You might be the type of person to obsess over the British royal family or the Kardashians might be more your cup of tea. Or perhaps you’re actually the type to frown anytime you hear one of their names mentioned. Love it or hate it, there is one thing we can all admit—celebrity culture is huge and here to stay. There is simply no denying that it’s become a large part of our daily lives. But have you ever wondered why?
Celebrities are an integral part of popular culture, there’s no doubt about that. So much so, that nowadays, a lot of pop culture is directly shaped by them. When it comes to the lives of other people, we can all admit that sometimes, we get a little nosy. I know I do, whether that results in my obsessive watching of reality TV shows like Love Island or in my fortnightly stalking of random people on the internet I barely met. I do it, I’m pretty sure you do it sometimes too—we just tend to keep it to ourselves, because there’s nothing charming about getting a kick out of snoopiness. So how come we’ve completely normalised wanting to know everything about a celebrity’s personal life when we already know it’s slightly messed up to expect the same from a random everyday person?
In order to bring you all the inside scoops vital in truly understanding the reason why we’re so prone to stanning nowadays, we first spoke to Chris Rojek, a professor of sociology at City, University of London, who has unique expertise in the study of celebrity. He explained that when talking about celebrities, it’s important to make a clear distinction between two types: “ascribed” and “achieved” celebrity.
Achieved celebrity refers to someone who has become famous due to their skill or talent within a particular field. This could be an actor, a musician, an athlete, a painter, and so on. Such individuals predominantly receive their celebrity status, and with it, interest from the public, due to a particular achievement.
On the other hand, ascribed celebrity is used for those who are famous simply because of their lineage, by being born into the right family. The British royals are a great example of this—they kept their relevance for centuries, even after the monarchy lost any real political power. Today, the Queen is still considered to be the biggest celebrity brand in the world. But why exactly? Well, we’re not fully sure just yet.
Perhaps a more relatable example for today’s gen Z ascribed celebrities can be seen through the term ‘nepotism babies’—a term which describes the children of celebrities whose family status’ only further their lives and careers, even if not intentionally utilised. People like the Jenner sisters, the Hadid siblings, or the Beckham children can be seen as prime examples of this. Sure, each one of those individuals may be talented within their own right, but it would be naive to not account for how their family wealth, status and connections have aided the advancement of their careers, and with them, their celebrity status.
Celebrity culture is not a new or modern phenomenon either—it actually dates back centuries. Some even argue that the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt could be considered as celebrity figures of their time. Monarchs and rulers throughout history, in general, could be viewed as celebrities. Humans seem to have always had an interest in following up with the lives of others (most times, those richer and more powerful than them). A major difference between today and a few centuries ago is that we now have non-stop access to celebrity news and gossip.
To investigate this further, Screen Shot spoke to Doctor Ruth Sims, senior lecturer in psychology and ergonomics at the University of Derby. When asked about which factor we can pinpoint this interest to, relatability or unattainability, she explained that “the lifestyle is the key attraction,” continuing, “It’s escapism and fantasy, people living lives that seem perfect and where money can buy everything. Of course, that’s not really the case, but we like to believe in fairy tales!”
This concept has only become truer in the age of social media. Today, you can deep dive into the day-to-day lives of celebrities in no time, by simply following their Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and so on. If they eventually give in to the same vicious cycle and decide to share so much of their personal lives with us (due to our constant demand for such information), this results in what is called a ‘parasocial’ relationship.
A parasocial relationship refers to when humans make social connections with the people they are presented with through media, be it from television, audio, or from the internet. These are, of course, not reciprocated as the celebrity does not know you even exist. In most cases, parasocial relationships are normal and common, but it is important to be wary of how this connection you have with a celebrity may be impacting you.
For example, a lot of celebrities in recent years have been guilty of pushing the relatable, ‘I am just like you’ narrative, when in fact, it’s quite the opposite. “The way that younger people interact with and their expectations of celebrities is definitely different to older people—teens have grown up seeing celebrity social media posts, so that’s very much the norm for them and often they don’t really question the reality of the carefully-curated content being posted,” explained Doctor Sims.
When we do not question this behaviour, we often end up comparing ourselves, our lives, and our achievements to those we see online or in the media, which can result in low self-esteem or body image issues. Escapism can be fun, but it can just as easily be harmful. Especially, when it’s rooted in lies—take the saturation of Photoshopping or Facetuning online.
While obsession around celebrity culture has been present for centuries, in recent years, a lot of us have been observing a shift in our attitudes towards famous people. This is particularly prominent among the new generations—we no longer wish to separate the art from the artist, and instead, we demand accountability from our ‘faves’.
We spoke about these changes to Professor David Marshall, Chair in New Media, Communication and Cultural Studies at Deakin University, Australia, who asked in return, “Does that hold our cultures stable, or does it change them? I think it changes them.”
Today, if a celebrity does or says something that is deemed problematic, they are at risk of getting cancelled, often dropped from any brand deals or projects they are involved in. In other words, they lose their relevance quicker than ever before.
“COVID reconstructed the power,” Marshall continued. And to some degree, it’s true—towards the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people lost their trust in celebrities. It, in some ways, was the beginning of the end of the celebrity culture we have come to know. I mean, do you remember when a bunch of celebrities decided to do a cover of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ from their hilltop mansions, in an attempt to lift up our spirits and remind us that we are all in this together? I don’t know about you, but if I have to make a list of some of the most cringeworthy celebrity moments I have ever witnessed, this probably tops it. People don’t want a music cover, they want medical cover.
As us ‘mere mortals’ struggled to adjust, entered a recession, and went on furlough or lost their incomes and even their loved ones, celebrities reminded us just how out of touch they are with the reality of everyday people—how unrelatable. Of course, nearly two years on, we can see that celebrity culture is still thriving and surviving, clinging on for dear life. But our attitudes are slowly changing nevertheless.
Remember, you may hate celebrity culture, you may love it—but without us, it would not exist.