I don’t consider myself the sort of person who keeps track of celebrity gossip. More often I’m the friend who has to ask “Who’s that?” when someone mentions an actor’s name. I only read tabloids when I’m waiting in line at the grocery store. I can only remember half of Taylor Swift’s relationships and have been known to confuse Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. Despite my general ignorance, my ears perked up upon hearing about the Pitt-Jolie divorce. I recalled the dramatic beginning of their relationship, Jennifer Aniston’s tear-stained face on magazines, followed by news of “Brangelina,” the birth of their children and news of the children they adopted, health speculations (Jolie has anorexia, Jolie has cancer), Jolie’s controversial double mastectomy and their humanitarian work. They were Hollywood’s power couple, putting influence and money towards timely topics, stars so big that they were able to set their own celebrity trends. I found myself a little sad at their separation, and I had to ask myself: “Why?”
Whenever we discuss interest in celebrities, especially discussions within the Seventh-day Adventist church, we blithely label it an unhealthy obsession. We’ve all heard it called idolatry (alongside picture of golden statuette awards) and explained as a dark ploy to supplant worship intended for God. I have quietly agreed with that, thinking well of myself for not paying very much attention. It’s undeniable that after a certain point preoccupation with most things is unhealthy, but in the normal spectrum people are ridiculed for being interested in the lives of actors and pop stars. But it’s time to ask the question that doesn’t get asked: Is there merit in fascination with celebrities?
The issue came to my attention again as I recently began reading Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography. As one of the biggest celebrities of his era he held remarkable influence which he used to promote social and political causes, having significant influence in America’s involvement in World War II and surrounding conflicts. He connected with people by simultaneously reflecting the ideas of America-at-large, successfully making movie after movie, and selling his ideological views to the unconvinced.
Actors are deeply in touch with social trends and currents, they play the heroes we love, the villains we hate, and the everyday person that acts as our representative. Beyond this, films, television, music, and other facets of pop culture are able to bring people together, give them a common language and cultural parlance, and celebrities act as the bearers of this cultural weight. Humans learn the most important lessons in life through stories. We learn what love looks like and what loss feels like, even if only a shadow, and we remember these stories after we’ve forgotten facts and figures. This gives celebrities a lot of clout as they influence and portray the stories we see in movies and hear on the radio. Each celebrity’s personal life and opinion factors into the stories that they tell on stage. Celebrities interest us because they reflect us, an embodiment of prevailing trends and beliefs, making celebrity interest a strange mix of voyeurism and narcissism. They reflect unrestrained American culture, in all its kitschy materialism and in all its generosity. It is not foolish to pay attention, and it might be foolish to ignore.