A Problem with Today’s Widespread Celebrity Culture

A Problem with Today’s Widespread Celebrity Culture January 19, 2012

A defining feature of life today is we have a lot of celebrities. We live in a world of information, and much of that information is about specific people. We have celebrities in just about every area of life ranging from broad areas, such as entertainment, sports, and government to more obscure tasks such as noodling catfish (i.e., is catching them by hand) and baking cakes.

Think about it. How many people do you know a lot about via the media even though you’ve never met them? Quite a few, I’d wager. And if you want to learn about someone, it’s usually pretty easy on-line.

There’s nothing wrong with this, per se, but it can cause a problem in how we evaluate our own lives. Celebrities are often known for doing something really well, and we naturally gravitate toward those celebrities who are experts in areas that we’re interested in ourselves. As I blogged about last week, we understand ourselves, in part, through processes of self-comparison.

The problem arises when we compare ourselves against celebrities. If they are among the best at something, then we’re making quite an uphill comparison, and it’s difficult not to become discouraged. Even if we think we could be as good as the celebrity, their having tens of thousands of people watching them makes them just seem more important than us.

For example, I enjoy photography, and so I read a lot of books about how to take better photographs. On one hand, I learn to be a better photographer by reading these books, but on the other hand I’m constantly exposed to people who are just a lot better than I am (and may ever be). They travel to the best locations, with the best equipment, and with decades of full-time experience. How could I possibly compare? As a result, I look at my photographs—even my best ones—with a tainted eye.

This dynamic maybe be even more salient among young people, whose self-images are being formed. They compare themselves to celebrities who are rich and talented and beautiful and with perfect bodies (at least after photoshop), and how can they help but have concerns about themselves?

This is where the information age comes into play. Certainly social comparison has been around as long as humans have been, but the range of it has broadened widely. In previous generations, who didn’t have access to such a wide range of information, they would make more manageable comparisons—the good best athlete or the most attractive person in the school rather than someone on the other side of the country who has their own reality tv show. Somehow these earlier comparisons seemed more manageable.

This process works with the Christian faith as well.  To illustrate, Tim Tebow has received a remarkable amount of publicity in the past few weeks, and richly deserved as far as I can tell. He’s a world class athlete and maybe an even better Christian.  He donated his signing bonus to build a hospital for the poor, and each game he hosts a disabled or sick person as his guest. His acclaim inspires us to be better Christians, but if we can’t do all that he does, it’s possible to not to want to even try. If we can’t do everything that he does in his life (and few of us can), than does it really matter if we do what we can do?

Likewise, a good friend attended a big Christian conference recently. They had the best teachers and worship leaders, and while he enjoyed the experience, it was also a bit disheartening. When we’re exposed to the best at something, we evaluate our day-to-day life differently. In this case, he was keenly aware of how the services at our small church just don’t measure up.

This may fuel frequent church shopping. The best known pastors and churches can leave us with expectations for church that aren’t met by our local church, so we keep searching for the experience that we know is possible.

The power of this celebrity culture is not to be underestimated. Americans watch an average of 30+ hours of television a week, and much of what we see is about celebrities. Either about their own lives, as per reality television or entertainment news, or we see them performing on our favorite television shows or movies. Many Americans probably spend as much time watching the lives of people on tv or the magazines as they do their family and friends.

This makes celebrities a powerful comparison group, for both good and bad.

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  • Great thoughts Brad. I wonder if celebrity culture not only leads us to undervalue small acts but to also want more attention–i.e. the “look at me” nature of Twitter and Facebook..

    • You’re probably write… unless it’s big, or at least watched by millions, maybe it seems like it doesn’t matter.

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    Thank you, Mr. Wright. Good thought on a diverse and wide-spread problem.

    I wonder how many tales of utter disillusionment, even acts of suicide, are due to “not measuring up” to some example of celebrity. And, unfortunately, the life examples shown by most celebrities (politicians included) are not the positive type of Tim Tebow’s.

    Maybe it is our duty, at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition, to tell of the good that ordinary (wo)men do….most times without fame or fortune. The folks who carry food to the poor, work in prison ministry, volunteer at the “used clothing” shop, visit the sick in hospitals, take care of sick relatives…..just for the love of G-d…….can we tell stories about them? Can we tell everyone that G-d really loves them, that they are important to Him?

    We are worthy….no, really we are the real celebrities, because we are G-d’s children. That’s what makes a person special.


  • Prof. Emmanuel Kalenzi Twesigye

    Bradely Wright has a good observation when he states that some people watch celebrates on television and compare themselves to them. This can be good when the role model watched on television is a good and positive one. Coversely, it can be harmful, when the role models and celebrates are negative, violent, greedy and immoral. Ponography and ex-rated films can be harmful if watched by children or morally immature people.

    Nevertheless, there is room for positive role models on television. For intance, Christians could make their own films and cartoons that would provide positive celebraties and role models for the young people to imitate.

    Long before television, the Judeo-Christian tradition provided positive celebrates to imitate by the courageous and virtuous people. This process took the the form of prophets, Moses, Jesus, the Apostles and the saints. Therefore, in some cases, Christian or Church art which provides the images of prophets, Christ, Apostles, martyrs and saints attempts to accomplissh this moral task.

    In the digital age, Christians and other moral people need to provide alternative celebrates and role models for the morally caring or inquiring people to see, value and seek to imitate. Moses, Amos, Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, Augustine, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King and others can be modernized to become effective alternative moral models and celebrates for us to immitate today.
    Prof. Emmanuel K. Twesigye, OWU

  • Seth R.

    I’d say that the main problem with this culture is not “celebrity culture” but rather voyeuristic culture. A culture that substitutes commentary on and analysis of other people for genuine self-reflection.

    It’s always been a bit of an axiom that criticism of other people is a popular substitute for actually having any moral character yourself. Shows like Jerry Springer, reality shows featuring messed up individuals, fascination with politics, celebrity obsession…. all of that.

    It’s a way for people who have no moral direction or character to distract themselves from the fact that they aren’t really all that admirable themselves.

    It’s also part of the reason that a culture of criticism on the Internet has become so popular. Along with ideologies based on contributing no positive values of their own, but merely criticizing the values of others – such as New Atheism.

    It’s a cheap way to moral self-satisfaction.

  • We Christians strive to follow the real Superstar: Jesus Christ. However, its a different story. Instead of tryin to be “like” him, we believe that He Himself lives in us. Then we become host to the celebrity Himself and it’s Him who acts within us, alas, if we let Him do so.
    The real problem in our culture is that we are offered alternative celebrities instead of Him and we fall for them instead of “The Real Mckoy”. A recent book I’m reading says that we humans always strive for truth (thus, we are wired for truth) but many times take bad choices believing they are truth. Your article gets directly to that point, a collection of bad model that lead to fatal choices. If we also are void ourselves of good values or faith, then we are black holes that not only suck whatever we are offered but we in fact attract whatever we can to fill our own vacuum.
    Very good reflection!