In this essay, I will examine the subject of celebrity culture, and discuss the role that celebrities play in contemporary societies. It is not envisaged that the essay will act as an exhaustive expose on celebrity roles, but rather, it will address specific issues that demonstrate what is arguably some of the celebrity’s most significant functions. Firstly, it will be shown that celebrity is not a new identity, but has existed in various guises throughout history. The essay will then discuss the notion of celebrity and show that it is a constructed identity, which is perpetuated by the networks and plays an important role in driving consumerism. The essay will include a case study of Princess Diana as an example of celebrity/audience relationships, demonstrating the ways in which celebrity acts as a site through which audiences derive meaning. I will discuss the manner in which celebrities have used the power conferred upon them, through their celebrity status, to challenge established dominant ideologies and to initiate change in society.
The essay will conclude by demonstrating the manner in which celebrities have translated their personal beliefs, on the subjects of spirituality and sexuality, into the public arena; and the manner in which these cultural meanings and associations have been assimilated by society (Turner, 2004, p.17) into a postmodern world. The notion of celebrity is not unique to the current era, Roman and Greek histories record the feats of their heroes; while French society can boast of Louis xiv as a veritable paragon of style, who was admired and emulated by the courtiers of the day. Similarly, many cultures had their heroes of renown and the current era is no different in this respect. Chris Rojek postulates that the end of the feudal system, and the weakening influence of the church, created a vacuum, in which cultural capital was transferred from the aristocracy to the self-made man; “and celebrities replaced the aristocracy as the new symbols of recognition and belonging”(2001, p.14).
And of course, this marked the point where society moved from feudalism toward capitalism and the beginning of the period known as modernity. Modern methods of communication and the rise of the mass media have since facilitated the means by which the celebrity construct is consumed by modern society. Ellis Cashmore explains, “The period of industrialisation and the serial production of images began in earnest in the 1930s, as motion pictures ascended to their paramount position in popular culture” (2006: 74). Over the period since the advent of the motion picture, the notion of celebrity has expanded to the point where the lives of celebrities, due to the interest of their fans, have become subjects that constitute newsworthiness. Their fame however is manufactured and dispensed according to the demands of the markets, which are also created, maintained and perpetuated by the networks that profit from their very existence (Turner 2004: 34-35).
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Rojek postulates that it is the commodification of celebrity, driven by the capitalist market, and the need to consume, that sustains and perpetuates the celebrity construct (2001: 14). Cashmore comments that the high visibility and saleability of celebrity is like an instant cash-generating machine, with the star, directly and indirectly, selling “every imaginable piece of merchandise” (2006: 7). He goes as far as to suggest that the purpose of celebrity may be solely to drive consumerism (Ibid: 13). Like the hierarchical system it replaced, celebrity is a site invested with power, which in turn is appropriated and personified by the individual star. So aside from marketing, once conferred, celebrity status empowers and qualifies the star to engage in behaviour or beliefs which challenge the dominant ideologies established in society. Marshall suggests that the amplified discursive power conferred by celebrity status, gives celebrities “a voice above others, a voice that is channelled into the media systems as being legitimately significant” (2004, p. X).
Often, this is seen in the daily parade of celebrity news across the media, and this essay will demonstrate the ways in which audiences are influenced by the discourse of these familiar strangers, with whom in many cases, they conduct unreciprocated parasocial relationships. As an illustration of the power of celebrity, consider Diana Spencer, who once stated, “… one minute I was nobody, the next minute I was Princess of Wales, mother, media toy” (Chua-Eoan et al 1997: 30). The newspapers, magazines and television cameras captured many of Diana’s public moments, including her marriage to Charles; whilst the birth of each child was followed closely by the world from the announcement of conception, until they appeared, proudly heralded by the international media. Chris Rojek explains that repeated exposure of this nature results in the viewer entering into what he terms as a “parasocial relationship”, with the celebrities they come to know through the media (2001: 110).
The term “parasocial interaction” was coined to describe the one-sided relationship in which one party knows a great deal about the other, but the relationship is not reciprocal” (Horton and Wohl: 1956). Gitlin refers to this as the “familiar stranger” process (2002: 21), and though these relationships are not real, and the celebrities are physically remote, the sheer volume and regularity of information dispensed, serves to create an illusion of closeness; in reality though, it is debatable that the subject of the fan’s affection does not even know or care about the emotional connection at all (Cashmore: 261). Diana’s celebrity power gave credibility and increased public awareness for the causes she supported, such as her campaigns against landmines, and support for aids victims. Simultaneously, she was portrayed as the persecuted victim, and as such, became an iconic symbol for women who identified with that position.
