Celebrity worship
February 21, 2005 8:26 PM   Subscribe

What is the psychology behind celebrity worship?
posted by Mean Mr. Bucket to Society & Culture (32 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Seeing as how it's society as a whole, I would also be interested in a somewhat related question- what is the sociology behind celebrity worship?
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:39 PM on February 21, 2005 [1 favorite]


Probably the same as the psychology behind any other kind of worship.
posted by jonmc at 8:47 PM on February 21, 2005


Why assume there's just one? Different dynamics I can think of, purely from my armchair:

1. identification+wishful thinking--"I wish I could be rich|famous|talented like that."
2. identification--"From his lyrics, I know he knows just what I'm going through."
3. *hero* worship--"She worked really hard to get where she is, and that example keeps me inspired."
4. lust+obsession--"If I can just collect enough Britney Spears info and memorabilia, I just *know* I can make her love me!"
5. identification+obsession--"If I can be just like Bridget Fonda in every way, starting with this haircut, I'll become her!"
6. mimetic desire--"I didn't like them at all until I realized that all my friends at school love them!"
7. gratitude--Not too unrelated to #2: "Man, Pete Townshend's Chinese Eyes album has gotten me through some rough patches. Wish I could buy him a Guinness someday!"
8. mimetic desire+whatever+mass delusion--"The Backstreet Boys are the greatest band, like, in the history of the world! I know I'll love them my entire life!"
posted by kimota at 8:51 PM on February 21, 2005


They're better than us. In looks or money or talent or nearly anything else. Their lives have none of the problems that our lives do. No unloving or abusive spouses, no living paycheck to paycheck, no unruly kids, never any trouble being creative.

So why wouldn't we want to be just like them?
posted by smackfu at 8:51 PM on February 21, 2005


kimota, not to be nitpicky, but nos. 2, 3, and 7 seem like perfectly normal admiration rather than the obsession/worship referenced in the rest of the list.
posted by jonmc at 8:57 PM on February 21, 2005


On an individual level, I think it's because we feel celebrities are people that we "know" -- we recognize them easily, have a strong sense for their personalities, know many facts about their lives (because of all the interviews they do to promote their acting/music/sport). Their activities can touch us emotionally (identifying with characters they play in films, rooting for their team). And then there's the sense of not ever being rejected by them.

I feel like my favorite embarassing pop star has been "there for me" since I was a kid. I know more about his life history than I know about a few of my real life friends (and he's pretty easy to keep up with, since he has a website). And, well, once the worship thing gets started, I've found that actual friends and family start calling to say whenever the celebrity hero is going to be on Oprah.
posted by xo at 9:00 PM on February 21, 2005


They're better than us. In looks or money or talent or nearly anything else. Their lives have none of the problems that our lives do. No unloving or abusive spouses, no living paycheck to paycheck, no unruly kids, never any trouble being creative.

So, then how come most of the media coverage of these celebrities consists of explicating their human foibles and failings?
posted by jonmc at 9:05 PM on February 21, 2005


I think Kimota has it. It's a sort of false class consciousness, people believing that if they can just look like these famous/rich/powerful people, that they will be famous/rich/powerful. We live in a culture where appearance is often far more important, unfortunately, than actual content; this is just one of many ways that this manifests.
posted by luriete at 9:09 PM on February 21, 2005


People like gossip. In junior high school, people gossiped about who was dating who or if someone screwed another person or whatever. Celebrity gossip is the same social mechanism, except with adults and gobs of money.

People like talking about other people and if everyone knows about the same person, then more people will talk about them.
posted by Arch Stanton at 9:35 PM on February 21, 2005


I think it is a matter of intelligence. Most people that worship celebrities are of pretty average intelligence. These same people are also usually very religious. They need to have something to follow and look forward to; something that breaks up their boring lives. The majority of society can be classified as drones. Also, marketing and advertising are constantly drilled into everybody nonstop, which makes it hard to think for yourself.
posted by pwally at 9:36 PM on February 21, 2005


Colors Magazine Issue #61 was "fans".
They have all of the essays from that issue archived.

I can't see them because my router is sick, but it looks promising.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 9:39 PM on February 21, 2005


See Richard Dyer's Stars, as well as other authors within film theory. There is a whole area of research that examines celebrity, being famous, and notoriety (as well as a host of other terms- and all mean something slightly different).
There is some theory that postulates that celebrity began as a phenomenon were people who were exemplary for some skill became elevated due to their extraordinariness, and held up as an exemplar.
This has obviously morphed into something new as time has gone on. Can be schadenfreude, an idol in need of toppling, or a replacement complex. I will dig out my Celebrity Culture materials from the class I took and email some reading suggestions to you, if you would like.
posted by oflinkey at 9:41 PM on February 21, 2005


With movie stars at least, I think it's cos we get to see their faces really big, really close up, and that doesn't usually happen unless you're quite intimate with someone. In "real life", the face-so-close-it-takes-up-almost-my-whole-field-of-vision is rarely as beautiful as, say, Cate Blanchett's, so the connection is made even stronger by the desire to be close to such a face. That's my theory, anyhow and - sadly enough - it's one I developed based on my own movie-going experiences as an adolescent.

