Shadae Ellmers, 300433765, Tutorial: Friday 12pm
What is the social function of celebrity? Explore with reference to one of the following: scandal, death, or marriage.
Through celebrities, audiences can find connection and an escape from their own lives and problems. A celebrity can often be defined as a ‘human pseudo-event’, where they are the human equivalent of an event organised exclusively for the media that establishes significance of the person based on level of media exposure and evaluation (Turner 2014, 5). The celebrity plays a crucial role in the development of popular culture and the understanding of human behaviour. Through the analysis of the deaths of celebrities and the corresponding reaction from media and audiences we are able to develop our understanding on not only a celebrity’s purpose in the modern world but the social function celebrities provide for our society.
Michael Jackson, a significant pop icon as well as humanitarian, died in 2009 from cardiac arrest. His death shocked fans across the globe and can be argued as one of the most devastating celebrity deaths in history. Though his talent and social status in the media was significant enough for him to labelled as the ‘King of Pop’, following his death his name was pushed to heavy public knowledge where the world grieved the loss. This gain in media attention not only had a positive impact on Jackson’s image, but in contrast had a negative effect on it also. Jackson’s death effectively shows the strong parallel between functions of celebrity and those associated with religion (Turner 2014, 6). The similarities can be seen through the emotional experiences and connections between Jackson and his fans, where they idolise him and praise him for his work. Following his death, this connection was amplified as fans mourned the loss with copious amounts of tributes to show their appreciation for the star with heavy emotion as they claim he was like no other, which is significantly similar to the reactions you would expect when worshipping a religious figure. Jackson’s death helps us to understand that a social function of a celebrity is possibly supplying our modern world with a substitute for religion, where it has been declining in Western culture (Turner 2014, 29). This gives fans of a celebrity a person to idolise and praise where organised religion is lacking, giving the celebrity a purpose in their lives as an influencer. However, Jackson’s death opened critics to analyse his life’s work in alliance with his personal struggles without his defence. In these circumstances, the media is free to broadcast any opinion which is consumed by audiences without sufficient room for argument. Considering the contemporary celebrity culture that is made up of the relationships between celebrities, media and audience, there is an increase in interest of a celebrity’s private life over the public image (Bulck ; Panis, 242). In the case of Jackson’s death, his public activism has been ignored and the focus by media is on the scandals of his private life such as plastic surgery, owning a chimpanzee and his abuse allegations. Without viewing the other side of the argument, the media had the ability to represent Jackson in a way that showed him as a not-so-godly human. This way the media portrays Jackson as an imperfect human refers to the German word ‘schadenfreude’ which explains the pleasure people feel in the misfortunes of other people where it can be argued that it is tied deeply to our ideas about social standards and moral appropriateness (Hanukov, 657). This indicates that celebrities have the social function of providing people with a moral advantage in a way that allows them to feel that celebrities are equals to them, instead of more superior in status. This provides a juxtaposition of social functions in the context of Jackson’s death, where his case proves that the social functions of a celebrity can be simultaneously positive and negative, with one function providing an idol to the audience while the other providing a flawed human that carries the expectation of perfection.
