• What Role Should Celebrities Play in Our Lives?

    We live, like it or not, in the age of the celebrity. High achievers in entertainment or sport have always commanded attention and headlines, but the reach, in today’s society, of film and television, and particularly of the social media, has meant that the impact of the “rich and famous” is greater today than it has ever been.

    It is increasingly clear that this kind of celebrity can be used to exert great influence over the young in particular, but also to make a great deal of money through endorsements and the marketing of products bearing famous names. Millions of young women around the world choose clothes, make-up, social activities and other purchases, following the recommendations of those whose lifestyles are regarded as wonderfully glamorous and therefore to be emulated.

    There is a further curiosity about the modern concept of the “celebrity”. The actual achievements or talents of the modern celebrity may sometimes be rather difficult to identify. The Kardashians, for example, seem not to be particularly talented as individuals – but they are, as a family or “brand”, famous for being famous. What is undeniable is that they are very successful at promoting themselves, and providing models that many young women and girls try to copy.

    The Kardashians exemplify another common aspect of the celebrity cult – the tendency of one celebrity to team up with another. Kim Kardashian is the partner of the US rapper, Kanye West – and David and Victoria Beckham’s marriage brought together a top British footballer and a singer from the Spice Girls. In instances such as these, the celebrity impact seems to be more than doubled but is multiplied several times over – and children of the union themselves become celebrities and add to the overall impact.

    Recently, however, there seems to have been something of a backlash against the cult of the celebrity. A week or so ago, it was reported that the use of celebrities on websites in the UK to encourage gambling online for young people was coming under fire and that the big internet companies and websites had been persuaded to desist from that practice.

    I might add my own two cents’ worth. As a regular watcher of TVNZ’s quiz programme, The Chase, I politely observe that the weekend version, when so-called celebrities make up the team challenging the “chaser”, succeeds in reducing what is an excellent quiz show to a rather embarrassing parade of egos and self-promotion.

    That, however, is a minor point. The real case against the undue deference shown to “celebrities”
    Is that it can lead not only to young people being misdirected in their private lives as to what real happiness and success might look like, but also to the abandonment of normal standards and processes in the public domain.

    An early instance of this latter phenomenon was the treatment accorded in the US to Martha Stewart, a television star whose Martha Stewart Show presented her as a “domestic goddess” to an adoring viewership. She was, after several years of enjoying her celebrity, convicted of insider trading and obstructing justice, and served a prison sentence. She was then restored to her television show and resumed her place in the affections of the American public; it seemed that her celebrity protected her against any longer-term downside.

    More seriously, the same phenomenon of celebrity seems to have been a major factor in the election of – and continued support for – Donald Trump as President. The voters, despite the evidence before their own eyes and ears of his complete unfitness to exercise such responsibilities, seem to have been unwilling to trust their own judgment and to have been dazzled instead by the “star power” of a television celebrity. The price that the US – and the world – have had to pay is virtually incalculable.

    There is no obvious or immediate antidote to this phenomenon. We can but hope that those who are happy to reap the rewards – earned or otherwise – of their celebrity might increasingly recognise the responsibilities they have to ensure that people, especially the young and vulnerable, are not misled to their disadvantage by following them in directions that lead at best nowhere, but at worst to shattered dreams, disappointment and unhappiness.

    Bryan Gould
    19 February 2019

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