The Cult of Celebrity

Here is an interesting reflection: back in the day celebrities were usually people of substance. They were notable writers, scientists, philosophers or ware heroes. These days, such interesting people are usually only known only to niche groups. They are famous in their own industries, academic circles and among the educated, cultured elites. Mass popularity is almost exclusively reserved for shallow, vacuous “pretty people” – models, actors, pop singers, spoiled heirs of decadent fortunes and scandalous stars of reality TV. How come?

One explanation is that the emergence of visual media such as cinema and later TV shifted our focus from words, to images. In the past, the only way to become a household name was through the power of a written word. One conquered the world either with witty prose, or newsworthy achievements that would be covered by the press world wide. Therefore it is no wonder that the celebrities back then were mainly people who had something interesting to say, or something monumental to do. Communication was slow, bandwidth was limited and circulation was smaller.

Most American can even identify the exact paradigm shifting moment when we went from the cult of the word to the cult of the image. It was the famous Nixon/Kennedy presidential debate. It was the first US presidency debate to be televised and it produced interesting results. Most people who listened to the debate on the radio, were convinced that Nixon won or that it was a stalemate. Those who watched it on TV however would say that Kennedy was the clear winner. A younger, clean shaven, smiling underdog scored easy victory over the older, more sweaty, more experienced candidate mainly based on image. This is not to say that Kennedy can even be compared to the low quality celebrities that are worshiped by the masses today. Nor am I saying that Nixon was in any way more “substantial” than his opponent. I am merely pointing out that even while being evenly matched, Kennedy’s image easily won over Nixon’s experience when the debate was televised. It was merely an indication of things to come – a shift of public attention towards visual aesthetics.

Media people quickly caught onto the fact that pretty face usually generates more attention than a substantial message and realized that finding the former is much easier than the latter. And thus, media evolved gravitating away from substance and towards flashy, vivid and seductive imagery. The end result of this evolution is of course reality TV where you basically take a group of pretty people (selected solely based on their looks, and their ability to generate social drama) put them all in a room, light a fuse and watch them explode. That and the worship of people who are famous for no apparent reason other than being famous.

This is an interesting observation – too bad it is entirely false. I do not believe there was ever a paradigm shift. It is merely an illusion. We have been always wired to respond to visual cues stronger than to abstract ideas. Genetic cues, and body language is processed by the lower, mammalian regions of our brain. These are the the same indicators both we and our ancestors use for selecting a viable mate. This is how we form our “first impressions” of people. The cult of image was always there. It was just localized.

I mean do you think that everyday people gossiped about great writers, scientists and philosophers during social gatherings? Do you think that bored middle class housewife’s spent time discussing prose and poetry? That they giggled over nuances in philosophical theses? No, they talked about pretty faced boys, and slutty girls. It’s just that this stuff was localized. The celebrities of these days were local nobility, or upper class socialites. It were the people who showed up for social events, organized lavish parties and appeared in local press. They were famous for the same reasons modern day Paris Hilton is famous – they had money, and they always generated gossip and controversy because of their scandalous behavior. These people were just as empty, and devoid of substance as the celebrities of today. That’s why we don’t hear about them – because while they were interesting, they were not notable. They did not create or achieve anything, so once they were gone they have quickly faded from the public memory.

The poets, writers, scientists, philosophers and brilliant politicians we do remember, have left some legacy behind them. We know about them through that legacy, although it may often seem that it is the other way around.

TV and Cinema simply helped to facilitate the cult of image. It broadcast the likeness of the famous people all over the world so that everyone can gossip about them. It allowed to de-localize the social drama generated by a bunch of pretty people from Hollywood. It didn’t make it more interesting – it simply made it more public and more accessible.

The media didn’t change us. It simply changed the scope of social interactions. Instead of gossiping about local couples people nowadays obsess over international superstars and their relationship. On the other hand our obsession with the image, did help to shape the media into what they are today. Back in the day we didn’t have mass media – because no one had resources to actually distribute content to national or global customer base. It’s not our fault that aesthetics sell well and bigger markets tend to demand less risk. Substance is often a gamble – some consumers may choke up on it, others may reject it outright. But a pretty face and a good figure have never failed to secure good ratings.

