April 5, 2001

Fame: America's New Pastime

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Attention ladies and gentlemen of all ages, races, and socioeconomic classes! Would you like your time in the spotlight? Do you want to be recognized by thousands, perhaps millions, of people? Do you lack talent or any redeeming qualities? Even better! Apply now. The odds of acceptance are in your favor.

If an advertisement for fame were needed today, it would probably take a form similar to the one above. But let’s be honest: fame is not a very hard sell. After all, it seems to be in such high demand in contemporary America that marketing the concept at all seems wildly unnecessary.

Although it might not seem so, the intrigue of fame has been an enduring phenomenon. Since early in the century, Americans have been fascinated with the culture of stardom. “Celebrity in the U.S. is our substitute for royalty,” said Glenn C. Altschuler, the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies. Traditionally, he says, we have been fascinated with the lives of the famous because they are perceived as far more exciting and interesting than our own.

The only thing different nowadays is that mass recognition is more accessible and attainable than ever before. Robert Thompson, Director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, attributes the fame-seeking trend to the increasing number of available outlets for expression. When television debuted about fifty years ago, there were only a few channels from which to choose. Today, cable and satellite subscribers can select from hundreds, many of which feature alternative programming to traditionally scripted sitcoms or dramas.

And so, in a country that formerly awarded notoriety solely to talented actors, sports figures, or journalists, Americans are becoming increasingly friendly to anyone with a story (or anyone willing to make one up). Capturing the eyes and ears of the nation no longer requires any demonstrated talent, as epitomized by the trash-talk genre, comprised of popular programs such as The Jerry Springer Show. “If you confess to some extraordinary dysfunction, you have an audience, if only for an hour,” Thompson said. It might be more than your Warholian fifteen minutes, but not much more.

According to Altschuler, the appeal of immediate fame is a natural outgrowth from years of admiring Hollywood and allowing celebrity culture to spill over into our social institutions and shape our values. As a result, he says, “The idea of instant celebrity is as attractive to Americans as rags to riches.”

Ray Browne, professor emeritus of popular culture at Bowling Green State University and editor of the Journal of American Culture, believes that our association with the famous arises from our beliefs about the contagion of greatness. People use celebrities as examples of how to elevate themselves above their current status. We have thus gained valuable experience watching professional entertainers wear the cloak of fame, and we are now ready to try it on ourselves.

Thus, unfortunately for many star-wannabes, majoring in theatre, hiring an agent, or waiting tables in Hollywood may no longer be the most promising roads to stardom. “You can skip all the acting lessons and be catapulted into the most popular show in America,” says Thompson, referring to Survivor 2: The Australian Outback, currently the top-rated program in the country. A-list stars are being supplemented, and in some cases replaced, with the guy or gal next door. To make the cut for most of today’s reality-based fare, there are really only two pre-requisites: on-camera presence and a little bit of luck.

For members of Generation X and Y, the former quality isn’t an especially effortful one to develop. Teens and twenty-somethings have grown up in the era of the VCR and the home camcorder. All of a child’s milestones, from their birth to bar mitzvah, are documented via camera, recorded onto video cassettes, and shown on their home TV. “There’s a sense,” explains Thompson, “that until you are on [television], you haven’t officially existed yet.” We thus learn at a very early age that if it’s important, it makes it onto the small screen. And perhaps it’s this embedded notion that progresses to a later, more pronounced desire to appear in living rooms nationwide.

Moreover, through countless appearances on home videos, we likely develop a sense of ease in front of the camera. This comfort might then readily translate to increasing confidence in one’s own star appeal and abilities. If we don’t have any qualms about expressing ourselves in front of the lens, then our stories and “performances” can become infinitely outrageous and uninhibited.

In any event, it’s hard to deny the seductive role of the camera in current culture. Even when we aren’t specifically meant to be in the view, we are lured there anyway. Case-in-point: those distracting passerbys who incessantly wave in the background of live news reports. And, of course, the now infamous horde of pre-teens who congregate outside of MTV studios each weekday afternoon during Total Request Live. They can’t actually see anything that’s transpiring two floors up, but they jump and scream violently nonetheless — all in the name of nameless two-second fame.

