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The Research Nest

The Science behind Celebrities and Reality TV

Phenomena with more thought and logic to it than you think

This article is about celebrities in the context of popular culture and about the ideologies that are hiding behind these personas. The phenomenon of “celebrities” can be regarded as a culture because they are a group of people who have their own way of life. They are in a sense different from the masses, they stand out and it is almost impossible to join their group. Celebrities have therefore this unique competency because not every person is a celebrity, one must have some key distinctive signifiers that make that person part of this cultural group. However, their way of life is in the essence not so much different than from the masses, but, they do get recognized by numerous people all the time and have other professions. Why is that?

In this article, the popular culture of “celebrities” will be explained through certain ideologies. Celebrities as we know them today mainly exist because of postmodern inventions. I argue that postmodernism is one of the many ideologies that make celebrities tick. As you will notice reading this, there are a lot of more ideologies that are the drive behind celebrity culture. Ideologies such as panopticism and personalisation.

Besides mapping the ideologies of celebrities, I try to discover how celebrity culture became such a significant modern culture in present time. The number of celebrities has exploded in the past years, how did that happen? How and why are they part of this celebrity culture?

Postmodernism

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels

First of all, what is postmodernism? Postmodernism is defined by various characteristics. Firstly, in postmodernism the notion of culture and society becomes the same. I.e. the distinction between the two decreases. This definition reflects back to celebrities because we see celebrities through mass media and we immediately think that the person behind the celebrity is the same as the person we perceive (which surprisingly is often not, never meet your heroes).

Secondly, in postmodernism, we attach as much, if not more, value to the image than to the actual content. This also often reflects back to our society because we often listen to celebrities without actually being critical ourselves and question the things we see and hear. For example, if you admire the celebrity, Donald Trump, you can easily get caught up in what he is presenting as the truth. It is therefore important to always check the facts. Do not rely on the tabloids, but check multiple sources.

And thirdly, in postmodernism the distinction between high and popular culture is being broken down. Celebrities are part of popular culture. But we often see their culture as reality and we can think that famous people are experts in their field. Fake judges on TV can be perceived by people as professional judges who can actually decide on the faith of criminals. And vice versa, we can see that high culture will become part of popular culture as well. E.g. psychologists with their own TV show perform their expertise on TV for a mass audience. Everything is possible with the modern outputs of today.

Reality TV, real and staged

Photo by Rishabh Varshney on Unsplash

Ordinary people that practice any popular artistic activity, such as; making television, creating popular music, etc. in the public sphere will probably get attention from a great number of people. This is because people can make effective use of mass media, and with mass media one can achieve mass attention. Especially in this time where globalisation has reached an ultimate high point. The result, normal people become famous. Look at the rise of reality TV in the past years. Normal everyday people that take part in dating shows on remote islands reach an unbelievable amount of online followers.

Reality TV, the postmodern phenomenon of broadcasting someone’s’ everyday life is a typical example of popular culture. They put the entertainment culture in a real-life context. The audience will perceive this as reality, but mostly it is all staged. The audience thinks they see everything in their life, but instead the directors and producers only filter out the good parts. They leave the majority of real-life out of the actual episodes because it is simply not entertaining enough to gain profits out of it. Researcher Rutger Bregman argued in his new book ‘Humankind’ that people are by nature not as extreme as we see on reality TV. Participants are often urged by tv producers to do crazy stuff to make the show more entertaining. Bregman argues that this practice has given us an overly dramatized worldview in which we think that we live in a world with crazy people.

The panopticon prison by Jeremy Bentham / Public domain

The existence of reality shows is a typical example on how we as a society want to document and survey as much of everyday life as possible. These shows are based on the ideology of panopticism, in other words, behave as if you are being watched all the time.

This ideology is derived from the panopticon prison created by Jeremy Bentham. A panopticon prison is a round prison with a watchtower in the middle, this way the prison guard can watch the prisoners with little effort and walking around. Prisoners in such prison don’t know if they are being watched or not so they learn to behave as if they are being watched.

The abandoned panopticon prison Presidio Modelo in Cuba — I, Friman / CC BY-SA

This practice has extended to society as a whole and can also be related back to various reality TV-shows such as Big Brother and Jersey Shore. In these shows, the idea of this panopticon machine has been put into practice.

The idea behind reality TV shows almost always follows the same principle. You put a selected group of people in one house and document every single move of them, 24 hours a day. But not only in TV-shows, but you can also see signs of the experience of being watched. Celebrities are in the everyday part of the panoptic machine because they are in real life watched by many people every hour of every day. It could affect their private lives as well. Often celebrities get recognized on the street and even if they are not, the feeling of being watched could be ingrained in their way of life. This indicates that celebrities also behave and act according to the ideology of panopticism, whether deliberately or not.

Putting fame into use

Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels

Celebrities often appear in all kinds of media, you can almost say it is in their nature to appear in the media. They do that through participation in radio and television programs, advertising, movies, you name it. Through media appearances they do not only present themselves to the masses but they can also send a message, an ideological message to their audience. Real-life soaps are a good example of a medium in which celebrities can present themselves.

