Celebrityism: Problem or Symptom?

A maladaptive addiction of our own creation

Photo by Vitaly Sacred on Unsplash

With this awards season finally behind us, this is probably the best time to step back and reassess the phenomenon and surrounding culture. For a moment, we’ll look past the disgusting amounts of money and other resources that have been used by these wealthy celebrities to pat themselves on the back. Instead, a quick review of how the current situation came to be.

Modern celebrityism was arguably born when televisions were adopted as regular home appliances in just about every household. In recent years the internet and social media has supercharged this social phenomenon and wildly amplified the depth of the reach, the volume of the content, and the frequency of the updates.

It used to be that you’d only get celebrity updates once, maybe twice, a day; it could easily be weeks or months between hearing anything about your favorite celebrity. But now anybody can subscribe to an unlimited quantity and frequency of updates from an unlimited amount of celebrities across multiple social media platforms; alerts, beeps, and buzzes can notify you of every new tidbit all day every day.

It used to be that celebrities would need to use a formal method, like a press release or a statement from their representative, in order to communicate any sort of message to the widest possible audience. But now the only thing easier than following a celebrity on social media is being that celebrity on social media; it doesn’t matter what the content is, just post, promote, and share.

Photo by Brandi Ibrao on Unsplash

This is more than a moment to just reflect on how times have changed. The real world negative impacts of these changing trends are right in front of us.

Starting at the source of the content, celebrities can easily surround themselves in a fake world of ‘likes’ and ‘upvotes’; likely the much more difficult task is escaping that facade and returning to the real world. Leeching sycophants have always found their way into the circles of the rich and famous, but modern social media has made this process disturbingly easy. Celebrities that claim people are fake, dishonest, and manipulative are missing the bigger picture: they’re literally asking for that type of attention.

For the average person, the primary detrimental effect of celebrity worship is actually much the same as the primary detrimental effect of all social media usage: symptoms of general anxiety and depression resulting from increasingly unrealistic views of the lives of other people and, by instinctual comparison, negative views of one’s own life. Like all social media users, celebrities only post what they want people to see. This leads people to crafting their own digital version of their reality without the need to downright lie (but plenty of people do that, too).

Ultimately, society is feeling the impacts of these trends in multiple ways. Reports of mental health issues, the most common types being anxiety and depression, have been increasing across age groups and especially in young people. Companies are reaping huge financial rewards by appealing to these consumer desires without any regard to the negative impact of their actions. Wealth disparity is worse than ever and the gap between the very few richest people and everybody else is growing every day. Certainly these are complicated issues with many factors so the cause and effect relationship with celebrityism is speculative at best. Still, even correlation with these issues is worth recognizing.

Connecting this discussion to the concept of fear-based motivations adds useful context. On the part of the celebrity, the obvious fears are so plentiful that the real challenge would be to list what they do not fear. Fears of career failure, of slipping into obscurity, of negative public opinion, and of mass media manipulation are just a few that come to mind. The fans’ fears are a bit harder to distinguish which actually makes them that much more important to recognize. Since their partaking in celebrityism is often associated with a desire to escape one’s own dreary life, their fears likely include being afraid of wasting their lives, of being insignificant, and of generally not being good enough.

Photo by _Mxsh_ on Unsplash

Another valid comparison can be drawn between this concept of celebrityism and abusive relationships. Relationships, romantic or otherwise, can unfortunately become abusive in a variety of ways including verbally, physically, and sexually. Consider the stereotypical scenario of a boyfriend or husband that is domineering and both verbally and physically abusive to his girlfriend or wife. She absolutely should leave him as well as press charges, but all too often that fails to happen.

People who are subjected to that kind of abuse on a daily basis for extended periods of time undergo fundamental changes to their thought processes. Among other things, they often worry about the abuse getting worse, the police and legal system failing them, and about never being able to find anybody else who accepts them. To be clear, this is absolutely not about blaming the victim in any way. Rather, this is further blaming the abuser for the additional mental damage that they may not even be aware they’re inflicting.

While the comparison to celebrityism may seem a bit stretched, they both refer to relationships that are not mutual yet the people receiving less benefit still manage to maintain the relationship in one manner or another. Both the celebrity fan and abused partner surely get that dopamine hit when that one thing goes right, like a celebrity shout out or a romantic dinner, which helps convince them this is all worth it. In many cases, they both recognize on some level that what they’re doing is not helping them, but still they remain connected to their vice.