Also - it's nice to have friends. If you read enough about someone from gossip mags or even "serious" news broadcasts, you can feel as though you know them well enough to genuinely care about them/their divorce/their cheating husband/their hacked sidekick etcetera.

Following from that, it's nice to have friends in common with others - and that's what famous people are - the "friends" that all of our (actual) friends know and can talk about.
posted by bunglin jones at 9:56 PM on February 21, 2005


Alpha males and females, or just dressing people up to play the roles, pretty much explain the entire celebrity system.
posted by skallas at 10:05 PM on February 21, 2005


Power fantasy.
posted by scarabic at 10:12 PM on February 21, 2005


Notes from the class Politics of Hollywood (pdf file), taught by David Prindle:

"In the beginnings of the motion picture industry in the West we see risk reduction systems.

Until 1909 no one was identified or credited in films. But people would identify with the characters and ask what their names are. A girl appeared in "Little Mary" and "The Girl with the Golden Hair." Everyone described her as a spunky teenager. Her name was Mary Pickford and she became the first motion picture super star. We see the introduction of the star system.

Pickford was working at a big company named Biograph in 1910 making $40/week. And a smaller company lured her away for $175/week. And advertised her pictures. "Another film by Little Mary." And all her films were successes. Eventually she made $350K/film. That's a lot of money. Dominated the screen from 1910-1920s. She was still playing teenagers then ... then she started talking on mature roles because she was in her 40s, and all her films flopped when she took on mature roles. So we see in her a number of the attributes of the star system even today. Stars get typecast in certain types of films -- they have to strive vitally ... for 20 years Clint Eastwood only played movies where he was a killer -- when he would do other movies they would flop. Audiences wanted to see a certain kind of character from a certain kind of actor. So very frequently actors became typecast. And one of the complaints would be they can't get offered any types of roles.
...
The star system (def. cont'd): studios/producers rely on leading actors and use them in roles. For producers it helps them solve the problem of the non-replicable product. Each movie is different, but if it has a recognizable star, playing a role we come to expect, then in a sense it is reassuringly familar / the same movie. "



Sorry for pasting so much; I hope you find some of that useful.
posted by fourstar at 10:16 PM on February 21, 2005


I think it is a matter of intelligence. Most people that worship celebrities are of pretty average intelligence.

Or more intelligent people just find different celebrities to worship. Instead of Ben Affleck, it's Richard Feynman. Instead of Britney, it's Thom Yorke. Different content, same dynamic. Your SAT scores don't make you immune.
posted by jonmc at 10:48 PM on February 21, 2005


I saw a program on baboons not to long ago, wherein it was posited that our human tendency to gravitate and obsess over famous people has an evolutionary basis in the attention that has to be paid to the leader of a small band, our ancestral social organization. Since any decision the leader makes necessarily effects the rest of the group, and since social rank (and thus breeding status) is determined by the favor of the leader, it would make sense to obsessively watch the leader of a group. Thus the idea that celebrity watching might be hard wired into our brains.

Also, baboons are neat.
posted by TheSpook at 11:11 PM on February 21, 2005


Jonmc: actualy you might be on to something.

Look at the HST thread from the other day. It's clear a lot of people really looked up to Tompson, because his work spoke to them, it made them feel something. I admit that I'm interested in the lives of my favorite authors, used to read William Gibson's blog while he had it, etc. If we feel like we're connected to someone some way we want to have a relationship with them, even if that relationship is one way

Maybe for a less intelligent person Britney's music or George Clooney's Cloonying has the same effect on them.

Paris Hilton, on the other hand is a train wreak we can't turn away from.
posted by delmoi at 11:13 PM on February 21, 2005


Also there was a monkey study the other day showing how monkeys would give up food to look at pictures of high-ranking members.

Maybe we're all just acting out our monkeyness here...
posted by delmoi at 11:15 PM on February 21, 2005


My personal psych theory on celebrity worship has to do with identity. In the proper context, someone who truly worships celebrities (fan club presidents and such, like the woman who killed Selena as an extreme case), identify themselves LITERALLY as being a fan. This means that the primary defining aspect of their existence is their connection to a star. Once that link has been established, every event in their lives is considered in context to this perceived link, which explains most of the behavior. The establishment of this link is the interesting part. I think it's similar to the way that many people literally identify themselves as part of a group. You find something outside yourself that is larger than you, attractive, and powerful, and you internalize that connection such that the group or celebrity is an extension of oneself. By internalizing this outside influence, you actually make yourself more powerful, by giving yourself a reason for existence and a well to draw power from. People who percieve celebrities as being powerful, attractive, and close (you know, most people), can be prone to this.
posted by JZig at 11:21 PM on February 21, 2005


People who are sure of themselves are just fans -- they buy most of the records or see most of the movies or read most of the books, maybe read some tripe about the celebrity in a magazine, but they don't fantasize about being with the celebrity and can get through their days without thinking of the celebrity.

