Celebrities and Moral Decay
Interest in celebrities, as part of a broader preoccupation with the culture of entertainment has infiltrated our life. Although interest in celebrities can be traced back to antiquity, contemporary manifestations of this fascination have risen in tandem with the development of consumer culture and the growth of entertainment industry. But what explains the fascination for those people? A fair amount of research points to issues surrounding the self and social needs as reasons for a fascination with celebrities.
In some instances, people may be attracted to celebrities to help remedy chronic feelings of inadequacy or emotional distress. Such people can be described as suffering from what Phillip Cushman, called the ‘empty’ self. Other people, however, may gravitate toward celebrities as part of a more normal human need to seek out, form and maintain social connections. The behavior of these people is governed by what we can call the ‘social’ self. Lynn McCutcheon and his colleagues have developed a theory that describes behaviors motivated by both the empty self and the social self. Their theory describes three successively deeper and more pathological levels of celebrity worship. Therefore, the degree of celebrity worship that a person might have can be viewed as being on a continuum, with lower levels being relatively normal and governed by the social self, and deeper levels being more abnormal and motivated by the empty self.
The Empty Self
Cushman has proposed that the empty self emerged in the latter half of the 20th century due to a combination of demographic, economic, sociocultural and psychological factors. The marriage of the disciplines of advertising and psychology in the 1920s led to the widespread adoption of the lifestyle solution, which prescribes the use of consumer products to help solve life’s problems by offering remedies for undesirable conditions such as poor relationships and a variety of health and hygiene needs.
Over time, the development of an independent secular personality was emphasized at the expense of religious character and a clear set of internal values. For some people, this has resulted in a version of the self that is too individualistic, independent of others, narcissistic and isolated, leading to a loss of shared communal values and meaning, values confusion, depression, lower self-esteem and relationship problems. The empty-self experiences a chronic, vague emotional need that the person unsuccessfully attempts to fill through such activities as ceaseless consumption of material goods, drug and food addictions, serial romantic relationships and even unjustified fascination with political figures and celebrities.
Celebrity worship and compulsive buying tendencies have been consistently associated with poorer psychological well-being, including poor self-concept clarity and proneness to boredom. Some research has observed evidence for a cultural shift over time, with more books, television shows and song lyrics featuring narcissistic behavior and generational increases in narcissism. There is also evidence that materialism is increasing over time among young people.
The Social Self
We are social, that’s sure thing, and we need close supportive contact with others for both psychological and physical health. We have a need to belong, requiring ongoing positive relationships with others who care about us, and we gravitate toward others and enjoy positive social interaction under normal circumstances. These social tendencies are believed to be genetic and necessary for survival according to evolutionary theory. Interest in celebrities can be seen as a natural result of this need for social connection. Celebrities are often portrayed as attractive and wealthy, with glamorous, exciting lives. Information about the lives and work of celebrities permeates everyday existence, and the celebrity news cycle runs 24 hours a day. This coverage provides a compelling narrative that increases interest in celebrities, according to Neal Gabler (in his his book Life the Movie — How Entertainment Conquered Reality). Studies show that the most common leisure activity among Americans, the English and citizens of other European countries is choosing to become absorbed in imaginary experiences and social worlds provided by television, movies, books and video games, which typically feature celebrities. And it leads to the creation of social surrogates like social worlds, which are stories or narratives, both fictional and actual, that people experience, including movies, books and television shows; parasocial activities, in which a relationship with a celeb or fictional character is one-sided; and artifacts or products, such as pictures, favorite foods from one’s past and Facebook status updates that remind people of others. Gayle Steven believes that parasocial relationships with both actual and fictional mediated personalities are to be expected from an evolutionary perspective, and that in most cases these non-reciprocated relationships are adaptive in helping people meet social needs for safety and security. Extensive interviews with fans of various celebrities over several decades has led her to conclude that parasocial relationships with either actual or fictional celebrities can be successfully integrated into normally functioning social lives of fans, although such relationships for an estimated 15 to 20% of fans result in intense-personal celebrity worship, which may be more problematic. For this minority of fans, the empty self is more likely motivating the attraction to celebrities.
There are additional reasons for the easy connections that fans have with celebrities. We experience the same emotional responses to fictional events as we do to real events, and although the former may be a bit weaker, they are, nonetheless, real emotions. Research on evolutionary theory suggests that people’s brains may not have evolved sufficiently to have different emotional reactions to fictional characters as opposed to actual acquaintances. Satoshi Kanazawa’s Savana Principle suggests that the brain cannot understand and process events and situations that differ from the way they were in the ancestral environment. Therefore, media representations of celebrities cannot be easily distinguished from actual encounters with people. Consistent with this reasoning, Kanazawa speculates that people lower in intelligence may have a more difficult time making a difference between their real friends and characters that they see on television.
Emerging research on social media, however, shows that fans and celebrities can have actual relationships that go beyond parasocial ones. Fans who use Twitter to communicate with their favorite celebrity feel more intimate. Celebrities who tweet often reveal more candid personal information and can create feelings of closeness for fans, in addition to managing their image, although in some cases the celebrity may not actually be the one managing the Twitter account. Lady Gaga has used a variety of social media to cultivate a large devoted fan base known as Little Monsters. Her website gives access to her concert tickets and music, and provides a forum for fans to communicate with her (on occasion) and each other and to explore personal issues in a supportive online environment.
The increased use of social media to communicate with celebrities and the rise of reality television have led Joshua Gamson to propose that the most important trend in celebrity culture in recent years is that celebrities have become more ordinary and accessible, while many ordinary, unexceptional people have become famous.
Celebrities can reveal intimate, mundane and behind-the-scenes aspects of their lives on social media. Social media can even help fans to achieve their own measure of fame, which has been shown to be the main inspiration of many young people in recent years. Fans who have a greater interest in fame have also been observed to be more active on social media. Reality shows also typically highlight ordinary people and provide a quick path to fame.
Strong cultural forces also promote interest in celebrities. It should not be surprising; therefore, that entertainment themes dominate much of what we think about and do in daily life. We seem to have an insatiable appetite for all forms of entertainment and the industry is happy to oblige us. Critics of celebrity and entertainment culture seem to become more on target with each passing year. We have become too preoccupied with what he called “pseudo-events,” interesting but meaningless dramas concocted by public relations agents, which distort reality and emphasize imagery and emotional reaction in lieu of logical and rational reflection. Neil Postman observed how Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World more accurately forecast modern cultural changes than George Orwell’s 1984. According to Postman, while Orwell’s dystopia was oppressive and overtly controlling, Huxley’s alternative portrayed a more subtle and seductive subjugation. Huxley described a society obsessed with trivia and lulled into complacency with incessant pleasure and entertainment.
More recent critics continue to commonly blame celebrity and entertainment culture for moral decay and loss of values and the erosion of cognitive abilities. We are also too easily distracted from important events that really matter. Postman warned that, “There are two ways by which the spirit of a culture may be shriveled. In the first — the Orwellian — culture becomes a prison. In the second — the Huxleyan — culture becomes a burlesque.” There is probably no way at present to completely disengage from the effects of celebrity and entertainment culture. In order to try to keep a better perspective about these effects, however, we might adapt an old saying: Although we might keep our celebrity friends close, we should keep our real friends closer