Real-life shows feature countless celebrities that show an ideal picture of their life to the people at home. Audiences see how celebrities dress, how they live, which products they use and they get influenced by these images. This influencing is possible because celebrities put a certain image on products. It gives people a reason to say: “This celebrity uses this product as well”. It is not for nothing that reality star Kylie Jenner is the youngest self made billionaire in the world at the age of 22. People just like to buy products that are ‘used’ by people they know and admire.

This is the reason why celebrities are often asked to promote certain products online. They reach a tremendous public with only one post. These celebrity posts and images will be perceived by the public as a realistic dream, which turns into desires. This phenomenon of promoting products and people buying the promoted goods is driven by the ideology of consumerism. A dream to not only have the same goods as the celebrity but also have the emotional fulfillment of keeping up with a trend or fashion.

It can go even further, celebrities can show their political preferences to influence their audiences to vote the same as them. Politicians might not consider artists and celebrities as legitimate representatives of their political views, but they reach a massive audience that would otherwise not be reached. The media is an enormous vehicle for celebrities to advertise and promote their ideas. Take Hillary Clinton for example. She managed to have numerous celebrities such as Bon Jovi and Lady Gaga to vouch for her publicly. This shows that celebrities can also use their identity for political purposes, a phenomenon that politicians copy now from celebrities.

Politicians

Photo by Jørgen Håland on Unsplash

In current times politicians are behaving almost as celebrities themselves. Some put themselves more in the picture than their political views or their political parties. The fact that politicians do this has a very important reason.

The ideology that drives them is called personalisation. What is meant by the personalisation of the politician, is the abandonment of the political and closing in on the more personal side of the politician. Modern days’ society does not want to be bothered by challenging information and texts, they want to be entertained in a fast and understandable way, and an effective politician understands that from its constituency.

People are living in an entertainment culture. Thus, vehicles for entertainment have become the dominant way to get a message across. This phenomenon has encouraged politicians to change their traditional way of doing politics and shifted towards a more entertaining, celebrity style of engaging with the public. They do this by moving away from ‘politics’ and starting to present and develop the picture of the ‘politician’, the ideological practice of personalisation. As former Conservative government minister David Mellor quoted “A senior politician is only a sound-bite away from destruction”. This perfectly explains that the modern politician has a better chance of success.

Photo by Kayle Kaupanger on Unsplash

A perfect example can be seen in the American president Donald Trump. He did not present himself to the United States with a lot of difficult political statements and policies, but he managed to stay personal and let the citizens relate to him. Trump managed to speak in a way the majority of America would understand, not as a politician but as an American citizen. This does not mean the American people fully understand Trump’s political message and plans are for America but he got their votes either way.

The fact that people abandon the actual message and only listen to statements with limited content is a perfect example that fits right into the before mentioned postmodernism. How the distinction between high culture (the political plans) and popular culture (Trump’s popular statements) is deteriorating. Classic postmodern behavior.

Another example of the fading importance of politics in the political sphere is with the election of the bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger. He won the gubernatorial elections in California in 2003. It is believed by author van Zoomen that the electorates had voted for him based on a certain Hollywood attractiveness, instead of his actual policy plans.

As mentioned before, politicians must find ways to be a modern politician in order to become more successful. This means they must find more ways than the established platforms, such as the newspapers, political rallies, and debates on tv. Present-day politicians use multiple platforms to get their message across now more than ever. Politicians will make daily use of social media (Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram) and post personal or work-related information on Facebook and Twitter. Furthermore, some politicians have books, documentaries, or movies made about themselves for promotional purposes. Or they made movies themselves to promote their message. An example of such political movie is the movie Fitna by the far right-wing Dutch politician Geert Wilders. In the past, he made a movie himself called ‘Fitna’, a mini-movie in which he warns the world for ‘the dangers of the Islam’.

A clear example of convergence because this movie stressed Wilders’ own political views in an alternative way through the use of a movie. This kind of phenomenon is an example of ‘convergence culture’. Convergence culture is the flow of content across multiple platforms. The widening of platforms is mainly focused on the news consumer/the public so a message will reach its public easier and faster.

Conclusion

We can conclude that celebrities are “celebrities” because they have a profession that is focused on the public sphere and they reach a massive audience through this sphere. The encompassing ideology behind this reach is postmodernism. It is postmodern because celebrities step away from their traditional way of doing their business and they embrace the popular modern forms of culture.

More and more practices and forms of art and entertainment are being accepted by mass audiences and the mass audiences are more easily reached through the support of globalisation. Hence, the distinction between popular and high culture is weakened and the postmodern ideology is widened. Media is an important vehicle for this. Through the various types of media, celebrities are being seen. they have many purposes for this; promote themselves and their ideas, to promote products and sometimes to promote politicians. Examples of this have been seen in movies and in the music industry, but also in the political sphere. Politicians noticed that they could reach a bigger audience if they stepped away from traditional politics and moved on to the picture of the modern politician. the ideological practice of personalisation. The profession what once was far away from the ordinary citizen has become more relatable and closer to the public.

This again relates all back to postmodernism because the distinction between the ‘high’ and ‘popular’ continues to be narrowed down. Therefore, one must remain critical with one’s media consumption. Is the idea that is presented honest or is there a bigger idea present such as self-promotion? Because at the moment we get distracted by the popular, we could lose the relevance that matters.

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Evert Voshart

Evert Voshart

Tech & Media — Money — Politics — Books — Language/Culture