Commodifying People: Objects, Idols, and Influencers

Heidi S.
14 min readAug 30, 2021

(This is Part 4 of a series on fame, but each part stands alone | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Interlude | Part 5 | Part 6 | Postlude)

In a recent interview with GQ, Olivia Rodrigo distinguished between her persona and her self. I’ve seen the members of BTS make similar distinctions. Upon releasing his D-2 mixtape, Min Yoongi a.k.a. Suga a.k.a. Agust D talked to Time magazine about how he can do different types of music with the different personas, and he seems to have a clear separation of those personas.

I think we all probably have different sides to ourselves that we show different people in different situations — you act differently at work than you do at home, for instance. But I don’t think that’s exactly how it works for famous people. Because their persona is the thing that’s being sold to people or used to sell other things. Your work persona is a different side of yourself, a celebrity’s work persona is an object being sold.

The question I have is: What does that do for someone’s sense of self?

I’m not famous, so I can’t answer this question from that perspective, but I can investigate some of the ways that celebrities are made into objects. And I can think about how that might feel.

A Sellable Product

Celebrities primarily talk to the media when they are promoting something or competing in something. The former always feels a little disingenuous, but we all know that’s what the person is doing. This media coverage is usually shallow, the celebrity talks positively about the project and their experience in helping to create it. Sometimes these interviews devolve into asking the celebrity about themselves and, in the United States especially, current affairs.

People who like their work like talking about their work. And you can usually tell when, for example, an actor genuinely likes the movie or show they are promoting. Or when an athlete is pleased with their teammates or happy with their performance. Likewise, you can sometimes tell when they don’t.

The actors in a film are important, but I’d love to hear more about set and costume design or sound editing choices. I’d like to hear more from the screenwriter about the story they told. And really from anyone who works behind the scenes in our standard entertainment fields. But the actors are the ones who have to sell the film. They’re the visual. They’re, in a large way, the product.

And we the public and the media often talk about them like they are a product instead of a person who is just doing their job. But it is just a job.

This is also why it’s odd to me that, in the US, we ask celebrities personal questions and to weigh in on things like current events that they may have a personal opinion on but may or may not be well-versed in and that it’s not their job to know about. I know what a whole bunch of celebrities think about vaccines, for example, and I probably shouldn’t, because they are just regular people, not medical providers, virologists, or epidemiologists. And, sure, they have a “platform” because of their fame, but we shouldn’t depend on actors (or singers or models or athletes or Kardashians) to share accurate scientific or medical information. Many of them are at fault, because the only thing they should ever say in cases like this is “listen to the people who actually know about this stuff, I’m just a fucking actor here to talk about my work,” and only the really self-aware ones ever do this.

But imagine being asked about who you are dating, about your children, about your bathing habits, about your eating habits, about your opinion on the governor of New York — while you’re at work. And then imagine having the media report these things about you like it’s news. Or about how “twitter responded” to some flippant comment you made because you’re on a press junket doing twenty interviews a day and you’re tired.

I know things about famous people that I don’t want to know because they are under a constant microscope and every vapid thing they say in an interview or on an Instagram livestream gets reported as if it’s important. And sometimes that thing is scrutinized by fans and the general public and then is treated like an absolute belief they hold that is fundamental to them as a person, or as an “inside joke” with millions of fans. You say you like girls who like carrots as a joke, and then you get pelted with them onstage for years.

I think these types of non-work questions either make the celebrity feel completely wigged out or self-important and like their opinion matters more than anyone else’s simply because a lot of people will hear it. And those celebrities will offer their opinions on things they have absolutely no business talking about. They certainly have epistemic authority to talk about their personal experiences and how social issues affect them, and they can post what they want on social media (though I think some of them should maybe check themselves on this), but anything beyond questions about the industry they work in goes way beyond what would be acceptable for any other work environment. And reporting about what celebrities post on social media like it’s entertainment news is absurd.

We all blur the lines between job and person in a capitalistic world where our only value is in our labor power and one of the first things we ask someone after meeting them is “what do you do?,” but a celebrity doesn’t get the identity of the job, their identity is the job.

I have to imagine that even if you are able to mentally separate yourself from your persona, it must be surreal to see your face on products or on giant screens or have millions of people see your Instagram posts. I just wonder if it makes you feel a little used.

Table with stack of books on it about Michael Jackson, Madonna, Marilyn Monroe, and Whitney Houston
Photo by DESIGNECOLOGIST on Unsplash

Looks

Part of being a product is looking a certain way. Celebrities have to fit into certain norms, and unfortunately this means very specific things in terms of appearance — body, weight, skin color, facial features, gender presentation, etc. There’s a lot to say about this, and many other people have written about this, so I’m just going to mention one example where a celebrity talked specifically about the harm of having their body size make news.

Jessica Simpson talked about how scrutiny about her weight had a lasting impact. In a People magazine interview she said: “I don’t think people always realized that there was a human being, a beating heart and working eyes with actual feelings behind those headlines and that words can hurt and stay with you for a lifetime.” And, “I spent so many years beating myself up for an unrealistic body standard that made me feel like a failure all of the time.”

