social change is the NO MORE campaign, with the aim to prevent sexual assault and end the victim-blaming present in rape culture. This organization advertises print posters and videos that feature well-known celebrities, such as Amy Poehler and Mariska Hartigay, speaking out against issues regarding sexual assault (Culp-Pressler). The appearance of celebrities in these videos is imperative because it shows those struggling with their sexuality, or dealing with sexual assault, that they are not alone. It also demonstrates that even immensely successful celebrities have experienced and overcome similar struggles and that they are eager to support the cause. Overall, the celebrities in these advertisements send a message of hope and inspiration to those dealing with difficulties in their life. Moreover, the awareness of these critical issues may not have been taken as seriously if celebrities were not included in these messages.

Some people may find it ridiculous that our culture needs to use celebrities to endorse matters such as social change, but Botton argues that this attitude is “self-defeating” because it “fatally [miscalculates] what it takes to motivate people.” He asserts that, ideally, everyone would be “motivated purely by the love of justice and humanitarian generosity” but he promptly counters this point with the simple fact that it’s normal for people to disregard issues that do not directly affect them; and in order to aid that fact, they need significant encouragement (Botton). And from who better to receive this encouragement than the people who are adored most in society: celebrities. Through this marketing, celebrities add necessary inspiration and motivation to our culture.

Following celebrities’ lives is mainly a source of entertainment in our society. Surely there are other forms of entertainment; we have still have books, movies, and plays, just as we did before the most recent rise of technology. However, there are several characteristics unique to celebrity culture, which explain why it has become the predominant source of entertainment in our society. For instance, with celebrities, you don’t have to create the pretense that their actions are real, as you would in a form of fictional entertainment (e.g. books, movies). Gabler argues, “celebrity is more like a vast, multicharacter show, albeit with a star, only it is performed in the medium of life rather than on screens or on the stage.” Additionally, the fact that celebrities are living in real time means their actions are essentially never-ending and there is an element of suspense that entertainment, such as a movie, can only manufacture (Gabler). The stories behind movies, books and television series always have an inevitable ending; celebrities’ stories, on the other hand, are always inherently continuous because they are real people living their lives. The benefit to admiring and following someone’s experiences as entertainment is that it’s always subject to change and the suspense never really ends. The elements of suspense and reality that celebrities in the media possess explain why celebrity culture, often times, supersedes older forms of traditional entertainment, which, in turn, adds value to our society.

With the widespread prevalence of celebrity culture in our society, it is important to understand not only its purpose, but also how it adds value to our culture. One aspect of celebrity culture that is often overlooked is the fact that it can actually unite disparate groups of people. According to Knight, “You don’t bond with strangers at bus stops over the vexed question of ring-fencing banks,” but you can make “temporary best friends” by discussing celebrities lives. The fact that celebrity culture is everywhere we look means that nearly everyone is aware of at least some aspect of it, which means it serves as good conversation material and even fosters bonding among other people who might not otherwise interact. Gabler claims that celebrities are, “America’s modern denominators,” because, even regardless of talent, “they provide escape and give us something we can all talk about.” With the aforementioned fact that humans are instinctively social beings, we wish to connect with those around us. Thus, celebrity culture facilitates human interaction in its ability to create a common theme for conversation.

It is commonly asserted that celebrities are merely talentless airheads who are famous for being famous, thus their presence is essentially useless, and that those who follow celebrities are superficial and inferior. There is a partial truth to this statement; there is no doubt that there are some “Paris Hiltons” in the media, who don’t quite have a talent but will still show up all over the magazines. In her article, Argetsinger provides several examples of celebrities who have this pretense of talent, but are much more well-known for their presence in tabloids than anything else. For instance, take into account Jessica Simpson’s career. Technically speaking, Simpson is an actress and singer, but Argetsinger argues that her songs are not very well-known and that her acting career is not exactly very successful. That being said, nearly everyone knows who Jessica Simpson is. She’s been on the cover of countless magazines and her life has been the subject of several tabloids. Thus, Simpson has attained this celebrity essence, despite not being exceptionally talented. However, Argetsinger fails to mention the negative effects of this seemingly vapid fame. There are undeniably many more celebrities who are famous because they possess genuine talent; and talented or not, they still provide us with a source of entertainment. And surely there are a select few people who go over the top and follow celebrities to the point of utter obsession, but that simply is not the case for the majority of people in our society. In addition, the notion that pursuing an interest in celebrities’ lives is shallow and childish implies that, “it is somehow one’s duty to shun celebrity culture at all times.” (Knight). This idea, however, does not hold much validity in that there is nothing shameful about enjoying entertainment (Knight). It’s suggesting that one cannot enjoy both celebrity media as well as intellectual material, which is narrow-minded and elitist in nature, let alone the fact that it is by no means true. Along with that, Botton argues that “to refuse to admire, to take no interest in what distinguished others are up to, is to shut ourselves off, grandly and implausibly, from important knowledge.” Therefore, immersing oneself in pop culture is beneficial and by no means something to be ashamed of.

Rather than dismissing the concept of celebrity admiration as demeaning, we should embrace this aspect of our culture for what it is: a healthy expression of our social instincts to admire, an outlet for our desire for entertainment and an inspiring source of motivation. All of these different features of celebrity culture undoubtedly add value to our society. And although there are inherent flaws in celebrity culture, that doesn’t mean it should be disregarded as whole. Celebrity culture is the new age entertainment of our technologically advanced generation. Our human instincts have essentially created the concept of celebrity culture and simultaneously latched on to its alluring essence; so why try to reject an undeniable part of our lives? Celebrities are here to stay and it seems that their presence is, in fact, more beneficial than the lack thereof. So the next time you find yourself fascinated by an episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians or scrolling through Taylor Swift’s Instagram account, remember that you have nothing to feel guilty about.

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