A New Addiction to Fame: From Idol Worship to Personal Celebration
Celebrity in the 20th century held a certain thrill, both ambiguous and alluring. The public dreamed of being like the stars on the silver screen, and later on their TV sets. As an escape from the realities of both a tumultuous society and their own personal identity struggles, people became hooked on idolizing the glowing starlet, the musclebound hunk, or the actor who best represented themselves. As the internet matures, we can’t help but see the many ways that web culture has transformed and amplified our addiction to celebrity and the escape.
In his book, Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame, Ty Burr describes the seduction of the star, “You discovered that you wanted, maybe even desperately, to see this person again, not because of the part he or she played but because of who he or she was. Or seemed to be–that was what was keeping you up at night.” We idolize people that we have never developed relationships with or even met, and are intoxicated culturally by their elevated image. In following the various facets of a celebrity’s character viewable to us in the public sphere, we feel as though we truly know them. We then accentuate our often manic admiration, because it is through our choice of idol that we signify and advertise our own personalities. “Stardom is the best dream we’ve yet invented, a luxurious fantasy of the fixed self.” By exerting time and energy on following a celebrity, we fulfill an inherent want for longevity and exultation.
During the golden age of celebrity, actors and actresses towered above audiences and came to represent their deepest desires. First Florence Lawrence and Charlie Chaplin, then Joan Crawford and Clark Gable became stars, Olympian in stature. As movie studios invented the star’s personas as a sort of brand meant to endear audiences to the movies, the magnitude of their popularity both onscreen and off became boundless. “Our relationships with the great movie stars are so often deeply personal–we respond to the way they act out our own joys and unhappiness.” Quickly, movie stars and the movies they starred in came to represent more than entertainment. They were living embodiments of the public’s aspirations and dreams, as well as their inherent egotism and dissatisfaction. Burr describes such stardom and celebrity as “illusions by definition, betraying a person’s irreducible essence by confusing it with a bigger, more glamorous false front upon which that essence can be projected and played with.” The beautiful image of fame was there to be idolized in its exciting ability to allow the star to escape that which they truly were.
Since the introduction of the internet, our addiction to celebrity has become more pronounced. The resulting marriage of mass media and communications technology has spawned an expanding star system. “At the end of the Reagan era, stardom was still a matter of Them–the beautiful people on the hill brought to you by their handlers in Hollywood–and Us, the passive, obedient, envious consumers. Twenty years later, the World Wide Web and radical changes in content programming and delivery have made us all stars in ways both real and illusory,” writes Burr. One could argue that the doors of celebrity have become unhinged, as the Internet’s fan networks, social media sites and instantaneous sharing of media has created an arena of emulation and projection, not only for the stars, but for ourselves. The result is a democratization of persona in which our identities have become so liberated that the classic star is hardly needed. Whereas the public once existed to revere celebrities from afar, it now clamors to attain stardom for itself via the web.
Burr describes this phenomena as “the modern will to celebrity made manifest, using the tools at hand to reach the maximum number of people while accessing the maximum levels of media attention.” The web empowers us to broadcast ourselves, or the selves we are most interested in being, in ways that only the stars once could. The overnight celebrities of popular Youtube videos are not beautiful or fabricated, they are only different from the rest of us by their oddness or distinct normality. The internet represents a vast lot of “unclaimed pop culture real estate” where the urge to be seen and acknowledged for being different can finally be fulfilled.
The internet also produces a kind of meta awareness, where intimacy no longer exists and the distinction between news and entertainment has all but disappeared. Today, a celebrity, be it Kristen Stewart or Khloe Kardashian, must be prepared to have their lives documented and dissected. Moreover, social media has given celebrity addicts the ultimate access. Burr describes each new tweet or Facebook post as “providing more ‘immediacy’ and ‘authenticity’–more apparent closeness to the star–than the one before it.” With the internet, Miley Cyrus can attempt to reinvent her image, for better or worse, in ways that Elizabeth Taylor never could. The social media profiles of celebrities allow the public, what Burr refers to as “the great unwashed,” to view the star’s life firsthand. The “media Omniverse” of our cell phones, tablets and On Demand “conspires to strip movie stars of their mystique by distributing their secrets–the realness we think we want to know–to the world at large.”
A century after the beginnings of movie stardom, we must examine the consequences that our hyper-obsession with celebrity has had on our culture. Burr believes that “the notion of celebrity has been devalued by our new ability to celebrate ourselves, whoever those selves may be at any given moment. We’re just starting to ask what part of us may be getting devalued in the bargain.” Our technological advances have produced a “flowering of a fully enabled culture of the self” while diminishing the importance of the star. But is that really so bad? In theory, the shrinking of the mythology of the star should sober us from our addiction to celebrity. However, some people are even more obsessed now with their ability to berate celebrities for their shortcomings than we ever were in idolizing their supremacy. Burr writes, “Each mechanical advance over the course of the past media century has brought the gift of fire closer while diminishing the gods offering it.” At what point will the public label worthless that which its so desired, as the young Marlon Brando once did so candidly. For every flattering image of a celebrity online, there are an equal amount of defamations. The star’s power and pop value today are only as large as their audience will allow.
Celebrity worship used to be reserved for those who accomplished something great or who represented the best of a generation. Now, the famous include Honey Boo Boo and Snooki. As reality television becomes more of a mainstay in modern culture, the zone where real people and celebrities intersect widens. Today sudden celebrities are born, not from any particular ability, but from their own unique commonness. Everyday, more non-stars subject themselves and their anything-but-glamorous identities to the mockery of a nation of viewers. Additionally, those broken celebrities who lost the attention of the public long ago are actively positioning themselves back into the public eye through shows like “Celebrity Rehab.” As Burr writes, “We are now facing the death throes of the old order of stardom–famous people flinging themselves willingly into the pit.”
If fame is available to anyone willing, where does that lead us? If our culture spent the last century worshipping the altar of “the church of celebrity,” perhaps a new object of worship, that of honesty and humility, will become manifest. Discovering the value in who we are instead of probing movie stars and celebrities for a self that never dies. Maybe we need to leave behind our concern for the fantasy of celebrity and replace it with an intent to become more present in that which we are truly, undoubtedly experiencing: reality.