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Reach for the Stars?: The Collective Fantasy of Celebrity Culture

Since Timothy Caulfield’s Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? went on sale this month, the media have been abuzz with cuts against bogus movie star beauty and health regimens. In the first half of his book, Caulfield, professor of health law and science policy at the University of Alberta, debunks the pseudoscience of deep cleanses, snail facials, and super juicing, just to name a few. No matter how deep the cleanse, or how super the juice, your body and well-being will not glow from the purported benefits endorsed by the rich and famous. Caulfield's certainly did not. That his research has practically divested Gwyneth Paltrow of her dubious title of queen of health and beauty is what most media hubs have latched onto

But there is more to Caulfield’s book than Ms. Paltrow’s misinformative lifestyle tips. The heart of his argument, featured in the second half, focuses on the sociological implications of celebrity culture obsession. The countries with the highest level of social disparity are the most obsessed with fame—fame to be earned effortlessly by being one’s self in front of a camera for a reality TV show or by dint of becoming a rock, movie, or sports star. Striving toward fame, or even aspiring to it, is not what it is cracked up to be. In the following passage, Caulfield lays bare some of the adverse side effects. Interestingly enough, the celebrity industry is not entirely responsible.


The countries that seem the most obsessed with celebrity culture (i.e., the United States, United Kingdom, South Korea) do not score particularly high in rankings of population happiness. According to the 2013 World Happiness Report, a study prepared for the United Nations, the happiest countries in the world are Denmark, Norway, and Switzerland. Canada ranks sixth. The United States and the United Kingdom, two countries that both produce and consume a great deal of celebrity culture, rank seventeenth and twenty-second, respectively. These same celebrity-loving countries also have a terrible record when it comes to social mobility. The United Kingdom ranks last among the thirty-four nations in the Convention on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and the United States is third from last. In other words, in these countries, moving up the socioeconomic ladder is nearly impossible. If you are born into poverty, you are likely to stay in poverty. If you are a middle-class kid, chances are you will be a middle-class adult. Ditto your kids. (Incidentally, the country that has the highest degree of social mobility? Happy Denmark.)

Some commentators have gone so far as to call the American dream a myth, a topic I discussed with Howard Steven Friedman, a well-known statistician with the United Nations and author of The Measure of a Nation. “The idea of social mobility, of becoming rich, is core to the American mythology,” Friedman says. “But, ironically, American performance in this area is consistently one of the worst of the developed nations.” Friedman has observed that the statistics are depressing for those “who subscribe to the notion that America is a meritocracy and a ‘land of opportunity.’” And the data tell us social mobility is getting worse.

What is the best way to ensure improved social mobility, a societal goal we can all agree is important? Education. A 2012 study by the PEW Charitable Trust, Pursuing the American Dream: Economic Mobility Across Generations, found that “a four-year college degree promotes upward mobility from the bottom and prevents downward mobility from the middle and top.” I ask Erin Currier, the project director for PEW’s Economic Mobility Project and a coauthor of the study, if education is the most important tool in the promotion of social mobility. “Absolutely. Research has shown this again and again,” she says. “And what is often overlooked is that it leads not only to more mobility but better jobs.” Given this reality, it is worth noting that numerous studies, such as the OECD’s regular Programme for International Student Assessment, have consistently found that the US and UK education systems do not rank particularly well in comparison to those of other developed nations.

What do all these data about happiness, education, and social mobility have to do with celebrity culture? We live in a world where people increasingly turn to celebrity culture as a way of thinking about and striving for social mobility, whether through real life choices or merely through fantasies about a life that could be, and as a means of improving our well-being, health, and appearance. Is it a coincidence that countries that fare relatively poorly with respect to social mobility, happiness, and education also embrace celebrity culture and a reach-for-the-stars mentality? Perhaps. (I realize I am straying precariously close to an “opiate of the masses” thesis.) It seems hard to deny that a convergence of a variety of socioeconomic (e.g., poor social mobility) and technological (e.g., social media) trends with human psychological and social predispositions and biases has created the perfect conditions for celebrity culture to thrive.

I run this theory by Stephen Duncombe, a professor of media studies at New York University and author of Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. “This certainly seems plausible,” he says. “Celebrity is so tied to democracy and succeeding, especially now. People like Kim Kardashian seem real. They act like us. They come from places that we come from. This isn’t Grace Kelly. Celebrity culture makes social mobility look like magic.” Indeed, it is often sold as magic. It is sold as a life changing process that is now—or so the celebrity myth goes—increasingly available to all. 

