Thursday, April 11, 2013

Our Celebrity Obsession

Ya know, I am tired of what it means to be a celebrity in our culture. I know this might seem incredibly hypocritical as someone who is always blogging about celebrities, but bear with me.

Recently I was helping out some coworkers brainstorm a list of people for an ice breaker with teen girls...the criteria for the list was this: each person had to be a woman, she had to be a positive influence, and she had to be someone the girls would know.

Needless to say, it was kind of an exercise in making ourselves frustrated because we could think of famous women the girls would know and we could think of positive female role models they SHOULD know, but the combination of all three traits was pretty rare. This particular activity would only work if the girls could easily identify who each woman was, and the women we were sure they would know were figures we weren't comfortable putting in the activity as a representation of what we do.

It all made me think about what it means to be a celebrity and who the women are that rise to that level of public recognition. I remember reading a book way back when I worked at a whole other girls organization and was their curriculum writer. I was charged with creating activities for girls that would help them "redefine beauty." My boss at the time gave me the book "All Made Up: A Girl's Guide to Seeing Through Celebrity Hype to Celebrate Real Beauty." While written for your average 10 year old, it actually sparked a lot of thought in my then 22 year old mind. Somewhere in my research (either in that book or another, forgive my foggy memory) I came across an activity that had girls brainstorm "famous" women in general and then asked them to list female politicians, humanitarians, philanthropists, business leaders, etc. The point was to illustrate our vast gap in knowledge between the two groups and point out that even though women DO exist in the latter fields, we're only really aware of women who are actors, singers, and models. (Don't even get me started on people who are famous just for being famous. I see you Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian.)

That stuck with me because even as a young adult actively immersed in women studies courses, the second list was so much harder to generate.

When I say that society still values women for their looks and bodies above all else, this is what I'm talking about. (And I understand this phenomena also occurs for men, but to a lesser extent. People tend to be much more aware of famous men who aren't stereotypically attractive.) The women who are household names are almost all conventionally beautiful. That's not to say that women who rise to our collective conscious (like Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez, Lady Gaga, Zooey Deschanel) are totally devoid of any talent. I'm just saying that what they contribute substantively is always coupled with good looks. And the careers where looks play such an important role are the ones catching our attention.

It makes it really hard for the women who are doing amazing things in a non "celebrity" field to get any recognition for what they're doing. And, of course, this effect is vastly compounded for women of color, queer women, disabled women, etc. who are facing multiple axes of oppression.

The advancements of technology have played a huge role in pushing forth celebrity hype to be greater than ever before. I was certainly plugged into pop culture as a middle schooler, reading Seventeen and watching VH1 and MTV like no one's business. But the girls we work with now live pop culture connected lives far beyond anything I could have imagined. Even though I had internet in my home at that time, instantaneous outlets like Twitter were still a decade away. It was unimaginable to think of receiving immediate messaging from the celebrities I worshipped. Girls now have access to the media literally in their hands at any given moment. They are constantly flooded with a barrage of updates about what celebrities are doing--in real time. Celebrity wealth combined with fairly careful brand management, personal stylists, and good old fashioned Photoshop frequently makes their lives look near perfect and desirable, especially to someone who is just figuring out her identity and feels alone, awkward, ugly, and confused. The results are not only a desire to "be famous" but also a loss of self-esteem when comparisons are made against these seemingly perfect people.

The fact that our culture places unhealthy value on celebrity is part of the reason that this blog exists (and many others). I don't see the obsession with celebrity ending any time I said, it seems to be on the rise. So while it is important for us (meaning feminists and adults generally) to teach kids that there is a whole world of women who are contributing to the collective good outside of how they look, it's equally important to analyze, critique, and discuss products of the celebrity-centric environment.  Without ongoing cultural criticism, the cult of celebrity would remain unchecked.

It's amazing to me to contemplate how the state of women (if there is such a unified thing?) has evolved over the three waves of feminism. Anti-feminists posit that our work is done because women can work outside the home, buy birth control, and vote. But the nature of misogyny is an ever moving target and certainly the representation of women in the media is an area that is still doing very real damage to women and girls.

I just yearn for a time when your average 14 year old is as aware of Alice Walker, bell hooks, or Elizabeth Warren as she is Katy Perry or Rihanna. And all of this isn't to say that there aren't extraordinary young women who dive fully into feminism and women's studies on a daily basis and are totally aware of those names. It's just to say that our our collective fixation on celebrities and the Hollywood lifestyle as the ideal is doing girls, and everyone, much more disservice than not.

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1 comment:

  1. I cannot express the realness of this article! I'll just simply say, thank you for writing this and giving these unique issues awareness.


This blog has strict comment moderation intended to preserve a safe space. Moderation is managed solely by the blog author. As such, even comments made in good faith will be on a short delay, so please do not attempt to resubmit your comment if it does not immediately appear. Discussion and thoughtful participation are encouraged, but abusive comments of any type will never be published. The blog author reserves the right to publish/delete any comments for any reason, at her sole discretion.

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