Kim Kardashian announced, some time ago, the release of her new book Selfish. And what, pray tell, is the subject matter of this coffee table book? Selfies. 352 pages worth, to be exact. And, despite the ridicule that this book has endured on talk shows and in newsrooms, the fact remains that several thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of consumers will happily pay the $19.95 to own 352 pages of Kim’s selfies. We live in a culture, saturated with juicy celebrity gossip that prioritizes concern about the birth of Kim and Kanye’s child over concern about the global lack of access to clean water. Of course, in cases like the kidnapping in Nigeria, many become aware and place significance on solving the problem at hand. However, this kind of public attention is different from the focus on celebrities: it hits with an extremely strong force, but lacks the sustainability that, ironically, the curiosity about trivial issues of a celebrity’s life has. Flipping through the pages of People magazine, though it may be ridden with false accusations of pregnancies and gross exaggerations of romantic relationships, strangely has a cathartic effect on our minds. By focusing on the triviality of the problems plaguing celebrity lives, it becomes easier to forget our own grave issues. Reading tabloids actually, in this way, has the same therapeutic effect as doing service work. In my experiences, the optimistic attitudes of those in hostile and even toxic environments belittles my own worries, and it inspires me to focus more attention on remedying their problems. Of course, in service work, this focus bears fruit, while celebrity worship inspires no such positive action. It’s a type of escapism that, like reading fantasy novels or watching sci-fi movies, exposes an unimaginable world of fame, without providing a healthy venue to express obsession. Additionally, the value placed on celebrities, although exacerbated by modern technology, is not a new fascination. So why would a trait, so seemingly detrimental to one’s own mental health and the betterment of society, be a part of our psyches?
According to Jamie Tehrani, a social anthropologist at Durham University, worship based on prestige is actually evolutionarily beneficial. Prestige, as a marker of social status, is something unique to the human race. Completely separate from the animalistic statuses based on dominance, backed by violence and threats, prestige is granted to those that we admire, respect, and sometimes even love. However, Machiavelli is completely correct when he claims that it is better, as a leader, to be feared than loved. A relationship based on fear, like those between many modern-day dictators and their people, is harder to break than one based on love, like those between us and celebrities, who must tread carefully so as to not lose public favor. In cavemen days, prestige looked a lot different. Those individuals that broke away from the pack, clearly demonstrating superior knowledge, skills, and talents essential to survival, became the drivers of social and evolutionary progress. And, as such, those that followed and imitated the ways of these successful individuals were bound to have a higher survival rate. Thus, the human race adapted to subconsciously idolize those deemed prestigious.
This hyper-social nature of our species, which places significance on learning by imitation over individual experience, still proves beneficial in certain ways. Just like the ancient Greek society had gladiators, gods, and goddesses, we have athletes, actors, and Iggy Azalea. This variety of individuals represented in magazines and pop-culture display numerous characteristics needed to not only be successful, but also moral. However, all these traits are not housed in one individual. Emulate Michael Phelp’s work ethic, Miley Cyrus’ healthy self-love, and Taylor Swift’s modest confidence, and you are on the path to success. Imitate Phelp’s dietary regimen, Cyrus’ fashion choices, and Swift’s vengeance for ex-lovers, and you suddenly find yourself in an unhealthy place. The evolutionary benefit of celebrity worship is only realized when we, as the imitators, pick and choose the traits from a variety of personalities that are worth imitating. That is healthy. Bonding over commonly shared views on gossip, in fact, helps us to find common ground with strangers and begin to form relationships. The problem arises when one or a few individuals become our ultimate role models, the source of complete idolatry.
In a study of 372 participants, intense celebrity worship was strongly linked to poor mental health, including neuroticism and depression, and less life satisfaction. It makes sense: in cases of extreme celebrity worship, individuals attribute personal events to the external factors of celebrity life. So, when happiness is based on causes out of personal control, rather than an internal drive, it can lead to a feeling of helplessness. Those who revere certain celebrities, in addition, empathize with and feel intimate with them. This explains the death threats sent to Selena Gomez by angry fans, in jealousy. Or the mass mourning upon Michael Jackson’s death. The same research team has also discovered that idolizing these celebrities led to increased body image issues in 14-16 year olds. Adolescent girls, especially, are at risk for blindly following the actions of their favorite celebrities, including eating disorders, violent behavior, oversexualization, and substance abuse.
Although most of us do not fall into any of these categories of fans affected intensely by celebrities, we all, to a degree, are influenced by famous people. We feel betrayed when a beloved star, like Justin Bieber, urinates on a picture of Bill Clinton, or when formerly straitlaced Disney stars dress provocatively. Through interviews, fashion shoots, music videos, and company endorsements, celebrities become elevated to an impossible standard of morality and personality, when, in reality, they are just like us save a few exceptional traits. We watch shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Snooki and Jwoww, and Married to Jonas in an attempt to pry into the personal lives of celebrities and live their lives of wealth and adoration vicariously. Only to discover that they too are human. To make matters worse, fame becomes a cultural magnet, and the initial reason for fame is clouded. The average American is more likely to identify Hilary Clinton by her pantsuit uniform than by her beliefs on climate change. Quotations are often misattributed to famous people for the simple sake that wisdom is more likely to have an effect coming from the mouth of a famous individual. Jennifer Gibson advises, “we should admire those who are famous because they are great, not those who seem great because they are famous.” Imagine how many gracing the pages of gossip magazines fit into the latter.
Gibson, Jennifer. “Are We Worshipping Celebrities or Heroes?” Brain Blogger. Brain Blogger, 20 Nov. 2008. Web. 18 Aug. 2014.
Tehrani, Jamie. “Viewpoint: Did Our Brains Evolve to Foolishly Follow Celebrities?” BBC News. BBC, 25 June 2013. Web. 18 Aug. 2014.
“The Reality of Reality TV.” Flickr: Creative Commons. Flickr, n.d. Web. 22 Aug 2014. <https://flic.kr/p/h6tX75>.