Contemplation: Celebrity Theory and Success Saturation (or Failure Dilution)

Continuing on the theme of my previous blog post, I want to look at the idea of success saturation more specifically in regards to how it relates to our view of celebrities.  The whole concept of “celebrity” is something that has fascinated me for quite a long time  now, and I have written about it several times in the past on this blog.

To start off I want to work a little on a more meaningful understanding of what I mean when I say “celebrity.”  For a lot of people, the term “celebrity” has a pretty synonymous meaning with “famous person” and to a degree I think that this is kind of accurate, but I also feel like it is lacking in some ways, because it doesn’t get to the core of why this person is “famous” versus some other person.  As such, I have spent some time thinking about “celebrity” and have tentatively come up with a structure that I like in regards to explaining what a celebrity is.  Here’s a go at it:

Celebrity describes a person who has some sphere of influence on other people, or society, beyond their immediate family and personal relations (friends, co-workers, doctors, lawyers, etc.) due to some action, event, or occurrence making said person noteworthy to some degree.

Note that this description is vague on purpose, because I think that, with just a little consideration, it should be obvious that not all celebrities are created equal.  For starters this is due to the difference between what I will call “Small” and “Big” celebrities.  Small celebrities are considered celebrities in that they meet the above requirements, however their celebrity sphere of influence is relatively localized and thus does not expand significantly in a bigger cultural regard.  In this case of thinking  consider a local high school athlete who has gained particular regard or a local TV station news anchor, who may be well-known in the area, but unheard of outside of it.  On the other hand we have Big celebrities, who are like famous authors, movie stars, musicians, and politicians.  These individuals’ sphere of influence is significantly larger than Small celebrities and, furthermore, their influences extend to have major societal or cultural impacts.

There is more difference beyond just Small and Big celebrity.  The next major consideration is the degree of celebrity “Lasting,” that is, how long does the influences of any celebrity continue to have some kind of impact?  It would be easy to suggest that Small celebrities as a whole have much less lasting than Big celebrities, and while I think, in general this might be true, it is not necessarily a rule.  Consider again that local athlete all-star who has a huge impact on a town.  While the celebrity may be Small in that he/she does not have much influence beyond his/her locality, if his/her success if significant enough to the town, he/she could have a long-lasting power, in which stories are told for years, buildings are named after them, photos are a common occurrence, etc.  On the flip side, image a musician who has a huge hit song or an author who writes an extremely popular book, but, within a few generations, they are entirely forgotten because of not having contributed any other significant works.  While at the time of their initial success the musician or author may have been a Big celebrity, in the long-term, they have had little to no lasting value.

Finally, it is important that we avoid equating the concept of “celebrity” with the idea of “success” as, arguably, somebody could be a celebrity just as much, if not more, for their personal failing than their successes (we’ll come back to this).  Likewise, “celebrity” does not describe a persons moral quality.  Regardless of how horrible and evil a person like Adolf Hitler was, there is no question that he was, and still is in many way, a celebrity (a Big and lasting one at that).  Celebrity does not actually comment on the content of ones character, and while many celebrities may be admirable and good people, there are a great number who are quite despicable if not downright evil (take for example our societal fascination with serial killers, who are very contemptible and disturbing individuals, yet carry a degree of celebrity nonetheless).

So now, with the above description, and the following caveats of consideration, we can begin to structure what celebrities are.  We may also be able to come to the conclusion that, within reason, everybody has potential, to some degree, of being a “celebrity” at some point or another in their life.  While most of us will only enjoy quick (not lasting) Small celebrity status (our literal 15 minutes of fame) some of us will emerge as longer lasting and also as Big celebrities.  The degree in which somebody becomes a celebrity of any caliber is a mix of pure chance (winning the lottery say) and constructed effort (training to be a great athlete or have a wonderful singing voice, and utilizing these skills to rise in celebrity recognition).  Some people, very obviously, choose to be celebrities, while others happen upon it by simple luck of the draw.  Once celebrity is achieved people then have options to maintain it, or to let is fade away.

Regardless of whether it is a matter of chance or choice, being moved to celebrity status requires some occurrence of significant enough degree that it will catch and hold the attention of those parties outside of family and immediate relations.  This could be something as simply as making a miraculous basket at the end of a heated high school basketball game or as big as winning the latest American Idol competition, with a whole range of possibilities elsewhere.  Regardless though, something happened that drew attention to the individual, making them a person of note for at least a brief bit of time.  If it is a one time thing, like that amazing basket at the end of the game, the achieved celebrity (Small) will likely not have a lot of lasting, unless that one event is followed by more of similar or greater note.  The American Idol winner (Big) is more apt to be able to cultivate a long-lasting celebrity, in that he/she is able to record an album, gather a fandom, and progress forward with a career as a professional musician (as a number of the winners, and even second and third place contestants, have done). Just as celebrity can come based on chance or choice, so to can the disappearance.  Chances can remove a celebrity from a realm or influence, or he/she may opt not to pursue further cultivation of his/her celebrity, and thus just lets it decay.

