Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Cult Of Celebrity Part 6: Why Do We Worship Celebrity?

We have no way of knowing whether celebrities’ lives are really as peachy as they seem so why do we worship them?

Like the rest of us, they probably have good days and bad days, concerns and anxieties. There is one desirable thing that we have a whole lot more of than celebrities: privacy. And if the media coverage is any indication, there is one thing they seem to have a lot more of that we don’t want: substance abuse problems, stalkers, affairs and rumors.

But even if our perception of stars as being better than us and having more of the good things in life is partly fantasy, this only heightens celebrities’ mystique and pushes their pedestal higher and higher into the clouds. And after all, perceptions are everything in celeb-land.

It’s tempting to think that celebrities have some inherent quality that makes us worship and adore them, some special power. The name sometimes given to that notion is charisma. Max Weber, one of the founders of modern sociology, defined charisma as “a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” Celebrities have that.

So, can the explosion in our celebrity worshiping in the past few decades be the result simply of an excess of charismatic individuals? I think it’s highly unlikely, when you consider that celebrities can now be hatched from lives in which any “exceptional powers or qualities” were seemingly nonexistent—think Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie or any now defunct reality TV star. Newer sources of fame such as reality TV have perhaps shown that the kind of charismatic aura Weber described is not necessarily inherent in stars, but is something that we can gradually come to see in them.

A small percentage of celebrity worshipers are motivated by the belief that they have an intense connection with their favorite celebrity. They believe that if they met their favorite celebrity, the star would understand them and perhaps be their friend, or that their favorite celebrity is truly their soul mate. To get an idea of this type of celebrity worshiper, think of the film Notting Hill. When Anna, a famous Hollywood actress (played by Julia Roberts), and Honey, the sister of Anna’s new paramour (Hugh Grant), meet for the first time, Honey gushes about how much she adores the actress and how beautiful she is, and says, “I genuinely believe and have believed for some time now that we can be best friends.”

According to studies, this type of celebrity worshiper tends to be higher in the trait neuroticism. These are the worriers of the world—those who tend to be nervous and on the high-strung side, and possibly feel insecure. On the flip side, celebrity worshippers have also been found to be higher in narcissism, a personality disorder characterized by a grandiose sense of self, an inflated sense of superiority over others, lack of empathy, and an excessive need to be admired. You may have heard the phrase “sense of entitlement”—well, yes, that too is one of the characteristics of a narcissistic personality. It may sound counter intuitive that someone so into themselves who cares very little about others would worship celebrities, but according to the researchers Ashe, Maltby and McCutcheon, narcissists oscillate between feeling disdain for others and over-idealizing them, which is easy to do with a celebrity. And narcissists like to be domineering in all social situations, so for a narcissist is there a better role model than a scene-stealing celebrity?

Even the term “worship” needs to be acknowledged. Jeannine Hill Fletcher, Th.D., professor of theology at Fordham University cautions, “The celebrity and your familiarity with them is not enough. What about their life matters to you, and what images are you being offered that have real staying power for you?” she says. “The lives of the holy ones are lives whose persuasiveness survives. There is a reason that after 2000 years Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed still endure.” Regarding celebrities, she asks, “Are these lives that last?”

Philosopher John Hick says that what all religious traditions have in common is that they offer us a way to turn away from our self-centeredness to God, or other-centeredness, and a way to lead lives that are more authentic and full—while celebrity worship encourages us to be self-centered. Do we really need help being any more self-centered than we already are? Media images have the power to shape us, as do religious figures. The question is; how do we want to be shaped?

Dr. Fletcher believes that everyone, whether they are religious are not, has an ultimate concern that drives their life. Ask yourself what your ultimate concern is. Fame? Popularity? Or something deeper and more long lasting.