I’m setting aside a lot here, but that sums up one of my points in this whole thing: celebrities are made into objects, but they aren’t objects. There’s a vulnerable human under the persona.

It’s not just women. Women are pretty clearly scrutinized far more, because there’s an implication in a patriarchal society that the only worth a woman has is her body (and specifically how it looks to the male gaze within some socio-cultural norm). But with the popularity of superhero movies, male actors are also pressured into looking like bodybuilders, and there are plenty of gross “fit to flab” stories about male celebrities in tabloids, too.

Part of that is the media, but I see people commenting on the bodies and appearance of celebrities all the time on social media. It’s not hard to find message boards and reddit threads full of awful comments or snarky mobs on Twitter. People were critical of Chadwick Boseman’s weight loss only to find out that he had late stage colon cancer.

It’s not that hard to not judge someone’s body or appearance, but we do it all the time (and we live in a whole lot of institutional structures that encourage this), and we especially do it to celebrities. And it’s true that celebrities exist, in some sense, to be seen. But the fact that people will mock a person’s looks the same way they’ll mock the new Doritos logo design says something about us and how quick we are to turn a person into an object.

Morals Clauses

Another part of being a product is behaving in a certain way.

Morals clauses prohibit certain behavior in someone’s personal life, and they have been used in contracts between actors and studios to ensure the actor upholds a certain image the studio wants to portray. Morals clauses are also used in endorsement contracts, because companies are depending on the actor/singer/athlete to sell their product, and if the public turns on them, they’re screwed. (Morals clauses are also sometimes included in divorce agreements.)

And the reason these exist is because “image” affects people’s buying habits. They’re considered to date back to Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, a 1920s film star who was arrested on rape and murder chargers just after signing a three-year $3 million contract with Paramount Pictures. He was acquitted, but the public had already turned on him. During the 1950s, a group of actors and screenwriters were blacklisted because they denounced the House Un-American Activities Committee for investigating alleged communists, and studios used the morals clause to end their contracts. Homosexuality also got folded into morals clauses in the 1950s, to the point where studios would hire private detectives to follow actors. Though, studios would usually create an alternate narrative — like force a gay actor to marry a woman — rather than invoke the clause. Gambling is also often folded into morals clauses, particularly for professional athletes in all major sports leagues. And as celebrity endorsements started becoming more prevalent in the 1980s, companies would also include morals clauses in their contracts. (Read more about all this here.)

You can see some sample morals clauses here. They’re usually pretty vague, as is most legalese: “[Subject] shall not commit any act or do anything which might reasonably be considered: (i) to be immoral, deceptive, scandalous or obscene; or (ii) to injure, tarnish, damage or otherwise negatively affect the reputation and goodwill associated with the Company.” A lot of things could fall under something like that, not to mention, there’s not widespread agreement on what counts as immoral or obscene.

The excuse always given for not including gay content in movies is that it will get censored in overseas markets. It is true that China has a ban on depictions of gay people in films and TV dramas and the CCP will censor media. But even they still allow danmei to be adapted into TV series via subtext and plausible deniability, so it’s not 100% clear where the lines actually are. And before you get too huffy about Chinese censorship, it’s not like non-heteronormativity is fully accepted or normalized in US media either. (Not to mention the US military reviews film and TV scripts and will reject those that don’t reflect its “core values” — theoretically, you can still make the movie without approval, but approval gives you access to equipment, filming locations, consultation, etc. —which is a form of propaganda.) Of course, there is a market for queer content in the US and beyond, but it has generally been seen as merely a “special interest” market and even when US studios do make movies with LGBTQ+ content, they don’t put much into the marketing.

Street-level view of people walking in a pride parade, many wearing rainbow socks
Photo by Angela Compagnone on Unsplash

That was a bit of a tangent, but it bolsters my point that celebrities are seen by their employers as marketable objects. And I get that we the public don’t want to support bad people, particularly if that support just encourages or gives them license to continue doing bad things. I don’t want to watch a movie or buy music made by someone who molested children, for example. But when it comes to morality, most things aren’t so clear cut. And studios, companies, and organizations have far more power than a single person, and they can (and do) manipulate narratives. And the court of public opinion, especially in the social media era, can take one tweet with incorrect information and have it in front of the eyes of millions of people in a matter of seconds.

All of this also must make a celebrity feel like they’re living in a fishbowl or having their every move being judged.

Idols

Idols are a very particular type of product that deserve a closer look.

The “American Idol” franchise aside, we don’t have idols in the US. Pop stars here just aren’t quite the same thing even though they both sell music and music performance and have similar pressures. Idols exist in countries including Japan (an industry that started in the 1960s), China, Taiwan, and Korea. And as K-pop especially appears more in the US, you’ve probably heard or seen it in popular media. You may have even heard BTS’s song titled “IDOL.”

