The social effects of a celebrity-centric culture are intriguing and varied. Obsessing over famous people is altogether a new phenomenon, and one that has its roots in economic development and, potentially, declining perceptions of self-worth.
Beginning in the Industrial Revolution, people had more time to pursue hobbies and leisure activities. From this, arguably, spawned society’s fixation on celebrities. It was not sudden, but rather gradual.
In the 1920s, writers, and artists like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and T.S. Eliot were the central figures of American culture. According Jill Weimark, Walter Winchell, in the mid-1920s, revolutionized our understanding of celebrity journalism. Winchell published the first ever gossip column in 1925, shedding light on the inner lives of the famous.
After Winchell, society prioritized the traditionally acceptable details of one’s life – business ventures, published works, etc. – to the personal, intimate, scandalous details of one’s life, including whether the person was sick or dying, interpersonal relationships, and more.
Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz offers a sobering, saddening view on why contemporary society is so transfixed on celebrities and sometimes mindless, mass consumption:
“Today man believes that there is nothing in him, so he accepts anything, even if he knows it to be bad, in order to ﬁnd himself at one with others, in order not to be alone.”
This accentuates the opinion of Robert Kaplan, a distinguished American writer, who states that when people find nothing in themselves, they look outwards and fill their world with celebrities. This cynical outlook is uncomfortable and depressing to consider. Perhaps a lack of self-love and confidence is at the root of our uncanny devotion to the rich and famous.
Since then, various analysts have critiqued and praised the celebrity-driven world in which we live. Neal Gabler comments that, for all its faults, society’s following of celebrities functions to bind “an increasingly diverse [and mobile] generation” through a common interest, fostering feelings of social cohesion by becoming the “dominant [national] ethos.”
George Monbiot, in an illuminating, expertly-written article in The Guardian, writes that all celebrities are is a platform for companies to attach a less abstract, more appealing symbol to their business ventures. Instead of the intangible, rather meaningless conception of a traditional business, corporations partner with tangible, likable celebrities in a bid to bolster their recognisability and success.
Some believe that the surfeit of information about celebrities – 24-hour news, tabloids, phone notifications, articles, YouTube videos, documentaries, talk shows and more – dilute the pool of genuinely interesting individuals.
Going back to the 1920s, for example, solidifies this point. Famous people at that point were accomplished writers, poets, artists, sportsmen. They were or had done, something truly remarkable. Because of the lack of media, relatively speaking, only the most deserving garnered attention and admiration.
The expansion of media has been both a blessing and a curse; the deserving have been diluted with the daft, but at the same time, this means niche demographics can be catered to.
Our fixation on celebrity life is a recent development: it is troubling and fascinating. Whether one believes it to be a symptom of corporate ingenuity, human insecurity, or economic development, it is nonetheless a uniquely modern issue and one that deserves more attention.