At the end of every December, media outlets put out lists recalling the major events of the year. After seeing the top celebrity breakups of 2012, hottest couples of 2012, major scandals of 2012, celebrity babies of 2012, and numerous other such lists, I realized how obsessed we are with celebrities.
I pray that the defining moments of the past year were not the birth of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s baby or the on again, off again relationship of Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber, but that is a topic for another blog.
Undeniably, celebrities are everywhere. When I checkout at the grocery store, login to my email, or turn on the television, I am bombarded with pictures of celebrities and news about their latest endeavors. It is a sad commentary that most people know more about famous actors and actresses than their neighbors or even family members.
Reading the news, I have come across several stories highlighting this odd fascination. Recently, a member of the paparazzi died when he was struck by a car as he raced across the road, trying to photograph a car owned by Justin Bieber. In another story, Robert Pattinson’s visit to a mall caused a minor riot, with witnesses describing the scene as: “It was crazy and people were getting hurt, and then the police, the fire truck and the ambulance came and nobody moved,” and: “We were slammed, squished in there, person to person, so you can’t even raise your arms for two hours.” Is a glimpse or picture of a celebrity worth risking bodily injury or your life?
Celebrity culture is a modern occurrence, but the tendency to elevate some members of a society is a characteristic of all civilizations. Many people find celebrity culture strange and easy to mock, yet the same people are intrigued by it. This is because while the celebrities are bizarre, the underlining principles of the phenomenon are a normal part of the human experience. By analyzing these principles, one will begin to understand our obsession with celebrities and also what it means for our culture.
Across civilizations, people are drawn to certain groups of individuals. Each society constructs images of these individuals, disseminates stories associated with them, and celebrates events related to them. In short, these individuals are venerated, and at times, even adored.
In the ancient and classical world, people remembered gods and heroes in this way. Greeks and Romans, for instance, commemorated the actions of the gods and passed on their stories to the next generation through the use of myths, dramas, and festivals. Throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, countless statues and frescos depicted these individuals, and great holidays were initiated to celebrate them.
With the fall of Rome and the start of Christian culture, saints replaced the ancient gods. Saints were the principal subjects of artwork during the medieval period. The “bestsellers” of the Middle Ages were collections of saints’ stories, like the Golden Legend. Popular dramas, such as mystery plays and miracle plays, recounted the lives of the saints and biblical stories, and most holidays were saint feast days or commemorations of events in the lives of Jesus and the Blessed Mother.
With the rise of Protestantism and secularism in the early modern period, devotion to the saints declined, and absolute monarchs tried to fill the cultural void. Elizabeth I of England, the “Virgin Queen,” attempted to represent herself as a new Blessed Mother with a semi-divine iconography, and her birth and accession were celebrated yearly as great holidays. Likewise, religious calendars across Western Civilization were replaced with national calendars based on the birthdays and coronation days of the royal family. Religious art also declined as more portraits of European monarchs appeared.
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were the era of hero-worship, the great adoration of military leaders. Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington, and Garibaldi were some of the famous generals given a demi-god status. In America, George Washington reached an elevated status after his death, and the dome of the Capitol, for instance, is dominated by the famous painting, The Apotheosis of Washington, depicting the ascension of Washington into heaven where he becomes a god. A nineteenth-century visitor to the United States remarked, “Every American considers it his sacred duty to have a likeness of Washington in his home, just as we have images of God’s saints.”
By 1900, modern celebrities—athletes, singers, actors—were beginning to appear, attracting more attention than ancient gods, medieval saints, absolute monarchs, or famous generals. As mentioned above, their images are now omnipresent and their every move is news.
It is natural to put a group of people forward for admiration, but what does it tell us about the society? I would argue that these people are mirrors reflecting the values of the society. Today’s celebrities reveal not our interest in them, but our obsession with fame, money, and physical beauty. Looking back at the age of saints, medieval culture conversely valued devotion to God, selflessness, and holiness.
Additionally, societies use these individuals as models, and the youth, in our case, sadly seek to emulate them. Go into any elementary school and ask students what they want to be when they grow up. Most boys will respond that they want to be athletes, and the girls will answer that they want to be singers or actresses. How many will reply that they want to be saints?
As a historian, I am aware that future generations will study our era based on the records that we leave behind. I wonder what future historians will think when they watch our reality shows or peruse through Us Weekly. Will we be remembered as the time period that venerated the Kardashians?
The modern world has accomplished wonderful technological and societal achievements, and I would not choose to live during another time. Yet, a society that used its resources to produce statues of St. Francis and remembered his life in its most circulated texts has a nobility far greater than our current society with its incessant emphasis on celebrities.
Perhaps, it is time to remember our saints a little more than our celebrities. We could start by reading the life of a saint instead of an article on celebrity news, replacing a poster of a pop sensation in our children’s rooms with an image of their patron saint, or celebrating the feast day on the liturgical calendar instead of the birth of a new celebrity baby.