By Paul Hollander
The recent ending of Oprah Winfrey’s talk show that ran for a quarter century is a reminder of the importance and prominence of celebrities in American society. The reverence shown toward them prompt reflections about the social, psychological and cultural conditions which underlie their cult.
Celebrities differ from the famous people of the past because their prominence depends to a very large extent on publicity - on the successful projection (or marketing) of a certain image or a "trademark" by the media. They also differ from the culture heroes of the past because their accomplishments, talents, skill or moral stature are more questionable. Most celebrities are entertainers, or known for some personal quality the public considers entertaining that may include forms of misbehavior or scandalous aspects of their personal lives.
I suggest that some of the conditions which underlie and promote the rise and cult of celebrities also play a part in the difficulties large numbers of Americans experience when trying to establish and maintain long term, intimate personal relationships. "Relating" to celebrities is a fantasy relationship stimulated by the shortage of genuine, face-to-face, one-on-one relationships - a futile attempt to personalize an impersonal world. When there is a scarcity of sustaining, intimate personal relationships and a decline of closely knit, durable communities, people seek substitutes. Celebrity worship is one of them. The endless browsing of dating sites is another one.
People admire celebrities because they seem to possess everything most ordinary people do not have: wealth, fame, huge amounts of attention, excitement and physical attractiveness.
Not unlike the difficulties many young people have in distinguishing a "soulmate" from a date or a "hook-up," fans of celebrities have an impaired capacity to distinguish between what or who is truly admirable and what or who is not. Confused values cast their shadow over the search for an ideal partner as they do on the attention and affection lavished on celebrities of questionable accomplishments and often even more questionable moral character. What seems to matter is that most celebrities are an integral part of popular culture that satisfies the enormous demand for entertainment.
In my recent book (Extravagant Expectations: New Ways to Find Romantic Love in America) I reported that the majority of a large sample of people (using a popular dating website) considered the most important human quality the sense of humor. These people were looking for somebody who would make them laugh, who are entertaining. Honesty, sincerity, integrity, intelligence, sense of responsibility were far less often mentioned as desirable qualities. I also found that conflicting and unrealistic expectations contribute to the difficulties many Americans experience in the pursuit of intimate personal relationships. It seems that Americans incline to believe that all good things are compatible, as for example adventure and security, excitement and stability, the capacity for self-promotion and authenticity, being rich and charitable, self-realization and dedication to some community.
In the final analysis the worship of celebrities and the haphazard pursuit of intimate personal relationships have similar sources.
Paul Hollander is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author or editor of 15 books. His most recent book is Extravagant Expectations: New Ways to Find Romantic Love in America.