The Cult of Celebrity

Ages ago now, when I was first convalescent, I read Deborah Davis’s account of Truman Capote’s famous black and white ball, Party of the Century. It was exactly what I needed at the time, a really fun and easy to read book, gently engaging, full of interesting cultural history and a cast of technicolour characters. What I found most intriguing and surprising was that only the penultimate chapter actually deals with the ball. The rest of the book covers Capote’s life, his shameless self-publicity in the run up to In Cold Blood coming out (the party was a kind of promotional event, only masked, like his guests), the stories of some of the famous celebrities who attended it and lots of tales about the organization of the event (for instance, having bid his guests to wear masks, the few designers in town who could provide them nearly worked themselves into early graves to satisfy the demands of 500 partygoers). It really was like the literary equivalent of a big night out – the interest is all in the build up, with the celebration itself being something of an anti-climax. I imagine that feeling the eyes of the world upon them, Capote’s guests behaved themselves, or if they didn’t, then they knew how to do discretion back then.

What I found particularly appealing was the innocence that surrounded the cult of celebrity back in the 1960s. I very much enjoyed the chapters concerning Capote’s ‘swans’ a gaggle of society beauties whom he holidayed with, hung out with and counselled in times of need. Each one had a story to tell about how they made it into the ranks of the rich and beautiful, some by sheer graft and clever marriage, some by opportunism, some because they were born into that world and had to struggle against bankruptcy or an alcoholic partner to keep their places in it. There was something delightfully old-fashioned and charming about these women who lived life as if it had been written by Sidney Sheldon, and it had to do with a certain compassion that emanated from Davis’s account. There was respect for their suffering as well as for their triumphs and it made me think about how low we have sunk today in the representation of celebrity by the media.

The current situation makes me wince for my culture. We’re surrounded in the UK by television programmes like I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, and Big Brother, all of which seek to provide entertainment by torturing individuals one way or another, with the understanding that it is more pleasurable to see familiar faces on the victims. I think this is why the definition of a celebrity has become so feeble and all-inclusive, because a ‘celebrity’ is really another word for cannon fodder, and as such it is better that they have no actual skills or talents. Nobel Prize winners (few of whom could be named by the ‘man on the street’) have better things to do with their time, for instance, than engage in human lab rat experiments. A couple of hundred years ago, women used to knit by guillotines, public floggings were all the rage, witches were dunked for the edification of their communities, and the village stocks were always full. It’s this unkindly gleeful element of the human mentality that such programmes cater for, and it makes me very, very uneasy. Even something ostensibly civilized like Strictly Come Dancing has message boards for the public crammed full of what is effectively hate mail against the competitors who fail to win public affection. Our delightful media has clearly led the way here in validating a form of behaviour that is, to my mind, a form of psychosis. How many times do we see in the press a journalist evacuating their negativity onto some public figure (think Britney Spears) in a way that is wholly excessive and unwarranted but which allows them to maintain the sense of their own innocence? The moving finger of guilt so rarely turns around and aims at the person who has claimed a public platform from which to dole out harsh judgments. Yet I don’t believe that such journalists are exemplary figures themselves, far from it. I feel that judgment has become an issue like risk, in our contemporary culture, about which we’ve lost all sense of proportion. No one likes to be judged, and so schools and work places are now tightly regulated so that judgment cannot be passed where it might actually be useful; instead the culture encourages the public at large to go home and switch the television on or open a newspaper and vent their spleen on some two-dimensional cardboard cut out of a ‘celebrity’. Well, you can call me a party pooper if you like, but I think it’s unfair, unreasonable and ugly. I’m all for extending a little compassion to every individual, famous or not, because if you’ve noticed, it makes the stories they have to tell just so much more interesting.

On a completely different note – do visit Cam’s blog and join in on the roundtable discussion there on book blogging. Imani, Emily, Smithereens and I have set the ball rolling, now come along and have your say!

