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Celebrity Culture in America: Has Personality Finally Replaced Reality?

By David McNair
November 11, 2003

In 1961, historian and social critic Daniel Boorstin argued in his book Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America that our nation was threatened by a “menace of unreality” which was replacing the authentic with the contrived in American society. “We need not be theologians,” Boorstin wrote “…to see that we have shifted responsibility for making the world interesting from God to the newspaperman….It is we who keep them in business and demand that they fill our consciousness with novelties, that they play God for us.”

Boorstin argued that America was living in an “age of contrivance” in which manufactured illusions were becoming a powerful force in society. He believed that public life consisted more and more of “pseudo-events”—staged and scripted happenings designed to “create” news and influence our perceptions of reality. Just as there were now “pseudo events,” he said, there were also “pseudo-people”—celebrities—whose identities were being staged and scripted to create illusions that often had no relationship to reality. “Celebrity-worship and hero-worship should not be confused,” Boorstin wrote. “Yet we confuse them every day, and by doing so we come dangerously close to depriving ourselves of all real models. We lose sight of the men and women who do not simply seem great because they are famous but are famous because they are great. We come closer and closer to degrading all fame into notoriety.”

Today, as Boorstin predicted, reality has proven to be no match for the power of our celebrity culture. How else can one explain the immense popularity of “reality” TV shows, the way the masses move herd-like to see the latest summer blockbuster, or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s shockingly swift transition from action-movie star to governor of California? In fact, you could say we have grown so accustomed to this “menace of unreality” that Boorstin’s arguments have become passé. We understand the complex and sophisticated marketing strategies used to sell us cars, politicians, laundry detergent, celebrities, movies and TV shows, even wars. We understand it; we accept it as a given; we even embrace it. We know why men like Karl Rove are important to the President. We know why it is important to have a public relations manager when you’re in the public eye. We know we are being manipulated and deceived, but our indignation is overruled by the extent to which we are entertained and wooed by the sales pitch, the spectacle, or the freak show; overruled by the extent to which we feel like we’re “in the know” or “in on the joke”; or, for the more sophisticated among us, overruled by the extent to which we understand the strategies and methods behind the deception. We know that Arnold Schwarzenegger has no business being governor of California; we know that reality TV shows are staged and scripted; we know that news has become more like entertainment. But we don’t really care, as long as the illusion “fills our consciousness with novelties,” fuels our fantasies and desires, shames us with an awareness of our inadequacies, or serves as a kind of intellectual puzzle or mystery to unravel. It rarely occurs to any of us to simply stop watching, to stop talking about it, to stop participating in the ritual.

Commenting on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent election triumph, New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane suggested that there would be little surprise if “other monarchs of the movie industry, emboldened by the California recall, were to make the principled leap from screen to stump.” Indeed, Schwarzenegger’s swift rise to power seems to signal an era beyond which even Boorstin imagined. “The distance between the two is shrinking by the day,” Lane goes on to say. “Modern voters, given a choice between quiet political certitude and the cacophony of fame, are not hard to sway…. Celebrity now comes equipped with an in-built aggression that makes it ideal for the purposes of electioneering, and before which more traditional qualifications must learn to tremble. To put the matter at its bluntest: what has Wesley Clark got that Angelina Jolie hasn’t?”

Lane goes on to suggest that a stuffed shirt like Clark would be no match for the sexy tomb raider with a gun strapped to her thigh. Lane, of course, is being menacingly coy here. But in the midst of his playful analysis lies the fact that the people of California happily elected an illusion, a personality manufactured on-screen and in the media that had no relationship to reality. In a very real sense, the people of California elected their own fantasy of what a governor should be.

Celebrity has always influenced and been a part of American politics, of course, but this time it was like our celebrity system itself seized political power. The Austrian accent, the fact that his father was a Nazi, his lack of political experience, his fuzzy ideology, the serial groping charges, his pornographic interview in OUI Magazine, his admitted drug use, and an opponent with 30-plus years of political experience and the backing of the Democratic Party… all of this was no match for the sheer power of Schwarzenegger’s celebrity.

Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and 62 days later it was Jay Leno who introduced Arnold before his victory speech. Standing directly behind Schwarzenegger, a mural of both Republican and Democratic celebrities and entertainment heavyweights cheered him on. NBC’s Tom Brokaw declared it “an amazing American story” and wondered if Schwarzenegger might run for president if a constitutional amendment were passed. According to the Tyndall Report, the national broadcast networks devoted 169 minutes to stories about the recall in the last two months before the election, with 69 minutes devoted solely to Schwarzenegger. That’s compared to 40 minutes dedicated to all 36 gubernatorial races combined in 2002 and 34 minutes of coverage about the upcoming presidential campaign in the same period.

