A Brief History of Celebrity
by Erika EichelbergerI. The Sun King
Blame Louis the XIV for US Weekly.
Way back in the 17th century, savvy Parisiennes, obsessed with the despot who invented the chic life, would rush out at the turn of each season to snag the mode de rigeur according to the Sun King’s taste du jour. In English, Louis gave birth to the cult of celebrity and, ultimately, the people who would one day buy Stella McCartney dresses because Mischa Barton does.
But how did we scruffy Americans make the jump from pious nation that revered statesmen and scholars—gents with strong moral fiber, like (ahem) Thomas Jefferson--—to a nation of celebrity cyber-stalkers for whom, as Calvin (yes, of and Hobbes fame) so pithily editorialized, “television validates existence”?II. Celebrity and the American Masses
Around the turn of the 20th century, twenty-three million people immigrated to the United States. These teeming, huddled masses brought with them mass culture, which was fascinated by the entertainment industry. Amy Henderson, historian at the Smithsonian Institution, writes in “Media and the Rise of Celebrity Culture” that, “the ‘genteel tradition’ that had been the sinew of American mainstream culture and its heroes dissolved in this mass new urban stew.” Couple this with the centralization of the entertainment industry in New York in the early 20th century and you have a booming celebrity-centric market.
But we can’t just blame the dirty masses for this cultural tilt. The old boys played their part, too. Lawrence W. Levine, late Professor of History and Cultural Studies at George Mason University, argued that because the upper crust felt their way of life was threatened by the influx of immigrants, cultural consciousness shifted away from a focus on character and towards personality in order to distinguish themselves from the masses. Projecting an external persona in lieu of cultivating internal qualities became a means of self-preservation. Henderson continues, “In a culture preoccupied with personality, ‘celebrity’ became a measure of success.” And it was thus that the swells helped set the stage, if you will, not only for obsession with celebrity, but also with personal celebrity.III. Celebrity, a Higher Calling
Later in the 20th century, society really went to hell in a hand basket. First of all, if you haven’t heard yet, according to Nietzsche, “God is dead.” Sorry.
No, but really. While Christians still far outnumber secular Americans and Americans of other religious persuasions, the percentage of secular Americans grew by 110 percent between 1990 and 2000, while Christians only increased their ranks a measly 5 percent. No, we’re not as existential as Europe, but we’re on our way. Arthur W. Hunt III, PhD, Christian educator and Christian Research Journal contributor, agrees: “The Christian consciousness is fast fading.”
Warren Susman, the late Rutgers historian, said in “Culture and Communications” that even by the 1930s man had replaced the vision of “God as a god of design. In a world increasingly out of order . . . man as designer was called upon to find some new order in the world.” If man had already begun in the early part of the century to take the reins from God, it only took a few decades for this trend to evolve into the full deification of man.
By and large, sociologists agree that celebrities have become the gods of 21st century America. Neal Gabler, entertainment scholar, author, journalist and political commentator, writes in his book Life: The Movie, that American society sees celebrities as “icons on their way to apotheosis”, that we “seek . . . exegeses of their lives as if they are sacred texts” and revere “artifacts as if they were relics.” Britney’s chewing gum on Ebay, anyone?IV. Celebrity Worship Today: When Religion Turns Into a Scary Cult
God may well be halfway out the door, but other factors contributed to this societal evolution as well. Just as centralization of the entertainment industry in turn-of-the-century New York fueled the rise of nascent celebrity culture, history repeats itself; the 1990s media mergers and technology boom only propelled existing celebrity culture from fascination to obsession.
After a wave of mergers in 1994, the American entertainment industry saw itself consolidated into a handful of players, all of who recognize the importance of celebrities “in promoting the aspirational nature of consumerism” and seek “to colonize the imagination of consumers through the cult of celebrity,” as Stuart Nicholson says in “How Big Business Can Kill Jazz—if We’re Not Careful.” Sex sells, celebrities sell. It’s fairly simple. Add to this the rise of the Internet and you get the current state of affairs: celebrity ubiquity. It’s kind of like the chicken or the egg. The media both capitalizes on and creates the obsession.
Certainly in a celebrity-saturated society we’re more likely not only to be obsessed with the rich and famous, but also to suffer from the pangs of fame-hunger ourselves. But Murray Milner, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, argues that a shrinking sense of self, caused by globalized social networks, is also at play. In “Celebrity Culture as a Status System”, Milner explains that, “The larger and more complex the social network, the more problematic visibility is and the more it becomes prerequisite to status.” As technology, especially the Internet, expands our social circles from the city block to the global block, being known around town is no longer enough. As Milner says, “Gaining visibility . . . becomes an accomplishment in itself.”
I am famous, therefore I am?
This means that fame has now become as democratic as it is apparently necessary. Twenty-first century America churns out celebrities—real and pseudo—like high-fructose corn-syrup, whether in the form of hot new “It” actresses, reality TV rookie celebs, rich nobodies with image consultants or scandalous girl-next-doors on YouTube.V. The Future of Celebrity
What shall become of us, then? Shall ours be the fate of those fools who “changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man” (Rom. 1:23)? Has God already given us up to uncleanness through the lusts of our hearts (Rom. 1:24)?
Whatever, all I know is fifteen minutes of fame will no longer do it for me. A Brief History of Celebrity