Tyler Cowen argues that during her life, Diana epitomised the notion of female vulnerability and emotion and that these qualities were the reason for society’s infatuation with her (2002, p. 67). The final act to be played out in the life of Diana was her death in Paris, and even that tragic moment became a media event, the images from the scene of the accident televised around the world. An estimated 2.5 billion people viewed her ensuing funeral, making it the most-watched event in world history (Payne qtd. In Brown et al 2006: 588). Tom Shales of the Washington Post observed, “the whole world was probably weeping too… people mourned the loss of an international celebrity like they mourned the loss of a family member or friend” (Shales qtd. In Brown et al 2006: 588). In extreme cases, these imagined relationships are so convincing and the imagined connection so strong, that when a celebrity dies, the fan decides that life is no longer worth living (Rojeck, 2001, p. 47).
The Guardian reported, “in the week following Diana’s death there was 33.7 per cent rise in suicides among women in England and Wales”. Thus we see the role and influence of celebrity at its most extreme can be literally a matter of life or death. In a report compiled by Fu and Yipp, it is shown that there is a direct link between celebrity death and a rise in suicide rates (Cited in Balk & Corr, 2009). That is not to say that the power and influence of celebrities are necessarily destructive, but to deny that celebrities have the power to influence audiences would be absurd. One only has to open an entertainment magazine, turn on the television, or log in to some form of social media to observe a never-ending stream of opinionated utterances from the current crop of celebrities. Let us consider the following examples of celebrities who have transferred their private belief into the public sphere. Tom Cruise is known as a hugely successful actor, having starred in numerous blockbuster movies.
Clearly, this level of fame has enabled Cruise to publicly embrace and promote his personal belief in Scientology, with an element of credibility. So essentially, while this practice may be considered a little offbeat by some audiences, there are fans who would accept these proclamations regarding his faith as an authoritative endorsement; this, in turn, could lead to fans abandoning their own system of checks and balances and embracing the belief held by Cruise without question. The Beatles are another example, they became involved with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Transcendental meditation, this association was largely responsible for the organisation’s rise from obscurity to worldwide popularity during the 1970s (Hunt, 2003, p.197); Bob Dylan became a Christian, Shirley McClaine embraced the new age, Richard Gere was into Tibetan Buddhism, Muhammad Ali embraced Islam.
Arguably the celebrity who has had the greatest spiritual influence is Oprah Winfrey, who according to Richard Albanes, has been largely responsible for bringing new age beliefs into the twenty-first century (2009, p. 36). Thus the evidence would suggest that the celebrity, in many cases, acts as a proxy for what would be considered bona fide spiritual authority. It could be argued that the adoption of these beliefs is inevitable for some individuals, who are by nature predisposed to automatic and mindless conformity to the suggestions of their celebrity heroes. Robert Cialdini postulates that “the ever-accelerating pace and informational crush of modern life will make this form of unthinking compliance more and more prevalent in the future” (Cialdini, 2007, p. xiv). Essentially, he argues that with so much choice, it is easier to surrender such responsibility to a trusted confidante; in this case, the celebrity who the fan knows and trusts by virtue of their parasocial relationship.
As the world has moved away from what sociologists refer to as the age of solid modernity, institutions such as religion, particularly Christianity, along with their inherent values, have been eroded due to the liquid nature of the social fabric. It could be argued, that the erosion of moral values inherent in these religious institutions, has led to an acceptance of a new framework of sexuality, where the constraints of religious morals are no longer relevant. It is in this environment then, that the celebrity voice becomes an authoritative focal point for the public acceptance of activities that were was previously deemed to be deviant behaviour; for example, homosexuality. When we see celebrities on television, the big screen, and in glossy magazines, we are consuming a constructed image that represents a particular persona, possessing qualities lacking in ourselves and which many audience members would seek to emulate.