It’s human nature. Isn’t it wonderful? Despite our greatest achievements in technology, science and philosophy we are still sexually driven animals who respond strongest to the basest visual stimuli. It’s a little fail-safe that mother nature built into us to make sure our large brains won’t simply get bored with that tedious reproduction stuff. And you know what – I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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4 Responses to The Cult of Celebrity

  1. Zel FRANCE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I agree that what we consider celebrities of the past are people that left something valuable, be it written, architectural or artistic. But if you read a few biographies, you find out most of these people were never famous in their lifetimes. With a very serious lack of education among the majority of the population, very few could understand these works anyway, let alone read them. I think you nailed it : people were probably most interested in their local celebrity (the town idiot, the slutty girl, the handsome son of the local lord) that we would consider no less shallow than our current superstars.

    The problem is, a pretty face is not enough to sell anymore. Just look at those same famous superstars filmographies, and you’ll probably see a lot more failures than you would have thought. Of course, having a pretty actor helps, but it doesn’t guarantee commercial success.

    The decline of TV Reality Shows illustrates that what people were looking for was not just looking at young people do whatever. They want drama, they want originality, they want conflicts and tension. You can’t just let 10 people loose in a flat anymore, you need some twist, some catch, some seriously disturbed individuals or actual actors. They’re all decent looking because good looks help catch the eyes and make great covers for TV magazines, but it doesn’t maintain interest for very long.

    I think that we are first and foremost looking for new things to keep us entertained. We don’t care about the celebrities themselves as much as we care about what they do. The important information is in the action and not so much in the person who has done it. Just look at how fast a well-known person can get off the radar as long as they stay quiet. People stop gossiping about them, because there’s nothing new to tell, and forget them. Just like once the scandalous noble moved out or died, he was forgotten by the local population.

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Zel wrote:

    I think that we are first and foremost looking for new things to keep us entertained. We don’t care about the celebrities themselves as much as we care about what they do. The important information is in the action and not so much in the person who has done it. Just look at how fast a well-known person can get off the radar as long as they stay quiet. People stop gossiping about them, because there’s nothing new to tell, and forget them. Just like once the scandalous noble moved out or died, he was forgotten by the local population.

    This is a very good observation. We only seem to care about these people because they keep doing stupid shit in public. If they stay out of the limelight for long enough, the public loses interest and so do the paparazzi.

    50 years from now, no one will even remember Paris Hilton. People will remember our time for some great writers, poets and scientists that were doing awesome things that we completely ignored and will only discover 20 years from now. :P

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  3. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    History’s a hell of a filter I guess. No-one bothers saying anything about the vacuous celebrities after their time, but the people who really did something will be remembered for it – even if they aren’t famous in their time, they’ll be a member of the much smaller club of “people who did something that mattered” which when we look back makes them stand out more than the people around them who were trivial but were talked about at the time.

    As for the perception of a paradigm shift… probably has a lot to do with the fact that we can be aware of most of the “people who mattered” ™ of the past, and unless we pay close attention to when they were around we’ll tend to condense large groups of people to being all of the same period, creating the illusion that every era of history was filled with important names, where ours is relatively devoid.

    Just leaves me wondering who’ll be remembered from this era in 50 years… or a thousand for that matter. You have to do something pretty special to be remembered for that long, but it might be easier now that our memory can be augmented with all our fancy technology. Or it might be harder, because our fancy technology will be busy drowning the important people out with re-runs of reality TV.

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Matt` wrote:

    Just leaves me wondering who’ll be remembered from this era in 50 years… or a thousand for that matter. You have to do something pretty special to be remembered for that long, but it might be easier now that our memory can be augmented with all our fancy technology. Or it might be harder, because our fancy technology will be busy drowning the important people out with re-runs of reality TV.

    Well, Steve Hawkings will likely be remembered for years to come. Not only is he one of the brightest people on the planet, but his Captain Pike type condition makes him a very memorable character.

    From my field: Knuth and Dijkstra are fairly iconic. They’ll get remembered. Moving closer to our generation maybe Linus Torvalds. Oh, and Billy Gates for subjecting us all to the world of suck that is Windows. He won’t be remembered for his hacking skills – he will be always known as the guy who created a nearly complete monopoly in the OS market, and then told the DOJ to fuck off and got away with it. :)

    Oh, and Larry Page and Sergey Brin for doing the same thing that Bill Gates did, but in style and without ever ceasing to be awesome.

    Maybe Zuckerberg? That is if Facebook manages to survive the test of time.

    Oh and moot, for destroying the internet. ;P

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