When our celebrity-obsessed culture clicked into gear on this one, Schwarzenegger’s name and image and familiar movie phrases dwarfed everyone on the political scene. Even the Presidential race was overshadowed by Schwarzenegger’s debut. For emphasis, only a day after he won, the A&E cable network announced it was producing a documentary about Schwarzenegger’s “rise to power.” When asked what story line the film would follow, an A& E vice president said “We will rely on news reports. The beauty of this is a lot of it has already played out.”

Today, you could say that Americans are divided less by race, class, or political ideology than they are by their participation in our celebrity culture. We are divided into two main groups: the famous elite and the unfamous masses who watch them. While the ranks of the famous swell (making Andy Warhol a visionary), the unfamous masses bring with them varying degrees of sophistication to the spectacle, all of them making subtle and not-so-subtle emotional and intellectual investments in the illusion.

Now that our celebrity culture has been operating for so long and at such a high level of sophistication, at least since the 1930s, it’s worth wondering what the long-term effects of developing complex emotional and psychological connections to “people we don’t know” might have over a decade or two. And that’s an important thing to remember: celebrities are “people we don’t know” who we nonetheless make very complex, subtle, and often intense emotional and psychological connections with over the course of our lives.

The fact that we “don’t know them” gets ignored in some fundamental way as we “enter” the famous person’s “identity” into our consciousness. In many ways, we get to “know” these famous people in a more intense, intimate way than we do the people we work with or see on a daily basis. It’s intimacy without the risk; it’s getting “close” to someone without having to risk exposing yourself. In addition, our “friend” or “role model” or “idol” is larger and more charismatic than any real acquaintance could ever be.

It’s no accident, I think, that celebrity worship took hold in America during the Depression. While the economy and spirit of America floundered in the 1930s, the illusion called Hollywood and our media culture filled the void and flourished. Eighty million people a week went to the “picture shows” and bought up celebrity paraphernalia. The music recording industry showed a 600% increase in sales between 1933 and 1938, and radio brought entertainers such as Rudy Vallee, Jack Benny, and Burns and Allen into millions of living rooms, where they began to make themselves at home in the minds and imaginations of the public.

During that bleak time, the illusion of celebrity manufactured on the screen, in magazines and photos, and on the radio offered a seductive, larger-than-life presentation of reality. When television came along, our modern celebrity culture found the perfect medium for manufacturing this kind of unreality. In fact, it was the first televised presidential debates between Kennedy and Nixon, in which the images of the two men so strongly influenced viewers (Nixon looking pale, unshaven and nervous; Kennedy looking tanned and relaxed), that prompted Boorstin to write The Image. The Kennedy era/myth was born and played itself out on television. (Of course, it’s interesting to note that Schwarzenegger’s star is attached to the Kennedy myth as well via his marriage to Maria Shriver.)

The young, beautiful people; those powerful images, the live violence, and the illusion of intimacy we felt turned a rather short, troubled presidency into the myth of “Camelot.” In many ways, it was the first “reality” TV show in which we all shared in the horror and grief of the participants and swallowed whole-hog the script we were shown.

In truth, we now know that much of the Kennedy myth was at odds with reality. The Kennedy years saw the beginning of our involvement in Vietnam and a growing discontent among Black Americans. In addition, we now know that JFK was a voracious womanizer, chain-smoked cigarettes, and was physically unhealthy—a far cry from the athletic, loyal husband and family man portrayed in the media. And that’s to say nothing of the question marks surrounding his assignation.

But despite all that, reality has proven to be no match for the power of the myth. Generations of Americans are still deeply affected and moved by the story of the Kennedys. When JFK, Jr. died in a plane crash in 1999, the media coverage was overwhelming and intense. That single photo of John-John saluting his father’s casket made him ours, and we never took our eyes off him. CBS’ Dan Rather got choked up reporting the story, and every major news outlet used it as an opportunity to retell the Kennedy myth in all its tragic/romantic splendor. Networks broadcast his burial at sea the entire day, although all that was visible was a small ship in the distance.

Undoubtedly, JFK, Jr. was a handsome, personable man who managed his inherited celebrity with grace and dignity, but he had done nothing remarkable in his life. He was, as Boorstin defined celebrity, someone who was “well-known for their well-knownness.” (Rather appropriately, he had just begun to make his mark on the world by publishing the magazine George, a kind of Vogue or Vanity Fair-styled magazine about the celebrity of politics.) Yet he was afforded the attention of a fallen national leader or a beloved movie star.

In many ways, the Kennedy era ushered in the modern age of celebrity, an age in which, as Boorstin wrote, “Nothing is really real to us unless it happens on television.” In his 1986 book Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity in America, film critic Richard Schickel argues that the “illusion of intimacy” between the famous elite and the unfamous majority has created a potentially violent and destabilizing tension in our society. By obliterating the traditional boundaries between public and private life, Schickel argues that American society has become a kind of modern-day, technologically advanced equivalent of the Roman Coliseum, where the participants in the ferocious arena of public life are at the mercy of the moods and fantasies of the crowd. “This new relation is based on an illusion of intimacy,” Schickel writes. “… which is, in turn, the creation of an ever tightening, ever more finely spun media mesh … that cancels the traditional etiquette that formally governed not merely relationships between the powerful and the powerless, the known and the unknown, but, at the simplest level, the politesse that formally pertained between strangers.”