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19 thoughts on “The Cult of Celebrity

  1. Oooh, Litlove, I love it when you get all ranty 🙂 I am inclined to agree with you. And why anyone would want to be a celbrity after seeing how they are treated is beyond me. But as unsavory and disturbing as it is, celebrities play an important role in society. Instead of public floggings and dunking witches as you note we have celebrities now filling the role. I wonder, how do we as a society, as humans, get beyond that need?

  2. Stefanie – LOL! Did you hear the scraping sound as I dragged my soap box out? But you put it perfectly – that’s exactly the question I’m asking. Is it a need that must be assuaged or an indulgence we permit ourselves? (you can guess where I’d land on that..) And I couldn’t agree more – who ever would agree to celebrity when they surely know what’s coming?

  3. Far from me to call you a party-pooper! I totally agree and that’s part of the reasons why I gave up TV altogether. The brief moments where I see it (holidays) just amaze me by the cruelty and stupidity of the latest shows.

  4. As somebody who has danced around the edge of fame, and as such rubbed shoulders with both the famous-for-something, and the just-famous-for being famous, I have to say that Reality TV,in its many mutations has a lot to answer for. At one time fame was the natural by-product of achievment. Now its the achievement itself, which is so vacuuous. Witness the uneducated underclass that crawl out of their council estates, hoping that if they flash their breasts on Big Brother theyll get instant fame and an exercise video. Talent? Who needsw it? Its got so bad, the bar has been lowered so much that people actually think Westlife are a bona fide group! How the hell did that happen?? I think this joke sums it all up actually; “Did you know they’re making a new musical about the life of Jade Goody? It’s called Superstar? Jesus Christ!”

  5. I teach an essay on this subject by Joseph Epstein, where he argues that contemporary celebrity is something like a narrative written in the medium of life — meaning that we care about the story arc, whether the person has any talent or not, and that these stories compete with and win out over fictional narratives. They offer more suspense, since we can’t know where they are headed (can’t peak ahead to the end of the book) and they are voyeuristic in a way that fictional narratives aren’t. All in all, it’s a rather depressing analysis …

  6. Depressing indeed, when the barely out of puberty Gareth Gates (runner-up, not winner, mind you, of UK TVs Pop Idol) publishes his autobiography before he hits twenty. Its all downhill now then, is it Gareth?

  7. So true Litlove! What gets me is when news sites (I’m thinking of CNN!) will have a “breaking news” banner and it’ll be something like Britney Spears divorces or something like that. I’m sorry but why is this news? Another curious thing for me is when I see movies if it stars someone so famous, or let’s say someone who is in the tabloids all the time, I have a very hard time accepting the movie character.

  8. iliana makes a good point about character believability versus over-exposure…The best actors avoid getting typecast. The truly great ones transcend their public image, and still manage to draw you into their characters, I’m thinking Anthony Hopkins, Meryl Streep etc. But its hard to watch Tom Cruise now without going “Hey, that’s that Scientology nutter!”

  9. I was thinking about this question of celebrity and the extent to which it does or doesn’t correlate with talent/expertise this afternoon when the inevitable debate as to who should take over as England Football Manager began. The favoured candidate as far as the journalists are concerned appears to be Jose Mourinho, not because of any coaching skills he may or may not possess, but because he is such good copy. Is there any wonder we are in such a sporting morass when the accomplishments most valued are those of causing mayhem off the pitch ( at least off the ball) rather than the ability to play well and as part of a team. And if you think you hear the sound of another soap-box being drawn up, you’re absolutely right.