Parallels can also be found with drug addiction which may be the best example of relationships gone bad. Drug addicts are chasing that first high even though they know they’ll never catch it again. Domestic abuse victims are chasing that first feeling when they thought they found love even though they know the abuse is hurting them. Celebrity fans are chasing that excitement they felt back when they first discovered their favorite person even though they know they’ll never have a meaningful relationship with them.

Photo by Olivier Collet on Unsplash

Kobe Bryant, a case study in Celebrityism

Kobe Bryant, father and retired NBA legend, died unexpectedly in a helicopter crash on Sunday January 26th, 2020. Not only was his death completely unexpected in terms of his age and health, but our society is struggling with how to mourn a public figure whose legacy is complicated. Kobe accomplished a lot in his life and often behaved in generally admirable ways. He had flaws like everybody else, except one of his was a bit more extreme than most: he was an alleged rapist.

As a boy from Philadelphia, Kobe moved with his family to Italy to accommodate his father’s basketball career. Years later, they moved back to the U.S. where Kobe attended high school. One could guess that these moves caused significant disruptions in his young life.

In an attention-grabbing manner, Kobe skipped college and went right to playing in the NBA. Due to his amazing skill and tenaciously competitive attitude, he was quickly compared to the contemporaneous king of the NBA, Michael Jordan. It seems plausible to argue that Kobe was cheated (or cheated himself) out of a college education. One might also wonder if he was taken advantage of by various industry figures due to his unique combination of youthful inexperience and unbelievable basketball skills.

In 2003, Kobe was accused of sexual assault referring to an incident at a hotel in Colorado. While the criminal case was dropped and a civil case settled, it seems almost certain that this would be handled and viewed very differently and likely judged more harshly in the modern post-#MeToo world.

After retiring from the NBA in 2016, all indications were that Kobe was becoming truly focused on being the best father and husband he could be, in addition to a variety of philanthropic efforts. Fans would argue that this maturity justifies the belief that Kobe was worthy of so much admiration, but unbiased opinions on the matter seem to be few and far between.

Ultimately, public sentiment has apparently decided on vindicating Kobe of any past malfeasance in light of his early death. Though it may not matter to some, there are many reports of concerns relating to why his helicopter was flying at all in the exceptionally foggy weather; even law enforcement aircraft in the area had been grounded at the time due to the conditions. Surely it must’ve been possible to end the flight early, find a safe place to land, and travel the rest of the way in ground vehicles. Did Kobe get special celebrity treatment for his helicopter flight’s approval? Did he expect or demand to reach the destination by helicopter (rather than ground vehicles) due to his being accustomed to a superstar lifestyle?

Interestingly, some journalists that pointed out Kobe’s alleged sexual assault from 2003 in the wake of his death have been absolutely lambasted almost universally. While Kobe Bryant had a lot of positive qualities, it’s misleading to act like he was without flaws and it’s downright juvenile to insult anybody that dares remind people of a widely reported national news story from 17 years ago.

Photo by Ashwini Chaudhary on Unsplash

Celebrities should not be trusted as stewards of our mental well-being; they, like everyone else, are just trying to take care of themselves and their loved ones. We must care for ourselves and do our best to avoid slipping into harmful relationships. The line between healthy and unhealthy behavior of this type can be hard to find and is unique to every person. We can all benefit from regularly stepping back and taking stock of our current relationships and habits. This practice is useless, however, unless you are fully honest with yourself.

At the end of the day, celebrities will always exist as will the desire to escape one’s own life and imagine what it’s like to be rich and famous, if just for a few moments. As they say: everything in moderation. Also, though they may not say it: everything with a self-respecting and intellectually thoughtful mindset.

Being famous is not the same as being successful or living a fulfilling life, despite what celebrity social media feeds would have you believe. The only reason Kobe achieved fame and success is the game of basketball; on their own, NBA basketball and its star players accomplish nothing for society other than providing some entertainment to a portion of the population. A similar analysis can be made for a great deal of famous people including virtually all actors, actresses, and pop music stars.

Ideally, society would collectively prioritize a more merit-based celebrityism, a world where Nobel Prize winners have more social media followers than supermodels. Of course there is no question that artists contribute a great deal to our culture and therefore society. There should also be no question that some others, like the doctors and researchers behind certain vaccines, have saved countless lives and thus contributed a great deal more to society. Finally, there can be no question that the most important relationships we have are the real ones, where honest communication goes both ways and the feelings are mutually affectionate.

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Pondering the conceptual intersections of mental health, technology, and modern society. More at www.Phalerum.com

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Joel Gallant

Joel Gallant

Pondering the conceptual intersections of mental health, technology, and modern society. More at www.Phalerum.com

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