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Why Celebrity Culture is Harmful to Youth

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Americans have been following celebrities for a long time. In recent decades, though, rapid advances in technology have brought us more celebrity exposure than ever before. Celebrity culture is harmful to youth because it gives extreme power to ordinary people, causes a disconnect from reality among youth, and causes self-esteem issues with body image and quality of life.

Celebrity culture is the perpetuation of celebrities’ personal lives on a global scale, a modern phenomenon that emerged amid such twentieth-century trends as urbanization and the rapid development of consumer culture. Celebrities’ personal lives have been displayed for public consumption through radio, cinema, television, and the Internet, which facilitate the mechanical reproduction of images and the rapid dissemination of information, as well as through publications, tabloids, and talk shows. Intimate interviews, such as those of Barbara Walters, and tours of celebrity homes, such as those of Edward R. Murrow’s television show Person to Person, have changed the public’s sense of scale with celebrity. This false intimacy is what has caused celebrities to have extreme power and consumers to have a disconnect from reality.

Celebrity culture originated when, in an early quest for self-definition, Americans of the Revolutionary republic doted on military heroes and romantic fictional protagonists who embodied virtue and self-reliance. By mid-twentieth century, the fixation was shifted from politicians to baseball players and movie stars. American writer Washington Irving wrote that Americans ‘want something to rally round; some brilliant light to allure them from afar. They want something to attract and concentrate their affections’. Magazines specializing in illustrated articles about leading actors found an audience, featuring stories about celebrities such as as the Barrymores or Ziegfeld Follies girls. The advent of the broadcast industry in the 1920s marked another leap in the cultivation of celebrity culture. The radio grew into a household presence: in 1934, 60% of all American households had at least one radio set. Today’s more advanced technology has caused celebrity culture to be even more pervasive.

Proponents of celebrity culture have numerous arguments to support the claim that celebrity culture is not harmful. They state that celebrities who promote ethical behavior and make responsible personal decisions can have a positive effect on teenagers. It is true that some celebrities promote social justice, relief efforts, and fundraisers; some celebrities also promote a positive self-image and help teenagers with self-esteem issues. There have been numerous instances of celebrities promoting education and cultural/political awareness through writing books, engaging in debates, displaying an interest in travel and politics, participating in eloquent interviews, and speaking at college graduations. The Debate Chamber at the Global Education & Skills Forum 2018 argued on this issue. Sir Tony Little, Chief Academic Officer at GEMS Education argues against celebrity culture, stating that “role models can be healthy, they enhance our personal lives and those of our community. Just think of Stephen Hawking and how he focused our minds on his genius, but also on his resilience to overcome considerable odds. But celebrity culture now is someone who gains mass recognition for being a caricature of themselves. It is the inflation of personal lives on a global scale, and is inherently linked to consumer culture” (“Is Celebrity Culture Harming Young People?”). In reality, teenagers, particularly the vulnerable and poorly educated, cannot discriminate between good and bad role models. Zayna Aston, Head of Communications and Public Affairs EMEA at YouTube, argues for celebrity culture, stating that “social media channels have given rise to a plethora of positive role models, which allows a young person to find someone that they can identify with. This online celebrity culture has exposed our youth to a world beyond their own, they have role models that are diverse and authentic. Compare this to the past, when the only celebrities were film stars who were overwhelmingly American, white and male” (“Is Celebrity Culture Harming Young People?”). She highlights that celebrities can act as effective role models and that the world of celebrities is becoming increasingly diverse. Her claims are supported by celebrities’ good deeds. The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research has raised over $350 million USD for research seeking a cure for Parkinson’s disease and singer Sir Elton John is a highly dedicated AIDS advocate, having raised more than $300 million USD to fight HIV/AIDS. But, oftentimes, celebrities do not use their power in the most magnanimous way.

While some celebrities use their power to raise awareness about issues, numerous celebrities have given health advice at odds with that of health professionals. For instance, having breast cancer at age 36, actor Christina Applegate supported MRI screening for early detection; yet advisory groups do not endorse MRIs for individuals at average breast cancer risk. Applegate’s favored breast MRIs also cost over $1,000 USD, approximately ten times more than a mammography. In this instance, a celebrity has used their power irresponsibly and given uniformed health advice. Actor Suzanne Somers advocates her own brand of medicine, including bioidentical hormones to reverse aging and proteolytic enzyme therapy for pancreatic cancer, without approval from health professionals. A randomized controlled trial comparing chemotherapy and Somers-endorsed proteolytic enzyme therapy for pancreatic cancer found the former offered significantly longer survival times and higher life quality. In this instance, a celebrity endorsed their own brand and used their power to make a profit off of consumers. Likewise, Jenny McCarthy warns about a link between vaccinations and autism without supporting evidence. Her claims are thought to be partially responsible for recent outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases in North America and the United Kingdom. McCarthy made a careless remark and her actions resulted in her following veering away from necessary vaccinations. Celebrities have thus given uninformed medical advice, using their power for harm and brand deals; it is observed that cult followings will blindly follow the opinions of celebrities and do not reason for themselves.