Thus, we seem to find it remarkably satisfying even if just our family or friends notice us on screen. But perhaps getting this first shot on camera is the logical starting point in someone’s ongoing quest for large-scale recognition. Browne sees it as an opportunity to “establish a bond of greatness.”

Yet even though young people today were born into a camera-frenzied society, the hunger for notoriety is not simply a response to the environment. “These are basic human desires and needs that we’ve probably had since we were in the caves,” reveals Thompson. This innate crave for recognition has always existed, but there was just a limited capacity for it before. Now the mass media, through its wide diversity of programming options, is able to sufficiently satiate the appetites of attention-starved Americans. “It allows [people] to grow in self-importance and may allow them to grow in public importance,” says Browne.

Our fame-seeking tendencies could also be a reflection of fundamental American ideals. Browne claims that fame-for-all is a natural offshoot of our democratic and capitalistic society. If equality in everything is the essence of our nation, then why should it be any different with regards to recognition? If those other people can be famous, we think, so can I. “Sooner or later, we are all heroes because we can all rise a little bit above where we were,” says Browne.

Reality-based television has certainly catered to the would-be hero since its conception. Nowadays, if you appear on the least watched program in this genre, you are still guaranteed an audience of at least a couple of million viewers. It has thus evolved into one of the most preferred manufacturers of celebrity. The current season of Survivor, for example, received nearly 50,000 applications, according to Time.com. Even shows that do not involve cash prizes, such as MTV’s The Real World, also attract tens of thousands of applicants each year.

Whether you are confessing the details of an extramarital affair on Jerry Springer or weeping about a cheating mate on Temptation Island, there will always be people listening. “Everything seems important, even though it might not be intrinsically important,” says Browne. “Everybody has a following.”

And since people often use reality-based programs as a springboard into a more established state of celebrity, the American audience has become the gatekeeper of their success. In essence, we decide the fate of the fame chasers.

Stars from the original season of Survivor would certainly attest to this. The nation adored the show so much that all 16 former contestants have remained in some form of the spotlight. I
t’s now difficult to turn on the television without one of them appearing as product promoters, guest hosts, or dramatic stars. Darva Conger received a similar seal of approval. She married a multi-millionaire on Fox, immediately divorced him, posed for Playboy, and now sells her own line of bath supplies. “She was playing star-search, wanted to be discovered, and got just what she asked for,” says Thompson.

On the other hand, we aren’t necessarily receptive to everyone. Last summer’s Big Brother was criticized for its boring cast and sleep-inducing daily episodes. Our dissatisfaction with the contestants is now evidenced by their virtual disappearance from the public eye. Who ever heard from grand-prize winner Eddie McGee again? He and the rest of the cast might have the support of agents, but not of Americans. And in an age of minute-by-minute ratings analysis, the cold shoulder can be a death sentence.

Besides falling out of national favor, the ever-loudening call for fame might have other repercussions as well. “You’re not doing other things, like improving your mind,” commented Prof. Dennis Regan, psychology. Opportunity costs, he says, may continue to mount if public recognition remains one’s sole priority.

And as the line between what’s public and what’s private becomes increasingly blurred, instant fame can result in psychological damage to your personal life and a stigma on your perceived image.

Becoming renowned for something you have done in the national eye can mean a pigeonholing of your identity; people might think that your personality is restricted to the one that they saw on TV.

Of course, it would be somewhat reassuring to think that only real talent is awarded with recognition, but all too many recent examples disprove that notion. Put simply, America prefers the outrageous. “We always seem to be inching towards the edge, and as soon as we get to there, we move a little further,” says Browne.

And as the modes of communication become more and more numerous and the societal craving for “real people” grows, the push of ordinary people towards that edge will only continue.

In the future, everyone will get his or her turn at the Fame Game.

Archived article by David Kaplan