In accepting those constructions as the norm, we, in turn, insert ourselves into that cultural setting and become partakers in their value spheres; or as Marshall postulates, “The celebrity’s strength or power as a discourse on the individual is operationalised only in terms of the audience that has allowed it to circulate” (2004, p.65). Over time, society is transformed, what was previously unacceptable becomes the norm, and those who hold to the former position, held in the age of solid modernity, are now considered to be out of step with the current ideological position of postmodernism. One could argue then that it is the mass media, which, through the agency of celebrity discourse, has promoted and normalised many of the current ideological positions. Following on the theme of homosexuality as an example, there are many celebrities who have come out in recent years, and in doing so, have taken what was once considered an aberrant behaviour into the mainstream.
In fact, not only have same-sex relationships become more acceptable in society, there is an ever-growing chorus of voices demanding that they be given the same legal and social status of traditional relationships. Elton John and partner David Furness, along with Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi, and Australian Idol winner Anthony Callea and his partner Tim Campbell are but a few celebrities who live in openly homosexual relationships. While many in society consider these relationships normal, clearly there are still those who speak out in opposition to these practices, and therefore homosexuality remains a controversial and political topic. But whilst that is cause for concern amongst the gay community, it should be realised, that as recently as twenty years ago, attitudes toward homosexuality were far more negative than today, and the lifestyle choices of these celebrities are merely mirroring what is occurring throughout contemporary society at large.
It could be argued that many of the gains made toward acceptance of the gay community are largely due to the openness of celebrities such as Lily Tomlin, K. D. Lang, Ian McKellen, Elton John and Molly Meldrum to name a few, who announced their homosexuality before it was popularised. By virtue of their constant exposure to society and the credibility they lend their cause through the agency of celebrity, the notion of their homosexual lifestyle has been continually portrayed as positive in the public sphere, and over time, normalisation of homosexuality has occurred. In summing up then, this essay has demonstrated that the notion of celebrity, whilst not a new phenomenon, has been facilitated in its penetration throughout modern society via the mass media, and has attained a ubiquitous presence, as multitudes of celebrities are daily delivered for public consumption.
It has been shown that celebrity fame is manufactured and dispensed according to the demands of the market, as a commodity to be traded by the networks, which in turn profit by its existence and the close association with consumerism. It has also been demonstrated, through the lives of public icons, such as Diana Spencer, that celebrity primarily functions in the way it is consumed by audiences and the distant relationships that fans develop with the individual stars. Finally, it has been shown that celebrities engage audiences with their cultural values, which through the agency of their celebrity power, have strongly influenced society as these values have become normalised, and, in turn, appropriated and assimilated by their fans, and thus, integrated into the wider postmodern world.
- Albanes, R, 2009, Religions of the Stars: What Hollywood Believes and How it Affects You, Bethany House, Minnesota.
- Balk, D, Corr, C, 2009, Adolescent Encounters With Death, Bereavement and Coping, Springer, New York.
- Brown, W, Basil, M, Bocarnea, M, 10 January 2006, Social Influence of an International Celebrity: Responses to the Death of Princess Diana, Journal of Communication, Vol. 53, Iss. 4pp. 587-605.
- Cashmore, Ellis, 2006, Celebrity Culture, Routledge, New York.
- Chua-Eoan, H, Wulf, S, Kluger, J, 1997, Death of a Princess, Time, September 8-1987, vol. 150, iss 10, p.30.
- Cialdin, R, 1984, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, William Morrow, New York.
- Cowen, T, 2002, What Price Fame, Harvard University Press, Massachusetts.
- Hunt, S, 2003, Alternative Religions, A Sociological Introduction, Ashgate, Burlington.
- Gitlin, T, 2002, Media Unlimited, How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms our Lives, Henry Holt, New York.
- Guardian, 2011, viewed 1 May 2012, htpp:/guardian.co.uk/film/2011/May10/princess-diana-documetary-cannes.
- Ibid, 2000, viewed, 30 April 2012, Diana’s Death Prompted Big Rise In Suicide Rate
- Horton, D, & Wohl, R, 1982, Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction: Observation on Intimacy at a Distance. In G. Gumpert & R. Cathcart (Eds.), Inter/Media: Interpersonal communication in a media world, (2nd ed.), New York: Oxford University Press.
- Marshall, 2004, Celebrity and Power, Fame in Contemporary Culture, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
- Rojeck, C, 2001, Celebrity, Reaktion Books, London.
- Turner, G, 2004, Understanding Celebrity, Sage, London.