Bedroom walls innocently plastered with boy band posters, drawing inspiration from celebrity wardrobes, even catching an accidental glimpse of sleazy tabloid headlines at the grocery store check-out — such things seem almost comically inconsequential. Perhaps they really do amount to nothing but bits and pieces of fleeting phases and frivolous gimmicks, especially in a bird’s-eye view of the world. But it’s equally plausible that even the faintest traces of present-day celebrity culture assist in normalizing the practice of celebrity “idolatry,” as it’s called — worshipping physical entities as gods. While this idea often masquerades in hyperbole, it’s not as far-fetched as its name insists.
According to Graeme Turner, professor of Australian cultural studies at the University of Queensland, the first film stars emerged around 1914, and the idolization of celebrities has steadily become mainstream ever since. Indeed, the primordial origins of celebrity idolatry are likely natural feelings of lust and admiration, spun by audiences filling 20th-century theatres. But somewhere along the way, innocuous admiration evolved into fanaticism — and now, fanaticism has devolved into full-blown obsession. It is far from unusual for celebrities’ lives to be interrupted by eager swarms of paparazzi or throngs of screaming fans. In one case, two YouTube-famous brothers even had to beg fans not to come to their father’s funeral. While such events may be halfheartedly frowned upon, they are too rarely grilled substantively. However, it’s worth asking questions here — what are the larger implications of celebrity idolatry, and what allowed such severe violations of privacy to become so uncompelling? How did we develop these shared illusions of our fellow humans as larger-than-life beings?
There’s the commercial facet, sure. An entire sect of the entertainment industry is devoted to marketing people as products and brands, to maintaining the guise of perfection and unsullied luxury, to give facetiously self-proclaimed plebeians like myself a lifestyle to aspire to, opening up my pockets in the process. But celebrity idolatry offers something more profound than other consumerist modes of exploitation — there’s a spiritual element there too, only solidified by the use of the words “worship” and “god” in idolatry’s definition.
After all, humans have long been understood to attach some ostensibly unique, imperative meaning to our existence. Our entire lives aren’t these dramatic searches for some tantalizing metaphysical purpose, but we still like to think there’s some reason we’re here, and some way to understand this reason — a blueprint, outlining a meaningful way of being in the world. Both history and the present can agree that this meaning is often attached to the existence of some higher power. Even during our Flintstone-era years, we tucked ochre-stained bones and zaftig Venus figurines into carved-out pockets of the earth as the first sacred relics. From there, religion evolved as humans did. For the West, the rise of organized religions, among which Christianity generally dominated, managed to provide societies with this meaning for centuries. Yet the seeds of humanism, the belief in the predominant agency and value of human beings, planted during the Renaissance grew into vigorous and intricate beliefs of their own, such as science and religious tolerance, which began to erode the once-sovereign church. Of course, Christianity is far from disappearing altogether and remains quite influential in multiple facets. However, the world at large is secularizing, and the United States is no exception. It’s partially due to this fact that celebrity idolatry was able to ooze into virtually every corner of American society.
After all, celebrities have a way of influencing even those who are most wary of them. Much of this influence is skin-deep — we turn to celebrities, consciously or not, for a way to dress, do our makeup and develop a so-called “aesthetic,” or a sense of style. Still, other channels of influence are not as conspicuously visible. Through endorsements, for instance, celebrities affect the products we do or don’t use, whether it’s a streaming service or a cooking pan. Simply by sharing what they do, they influence what we do: what books we read, games we play and music we listen to. In other cases, celebrities may introduce us to new slang which in turn affects the way we speak or think about certain things, even if it’s ever-so-slightly or unbeknownst to us. Furthermore still, the involvement of celebrities in politics, encouraged by social media, presents yet another sphere of influence. Take the example of Kylie Jenner, who made an Instagram post in late September urging her then-196 million followers to register to vote, linking Vote.org in her Instagram bio. The nonpartisan voter registration organization later told The Hill that, in the 24 hours following the post, their website traffic sparked by 1,500 percent.
