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Culture of Celebrity. “The celebrities of media culture are the icons of the present age, the deities of an entertainment society in which money, looks, celebrity, and success are the ideals and goals of the dreaming billions who inhabit Planet Earth. ” Douglas Keller, University of California .

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Culture of Celebrity

“The celebrities of media culture are the icons of the present age, the deities of an entertainment society in which money, looks, celebrity, and success are the ideals and goals of the dreaming billions who inhabit Planet Earth.”

Douglas Keller, University of California

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In the early 2000s the public was alerted to a newly documented, apparently widespread malady called “Celebrity Worship Syndrome, or CWS.” According to press reports, this threat, in its most severe form, infected 30 percent of the population.

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Actually, a reporter misinterpreted “CWS”—The acronym really referred to a testing instrument with a decidedly less dramatic name: Celebrity Worship Scale.

  • However, the name stuck, and after an initial period of indifference from much of the academic world, the subject reemerged on the radar screens of researchers and the press.
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Experts tell us that fame and celebrity have been important features of civilization since antiquity. In the days before science, gods emerged from humankind’s desire to understand the forces of nature.

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Mythologies detailing the lives of the gods humanized the deities. Zeus became known as King of the Gods,

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With all the necessary elements present—fame, publicity, and a potential for the gossip mill—the ancient gods could be considered the first celebrities.

  • Over time, celebrity expanded to include powerful rulers, church figures, athletes, artists, and musicians, and more.
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Celebrity today commands an unprecedented level of our attention, and the mass media. Social media like Twitter and Facebook—are intensifying the cult of celebrity worldwide.

  • Italian mathematicians developed an equation that describes how the Internet can spread celebrity gossip globally in a matter of hours.
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Fame and celebrity are viral in the 21st Century, but so is the anonymous, often malicious gossip that targets those in the public eye.

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As recently as the 90’s, aggressive professional photographers were like pesty insects to celebrities who wanted to preserve some privacy in public--and some not so public—places.

  • Now, everyone with a cell phone camera and an Internet connection is a potential paparazzo or reporter with worldwide distribution.
  • Celebrity-spotting websites can locate anyone in real-time, and celebrities face a public eye that never blinks.
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Some celebrities feel they are treated as second-class citizens when it comes to legal privacy rights in many parts of the world. In the U.S., anyone who meets the legal definition of a “public figure” has very limited ability to sue under the laws of libel and slander.

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A public figure can be pretty much anyone the public is interested in for any reason, including politicians, sports figures, musicians, actors, criminals, the victims of criminals, and on and on.

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The U.S. press has traditionally enjoyed favored status under privacy laws when it comes to reporting about public figures, based on the free press provisions of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

  • But the power of governments everywhere--even those with less liberal press laws—to protect the privacy of all individuals, including public figures, has been diminished by emerging digital media that operate apart from the laws that govern traditional forms of publication.
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For example, celebrities in Great Britain can seek court injunctions to restrain the publication of embarrassing press reports, but that information is often freely available on internet blogs or Twitter feeds.

  • Privacy and libel laws may technically apply, but enforcement is problematic.
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The celebrities themselves, criticize broad interpretations of what constitutes a public figure.

  • According to this argument, the public’s legitimate interest, it’s “right to know,” shouldn’t extend to the private lives of popular culture figures like entertainers and athletes the way it does with politicians and public officials.
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The following quote sums up the media’s response to the aggrieved celebrity: 

  • “The more that people use the media machine, the more they can expect to be used by it. “ The News Manual
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The press feels justified in mining the private lives of celebrities to increase circulation or viewership because the celebrities use the press to advance their careers.

  • In some cases, this could include gossip deliberately planted by a sneaky publicist to build some “buzz” around a celebrity client.
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Celebrity is also getting more democratic. The Internet has shifted some of the celebrity making power out of the hands of the media executives and public relations experts who have traditionally controlled the celebrity-building apparatus.

  • As individuals, we now have the tools to promote our own celebrity. You might be the newest YouTube sensation!
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One criticism of our present culture is the emergence of a form of celebrity that is detached from talent or accomplishment.

  • Reality television promotes a model of instant fame and fortune that is open to anyone and often requires little of the contestants beyond a tolerance for public humiliation.
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Reality television helps feed the public’s endless appetite for celebrity and celebrity gossip .The instant celebrity it creates to fuel the “celebrity-industrial complex” is often minor and short-lived for those to whom it is conferred.

  • But the endless parade of the newly minted “famous-for-being famous” makes celebrity seem like a credible career goal for the young.
  • 51 percent of the American girls polled by Pew Research said that becoming famous is their number one or number two goal in life.
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When surveyed, British youth felt misled by the “unachievable role models” offered up by the celebrity culture.

  • 82 percent reported that that the dashed expectations they experienced as they entered the job market were damaging to their self-esteem.
  • Researchers report that they are seeking more traditional goals: a secure living environment, a good relationship, and secure jobs—but that they feel that those ambitions have become harder to fulfill in recent decades.
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Our expansive mass media supplies us with extensive detail about the lives of celebrities and fosters the development of what psychologists call “parasocial” relationships.

