Capitalism and celebrity

Article @ Workers Power, published 20 August 2011

The last years of the 20th century might have invented girl-bands and Dolly the sheep, but it was the growing hysteria about the ‘celebrity’ that epitomises the period. Almost 20 years after the first airing of Big Brother, celebrity culture prevails as the modern, ultra-commodified ‘freak show’ of yesteryear, where raw wounds are exposed for us, the consumers, to pour over, admire and sometimes denounce.

Celebrity culture remains fascinating because it gives everyone the chance to be an armchair authority – part-psychologist, part-anthropologist, part-sociologist. Everyone could express a ‘professional opinion’ on Charlie Sheen’s televised personal breakdown, for instance.

However, celebrity is not solely a cultural phenomenon. The celebrity culture machinery is a tool of the political and economical system and, in itself, a consequence of the capitalist age. Sociologist Chris Rojek attributes celebrity culture to the commodification of desire, the ultimate stage of commodity fetishism. There are multiple methods and purposes for this.

Imagine that celebrity culture, a Hydra-like monster, has four stages of fascination and trance. The most basic sphere is one of pure celebrity worshipping. An individual, well-known for their talent, is under constant media surveillance, with an intricate apparatus of front and backstage personnel and plenty of businesses willing to use this person to make a profit.

The second stage of celebrity-watching is reality TV and all its acolytes: a world in which any ‘nobody’ can become a ‘somebody’ (for the best and the worst reasons), to be stalked and adored.

The third stage is an amalgamation of the first two. Celebrity and reality TV unite, in a super-profitable explosion of kitsch. This is usually populated by talented individuals or individuals turned into a ‘desired object’, a celebrity, by reality TV. Celebrity reality TV counts on nobodies who recently became somebodies to indulge itself in a tedious recycling of public figures, whose talent and cause of celebration is as blurred and as confusing as a recursionist painting.

Finally, the cycle relies on a destructive stage to purge some of these celebrities from the media stratosphere. This Shiva complex of continuous creation and destruction truly encapsulates the vicissitudes of capitalist culture. The downfall of the celebrity, through drugs or break ups with cheating lovers, is an essential moment in the drama, an intense personalisation and intimacy, mediated through the tabloids and ‘women’s magazines’. This exposes the apparently human failings of people who were raised to the level of a super-human only weeks before.

Celebrity culture has two clear purposes. The first is a mythological role. In a society where personal freedom is touted as the state of being, but constrictive moral codes prevail, the need for narratives-as-guidance for consumers on right and wrong behaviour is essential. Celebrities act as role models, while accessing a world most of us cannot dream of. Football players must be exemplary husbands and actresses need to have children as well as busy careers. They all must be beautiful, sober, eloquent, faithful – and married. They must all be the right size, have the right poise, car and other half. They must conform to the idea of perfection.

The second reason for celebrity culture to exist is to reinforce class divisions. The ruling class – masters of TV programming and propaganda tools – knows that it is in their best interest to create outlets where individuals can try their luck in the social mobility ladder. Reality TV is nothing more than the modern version of a public execution. From Big Brother to the X Factor, the fascination comes not from the entertainment factor, not from the voyeuristic effect, nor the capacity of the viewer to empathise with the seemingly real-life characters; the real appeal of reality TV is its capacity to elevate the viewer to the position of a main judge of the aspirations of working class people.

The contestants in the most recent X Factor, for example, demonstrate this phenomenon. From the pint-sized Cher Lloyd, via peroxide Katie Waissel, to the winner, Matt Cardle. Lloyd was from an impoverished family of Romani heritage, living in a caravan and whose uncle died mid-show of a drug overdose; Waissel a hairdresser’s receptionist and her grandmother a porn star; and Cardle was a painter and decorator. Another example is ‘The Only Way Is Essex’ (TOWIE), which casts a cornucopia of hairstylists and glamour models, unemployed playboys and small town ‘entrepreneurs’. One out of 10 TV shows will provide plenty of opportunities to see a group of young working class men and women, doing their best to reach much more than fame and fortune – they are, in fact, hoping to become part of the bourgeoisie.

The illusions of fame
Similar to characters in a Steinbeck play, these people don’t realise that such dreams are nothing but shadows. It is impossible to transcend the class divide by turning on the cameras and exposing your bits, bobs and whatnots to millions. The Times Magazine highlighted this fact by creating a ‘make-under’ shoot of the usually ‘caked’ TOWIE female cast: those attempting to jump classes have to do more than doll up. They are funny real-life experiments, similar to Eliza in My Fair Lady and Vivian in Pretty Woman. But contrary to a scripted story, the reality TV versions of the class chameleon are ultimately stripped of their posh colouring. Just as Victoria Beckham will never lose her WAG stigma, so will the TOWIE women be ‘Essex girls’ forever. Not because of their “residual glamour (…) unadulterated Essexness”, as Polly Vernon wrote for The Times Magazine article, but because ‘celebrity’ in and of itself does not transcend the class divide.

As comedian Chris Rock points out, there is a difference between being rich and being wealthy. Celebrities from reality TV can be rich. Yet, never will they be beyond scrutiny, their status legalised and their existence fully accepted. They are forever jumped up commoners in aristocrat’s clothes – they will never be of the privileged class. That acceptance is

reserved for those who hold capital and hence real power.
For those who mandate whether TOWIE or Big Brother will be on TV next week or never again, these cultural forms are necessary and profitable distractions from our lives. Reality TV is a distraction from the reality of poverty, exploitation and social oppression.

Until we create a society in which there is no longer a class gap, exploitation will continue to exist. To abolish the inequalities that allow people such as Amy Childs and Tiger Woods to be slandered and humiliated in the press, we need to abolish the class that rules the media and dictates the moral codes.