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The cult of the celebrity

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, November 30, 2006

This week, the Pope makes a historic visit to Turkey that will strongly influence Muslim-Christian dialogue in the coming months and years. In New York last Saturday, police officers fired fifty shots on an unarmed man in a case that may or may not be a flashpoint of police brutality. The violence in Iraq continues to escalate, and NBC now officially refers to the conflict as a civil war.

All these headlines dominate the news this week, yet many Americans are going to give them only a passing glance or ignore them completely. Instead, most of us will read about Tracy Morgan’s DWI, catch up on the latest Brad Pitt and Agelina Jolie drama and/or baby adoption or immerse ourselves in the details of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’ post-matrimonial escapades. This excessive admiration for particular individuals resembles a cult, in a fully pejorative sense.

It’s no great insight to say that our culture has an unhealthy fixation on celebrities and their meaningless (but still more interesting than our) lives. It puzzles me why we do, when our qualifications for fame are so low. It seems that all it takes anymore to become famous is having a sex video leaked to the Internet. We don’t demand much more than that. Once you’re in, you can sit back and relax – we maintain your fame. We obsess and worship our celebrities. Even though we love to see their shortcomings, we still allow them more leeway than any average citizen dreams of. Living an outrageously lavish life is fawned over. The more gratuitous and disgustingly-affluent ways you can find to waste your money, the more airtime you’ll be awarded on MTV.

We are not alone in this mania. England has its royalty to obsess over (though it isn’t so much that celebrities replace royalty figures as objects of public fixation, but rather royalty moonlights as celebrities. Whether this represents the triumph of mass democracy or the conflation of the political and entertainment realms – a related phenomenon in full swing – remains to be seen). And sometimes individuals even do something to merit our attention – we still have our sports icons to glorify and drool over, after all. Yet sports icons these days are adopting the roles of social luminaries. We know athletes as much for their product promotions as for their physical accomplishments. Just ask Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. Your career never ends; when you run out of steam or get too old, you can just move into the announcer’s booth or start your own reality television series. Hey, it worked for Hulk Hogan.

Why do we obsess over these figures? Why are Brad Pitt and Agelina Jolie more important to us than violence in the Sudan, starvation in Ethiopia and war in Iraq (combined)? Why do we proclaim ourselves leaders of the free world as we apathetically ignore world politics and instead devour tabloid magazines which dig up dirt on the latest break-ups, pregnancies, weight-gains and drug rehab stints?

Our aversion to reality seems to be worsening. The circulation of Us Weekly rose 18 percent last year, In Touch Weekly’s 30 percent. Compare that to Time’s measly 0.1 percent growth or National Geographic’s one percent loss. We shield ourselves in an exciting fantasy world where our only problem is predicting which celeb has a drug addiction problem next. I don’t mean to be a Gloomy Gus – life sucks sometimes, and we need lighter things to occupy our time or we’d all crack. But celebrities don’t really fit this bill: we love to see them fail. Tabloid magazines don’t run articles about celebrities’ accomplishments and success stories; they feature stories about lovers’ forbidden trysts, broken celebrity marriages and Oprah’s latest dietary habits. We set up our idols and then we smash them down.

Maybe that’s what we love – the feeling of authority we get in building these people up and having the power to break them down again. Because it is really we, the masses, who build up the sacrosanct images that celebrities become. We hype them, we follow them and we love them. And then, when they’ve reached the pinnacle of popular existence (e.g. the cover of TV Guide or People), we know we have the power to strip them of their pristine reputations and cast them back down to the dregs.

What sick, twisted creatures we are.

But hold on – I said I wouldn’t be bleak. There may be some good in our relation to celebrities. As I mentioned above, it’s in some ways a communal celebration of our popular influence. An exercising of our democratic power, with no harmful effects (for us). A perverted, megalomaniacal exercising of that power, true, which can ruin the individual lives of the actors, singers, dancers, athletes, artists, daytime talk show hosts, food critics, movie reviewers, fitness coaches and politicians that we build up – but at least it’s not us taking the fall.

Although maybe it would be worth it, just to be on the cover of People.

James Dechant is a junior English and Theology major. He can be contacted at jdechant@nd.edu

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.