Celebrity talk and the problem of inequality

Do attitudes towards the rich and famous help to legitimize gross disparities in wealth and power?

Akile Ahmet
6 July 2015

David Beckham and Michelle Obama at the White House in 2013. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1992, social psychologist Michael Billig wrote a book on how ‘ordinary’ people talk about the British Royal family. He argued that through their conversations, people compared their situations with those of royalty in ways that made their own lives come out better—helping them to ignore gross inequalities of wealth and power in the process. This makes action on inequality much less likely.

Could the same be true today for the ways in which young people think about celebrity more broadly, and how celebrity is intertwined with inequality and austerity?

To explore these questions, Laura Harvey, Kim Allen and Heather Mendick from Brunel University in the UK revisited Billig’s work and published their findings in 2015. Their research focused on one apparently simple question: how do young people in England talk about contemporary celebrities, and what difference does this make?  

Inequalities between rich and poor in the UK are much greater now than when Billig published his book. Five years of austerity policies have meant that young people face cuts in education, health and youth services; increased levels of unemployment; and greater costs if they choose to attend university because of huge rises in tuition fees.

In this context, differences in wealth, status and opportunity between celebrities and the rest of the population both illustrate and accentuate the problems of inequality, and provide a space to explore how young people feel about and respond to these increasing disparities.

The Brunel team’s research examines how 148 young people who were interviewed at different locations in England respond to austerity in talking about celebrities. Like Billig, the researchers see talk as a space of social action, a way that people get things done. This doesn’t mean that young people deliberately set out to justify or legitimize inequalities—simply that particular patterns in their conversations end up doing so because they strengthen certain meanings that solidify as ‘common sense.’

By becoming more aware of these patterns it should be possible to call inequality into question, and open it up to a more energetic challenge. Five of these patterns emerged as especially important.

1.      Celebrities do extraordinary things

When young people talk about the extraordinary things that celebrities do, they position them as ‘better’ than ordinary people. Bill Gates was the most popular example of this kind of talk, often featuring in discussions about the ‘ideal celebrity.’ In one case an interviewee asserted that “he was like helping eradicate polio from the world,” and this silenced any criticisms of him and his work. Gates’ extreme wealth is also part of his extraordinariness as a celebrity, and is legitimized by being accompanied by talk of his philanthropic work. So for example, when one respondent said “he’s like a beast, he’s got loads of money,” another countered by saying that “he gives it away for free.”

Extreme wealth was also a feature of how young people talked about the footballer David Beckham. Here, as for Gates, Beckham’s philanthropy and hard work served to justify his wealth. As one interviewee put it, he trained “tirelessly, day in day out, in order to progress from £10 a week to £100k a week.” 

2.      Celebrities are ordinary within extraordinary circumstances

Young people want someone who they can relate to, and are drawn to those celebrities who they feel are ‘ordinary’ and do ‘everyday’ things. But what makes them ‘better’ than other people is that they manage to maintain their ordinariness in the extraordinary circumstances of fame and media scrutiny in which they find themselves. Foremost among such celebrities was Hollywood actress Jennifer Lawrence.

The respondents referred to her very public fall at the 2013 Oscars, the way in which she laughed at herself, and how she stated that she loved fast food and would never diet. As one interviewee said, “She’s just normal. Like she was on the red carpet, and she was ordering McDonald’s, and I thought she was cool.”

3.      Celebrities cannot do ordinary things in ordinary ways

Other participants in the study spoke of the fact that celebrities are subject to constant media scrutiny, and face press intrusion that they must ‘suffer.’ Echoing Billig’s findings about people who were talking about the royal family, some of the respondents talked about Prince Harry living in the media spotlight. One said that he thought Harry was “just trying to be a normal bloke, he wants to go out and have a good laugh…He just wants to be normal”—to which another  responded that she thought Harry shouldn’t have to “live a life of misery.”

4.      Celebrities are disgusting and inauthentic

By contrast, another pattern from the research described celebrities as ‘fake’ and ‘arrogant’, even ‘disgusting’ and ‘inauthentic.’ When talking about extreme surgery for example, respondents focussed on the likes of Nicki Minaj and Katie Price, speaking of them as ‘too fake’ and saying that “it’s the plastic surgery and stuff that makes me dislike her.” 

In relation to Minaj, one participant asked “How are you going to know if she is good person? She’s hiding behind an image that makes her look like a good person, then she must be a bad person.”

In contrast to the first pattern where ‘ideal’ celebrities were usually identified as white men, these examples were predominantly working-class and ethnic minority women: racism and sexism occur in the everyday processes of analysing which celebrities people feel are ‘real’ and ‘just like us,’ and which are not.

5.      Celebrity lifestyles are risky and vulnerable

In contrast to views of celebrities who have had plastic surgery, young people discussed the risky and vulnerable lifestyles of famous people who become addicted to drugs and alcohol with empathy and sympathy—like Amy Winehouse. As one respondent said, “They grow up like they’re already pressured from when they’re kids because they’re famous and then as they grow up they just give up caring anymore.”

Stories of ‘car-crash’ celebrities like Whitney Houston and Lindsay Lohan circulate as cautionary tales of what might happen if you become famous. Their overdosing on drugs and alcohol, and their risky lifestyles which are constantly reported in the press, make them appear as warnings. Some interviewees felt that celebrities had a greater level of vulnerability to these ‘risky’ lifestyles because of the pressures they faced. In so doing, they presented their own lives as safer and more desirable.

So what have we learned?

Young people discuss celebrity lives critically in relation to success, money, hard work, philanthropy and authenticity. This is a long way from the media stereotype of teenagers who idolise celebrities and want to become just as famous. In fact, their ‘celebrity talk’ is much the same as that of people who are older. Both groups focus more on the downsides of celebrity than the upsides of fame. While this may initially be reassuring, the patterns found in the Brunel research constitute a problem for anyone who wants to challenge social inequalities. Why is that?

In talking about celebrities, young people are also talking about themselves. The claims, criticisms and justifications they make about celebrities operate as evaluations of themselves and the world in which they are growing up. These evaluations matter.

Talk of ‘extraordinary’ celebrities who ‘triumph over adversity’ makes it seem as though such people deserve what they have. Talk of ‘vulnerable’ celebrities makes it appear safer to stay within the realms of anonymity. In these ways, talking about celebrities may serve to legitimize the massive inequalities that young people see between their own lives and those of the rich and famous, at least indirectly.

In addition, by talking about ‘ideal’ celebrities like Bill Gates and David Beckham who are male, white and middle class, and labelling others as ‘disgusting’ like Nicki Minaj who is female, black and working class, inequalities based on gender, class and race are reinforced.

It is especially important to explore the power of such cultural stories in the current context of deepening austerity in the UK and elsewhere. By breaking apart and analysing these stories we can begin to create new narratives to support the transformation of society.

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