When we talk about cultivating celebrity we can begin to consider the sugar-water analogy I used in the previous post on Success Saturation.  If a celebrity is brought to the status of celebrity based upon some significant initial success (or failure), the celebrity status could be maintained with additional successes (or failing) that continue to draw attention to the individual.  At some point, if the celebrity is to achieve a certain amount of personal success, they may in turn enjoy a general Success Saturation, in which, their excess of success allows them more room to have small “failing” (where in “failings” are simple things that do not comment on them in a positive way, even if it is something as innocent as acting a little weirdly here or there, but as extreme as saying something really wretched or doing something repulsive).  These small failings will not overall erase a persons claims to success to push them from fame into infamy.  However, big enough failings will do just that, even if the person had enjoyed previous levels of extreme success (or even success saturation).  Consider then somebody like Mel Gibson, who in the past, has had many significant successes to his name, but in recent years, due to a number of bizarre actions and inflammatory personal remarks, has descended into infamy,so much so that his successes are often overshadowed by his failings.

Once a person has achieved some degree of celebrity, his/her personal success and failings are much more scrutinized than if they were not a celebrity.  This should make sense, seeing as, in being a celebrity, they achieve a wider range of attention from people beyond their personal life.  This can make the gaining of success all the more difficult, all the while, making failures even easier to come by (hardly nobody cares if some non-celebrity gets pulled over for drunk driving, but get Lindsay Lohan behind the wheel with a bit of liquor in her and it is very noteworthy).  In part this is because we have high expectations of people we consider celebrities.  This can also extend in regards to celebrities of notorious nature.  It can be hard for people deal with the fact that somebody like Hitler was a big lover of animals and a vegetarian in light of his atrocities.  We struggle with idea that somebody so despicable can have such human emotions or deeds.  As such, celebrity has a distorting effect upon how we reasonably gauge a persons actions.  The celebrity scrutiny thus becomes a major challenge for anyone who has achieved any degree of celebrity, especially if they hope to maintain a positive and successful personal image.

We should now take a moment to consider celebrity ownership.  This might seem like a strange way of talking about celebrities, but I think it is an important one.  Celebrity, by its very nature, is not a thing of autonomous ownership.  While a person may act to cultivate their own celebrity, may think of themselves as a celebrity and an individual person, their status as a celebrity, is owned entirely in the realm of the public audience.  Like we said above, people can become celebrities by chance or choice, but, as a whole, choice is going to be much more challenging, because the ultimate deciders are the outside people who will (or will not) be influenced by, and thus recognize, a celebrity.  Once celebrity is achieved though, it is totally upon the audience whether or not that celebrity lasts.  While the person may take actions to maintain it (continue to write books, continue to make movies, etc.) if the audience does not accept these efforts, then the celebrity will fade.

While in college, one of the last papers that I wrote in my four years there, was specifically about how, in being a celebrity, a person is no longer regarded as an actual human, but instead seen as a simulacra of a human.  This is not to say that they were not real flesh and blood and genetically human (they are) but instead, to suggest, that while having celebrity status, they are not socially or culturally treated as we tend to treat and react to normal human beings.  Obviously many people who are considered celebrities are fine with this, but, for others, this must be a disturbing aspect of their status.  Their autonomy has been seized and the degree to which they can achieve real privacy has been significantly diminished.  To the degree that they may be able to minimize the lasting of their celebrity, they are still beholden to the will of the audience that may opt to keep them as celebrities nonetheless (think of J.D. Salinger, who famously became a recluse, and yet, continued to hold the fascination of whole generations, now even beyond his death).  The celebrity then, whether by choice or chance, becomes beholden to the burden of celebrity, to which they will be held to the expectation of standards which other people, non-celebrities, are not beholden.

For some time now I have found this particular prospect of celebrity disturbing.  It concerns me that we can regulate whole groups of people to a degree in which we no longer treat them as real people.  It is not the same as, say, slavery, where people are regulated to being something less than people, but it is concerning nonetheless, because we treat a celebrity with differing ethical expectations than we do non-celebrities.  Don’t get me wrong, I know that a lot of celebrities enjoy their personal status, and some, are so addicted to it that they will do whatever they can to maintain it, but, I still do not feel like it is good, for our society as a whole, to be creating this differing fo standards and expectations.  In so doing we create a firm divide of the “us” and the “them” and negative consequences can quickly develop from this kind of thinking.

I tend to think that a lot of the way we act in regards to celebrities in the modern world, is a product of misplaced hero worship and overall myth thinking.  Our stories have come to include real flesh-and -blood people, whom we’ve designated as something of more note and worth than just normal human.  I would not suggest this is new, in fact it may have been a part of human society from the beginning, but it does raise its issues.  Beyond that I also cannot advise on any particular solution besides working to scrutinize the celebrity in a more grounded way (having appreciation for the successes they deserve credit for, but recognizing that, as people, they are not all the different from us).  It is a complex issue, and not one that can be easily approached because of our ingrained societal norms and expectations.

For now I am going to leave this matter at this.  With the knowledge of my personal fascination of “celebrity” I have no doubt that I will be coming back to this topic again in the future.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear other thoughts and ideas about what it means to be a “celebrity.”  I find that I formulate my best ideas when engaged in meaningful discussion with others.  Tools, like this blog, provide a great  means to get initial ideas out there, and then facilitate further contemplation beyond it.  So, feel free to leave comments.

Happy Monday folks.

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~ by Nathaniel on December 3, 2012.

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