What Really is 'Celebrity Culture'?

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The Cult of Celebrity is Probably One of The Biggest Cultural Phenomenons of Our Age.

Established celebrities star in films while new ones scratch out fame on reality TV. Books are joined by signings and music by a flurry of speculative interviews, paparazzi and fandoms. Scandals cover glossy magazines and newspapers alike (sometimes even joined by surreal paparrazi shots as on the right) and everything is tied neatly to the already established aspirational consumer culture that elevates these lives onto a pedestals. Love them, or love to hate them, their influence is everywhere.

So what exactly is celebrity culture?

Celebrity culture can probably be most accurately described as a wide public interest in following a common knowledge which is projected onto particular individuals and which then reflects back into the aspirations of the public themselves.

In Understanding Celebrity Graeme Turner describes this narrative as consisting of four parts:
  • The Rise (from obscurity, poverty or ugliness)
  • Stardom
  • The Fall (usually through moral failure)
  • The Rise Again
He describes this story as being very linked with 'Western' cultural symbols. It is partly classical - mimicking Ulysses' wandering - but is mostly Christian. The story of Jesus is mirrored in the story of the hundreds of saints that made up catholic culture: the story of a lowly beginning, a cult status or fame, a trial and sacrifice and then glorious resurrection.
This can be applied to almost any celebrity. For example Justin Beiber rose through youtube fame as a child, achieved mass stardom and is currently falling through his ill treatment of his fans and his criminal charges, waiting to rise again. For some, the stars may never emerge from the spiral of falling, but for other when they do they return to a much higher appraisal, for example Robert Downey Junior's 'rebirth' after rehab. Some celebrities, of course, wither away from public interest, while some manage to side-step 'celebrity' all together into something more lasting and 'step out of their own story'.

Celebrity is something entirely separate from fame and is a surprisingly recent phenomenon, supported by the mass media that has only really become fully available with television, radio and the internet. Ellis Cashmore in Celebrities in the 21st Century Imagination describes it as:

 '[A] culture, a characteristic set of attitudes that absorbs us as well as surrounds us. Emotion seems to supplant intellect; make-believe intimacies are pushed to the point where they become, after a fashion, actual. People's imaginations instigate action from fantasized realities. It is a culture where people, perplexity, are not the foci of consumer's attentions.'
People have always been famous and made into mythological figures (just look at Julius, Caesar, Einstein, Caligula, Alexander the Great to name a few) , but Cashmore suggests that something new is at work with modern celebrity culture. Here, it is less about the achievements of the person, but the creation of a sort of doppleganger in the public imagination that serves as an aspirational commodity. The public watches and interacts with scrutiny and buys into the celebrity lifestyle that is created in the public imagination.

'Where for example do we find...the collective voyeurism that pulses through today's celebrity culture? Or the celebrity economy - a system of production and consumption in which people become fungible commodities and their presence an exchangeable resource? Does history bequeath to us anything comparable with the culture of covetous, aspirational consumption engendered by an entertainment industry obsessed by glamour and materialism?'


Here, Cashmore suggests, fame and accomplishments are actually decoupled. While accomplishments might lead individuals to become famous, it is the fame itself - their status as celebrities - that is ultimately more valuable. While we might admire the talent of Richard Branson's business sense, in the end his celebrity status is focused far more on what his money can buy him and the lifestyle and influence he can achieve because of it.

In this way, the public interact with ideas, rather than events. Mere shifts in interest can produce the  rise, fall and annihilation of characters. Gossip is the key function of the culture, and through it, Cashmore suggests that:

'Consumers today impute properties to celebrities, but they are properties...that reduce everything and everyone to the dimension of commodities - things that, as Christophe Lasch puts it, "alleviate boredom and satisfy the socially stimulated desire for novelty and excitement.'

Celebrities then become models for a way of life, and the figureheads of the kind of consumer-based capitalism that Cashmore calls an 'aspirational prison to which the inmates are enthusiastically maintaining and building the walls.' At the end of the day celebrities are created and incubated in the mind and in the ephemeral narrative of gossip. The real people are never important.