Of course, there are also examples of super fans, the ones who visit their idols’ houses or go to unusual lengths to imitate their physical appearances. These people are, undoubtedly, the paradigm of celebrity idolatry. However, their position amid typical society is peripheral, whereas celebrity idolatry itself is widespread. Can a relatively slim fraction of fringe cases, even with their unabashed ardor, uphold such a widespread phenomenon single-handedly? More often than not, there are other significant forces at play than merely those sitting on the outskirts of a civilization. Perhaps, then, a strong argument can be made that celebrity idolatry, or worship of any kind, is not upheld solely by the extreme — it is not always so vehement and self-professed. Perhaps, worship has partially given in to the modern pressures of individualism and no longer does it require a piece of one’s self-identity nor intense dedication. Revamped for and by the 21st century, worship may now encompass even painfully subtle practices, such as seeking guidance from a perceivably larger-than-life being. Thus maybe worship, as the term is used broadly, is no longer something stagnant and incessant, but rather something dynamic that comes in degrees. Even if one doesn’t think of oneself as idolizing or being influenced by anyone, it’s difficult nonetheless to imagine hanging out with a famous person as if they were completely “normal” or “average” — that’s the larger-than-life perception coming into play.
But humans were never meant to be placed above millions of humans as embodiments of perfection nor faultless sources of wisdom. Historically, the momentous task of telling other people how to live, in a non-governmental sense, at least, has been assigned largely to religious figures — really, to the intangible gods themselves, for which the clergy interprets. Of course, the idea of a “god” has been understood in a plethora of ways. In the West, Greco-Roman religion dictated very humanlike, observably flawed gods and goddesses that, among other things, occupied the pages of our “Percy Jackson” books in middle school. But Christianity offers something else entirely: an omniscient, omnipotent being who, unlike humans, is without flaw. As Christianity gained momentum, as polytheism was swapped for monotheism, and “g”s and “h”s in “God” and “His” went from lower- to uppercase, this new conception of a perfect God would prove to be the most significant shift — at least for those who would later informally be saddled with some of His duties. It ultimately conditioned Western culture to deem, consciously or not, perfection as a necessary quality of larger-than-life guidance.
This is a problem, though, because celebrities are certainly not perfect — in fact, they’re just as tremendously flawed as the rest of us. Why wouldn’t they be? Because they happened to have famous parents, or because they have some extraordinary talent? Nothing changes the fact that they’re human. Yet they’re constantly held to an unattainable standard, originally intended only for the non-corporeal.
Of course if a celebrity is racist or otherwise discriminatory, it’s important to hold them accountable, especially because their views would have disproportionate levels of influence compared to the “average person.” But at the same time, perhaps part of the issue is allowing them to have such great influence in the first place. For nondiscriminatory-related criticisms, perhaps the issue is not that somebody threw a tantrum or was rude to fans, but that we place impossible pressure on other humans to fulfill some twisted, idealized image of perfection — not to mention the false sense of affection and familiarity with someone could feel toward a complete stranger. Of course, we justify it all with the copious amounts of wealth and lavish lifestyles celebrities are accustomed to. But security, safety and happiness are far from guaranteed by opulence. Yet if they dare to complain, celebrities are only dragged through the mud, labeled as ungrateful or spoiled, at least by some portion of society. It’s a vicious cycle capable of breaking a person, and it does. We see it all the time: meltdowns, addictions, depression, suicide and spiraling out of control.
With the rise of the internet and social media, celebrity idolatry has only intensified. Thus, it’s critical now more than ever to reflect on one’s own perception of the so-called “rich and famous” — not only for our sakes, but for theirs, too. There’s nothing controversial about admiring someone famous or looking up to them. But exactly how much are we expecting from them? How much can we justify expecting? Humans were never meant to be given this kind of enormous unchecked power, nor to be placed in fishbowls for millions of people to gawk at and criticize. It’s so tempting to raise someone above ourselves and call it flattering — but sometimes, when we place someone on a pedestal, compassion for their most natural human qualities is stripped away in the process.
May Braaten is a freshman majoring in philosophy, politics and law.