Dream On as Celebrities sometimes cross over from media into our imaginary social worlds

This is Us

We live in a celebrity-saturated culture. But this saturation extends beyond our appreciation for talent, as celebrities may play a significant role in our everyday lives, beyond the roles they play on screen, stage or page. In fact we maintain imaginary social relationships with celebrities — people and characters that we have never known — more than we do with actual people. As such, celebrities may take on the social role of mentor or teacher, mother or father figure, imaginary lover, among many others. The form of social interaction between fans and celebrities is referred to as “intimacy at a distance.” In other words, we can become close to people that we do not know, and as such they serve an important purpose in our lives. Anthropologist John Caughey coined the term imaginary social relationship to describe the illusion as an important part of everyday life, in which consuming media “directly parallels actual social interaction.”

But how deep in our imaginary world does this go? For sure, we fantasize about celebrities, perhaps even fantasize about becoming a celebrity, and from time to time we may even try to reach out to a celebrity through social media. But do we dream of celebrities?

But do we dream of celebrities?

The Valentine’s Day episode of the highly rated television program, “This is Us,” may provide a clue. In the course of this episode’s narrative, the viewer sees an interview between one of the principal characters, Kevin, a celebrity in his own right because of his lead role in a fictional TV sitcom The Manny, and noted newscaster Katie Couric. In this episode, Kevin is about to embark on a serious acting career in his self-produced play, the subject of Couric’s interview. The interview goes well at the beginning, but turns dark when Couric begins to question Kevin about his past sexual escapes. Couric expresses her disgust at Kevin and after several moments she declares the interview is over. The viewer knows that something isn’t right with this scene — it’s a dream or rather a nightmare, and this becomes crystal clear upon wakening when Kevin telephones his ex-wife and she confirms that he having “that” Katie Couric dream again. Note: it is not unusual for us to repeat dreams.

This segment provides a beautiful illustration of a dream that includes a celebrity. A study conducted in the 1960s found that 1.6 percent of dreams contained celebrities that the researchers defined as prominent individuals. Twenty years later, another study reported that 11 percent of dreams contained media figures, a more expansive term that goes beyond entertainers to include sports figures and politicians, among others. Moving forward more than ten years, a study I conducted along with sociologist Barbara Vann, “Star Gazing: A Socio-Cultural Approach to the Study of Dreaming about Media Figures,” found that more than half of the respondents reported having dreams of celebrities. This increase in the number of celebrity oriented dreams could be a function of our ever increasing media saturation, or it could be a function of different or perhaps better reporting techniques.

To a great extent, celebrities who enter our dreams may do so as celebrities, but they quickly transform into something else and some other role. In the case of Kevin’s dream, Katie Couric steps beyond her role of interviewer to become the critical other who condemns his immoral behavior; not the typical role of a news interview. In other words, Couric mimics the critical role that Kevin’s mother plays when she finds out earlier in flashback that as a teen he is having sex with his teenage girlfriend.

Sharing our dreams with others is a way of creating intimacy and excitement in an otherwise mundane existence

There is another aspect of dreaming about celebrities that we can consider: dream sharing. Sharing our dreams with others is a way of creating intimacy and excitement in an otherwise mundane existence, as in “you wouldn’t believe the crazy dream I had last night.” In other words, telling others about our dreams, especially those containing a celebrity makes life more interesting. So, when Kevin calls his ex-wife/girlfriend, he is sharing something private and intimate — a dream — which is not something we would do with just anybody. The fact that Kevin has had this dream before, and his ex-wife recognizes it, serves as a signal regarding their intimate history.

The media in which celebrities exist is an imaginary world itself. Such a world is reflective of our collective unconscious rendered transparent for all to see and perhaps use. But rather than being part of a “collective,” as Jung might argue, the imaginary world of celebrities is highly segmented reflecting the tastes of individual fans. As such it is Katie Couric who appears in Kevin’s dream, not Donald Trump, although he will likely show up in someone else’s nocturnal dream or nightmare.

media content, which is to a great extent structured like a dream, may render it “undreamable”

It is perhaps easy to understand why celebrities show up in our dreams. Given our exposure to media, we could even imagine them showing up more often. So why don’t celebrities show up in our dreams more often? It is possible that media content, which is to a great extent structured like a dream, may render it “undreamable,” as we have already been exposed to it as such — a dream or dream-like experience. Regardless of the reason, we live in a world in which we are heavily socialized into a world of media, and sometimes celebrities cross over into our dreams; it’s just one of many options available to us.

It is interesting to see how a hit television show can illustrate for us how culture works — sometimes we dream about celebrities and recount our dreams to others. Dreaming of celebrities serves a social and cultural purpose, and along the way it just makes life a little more interesting.