As a result, the interplay between public figures, celebrities, and the great unknown masses has grown increasingly aggressive and even psychotic in nature. As an example, Schickel examines John W. Hinckley, Jr.’s assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. As we all know, Hinckley had developed an obsession for the actress Jodie Foster. (What you might not know is that Hinckley’s father, a very successful businessman, was a friend of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush.)

However, to be more precise, Hinckley, Jr. had an obsession with the character that Jodie Foster played in the movie Taxi Driver, in which a lunatic about to assassinate a politician is instead made famous for saving the life of a child prostitute, as played by Foster. “Jody, I’m asking you please to look into your heart and at least give me the chance with this historic deed to gain your respect and love,” Hinckley wrote to Foster shortly before trying to kill the President, an act that would, like Robert DeNiro’s character in Taxi Driver, make Hinckley famous as well. It was one of many passionate letters he had written to Foster, letters he had even begun to hand deliver while she was a freshman at Yale. Desperately seeking her acknowledgment, he began hanging around her dorm and had even succeeded in reaching her by phone a few times.

Of course, Hinckley’s attachment to Jodie Foster is an extreme and complex example of this “illusion of intimacy” fostered by our celebrity culture. But Schickel believed that Hinckley’s crime viciously parodied the unhealthy nature of the relationship between the famous and unfamous in our society. It’s interesting to note here that a recent study conducted by British psychologists at the University of Leicester and published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease has defined this kind of obsession, calling it Celebrity Worship Syndrome (CWS). Thirty-six percent of the people they studied showed an “unhealthy fascination” with celebrities, and two percent believed they had a “special bond with their celebrity” and would be willing to lie or even die for them.

Although most people wouldn’t go as far as Hinckley did in believing his relationship to Foster was real, most people would have to admit to having emotional and psychological connections to the celebrities they have been attracted or exposed to. For example, it’s not unusual for perfectly intelligent, normally sane people to be on a casual, first-name basis with celebrities—to speak of Oprah, Phil, Jerry, or Geraldo as if they were old friends. Or, likewise, it is not unusual for intelligent people to speak of political celebrities such as Bill, Dubya, Hillary, Condi, and Cheney as if they were personal enemies or representatives.

On a more subtle level, it’s not unusual for intelligent people to hold strong opinions about public figures or to indulge in nasty or careless gossip about them. Our celebrity culture allows us to shamelessly praise, berate, gossip about, and lust after other human beings without consequences. Who among us has not directed some nasty remark or shameless praise at a character or personality on television? Of course, that is to say nothing of the garden-variety obsession on display in our national interest and attraction to popular actors, entertainers, and musicians. In many ways, it is a kind of pornography of the spirit, turning us all into voyeurs and gossip mongers, tempting us all to bend down and peep through the keyhole and to substitute provocative imagery for real intimacy.

Thanks to our sophisticated media and celebrity system, thanks to their constant exposure on television and in other media, we can’t help but feel we know them. Over the decades we have been exposed to the media machinery of our celebrity culture, we have been conditioned to “know” these people we have never met, to invite them into our inner lives, to carry on an inner dialogue with them. “To a greater or lesser degree,” Schickel writes, “we have internalized them, unconsciously made them part of our consciousness.” The problem is that this kind of false intimacy creates unrealistic expectations and makes disappointment and self-loathing all but inevitable because, as Schickel writes, “Another part of the approaching stranger’s mind is, of course, aware that he is totally unknown to the celebrity. And he resents that unyielding fact. A chip grows on his shoulder. An undercurrent of anger is felt.”

Indeed, along with the sovereignty we feel we have over the lives of our celebrities and public figures, free as we are to praise and criticize them without restraint, there also exists the painful knowledge that we are alone in this relationship, that we are like stalkers who the people we’ve made a connection with neither know or care about. To some degree or another, Schickel argues, we are all victims of our celebrity culture because we are all susceptible to feeling this kind of false intimacy—and therefore inevitable disappointment—with our celebrities and public figures.

The larger danger to society, Schickel warns, is that our obsession with celebrity has given the power of personality authority over the power of ideas, ideologies, and even authentic human connections. As Schickel writes, “We have come a very long way in a very short time to our present isolation, subjectivity, and desperate hope that the cult of personality may substitute for a sense of organization, purpose, and stability in our society.”

So, where do we go from here? What happens when we seriously consider the illusion of a movie star’s personality to be a legitimate qualification for public office? What happens when public relations finally and completely replace politics? Will we as a society have finally and officially lost our minds?



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