According to economics literature, celebrities distinguish endorsed items from competitors and can catalyze herd behavior; marketing studies and neuroscience research tell us that celebrities’ characteristics are transferred to endorsed products. Celebrity endorsements activate brain regions involved in making positive associations, building trust, and encoding memories. There are numerous instances where celebrities’ experiences have been seen to influence people’s health behaviors. When journalist Katie Couric televised her colonoscopy on NBC’s Today Show in 2000, colorectal cancer screenings by 400 American endoscopists increased by 21% the next month; following actor-singer Kylie Minogue’s diagnosis with breast cancer, mammography bookings rose 40% in four Australian states. Moreover, the popularity of juicing, cleanses, detox diets, weird exercise routines, and anti-aging products can be linked directly to celebrity endorsements. Specific examples include Angelina Jolie’s revelation that genetic testing precipitated her decision to have a preventative mastectomy resulted in an immediate increase in demand for both genetic testing and preventative mastectomies. Celebrities thus catalyze herd behavior and often provide misinformation.

Celebrity culture is harmful to today’s youth because it is abused as an escape from reality. Increasingly, people see becoming a celebrity or obtaining a celebrity lifestyle as a reasonable and attainable life goal. As the sociologist Karen Sternheimer writes in “Celebrity Culture and the American Dream”, “rather than simple superficial distractions, celebrity and fame are unique manifestations of our sense of American social mobility: they provide the illusion that material wealth is possible for anyone. Celebrities seem to provide proof that the American Dream of going from rags to riches is real and attainable”. The countries that seem the most obsessed with celebrity culture (the United States, Britain, and South Korea) do not score particularly high in rankings of population happiness. According to the 2013 World Happiness Report, a study prepared for the United Nations, the happiest countries in the world are Denmark, Norway, and Switzerland; Canada ranks sixth. The United States and Britain, two countries that both produce and consume a great deal of celebrity culture, rank 17th and 22nd, respectively. Additionally, with respect to social mobility, Britain ranks last among the 34 nations in the Convention on the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the United States is third from last. Thus, countries that fare relatively poorly with respect to social mobility, happiness, and education, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, also embrace celebrity culture and a reach-for-the-stars mentality. Hence, celebrity culture is harmful because people are getting disconnected from realistic expectations of success in life and believe that they can become celebrities; it distracts them from their education and more secure means of upward social mobility. Stephen Duncombe, an associate professor of media studies at New York University, states that ‘celebrity is so tied to democracy and succeeding, especially now. People like Kim Kardashian seem real. They act like us. They come from places that we come from. Celebrity culture makes social mobility look like magic”. The celebrity dream that people have developed is a “get-rich-quick” fantasy that has very little chance of truly happening.

Moreover, this societal obsession does little to elevate or prioritize activities that will promote true social mobility and well-being. A study published in 2007 in the International Journal of Cultural Studies found that those who “follow celebrity culture are the least engaged in politics and least likely to use their social networks to involve themselves in action or discussion about public-type issues”. Young people now are more entitled and less interested in community engagements and intrinsic rewards. The cycle seems to be that declining social mobility and diminishing life options lead to increasing dreams of fame, which enhances the allure of celebrity and causes a focus on extrinsic rewards and the distraction from actions that might enhance social mobility, such as education and advocacy for social change. Surveys have shown that “60% of kids in America believe they are going to be famous, only 1% envisage working in an office and 4% envisage working as teachers”. People are getting disconnected from realistics expectations of success in life and believe that they can become celebrities. It distracts them from their education and more secure means of success.

Celebrity culture is also harmful to youth because it causes self-esteem issues with body image and quality of life. In a 2016 study by Girlguiding UK, 37% of girls said they compare themselves to celebrities most of the time (Malacoff). Constant reinforcement of the “perfect” woman in the media directly impacts girls’ body confidence. Body Image research found that looking at magazines for just 60 minutes lowers self-esteem in over 80% of girls (Malacoff). ‘It is natural — if often unhealthy — for humans to compare themselves to others,’ says Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who deals with self-esteem and body image, and author of Joy From Fear (Malacoff). “When looking at celebrities, those who are not able to achieve this truly impossible level of perfection secretly (or not-so-secretly) feel shamed and defective,’ she explains (Malacoff). The pedestal that celebrities are put on causes young consumers to compare themselves to “perfect” images and decreases their self-confidence.