It sounds like pretty grim stuff from Cashmore's perspective. But Celebrity Culture is a perhaps inevitable result of the shift in the media and maybe is not as vapid as he suggests.

In Turner's analysis of celebrity, he links celebrity culture with the increasing role and influence of the media itself. He suggests that the media no longer simply mediates between other important social actors like the government, industry and education, but rather it takes a more leading and independant role. 
'The result is a situation where our lived experience of politics, culture and society has become increasingly "moulded" by the media.' 
 Celebrity, therefore, serves as a bridge between the social centre of the media and this culture. It helps reposition the media to a position of entertainment and the decider in the shaping of cultural identties that are to be emulated.

Perhaps it is not so bad that this shift has occurred. While we all know that media is manipulated and opportunistic in its nature, is it any more so than politics? Because media is audience driven, does this instead give our society more control over our own sense of morality and value systems?  While on the negative side of things, as Cashmore suggests, we as an audience are pulled into 'buying into' celebrities and basing our own self worth on emulating their example, on the positive side he also suggests that public whim can ultimately destroy and shape celebrities as symbols. After all, a consumer public will only buy what it likes and the media is one that is very much tied to what the consumer will decide to purchase. Control, therefore, ultimately rests with the public audience.

 Personally, I believe that both sides feed one another. For example, much of the current feminism and gay rights changes that are trickling their way into governmental changes and law changes have found a lot of their fuel though fandoms and celebrity appreciation and the media's treatment of them as a whole. Celebrities inspire empathy as well as aspiration from the public - they become symbols that we can either root for or criticise. For example would transgender issues be so far in the spotlight at this moment if it wasn't for the sudden rise in celebrity of Orange is the New Black's Laverne Cox or Eurovision's Conchita Wurst? The public may be fickle and entertainment driven, and it may take shallow guidance in looking for aspirational idols in celebrities, but in seeking out celebrities to mould into heroes of imagined narratives, the audience chooses which stories it is important for them to tell. There is power there.

In my opinion, celebrity culture is a vehicle and personification of abstract ideas and cultural values, wrapped up in an entertaining package.

Whether it's a guilty pleasure celebrity (like reality TV stars), a consumarist aspirational celebrity (like Branson or 'MTV' brand celebrities) or a celebrity who has risen to their particular brand of fame by holding a particular aspirational ideal (eg Laverne's beauty and strength as a trans woman, or Stephen Fry's intelligence)...in the end they all represent a personification of a desire that the general public has (or will learn to have).  Sometimes these ideas and cultural values are negative (capitalism and consumerism are never really positive after all, even if they are unavoidable). But sometimes -often times- they are positive in many elements as we've seen. Celebrities are, in a way, a focus for questions as to what we value and the imagined lives we create for them through gossip columns and through the blending of fiction and non-fiction act as a sort of puppet theatre where these values can be tested out in 'reality' and reacted to accordingly.

Perhaps it's for this reason that PBSideaschannel is right in stating that the ability to empathise with something (ie- a celebrity) is more important than its real existence, as discussed when they compare the virtual celebrity Miku Hatsune to the 'manufactured' but very much real singer Lana Del Rey.

Celebrities occupy the same transient status and mythologised historical figures, in the end. They are what we want them to be, whether we realise  that we are creating them or not. They're a sort of mirror where the positive and negatives of our society, and what we long for and value, are reflected straight back at us.

What do you think?

Clearly, celebrity culture is a strange beast. What do you think it is?

Also, if you'd like to have a deeper explore about what has constituted celebrity over history, take a look at the Panatheon Project which aims to produce a 'global comprehensive map of famous connections' and is organised by their lasting influence on the world. It also is interesting in showing different countries and what they primarily value most as celebrities and what events encouraged their growth. For example, scientists became famous celebrities in their own right after the printing press, footballers after TV and so on.


-Celebrity in the 21st century imagination by Ellis Cashmore
-Understanding Celebrity  By Graeme Turner
-History's biggest celebrities - a scientific map of fame
-The Pantheon Project
-History Today: Celebrity in 18thc London - By Stella Tillyard
-The Berry: More funny 'Stars: they're just like us!' examples 
-Celebrities and ghost-writers
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