Celebrities are today's most important icons, larger-than-life figures much like the ancient Greco-Roman gods, who embodied exaggerated human traits and who reached profound summits of triumph and troughs of tragedy. Celebrity adulation is so deeply entrenched in the media and our lives that it is difficult to remember a time when it wasn't this way.
However, celebrity as we know it today is actually relatively new. In the middle of the last century, the models used on posters and magazine covers were more often an anonymous symbols of beauty than cult personas. TV talk shows were hosted by academics, not actors. People have always had figures they could gossip about, figures who sparked feelings of titillation, amusement, fear, or adoration. But before the advent of the mass media, gossip was directed less at the nationally or internationally renowned figures that we consider celebrities than at figures well known within local communities.
To understand how celebrity worship has reached today's fever pitch, it is important to understand the role that gossip has always played in our communities. Many people would label gossip as trivial conversation, or worse, as the snide whisperings of scandalmongers, Academics once generally agreed, dismissing it as meaningless chat filling the spaces between more meaningful communication.
In reality, such “trivial” conversation plays a key role in our bonding with others, expanding our social networks. Chatting together helps us consolidate our relationships, deepen our understanding of ourselves and others, and lighten our burden of daily stress. “If people aren't talking about other people, it's a signal that something is wrong that we feel socially alienated or isolated,” says Ralph Rosnow, a professor of psychology at Temple University. Society at large also gains, for through the shared stories of success and defeat, of honor and scandal, we delineate our social ethics, goals, and values. Our social boundaries become clear. “Gossip's primary function is to help us make social comparisons”says professor of psychology Jack Levin of Northeastern University.
“Gossip shepherds the herd,” says Rosnow. “It says: these are the boundaries and you're crossing them. You're not abiding by the rules, and you'd better get back in step.”
Some social scientists believe that gossip has prehistorical roots. Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist, says that gossip plays a similar role to the social grooming found in primates. Apes continue to groom each other even after they are clean or free of insects in order to deepen their relationships and strengthen their social bonds. In our language-dominated society, gossip plays a similar bonding function. That likely explains why two-thirds of all conversations today are gossip-oriented, whether we are corporate presidents in the boardroom or mothers congregating in the baby's room.
At a time when the vast majority of humans lived in villages and rural areas, social grooming consisted of the exchange of stories about our neighbors, friends, and family members. Our communities became our identities. But in this era of super mobility, where most of us belong to multiple communities, from familial to professional, from Internet chat room to schoolroom, the value of talking about one’s neighbor or the village idiot becomes moot. Instead, new figures have arisen to provide opportunities for social grooming on a wider scale, figures whose renown cuts across the boundaries of our fragmented social identities. Celebrity has become our new universal cultural currency,
Our fascination with celebrities though, has not always been appreciated. Social experts once viewed the advent of modern celebrity and the cultish following it inspired as a sign of social malady, One team of researchers even went so far as to say that a third of all Americans show symptoms of “celebrity worship syndreme,” an ailment which in its most benign form manifests itself as a deep feeling of loss and meaninglessness. This ailment could progress to something more malevolent, including obsessive thinking and even such delusional behavior as stalking,
According to a more recent psychological study, however, gossipers are anything but social misfits. A study of youths from 11 to 16 years old showed that, for nearly one-third of a total sample group of 191, the majority of social time was dominated by celebrity gossip. This celebrity-oriented group actually had stronger social networks than their less celebrity-focused peers, for their facility to share current gossip enabled them to bond more readily with their peers as well as with those in other generational, socio-economic, and cultural groups.
In truth, celebrity gossip is less about celebrities than about us. Celebrities serve as our proxies, helping us navigate our way through our complex, fragmented social groups. Their successes and failures, their mistakes and foibles help us define exactly who we are and enable us to reach out to others we might not otherwise reach. Far from a malady, the celebration of celebrity enables us to connect with others more concretely.