Celebrity worship, fandom of the crazed sort, is for people who aren't who or where they want to be except that they're pretty sure they don't want to be themselves and where they are. They collect everything there is to collect, read and watch everything related to the celebrity, go to the shows or films repeatedly, form or join groups dedicated to respecting the celebrity, hope to get some hair or a sweaty sheet or some other relic, and wish for a laying on of hands. They swoon. It really approaches worship of the religious sort.

The pope enjoys both sorts of worship -- he is not just a religious figure, he is the biggest celebrity in the world for many people. Fans wait outside his place and get very excited if he shows his head at the window and waves -- "I think he waved to me!" -- and they are dying to kiss his ring or feel the touch of his hand. People in the crowd wave the names of their hometowns on banners as if hoping the pope will shout out the name of their place -- "Hello, Toledo!" -- before continuing with the set.
posted by pracowity at 11:50 PM on February 21, 2005


Try this: Like the gods in the myths, stars embody particular ideas or experiences. Zues was the ultimate father figure and disciplinarian, Apollo was light and reason and beauty, etc. Today, we have a different pantheon: John Malkovich is calculating, amoral intelligence; Julia Roberts is the virginal girl next door; etc. Plus, gods were the lead characters in myths. Myths, of course, are simply stories which we, apparently, need. (If we don't need them, then we must at least want them a hell of a lot. Because every human society seems to have them.) And that's a pretty good description of Dangerous Liasons or Pretty Woman; stories we need.
posted by Clay201 at 11:59 PM on February 21, 2005


Exactly, Clay. They are literally idols.

The book Adcult USA is mostly about advertising, but one theme of the book is that TV and film are serving a religious function that is the equivalent or even a replacement for church worship.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:19 AM on February 22, 2005


but is this "religious function" something that just fills a void, or something that enriches "real" life? Maybe the fact that we want to know intimate details of celebrities' lives (including, and perhaps especially their failings) points to a desire for more actual intimate contact with other humans, and the celebrities (the pope, Brad Pitt, even God if you look at the personal-relationship-with-Jesus thing in modern Christian churches) are the most easily accessible, won't-bite-back humans, ready for an establishment of (delusional, but somehow necessary) intimacy.
posted by bunglin jones at 4:37 AM on February 22, 2005


It's easier to read about it (or nowadays, watch it on TV) than go out and do it yourself.
posted by Eideteker at 4:51 AM on February 22, 2005


Most people that worship celebrities are of pretty average intelligence. These same people are also usually very religious. They need to have something to follow and look forward to; something that breaks up their boring lives. The majority of society can be classified as drones.

And they generalize a lot, too.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:30 AM on February 22, 2005


Ouch Kirth. Unprovoked. You must be an american idol fan. Or more intelligent people just find different celebrities to worship. Instead of Ben Affleck, it's Richard Feynman. I disagree jonmc. I respect Richard Feynman, I dont worship him. Ben Affleck isnt someone who has single handedly changed the world. Feynmans work on the other hand has had a direct impact on all of our lives. Yet you still never saw the paparazzi chasing around Feynman.
posted by pwally at 7:22 AM on February 22, 2005


Ouch Kirth. Unprovoked. You must be an american idol fan.
There you go again.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:32 AM on February 22, 2005


At least tell me if im right?
posted by pwally at 9:02 AM on February 22, 2005


Or more intelligent people just find different celebrities to worship. Instead of Ben Affleck, it's Richard Feynman. I disagree jonmc.

OK, Feynman was probably a bad comparison. Let's say "instead of Ben Affleck, it'sPhillip Seymour Hoffman," just to make it make more sense. Who's being admired is then a matter of taste, but the dynamic remains the same.

My point is that intelligence does not make one immune from the usual human foibles, excessive hero worship included.
posted by jonmc at 10:00 AM on February 22, 2005


If you buy into the developmental stages model of psychology, then your typical adolescent will be working with issues of identity versus role confusion. Since the public life of celebrities is public, exploring it is a way for people - especially young people - to see what sorts of roles others assume, and possibly to identify with them in the process of building their own identity.

People need role models to decide what kind of people they want to be. You don't have to be a $150 million-a-year rap star like Puff Daddy in order to appreciate the man's work ethic and decide you want to adopt it for yourself, for example - I only mention this because it's something I noticed when I read an interview with him in the New Yorker last year.

Like anything in psychology, the problems come when the normal, healthy process becomes warped and perverted. There seems to be a lot of opportunity for that these days.
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:38 PM on February 22, 2005


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