  10. Shameless – thank you! So nice to find support! Smithereens – reality TV really does amaze me. I keep thinking everyone will tire of it, but it hasn’t gone away yet! Kev – hello and welcome to the site! Your comments have been so entertaining, and so pertinent too. The joke about Jade Goody is hilarious (and thank you – I’m going to dine out on that!). But you’re so right about things like the celebrity autobiography at 22 and the celebrity actor who plays him/herself all the time. And wouldn’t all of us agree that we admire and like to watch the artists who impress us with their skills? These people aren’t lacking in the world, far from it. It’s the concept of achievement that needs a serious overhaul. Dorothy – that’s an essay I’d very much like to read – is there any chance you could let me know the reference for it? Depressing, but accurate, I’d say. Iliana – that’s an excellent point. I often wonder why real news is displaced off the front page in order to tell us about someone’s private life, and I’m alarmed by the way that the lives of people in the public eye become more outrageous than any cinema script. What is going on? Dew – I’m so glad you enjoyed the roundtable discussion. It was very interesting to do and made me think a lot about the community we have (which your blog helps no end to foster). Ann – funnily enough we’ve been having just the same conversation around the table tonight! It’s a sad indictment of the selection process when it’s all about profile and media manipulation. Not that I know anything about these things, but I still say England can’t pass and won’t win anything significant until they learn.

  11. Well, it turns out I was thinking of the wrong author, but, wouldn’t you know it, Epstein just happens to have an essay on celebrity (http://www.weeklystandard.com/Utilities/printer_preview.asp?idArticle=6187&R=C746320F0). The author I was thinking of is Neal Gabler, and I didn’t find the entire essay available online, but it’s published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and you’ll find the beginning of it here: http://chronicle.com/subscribe/login?url=http%3A%2F%2Fchronicle.com%2Fweekly%2Fv49%2Fi27%2F27b00701.htm

  12. I agree with you Litlove. I remember watching Big Brother a couple of time when it first started, and then realising that the show was only fascinating in its awfulness and its victimisation of participants. I felt guilty and sleazy and stopped watching. I feel the same about all the celebrity programmes or publications -it’s lazy reading/viewing and it’s harmful too, because by consuming the trash that is put out, we create the market that feeds off high-profile misery (because, of course, the public is not interested in any happy ‘celebrities’).

  13. Wow, a wonderful, dead-on rant from litlove. The idea that “reality” TV now resembles anything real at all is so incredibly off the mark and ominous. I remember how the “Survivor” (one of our most enduring reality shows) phenomenon got started in the states. There was a show on our cable channel Discovery called Eco Challenge where teams of highly trained tri-athletes and gung-ho types would race across the Australian outback or somewhere. I believe the prize money went to a charity. Almost every year the team from New Zealand, led by a part-time house painter, won it–I assume it is still going on, but the show no longer airs to my knowledge. Mark Burnett, the guy we can thank for Survivor and Big Brother and numerous others, realized he might have a cash cow on his hands. He aired Survivor a little after the MTV reality show “The Real World” took off. At the time I felt the shows were pretty compelling. But like so many other good things once every one realized there was ALOT of money to be made all bets were off. What disturbs me now is the reinforcements of stereotypes that both the reality shows and the celebrity watch programming feed into. Britanny is now our model for nouveau “white trash” and more and more, God help me, I see her as a victim. Well, I geuss I ranted a little there myself. Very thought provoking post, and I’d like to seek that book about Capote out.

  14. Dorothy – the way I see it, you’ve just given me two essays for the price of one! Thank you! I’ll be following those references up. Becky – I couldn’t agree more. I find Big Brother particularly painful to watch (well, I don’t, but my son did briefly and I usually found something pressing needed doing elsewhere in the house!). Ian – I never knew how it all started so thank you for that very interesting information. You’ll be intrigued to hear of one so-called reality show in which half the participants turned out to be actors with scripts planted by the television company. The viewers knew this, the other participants didn’t. I heard that one being advertised and thought, wow, that’s just sheer desperation. And yes, reinforcing stereotypes is exactly what it’s about. If you read the Deborah Davis, I’d love to know what you think.

  15. Wow, seems you started your own little roundtable over here. Do I dare admit that my husband was once in what would now be dubbed a “Reality TV Show?” No one’s heard of it, though, which just goes to show how popular it was. Meanwhile, I’m right up there on that soap box with you.

  16. Emily!!! You need to tell us all a great deal more about that – immediately! I’m longing to hear all about your husband and then climb up on my soap box beside me – I’ve always got space for you!

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