Kurt Cobain’s death in the media generated excessive intrusion of his private life as well as the glamorization of his suicide. His death in 1994 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound sparked an outburst of emotion as his music in the band Nirvana was impactful to many fans across the globe. Due to his death being far from ordinary in the details, a high amount of media coverage was generated with a large quantity of speculation from not only the tabloids but especially Cobain’s audience. This lead to a significant amount of conspiracy into the causes of his death and doubt about the verdict, which continues to this day. This speculation is formed by audiences due to the para-social relationship fans have with Cobain, where fans believe they have a genuine form of relationship with Cobain through listening to his music without having any sort of social interaction with him (Marwick ; Boyd, 144). Due to the close relationship felt by the fandom, they feel it is acceptable to pry into the personal details of the death and interpret their own conclusion as to what “truly” occurred, where if Cobain was just an average person with no fame it would be insensitive to delve into the details of his suicide. The conspiracy theories generated from his death reinforces the idea of idolising celebrities, as audiences believe that a death that any mere mortal could suffer does not seem adequate as celebrities are perceived as superior and should accordingly have an unordinary and extravagant demise (Ballinger, 181). Therefore, the conspiracy theories formed from Cobain’s death along with the idolisation of his public persona form a immortalisation of him, where his image is constantly given attention in the media. With his tragic death being a circulating topic and the conspiracies generating that follow it, grief and what is acceptable for mourning can be explored in terms of the para-social relationship formed. Because of the attachment a fandom may feel between them and a celebrity, when a death of that celebrity occurs a significant amount of grief can occur without the fan having any connection to the celebrity physically. This is due to the end of the para-social relationship which can feel detrimental to the fan despite the relationship being illusive (Cohen & Hoffner, 645). This forms significant amounts grief for the celebrity, though when compared to the grief of perhaps a death of a friend with a shared physical bond it would almost equivalate in amount of mourning. This shows that the celebrity can form a bond with its audience even after death and evoke emotion. This indicates the celebrity is also a cultural formation that has a social function where the celebrity is able to produce communities of fan groups but also influence the lives and emotion of its audience (Turner 2010, 14), which Cobain has achieved before and, importantly, after his death.
The deaths of Cory Monteith and Amy Winehouse mutually demonstrate the social functions of a celebrity with the difference of gender. Amy Winehouse died of alcohol intoxication in 2011 while Cory Monteith died of combined drug intoxication in 2013, where they share the similarity of high profile celebrities dying from substance abuse. The media saw these deaths very differently despite sharing the same circumstances. While Monteith’s death was depicted as tragic and unfortunate, Winehouse’s was depicted as expected. This is significantly due to the role of the media in presenting the information when the deaths occurred, especially from tabloid journalism. Media news sources such as gossip magazines and sites, as well as the power of modern technology and the internet that amplifies freedom of speech, have a great deal of power in projecting the discourses of celebrities (Marwick & Boyd, 155). These sources typically enforce hegemonic ideas in our world, particularly old-fashioned ideas about the moral-code of being women that tell the reader how to live their lives by praising or demonising celebrity women (McDonnell, 70). Due to Winehouse’s death being substance-abuse related, tabloids used this to dehumanise her. Media outlets use her tragic death to enforce the idea of schadenfreude, where audiences feel better about themselves for having minor inadequacies in comparison (Hanukov, 657). However, when the death of Monteith broke headlines, media sources were not invalidating his death due to the drug incorporation but portraying it as tragic and catastrophic, despite it having the same circumstances as Winehouse’s death involving substance abuse. The reason for this difference in portrayal reflects the ideals of the gossip magazine audience, who are primarily female (McDonnell, 70), of their need for moral superiority contrasted with the heteronormativity ideas of men as dreamy heroes who can do no wrong. This portrays not only the greater hegemonic issue in modern news broadcasting but also that celebrities serve a judgemental purpose, where they exist for the audience to debate and analyse their actions. This enforces the idea that the celebrity is a discursive effect where stardom is achieved through the media attention gained which changes how you are consumed, while being both empowered and exploited simultaneously. Therefore, this presents the celebrity as a commodity that is can be manipulated and portrayed (Turner 2010, 13-14). Therefore, by analysing the effect of the deaths of Winehouse and Monteith, the understanding is clear that celebrities have a social function of being a commodity that media can control as well as proving that the audience is also a commodity that can be manipulated (Hanukov, 652).
The high-profile celebrity deaths of Michael Jackson, Kurt Cobain, Cory Monteith and Amy Winehouse help illustrate the social function of a celebrity, where their purpose is not directly positive or negative in the modern world but still fall under the purpose of providing society with opportunities for idolisation and relativity. These deaths provide understanding into the behaviour of the celebrity, media and audience as an interwoven relationship that can be used to analyse how the celebrity is not only there to entertain but to fulfil our social needs in the modern world where it may be lacking. Therefore, this indicates that the social function of a celebrity is constantly evolving to fit humanity’s needs.
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