Evolution of Celebrity Culture
Looking at the events with the highest tweets per second it’s obvious the public today is obsessed with celebrity. People want to be like Mike and hear about Lohan’s latest exploit. Is this just a passing fad or an ingrained part of our society? How much protection do celebrities have over their image? How did that protection evolve?
To determine the importance and history of celebrity in our modern culture I wanted to understand what celebrity really means as sociological concept and how long it has existed in its current form.
Daniel Boorstin, a cultural historian, defined the celebrity as a ““person who is known for his well-knownness.” Famous people and heroes have existed for thousands of years, but celebrity itself is a recent phenomenon. Prior to the current status of celebrity, fame was a function of accomplishment.
According to a Sociological Theory article titled “Celebrity Status,” the transition from fame that was tied to accomplishments to simply being a social status of celebrity started to emerge about a century ago in the United States.
The following is an excerpt from “Celebrity Status” that lays out the history of this evolution:
The roots of celebrity reach back to Alexander the Great, whose manipulation of publicity and global ambitions may make him “the first famous person”. However, celebrity acquired new significance in the era of mass media. Abraham Lincoln became the most widely recognized U.S. president because his photograph was so widely disseminated. Visual images “made fame instant and ubiquitous in ways that the printed word could not match”.[i]
Another cultural historian, Leo Braudy, examined the early commercialization of these images in his book The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History. In the late 1700′s Josiah Wedgwood began producing small portrait medallions that were so successful he quickly followed up with “plates, figurines, earthenware pitchers, flatware–a multitude of household objects featuring the faces of the new generation of great men.”[ii] His success quickly inspired others to begin creating more items representing these famed people. Despite the commercial success of these items, the famous men represented didn’t register any complaints requesting financial reparations.
Even Benjamin Franklin wrote letters to his daughter playfully lamenting the amount he was now recognized in France because of popular medallions with his likeness, but without including any complaint about the money people were making on his fame. Braudy goes on to discuss that the founding fathers like Franklin, Washington, Adams, and Jefferson saw their likeness as common property of the society. They appreciated the propaganda value of the propagation of their images. They embraced their fame as a recognition of their achievements and status.
So when did this change? When did fame and the ability to use it for commercial gain become a commodity?
[i] Kurzman, Charles, Chelise Anderson, Clinton Key, Youn Ok Lee, Mairead Moloney, Alexis Silver, and Maria W. Van Ryn. “Celebrity Status.” Sociological Theory 25, no. 4 (December 1, 2007): 347–367.
[ii] Braudy, Leo. The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History. 1st. ed. Oxford University Press, 1986.