I think a lot has been written and told about how grueling idol training is and how if you don’t end up in a successful group, you may ultimately just end up in debt. But my curiosity extends to what being an idol does to your sense of self. The term alone, “idol,” means “an object of worship.” It seems that because there’s an established training process, idols are aware that part of their job is being sold as a fantasy. But that has to affect your self-perception, not to mention your personal life.

Whereas in the US, dating rumors and relationships are sometimes used to fuel celebrity popularity, idols are not allowed to be seen dating or even to date at all. Agencies have said it’s because dating is a distraction, but others have suggested it’s to sell the fantasy of idols as accessible, especially to male fans of female idols, which certainly has some implications. In Japan there was a lawsuit where an idol was fined for violating the dating ban, and a court ruled in favor of her agency, saying that the dating ban was necessary “to gain the support of male fans.”

In 2018, two K-pop idols, HyunA and E’dawn, were fired by Cube Management because their relationship became public. In this NY Times article, South Korean music critic Kim Zakka, is quoted: “The K-pop idol industry is still based on the agency owning the idol, whose character the company creates. Since the business worked based on the fantasy of the fan having a pseudo-relationship with the idol, the idol dating in real life breaks the business model.”

HyunA and E’dawn are still together and have signed with Psy’s P Nation label. But it makes you wonder what it must have felt like for them, and what made them put their foot down and not go along with their agency’s initial denial of their relationship.

The TV show Hannah Montana made having an entertainment persona out to be something that could literally be taken on and off like a costume. But that was helped along by no one knowing her identity and the fact that it was a teen sitcom. Part of being an idol is to share personally identifying information (I can even tell you Kim Taehyung’s blood type — it’s AB), even if they do have a distinct persona and role within their group.

Former K-pop idol One put it like this: “Thrusting young adults into an environment where they are eventually going to have to come to terms with the fact that who they are to the public is not the same person they are on the inside is very problematic.”

Influencers

I would be remiss not to talk about the “influencer” phenomenon here, because they, too, are celebrities of a sort. All they do is sell an image or a perception of a lifestyle on social media (YouTube, Twitch, Instagram, Tiktok, etc.) to get sponsors who pay them to talk about their products. Influencers are also called “internet celebrities,” “social media personalities,” and even “lifestyle gurus,” depending on their content. They objectify themselves in a way that I don’t think entertainers do.

Frankly I find the whole concept of the “influencer” to be horrifying. No one ever says, “I want to be a commercial when I grow up,” and yet somehow this is actually a job in the 21st century. Influencers affect trends (i.e., sales) in fashion, beauty, video games, interior design, cooking, you name it. And they are masters of personal branding, or creating an image for commercial and social gain.

Side view of woman taking a photo on her phone of a neatly decorated table with platters of food
Photo by Ibrahim Boran on Unsplash

This isn’t just a US thing, even though it sounds like peak America. You can pretty much Google “top influencers in [any country]” and get a list. In China, there is a term — “wanghong” — to describe internet fame of this sort. Japan has had “net idols” since the 1990s.

There have been psychological studies on the effects that influencers (and celebrity worship in the internet era generally) have on their fans, and, unsurprisingly, it’s been found to harm young people’s self-acceptance. I’m not sure if this is really all that different from the effects of advertising in general, but it’s different in that it’s not a company coming up with an ad campaign, it’s a person intentionally selling a filtered image of themselves.

This feels a bit to me like we’re just enabling pure narcissism with financial reward, but a lot of work does go into producing content and maintaining a persona, and certainly not everyone who tries to do this is successful at it. Not to mention, influencers deal with stalkers and threats like other celebrities, and being on the internet means facing a cesspool of anonymous harassers as part of your job.

But you don’t get more person-turned-into-an-object than an influencer. And since it’s a relatively new phenomenon, I suppose I’ll have to wait to get a grasp on possible long-term effects on influencers themselves.

The commodification of the self means that selling yourself is your job. And even though you’re selling an image of yourself — some idealized version that meets unrealistic beauty standards, possibly strict behavioral standards, and demands from studios, networks, leagues, companies you have endorsements with, and the public — it’s not clear to me that human psychology can really separate those things, especially if you are young when you start.

There’s a phenomenon called “character bleed” or “losing yourself in a role” where actors have difficulty separating a character’s behaviors and thoughts from their own life. There’s not a lot of research on this, but it’s possible that there can be psychological effects of method acting or emotional aftereffects of performing, especially with the demand for “realistic” acting — which, incidentally, is a relatively new phenomenon — when an actor may try to draw on personal experiences to convey certain emotions.

But I wonder if there aren’t psychological effects that hold true for being a celebrity generally. Maintaining a persona, having your appearance and personal life scrutinized, being commodified, these are all ways of being objectified, and I feel like this must take a toll. From my personal experience, it never feels good to know you’re being treated like an object.

At the very least, I think it says something about our society in general that we’re very quick to objectify others. And we don’t seem to ever really question the bleed between person and product.

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Heidi S.

PhD in philosophy | Feminist | Anarchist | Pop culture junkie | Kpop listener | Actually Autistic