What is it About? What Does it Do For Us?

The proliferation of celebrities in our culture is relatively recent. In the past, writers and actors sometimes became celebrated, well-known, even famous, but it was seldom something they aspired to. A by-product of exceptional achievement, usually, fame was often awkward for the person thrust into the limelight.

But the media’s voracious appetite for content is, no doubt, the major driver of celebrity culture today. Moreover, celebrity now can be monetized though endorsements and testimonials. It feeds on itself through openings, parties to launch new fragrances and other products, red carpet appearances, fashion shows, TV interviews, etc. And it doesn’t take any particular skill, just a good publicist, determination, and the knack of being in front of the cameras. It’s a career.

So what do they do for us, apart from giving us momentary distractions from the bad news of accidents and disasters, and the lingering problems of unemployment, political gridlock, corruption, war, and terrorism? Well, yes, they do that, providing diversion from constant drumbeat of bad news. Apart from an occasional “wardrobe malfunction,” few really terrible things happen on the red carpet.

But there is more: the endless parade of celebrities in the media gives us a prettified and palatable version of social inequality. The super rich are invisible in their gated communities and penthouses, private planes, limos, exclusive resorts. We know they are there, even if we don’t see them. Celebrities, on the other hand, are over exposed, appearing and reappearing on talk shows, late night TV, society pages, magazines, etc. They have a lock on our attention.

“Americans have no idea just how unequal our society has become,” Paul Krugman wrote recently. “For example, according to Forbes, Robert Downey Jr. is the highest-paid actor in America, making $75 million last year. According to the same publication, in 2013 the top 25 hedge fund managers took home, on average, almost a billion dollars each.” The fact that celebrities absorb so much attention and provoke so much envy, allows our more sedate and private billionaires to escape attention.

And though we may envy the privilege and fame of celebrities, we seldom admire or respect them. On the contrary, we enjoy their foibles and antics. Their affairs and divorces make us feel superior. Their pranks amuse us while often inspiring contempt. And we know, as well, that the shelf life of celebrity is short lived. New celebrities constantly displace the old.

But they do live in a rarefied realm. They are swept to the head of lines in theatres and restaurants, the police protect them, keeping the rest of us at a safe distance. Often, they are involved in politics, donating their services for fund raising, and they give money themselves – but not the tens of millions of dollars the super rich give to Super Pacs. They have publicists but don’t hire lobbyists or meet privately with candidates to influence legislation.

They provide a kind of camouflage for the .01 percent, distracting us from the yawning income divide that continues to widen at our feet.