The cult of celebrity is dangerous. The results of both biological and psychological sciences inform us that mammals, especially primates, hold “alpha” individuals in awe. We don’t know what quality makes them irresistible to some, but in the case of humans before you know it everyone is talking about this Kardashian or that Trump. Valorizing the power of media as we do, those who appear ubiquitously on screen gain in magnitude merely by the attention paid to them. Others have vetted the details, and those who are deemed important enough for constant, widespread television exposure are worthy of our worship. Most of the time it seems banal, harmless. But when those without scruples are willing to exploit it, it is dangerous.
Paris rejecting the cult of celebrity
For example, the other day my wife and I rewatched An American in Paris. I know my wife likes the movie, but when it was over I couldn’t help noting that Jerry Mulligan chauvinistically claims his right to a woman he’s just met, and who is, moreover, engaged to a friend of his who had just lent him money. The fact that he doesn’t know about the engagement is no excuse. Lise tells him “No,” and when she gives him a false telephone number he doesn’t take the hint that she doesn’t want him to call her. He stalks her in a selfish and predatory way. Only because she laughs at his antics with some perfume bottles does she agree to meet with him later. He takes advantage of another woman who clearly has feelings for him and who sponsors him, using her money but not reciprocating her feelings. He’s aggressive and eavesdrops to get Lise’s name. He lies to her and about her (saying he knows her so her friends don’t object) and refuses to take no for an answer. Laying out my grievances, my wife politely listened and then said, “But it’s Gene Kelly.”
Like many people, I was jilted a time or two when I was younger. Losing out to a rival lover leaves a lasting scar. How can we hope that on New Year’s Eve Lise will leave Henri for the interloper Jerry? But it’s Gene Kelly. The cult of celebrity allows those on various pedestals to get away with many things. Trump was likely correct in saying he could stand in the middle of a crowded street and shoot someone and his base would not object. The cult of celebrity ’sn’twonderful, ‘sdangerous.
We trust those we see in the media. You see, those who have the longest reach can bring in the most advertising dollars and therefore must have a wisdom the rest of us lack. The cult of celebrity is perhaps the truest cult of all. Don’t get me wrong, I like reading books by bestselling authors once in a while, and I like movies by talented directors and writers. The problem with the cult of celebrity that it often confuses fame with knowledge. If someone knows how to get you to pull your wallet out, they must know about all kinds of things, right? It stands to reason. A recent article in The Guardian features an interview with Ridley Scott. Forever in my mind typecast as the director of Blade Runner and Alien, I think of Scott as one who understands science fiction. He, of course, gave us a version of Exodus that many didn’t buy, and now that The Martian has been gaining attention, people are once again wondering what they might learn from the director.
Ironically, like the recently late David Bowie, Scott considers himself an agnostic. As the Guardian article says, that doesn’t stop him from having a lot to say about God. Catherine Shoard notes that religious questioning runs throughout Scott’s movies. The big issues, it seems, still matter. People will crowd to his movies and perhaps not even know that they were facing the questions that motivate people like Scott. Taking up such questions in the hopes of making a career out of it all is still not a wise choice, but if you can put it in fiction without people knowing it, you might become famous.
I’ve always been of the opinion that everyone is an expert when it comes to religion. Believer or not, everyone knows what to believe and is pretty certain about it. The people I find most fascinating in this mix are those who dare to question. While many doctrinaire religions call questioners “doubters” and suggest curiosity is some kind of sin, there are both religious and non who face the world with questions rather than answers. To me, this seems a more honest approach to things. The funny thing about this appreciation is that it is seldom reciprocal. Of course, people might be interested if I’d directed a block-buster movie or if I were a star. Until that happens, I’m an expert just like everybody else.
In a grocery store last week a friend pointed out how many magazines had pictures of Robin Williams on the cover. Although his suicide two months ago was tragic, I wonder about the message we send to young people (and maybe some older ones as well) about this fixation. As we probe, attempting to understand the sad clown (and they generally all are), are we inadvertently telling our kids that suicide will make you an icon? We often hear accusations that extremist Muslims “brainwash” their youth into thinking that a righteous suicide will lead to glory. Perhaps the glory we perceive is somewhat different here in the post-Christian west than it is in the post-Christian east, yet I wonder what the essential difference really is. Why can’t we see that the cult of celebrity seldom ends well? The worship of the successful does not really grant them eternal life, as much as we may think otherwise.
Call me a curmudgeon—I probably deserve that—but when I overhear office mates in their cubicles or young people on campuses talking about stars I feel not a little like Rip van Winkle. Most of the names I do not recognize, and even showing me a picture doesn’t really help. Of course, I enjoy movies as much as the next dinosaur, but apart from the bargain bin and the occasional indulgence in Amazon Prime I really can’t much afford them anymore. I walk into a bookstore (where they can still be found) and the authors I want to read are not on the shelves. They are gone and all but forgotten. Many of them having left profound ideas in their wake. I guess I could pick up a magazine. Robin Williams looks happy on the cover.
I used to watch some late-night television before my job required waking between three and four a.m. One of the things I quickly noticed is that those stars our society worships had little of substance to say. That’s not to say all actors and media darlings are shallow, but I often wondered why their interviews always seemed to come down to the lowest common denominators. Have we lost our interest in probing beneath the surface? Isn’t there some profundity left to explore? Don’t get me wrong—I find Robin Williams’s death a tragedy. He may have been a deep and philosophical man. Who really knew him? Nevertheless, I wonder if perhaps, if we challenged ourselves a bit more, we might just consider the messages that our media broadcast. After all, they have to turn a profit. Do we really mean what our magazine covers seem to imply?