  • These are the imaginary, one-sided relationships fans have with their favorite celebrities and sports idols; they know their lives and careers in detail, relate to and identify with them, emulate their style and manner, and, in their own minds, form a real, but imaginary bond.
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Psychologists think parasocial relationships kept in proper perspective are harmless, and possibly even beneficial as a self-esteem builder for the young.

  • But taken to the extreme can lead to obsessive behaviors such as stalking.
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In 2002, a group of psychologists warned about excessive and potentially unhealthy levels of “celebrity worship” the press put a somewhat sensational spin on the topic.

  • Researcher James Houran, was quoted in a 2003 BBC article as saying, "Just worshipping a celebrity does not make you dysfunctional. But it does put you at risk of being so. There is this progression of behaviors, and if you start, we don't know what's going to stop you.”
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At the present time, most experts—including the original researchers—agree that moderate levels of celebrity worship can benefit some people by producing healthy social bonding and reducing stress through entertainment and escapism.

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Experts from other specialized disciplines have provided their opinions:

  • Evolutionary biologists think our interest in celebrities may be related to a “hard-wired” human impulse to imitate the behaviors of successful individuals.
  • Social psychologists believe characteristics of modern society, including a weakening of formalized religion, social fragmentation, and lack of personal identity, are helping to drive our cultural interest in celebrity.
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Not surprisingly, economists explain celebrity culture largely in economic terms:

  • “Fame has become the ideological and intellectual fabric of modern capitalism. Ours is an economy of fame. Our culture is about the commoditization of the individual and the individual image.”

--Tyler Cowen, What Price Fame?

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Gossip, a prominent feature of celebrity culture, is thought to have had a legitimate historical role in group bonding, and as an agent of social control and the establishment of social norms of behavior.

  • Today, however, gossip is devolving to a more malicious and unhealthy state, say experts. Commonly named as a contributing factor is the anonymous nature of the Internet.
slide28

The Nixon/Kennedy Presidential debates were a lesson in the power of television in politics and the importance of a well-crafted media image.

  • Fifty years later the distinction between politician and media celebrity has become blurred.
  • Today’s candidates employ all of the media tools of the celebrity-industrial complex to raise money and burnish their images.
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A new hybrid—part politician, part television pundit, and part book promoter—represents the leading edge of politics merged with celebrity culture.

  • Political analyst Paul Begalia famously called politics “show business for ugly people,” but the future looks infinitely better for telegenic candidates.
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Increasingly, celebrities are lending their names and energies to social and political causes.

  • Some public relations companies now specialize in finding suitable causes for their celebrity clients to embrace.
  • The glamorous, distant icons of another era have been replaced, in the Twitter/Facebook era, by a new breed of stars with fans that relate to them on a more person, more human level.
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Experts say the image of today’s celebrities is enhanced by activities that make them seem more genuine, more “authentic” to their fans.

  • And while surveys show the public is divided over the effectiveness of celebrity advocacy for social causes, they do wield the ability to attract cameras and money.
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So while our fascination with fame and celebrity has always been with us, it seems to be taking on some new characteristics in the 21st Century, largely driven by advances in communications technology.

  • There may or may not be an element of hype surrounding the Celebrity Worship Syndrome, but there is, and has always been, a small percentage of people prone to pathologically obsessive behavior.
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And while experts say moderate forms of gossip can serve legitimate purposes, the anonymity of the internet breeds a much more virulent and malicious strain.

  • British leaders have urged bringing privacy law into the 21st Century in a way that would extend traditional privacy and libel sanctions to news media.
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This would require, for example, that Twitter be responsible for the content of its feeds—a rejection of the company’s claim that it that it operates as a carrier only, and users are solely liable for their Tweets.

  • Britain has a jurisdictional problem as well, since Twitter is based in the U.S.
slide35

Mass media, from the tabloid newspapers that dramatically broadened readership in the in the 1800’s, to radio and television in the 20th Century, have long been criticized as having a coarsening effect on society because of their low common denominator focus and appeal to the sensational.

  • The first tabloid newspapers added human interest, gossip, and celebrity coverage in order to increase circulation. The common man was elevated and the influence of the elite as cultural arbiters was diminished.
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The gods and heroes of ancient myth were humanized by displays of mortal weakness, but first and foremost they represented strengths and virtues valued by society and to which man could aspire.

  • Contemporary celebrities are disposable commodities served up by the media culture. Fame is their central--and often only--virtue.
  • At the bottom of the food chain are the “15-minute celebrities” created by reality television. Their willingness to endure public humiliation in pursuit of easy fame/fortune—and our willingness to watch it—is an uncomfortable lesson on human nature.
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For a generation of young people, fame and celebrity is less about talent than getting what you want—now.

  • Recent research reveals that British young people, in the face of the current economic downturn, are beginning to reject the delusion of instant celebrity and are embracing more achievable goals and a more traditional path to those goals based on hard work.
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Is this a trend we can expect to continue and widen?

  • What could we do to nurture it?
  • Our cultural values are now received through the mass media rather than from our communities.
  • What are the responsibilities of the media in this relationship and how do we monitor and regulate that influence, especially over young people seeking role models?