Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Karen Sternheimer: Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

Shop Indie Bookstores
I tend to surround myself with people "like me": down-to-earth, smart, interested in dogs, etc. Yet even these smart, worldly people always seem to know worlds more about celebrities than I do. Like, I may have hand-selected the 10 least-obsessed-with-celebrity drama people in the East Bay to hang out with, and yet they all shake their heads at me when they say "Katy Perry" and I say "who?" or talk about a show called "black and orange" or something and I say "what?" I can't help it, I just don't care. I also don't have enough brain space to keep track of what the A's are doing on the field and City Council is doing in chambers and what Rollie is doing in my house and what my #onlineschool is demanding of me this week and what I'm reading and yeah, you get it.

So I have been trying to find a book that just might help explain why everyone is so obsessed with celebrities. Every time I went through the library catalog looking for books, I looked for "Celebrity Culture and the American Dream" and now that Oakland is hooked up with Link+ (a fancy version of interlibrary loan), my year-long search was over! Maybe, finally, Dexter-like (see what I did there?- just don't ask me the actor's name...), I could learn why society produces celeb-obsessions and, armed with that information, learn how to fit in better, or at least bolster my arguments about why it just isn't that important to care.

But Sternheimer's book is missing a word or two in the title. The subtitle (obscured by the giant Link + sticker on my copy) is "Stardom and Social Mobility." Perhaps a more accurate title would be "Celebrity Culture and the Creation of the American Dream" or a flipping of the title and subtitle: "Stardom and Social Mobility: Celebrity Culture and the American Dream." The book, while fascinating, did not serve as a guidebook to explain to themacinator how to fit in better or why everyone cares so much. Rather, "Celebrity Culture" documents the rise and fall of the studio system in Hollywood and how that affected the presentation of celebrities and American understanding social mobility. It's wonderful: "fan magazines," followed by magazines like People, have helped Americans to swallow societal norms through the lens of celebrities who are either "just like us" or inspirations. One day themacinator will learn that there's more to a book than a title. (Maybe after 1 million books?)

Sternheimer documents the ever changing "American Dream." Since the 1920s it's evolved and changed through periods of collective good will, a "Leave it to Beaver" period of suburban utopia, the 80s need for extreme wealth, etc. Through it all, celebrities were portrayed as representing the Horatio Alger ideal of the ability (true or not) of Americans from all walks of life being able to rise from nothing to become super rich. Not noted by the magazines depicting this amazing ability to become Someone was the fact that only white people could become Someone and only if they behaved appropriately. For example, women had to uphold traditional standards of femininity, not earn too much, love to clean, etc. If you believed the fan magazines, blacks and other people of color simply didn't exist, and/or couldn't possibly "make it."

Celebrities are also the perfect way to demonstrate that people who fail fail on their own accord: there's nothing systemic about downward mobility, people bring crappy situations on themselves. Clearly if a star overdoses or spends all of their money, that's a case of individual failings, not the times or systemic problems. For example, female who had problems during the depression had probably had been too independent, and had "brought problems associated with the Depression on themselves." Think contemporary celebrities who "twerk": there's something wrong with those oversexed Madonna-wannabes, right?  It's not possible that it's only possible for young women to succeed in the music industry through shocking displays of sexuality.

Interestingly, the production of celebrities and what they represent changed with the end of the "studio era" in 1948. Prior to the United States v. Paramount Supreme Court decision that decided that the movie companies were violating the antitrust laws, the studios owned their actors. After this, actors became free agents: the studios didn't decide what fan magazines could print about them anymore. Fan magazines could now print negative stories and more private information. At the same time, the '50s and '60s represented large cultural shifts and representations of celebrity culture moved from idealized portraits to more complicated, if not more accurate, pictures. Sternheimer explains that according to Ellis Cashmore, "the invention of the zoom lens [was] a defining moment in the history of celebrity culture," and cites an important picture, taken in 1962, of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton kissing while still married to others. The distance (literally) between celebrities private and public lives was closed. The darkness was brought into the light (is this bad or what?) for the public.

So why do we care so much? Sternheimer doesn't really answer this question, and I guess I'm still looking. Partially, Sternheimer believes that, especially during economic hard times, "celebrity culture provide[s] a fantasy that enabled the public to partake, at least vicariously." We can dream that, even with a recession, we can be rich and famous (and happy?) like those celebrities, and we can condemn them when they fail- if only they hadn't been so showy, and had been more moderate, like us. Is that what it is? We just need something else to think about, and someone to look at that's "worse" than us? Is there nothing else to it? We're not all hoping for exceptionalism? Do our parents tell us we can be famous one day? And why? Isn't this whole country based on the idea of exceptionalism? "Celebrity Culture" is a start, but there's more out there, I'm sure.


thb said...

I sometimes wonder (like now, because of this post) if people aren't "famous" because there is a huge engine out there making them "fascinating" to the public. Would the Arts and Leisure articles be printed without all the ads around them? The notoriety is part of the engine, and it has to be primed.