How many of us surreptitiously glance at the cover of People magazine in the supermarket checkout line, or admit to watching Oprah only with the caveat that we just happened across it as we were flipping channels? Even to those of us who are embarrassed to admit it, celebrity culture is alluring. And it is big business. Movie and television stars, sports figures, musical icons, and business tycoons—all capture our attention and our money. Why is this so?
Much that has been written about celebrity culture lingers at surface analysis—celebrity culture is glittery, captivating, and fascinating. But what might we learn about ourselves and the culture we live in by looking behind this dazzling surface? The essays gathered here reveal that celebrity culture is an illuminating lens through which to view the most significant cultural shifts taking place in America today.
While entertainment and a prurient interest in the personal details of others’ lives have always been part of American culture, what is noteworthy today is how many aspects of our lives and our culture have taken on the form of entertainment—think, for example, of the recent presidential debates, students’ expectation that lectures be entertaining, and the advent of televised marriages. What does it mean when politics, education, and our most intimate relationships become entertainment?
What is also significant today is the increasingly varied roles that celebrities play in contemporary culture and the cultural authority that they are granted in those roles: we see celebrities serving as heroes, cultural commentators, charity spokespeople, role models, political candidates, to name just a few. We look to celebrities for their comments on anything that matters to us, as if they have some insight we lack. They serve, for many, as the arbiters of taste, morality, and public opinion. An exploration of celebrity culture uncovers changing conceptions of legitimacy, authority, and credibility at play in our culture.
Who we admire, pay attention to, and model ourselves on reveals what we think about ourselves individually and collectively at a deep level. What does our fascination with the stars—whether from the world of entertainment, sports, or business—reveal about our ideals concerning who we want to be, what constitutes success, and what it might mean to live the good life? What does the growing presence of celebrity culture say about the state of other possible sources for these ideals—for example, religious traditions, the arts, the lessons of history, the ideals of philosophy, or the examples of morally courageous people? When movie idols, sports heroes, media gurus, rock stars, and television-circuit literary authors become our role models, what changes does this suggest in our notions of what is worthy of emulation? For our heroes have not always been celebrities.
An examination of celebrity culture also sheds light on some of the key factors shaping our world today, including consumerism, the media, and politics. Surely no discussion of celebrity culture can ignore the ways that consumer culture and the media create, shape, and nurture our desires. What role does the media play in shaping our fascination with celebrities? Do distinctions between journalism and entertainment still exist? The borders between celebrities and politicians are also increasingly blurry. How has celebrity culture changed the face of American politics? And how has it affected such fundamental political ideas as truth, justice, and freedom? Are celebrities the cultural leaders of a country that sees unbridled individualism as a virtue? Are they commodities to be consumed, like other goods, by an entertainment-addicted public?
These are just a few of the topics that this issue of The Hedgehog Review explores in the effort to see what our fascination with celebrities tells us about our culture and ourselves. Looking behind the stage, with its bright lights and drama, reveals what has gone into the making of celebrity culture—that fantastical production of stars, fame, and spectacles—at both the institutional and individual level, and brings to the fore an aspect of contemporary cultural change that involves our deepest longings and our highest ideals.