In addition to self-esteem issues with body image, celebrity culture causes self-esteem issues with quality of life. Roger Scruton, philosopher, states that pleasures are of many kinds, but those most dangerous to us come from consumption. Happiness, beauty and the sacred are things that we cannot consume, and, thus, they offer us consolation and a lasting refuge (Scruton). “Consider beauty – the beauty of flowers and landscapes, of birds and horses, of the things we see, touch and smell as we walk in the countryside. We are entirely at one with these things. We have no desire to consume or destroy them. This is an elementary experience which we find hard to put into words. The cult of celebrity is a substitute for religious faith, and also an inversion of it. It offers desecration in the place of sanctity, envy in the place of reverence, and fun in the place of bliss. But it satisfies no one” (Scruton). Celebrity culture puts the lives of the rich on display and results in consumers feeling dissatisfied with their own lives.

Celebrity culture is harmful to youth because, particularly in reality television and on the Internet, the ordinary are depicted to be extraordinary as people and a great amount of power is bestowed upon them. This results in the misuse of power and a further disconnect from realistic ways to succeed in life. American celebrity culture has taken a decisive turn toward the ordinary over the past two decades; Australian professor of cultural studies Graeme Turner has called this the ‘demotic turn’ in celebrity culture. The emergence of reality television and the Internet has made ordinariness even more prominent. Viewers are fascinated by the propulsion of ordinary folks into stardom, the focus on the ordinary lives of famous people, and the rise of new celebrity types. American historian Daniel Boorstin argues that celebrities are ‘human pseudo-events’: people who are ‘well-known for their well-knownness’, as opposed to heroes, who were famous for doing great things. Contemporary celebrity has been composed of two major, often competing narratives about the relation between celebrity status and merit. In one, people become famous because of achievement, merit, talent, or special internal qualities, earning admiration and attention; they are successful because they are extraordinary. In the other, people become famous because they have been made so, artificially produced for mass consumption by a team of publicists; they are successful because they are lucky and well-marketed. This narrative of celebrity status and merit causes the disconnect from reality and hopeless pursuit of celebrity as ordinary folks are seen receiving celebrated status.

The most common narrative strategy invites identification with celebrities. The suggestion that celebrities are ordinary folks offers, in place of cynicism, the fantasy of intimacy with the famous. Gossip columns and tabloids propose to puncture the public image of celebrities with the often sordid or ugly ‘truths’ of their private lives. The supermarket magazine racks declare that, like everyone else, celebrities look plain or blemished without makeup and are ordinary mortals. Reality television takes civilians, often with no special abilities or achievements, and, by filming them, make celebrities out of nothing, bypassing what we might think of as the conventional conditions of entry (specialized training, or a history of performance, for instance). Given the vast and unending oversupply of ordinary people seeking visibility and reality television contestants’ status as commodities owned by the production company, these ‘dispensable celebrities’ are cheap and easily replaced. Ordinary people are viewed as extraordinary, which results in their abuse of power and fellow ordinary consumers’ false ideas that they are next in line to become a celebrity.

Reality television has transformed celebrity culture by opening up unprecedented space for ordinary people to become celebrities. Perhaps more significant, it has accentuated the story of how a nobody becomes a somebody, pushing forward the rhetorical fantasy of democratized celebrity. Shows like “America’s Got Talent” present celebrity as an elected status, in which the audience votes on which ordinary person is most deserving of stardom and on shows like “The Real World”, celebrity appears as an equal-opportunity status that could land on anyone. For reality television, ordinariness becomes a credential for stardom, further tarnishing the American dream; ordinary people are disillusioned with the idea of stardom in their future and, as a result, “60% of kids in America believe they are going to be famous, only 1% envisage working in an office and 4% envisage working as teachers”, as seen earlier. Collaborative participatory websites such as YouTube, Myspace, and Facebook have rapidly changed the dynamics of celebrity culture; the Internet has generated a sort of bottom-up, do-it-yourself celebrity production process. In the established Hollywood-based celebrity system, one has to wait for a break and work with contracts and publicists. The Internet drastically widens the pool of potential celebrities by lowering the entry barriers. Often this different celebrity environment means that the Internet is a launching pad for performers who manage to build an audience online that they then use to break into the off-line entertainment world, as Justin Bieber did. Internet and reality television culture have caused a rapid increase in the spectacle of ordinary people becoming celebrities support the unrealistic claim that celebrity is available to anyone, no matter how unexceptional.

Americans have been following celebrities for a long time. In recent decades, though, rapid advances in technology have brought us more celebrity exposure than ever before. Celebrity culture is harmful to youth because it gives extreme power to ordinary people, causes a disconnect from reality among youth, and causes self-esteem issues with body image and quality of life. 

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Why Celebrity Culture Is Harmful To Youth. (2021, December 16). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 29, 2022, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/why-celebrity-culture-is-harmful-to-youth/
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Why Celebrity Culture Is Harmful To Youth. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/why-celebrity-culture-is-harmful-to-youth/> [Accessed 29 Sept. 2022].
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