While there is nothing wrong with a healthy knowledge of pop culture, America’s celebrity obsession has the potential to reach dangerous levels. In fact, one in three people admit that they are moderate to advanced celebrity worshipers, according to one survey.
An interesting theory to explain this phenomenon points to our evolutionary need to quickly distinguish between friends and foes. Celebrities flood the media streams of average Americans, which can lead to a subconscious identification of these familiar faces as acquaintances, friends, or even family in some cases. This can in turn lead to emotional investment in celebrities or at least an interest in their lives.
Another school of thought promotes the theory that our current celebrity culture is born out of a need for drama and spectacle. In his acclaimed book Haunted, Chuck Palaniuk describes the need to destroy the celebri-deity and shame them in the most extreme way possible to show that they are just human like the rest of us. Many celebrity worshipers measure the quality of their lives against the most revered celebs. When they see their idols fall, the invaluable parts of their common lives seem more satisfying; their happiness and sanity trump celebrities’ lavish cars and houses.
This is clearly demonstrated in the public’s love of celebrity scandals and excess coverage of their hardships. Our human ability to savor schadenfreude, the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others, can lead to extreme consumption of stories that detail unfortunate circumstances be it a jaunt in rehab, a failed marriage, or a sojourn to crazy town.
A celebrity train wreck can be easier to watch than the horrors of an actual train wreck but it is embarrassing when celebrity news coverage outweighs important news. As sad as the fabled cougar love story of Demi and Ashton is for instance, it will never compare to the devastating poverty in India or hunger and disease in Africa, which gets little coverage. Celebrities have the means and support to fix themselves while millions of disenfranchised humans have no such luxury.
Celeb tragedy is not only an easier pill to swallow; it’s also easier to comprehend. We can all relate to the trials and tribulations of a human being but in a day where half of Americans have an eighth grade reading level or below, the market for scholarly articles on bioeconomics or incremental cash flow is rather small.
Despite these explanations, it is clear that celebrity worship — when taken to extreme levels — erodes the mental progress of the masses and distracts us from the important issues in our society. When more Americans can identify Beyonce Knowles and Peyton Manning than Nancy Pelosi or Barack Obama (circa 2007), we clearly have a problem.
Photo Credit: Magnus FrÃderberg