Joshua Gamson, a professor at the University of San Francisco’s College of Arts and a well-known commentator on celebrity culture, tells me something similar. “In a society with tremendous income inequality, with many avenues [to success] effectively closed, here you have a way to fantasy—a get-rich-quick fantasy. You can understand why people want to keep the dream alive,” he says. “The shortcut to mobility is very appealing.” 

image from www.beacon.orgCurrier agrees with the take presented by Gamson and Duncombe: “It is possible that, given the barriers to social mobility, for some, they see celebrity as the only viable option.” To support this view, Currier tells me of a 2006 study that found 38 percent of those with annual incomes of less than $25,000 think that winning the lottery represents the most practical way for them to accumulate wealth. Given this kind of thinking, which, as Currier noted, is likely a manifestation of a perceived lack of options, is it any surprise that so many perceive that making it celebrity big is a viable goal? We could certainly quibble about the degree to which the rise in celebrity culture is a contributing cause or a by-product of existing social realities. But no matter how tenuous the connection or complex the direction of the relationship, it seems difficult to deny that our current fascination with celebrity has the potential to lead to more unhappiness—about our bodies, faces, clothes, careers, homes, virtually everything. More important, this societal obsession does little to elevate or prioritize activities that will promote true social mobility and well-being. The power of celebrity culture to distract in a less-than-constructive manner happens at the level of both the individual (e.g., decisions about education paths, the way we think about and define success, the use of individual and family resources, and so on) and society (e.g., how the public engages with broader social issues). 

A study published in 2007 found that those who “follow celebrity culture are the least engaged in politics and least likely to use their social networks to involve themselves in action or discussion about public-type issues.” There is, of course, a causation issue with this kind of data. (Perhaps those who aren’t interested in social issues are attracted to celebrity culture?) Still, it shows that, at a minimum, celebrity culture does little to help or, as the authors note, the data challenges “suggestions of how popular culture might contribute to effective democracy.” 

On a more fundamental level, research suggests that celebrity culture has contributed to the rise of a more narcissistic society. Few have done as much work on this point as Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University and coauthor of the 2009 book The Narcissism Epidemic. In a 2013 paper, she writes, “The overwhelming majority of the evidence shows that more recent generations of young people have more positive self-views, endorse more narcissistic personality traits, and are more self-focused.” This attitude is the result of a number of factors, including our society’s embrace of the reach-for-the-stars mentality and, as Twenge told me during a discussion about her work, “a celebrity world that showcases narcissism.” Indeed, Twenge thinks popular culture has crossed the line and that such narcissistic traits now are viewed and portrayed as a good thing. 

To be fair, not everyone agrees about the degree to which narcissism is actually increasing. But, regardless of the magnitude of the phenomenon—and I believe that the data, while still evolving, are pretty darn convincing—the implications could be significant. There is, for example, evidence that the current cohort of youth is more entitled and less interested in community and social engagements. (Note: This is not to say every youth has this disposition. I know many highly engaged and socially conscientious young people!) More than previous generations, they crave extrinsic rewards, such as fame, wealth, looks, and material possessions, and they are less interested in intrinsic rewards. Yet many studies tell us that a focus on intrinsic goals (such as community, personal growth, and relationships) is positively associated with indicators of psychological well-being and that an orientation toward extrinsic life goals is associated with decreased sense of well-being. 

All that said, we need to take care not to place too much blame on the attractive shoulders of celebrities. We have bigger problems to solve, such as the growing economic disparity found throughout the world. Celebrity culture is a systemic phenomenon. Gwyneth may be a kook, but she didn’t create the social and psychological conditions that give celebrity culture its considerable influence. As Sternheimer notes, celebrity culture is a “collective fantasy.” It isn’t imposed from above by Gwyneth, Pamela, People, or the Hollywood A-list. It is a force that both mirrors and shapes our hopes and desires, creating the compelling illusion that a transcendent beauty can be acquired and an elevating fame and fortune achieved by all. It seems that we are caught in a big, self-perpetuating celebrity-fueled cycle that goes something like this: Declining social mobility and diminishing life options lead to increasing dreams of celebrity fame and fortune. This, in turn, enhances the power and allure of celebrity, which causes a focus (perhaps with an ever-increasing narcissistic resolve) on extrinsic aspirations that lead to less happiness and distract us (and society more generally) from actions that may enhance social mobility, such as education and advocacy for social change. 

It is, I admit, a rather grand claim. But it is not without foundation. As I have tried to show, we humans, whether we like it or not, are unusually interested in, and influenced by, celebrities and celebrity culture. And both the interest and their influence seem to be intensifying. At a minimum, we need to take steps to gain a greater appreciation of the long-term implications of this trend. And, perhaps most important, we need to strive collectively to put celebrity culture in its proper and entirely worthy place: as a fun and entertaining diversion. 

Now would someone please hand me the latest issue of People?


About the Author

image from www.beacon.orgTimothy Caulfield is a Chair in Health Law and Policy and a Professor in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta. He has won numerous academic awards, has appeared in publications such as Time, Newsweek, Wired, National Geographic, and Scientific American, and been involved with a number of national and international policy and research ethics committees. He is the author of The Cure for Everything: Untangling Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness and Happiness. Follow him on Twitter at @CaulfieldTim.