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Celebrity Culture as a Status System

Murray Milner, Jr.

Miss America Contestants (2014). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Celebrities have been analyzed from a number of viewpoints. In addition to the multitude of journalistic accounts, scholars have considered celebrities from the perspectives of history, cultural criticism, power elites, contemporary politics, cultural sociology, religion, and cultural studies.11xSee the following for examples of books written from the perspective of history: Leo Braudy, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History (New York: Vintage,1997); of cultural criticism: Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (New York: Vintage, 1992) and Richard Schickel, Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity (New York: Doubleday, 1985); of power elites: Francesco Albertoni, “The Powerless Elite: Theory and Sociological Research on the Power of the Stars,” Sociology of Mass Communications, ed. Dennis McQuail (Hammondsworth: Penguin, 1972); of contemporary politics: Darrell M. West and John Orman, Celebrity Politics (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 2002) and Alan Schroeder, Celebrity-in-Chief: How Show Business Took Over the White House (Bolder: Westview, 2004); of cultural sociology: Joshua Gamson, Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); of religion: John Frow, “Is Elvis A God? Cult, Culture and Questions of Method,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 2.2 (1998): 197–210 and Chris Rojek, Celebrity (London: Reaktion, 200l) chapter 2; and of cultural studies: P. David Marshall, Celebrity and Power: Fame in Contemporary Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), Graeme Turner, Understanding Celebrity (London: Sage, 2004), Rojek’s Celebrity, and Loren Glass, Authors Inc.: Literary Celebrity in the Modern United States, 1880–1980 (New York: New York University Press, 2004). Nearly all of these discussions at least allude to the fact that celebrities are part of a status or prestige system. While some draw parallels between celebrities and other kinds of phenomena, no one systematically relates celebrities and celebrity culture to a more general analysis of status systems. That is the purpose of this essay. A key aspect of this task will be to indicate how contemporary celebrity culture is similar to or different from other status systems.

Status is the accumulated approvals and disapprovals that people express toward an actor or an object. The theory of status relations attempts to explain the key features of social relationships when status is a central resource and is significantly insulated from, and hence not reducible to, economic and political power. Of course, a pure status system, like a perfectly competitive market or a perfect vacuum, does not exist in the historical world. It is, however, a useful analytical concept for analyzing and comparing actual cases. Just as the relationships between supply, demand, and price are most easily seen in highly competitive markets, the patterns of behavior in status systems are easiest to detect and explain when status is relatively independent from economic and political power. The Indian caste system and teenage status systems are historic examples of such systems that I have analyzed extensively in previous works, developing a general theory of status relations to explain the patterns that have been observed.22xSee Murray Milner, Jr., Status and Sacredness: A General Theory of Status Relations and an Analysis of Indian Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994) and Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids: American Teenagers, Schools, and the Culture of Consumption (New York: Routledge, 2004). I draw on these analyses briefly to illustrate the logic of this theory. While celebrity culture is less insulated from economic and political influences, it still has many features that are characteristic of classic status systems, which I will explore. To do this, I must first introduce, in summary fashion, my theory of status relations and its four key elements.

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