Celebrities. Our family, friends, lovers…

Oprah Winfrey did it again.  She tops the list of the most powerful celebrities in the world by Forbes magazine. It is for the fourth time in the history of the list. Last year Winfrey was second behind Angelina Jolie.  According to Forbes the Celebrity 100 list is a measure of power based on money and fame. This year top 5: Winfrey, Beyoncé, James Cameron, Lady Gaga and Tiger Woods.

Question:

How much do we need celebrities?

Answers:

David Lubin, Professor of Art, Wake Forest University

I do think that celebrities serve an important function in modern society, in which life is so complex and confusing.  Amidst all the uncertainty of our world, celebrities provide us with an illusion of stability, even if the persona of the celebrity in question is one of instability.  That is, we feel as though we can always rely on X to be unreliable, and count on Y to be a person whose partner or spouse can never count on him.  Good, bad, or ugly, celebrities are our pretend friends and family.  In fact, not only do we “feel” in some profound sense that we know them as well as we know our own friends and neighbors, but we also fantasize that we know them as intimately as we know ourselves.

Historically, celebrities came into existence with the rise of the urban metropolis.  Millions of rural people left behind the villages where they and their families had been known for generations and migrated to the big, cold, impersonal city, which was exciting but also a place of danger and unfamiliarity.  The news of celebrities, whom they could read about in the press or gaze at on stage or on screen or in posters and photographs and chat about endlessly over backyard fences, kept city dwellers linked to one another in the new urban environment.  Celebrities are nodule points on a vast social network that connects us with countless strangers through our shared interest in them.

Elayne Rapping, Professor and pop-culture expert, University at Buffalo

Celebrities play the role of our national royalty and with the coming of 24 hour cable and the Internet, we are bombarded with every detail of their lives so they become something like members of our families, adored, imitated and loved. Much of this has to do with the fragmentation and impersonality of American life, which breeds the need for a sense of intimacy withe public figures as faux friends and role models.

Will Brooker, Director of Research, Film & TV, Kingston University London

My own view is that people use celebrities now as the contemporary equivalent of religious parables, passion plays and fables. Celebrity gossip and news (of break-ups, marriages, affairs and scandals) provides a kind of moral framework for people’s lives — tales of infidelity, arrogance and hubris punished, and virtue, hard work and humility rewarded. I think celebrities often fall into quite traditional archetypal roles — the wronged woman, the scheming traitor, the rising talent who boasts too much — and follow quite traditional narrative arcs (rags to riches, pauper to princess; ambition leading to tragedy). I’d suggest that these are, on one level, quite similar characters and storylines to those we find in Shakespeare, Aesop’s fables and the parables told by Jesus.

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