Why We Should Take Fame Seriously

Heidi S.
6 min readSep 12, 2021

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

Photo by Vincentas Liskauskas on Unsplash

So why did I write this series on fame?

The reason I find celebrity and fame so fascinating is because it’s a microcosm that reflects a lot of social values we act on without realizing it. The way we treat people we don’t know and objectify them, the way the media and social media operate alongside an exploitative economy, the pitfalls of consumerism — it’s all there. Even as I write this, I’m using celebrities as fodder for my ponderings.

My dream project is to talk to famous people to understand their experiences more fully, told in their own words. Of course, we can perhaps learn the most stark lessons about society from the way the most vulnerable are treated, but I also think we can learn another set of lessons from the way we treat the people we supposedly admire.

Lesson 1: We are quick to sacrifice people for the sake of gossip, discourse, and jokes.

If we are pulling for Britney Spears to get out of her conservatorship, which seems, by her own testimony, to be abusive, then it seems like we should value autonomy and self-determination. But the media and the public perpetually do not treat celebrities as if they exist for themselves and instead treat them as if they exist for us to talk about, judge, and make jokes of. When we take someone else’s personal issues to be entertainment, in a way we deny them their self-determination. Instead, we scrutinize them like they’re objects, which are easily expendable and lacking in intrinsic value.

Lesson 2: We say we value individualism, but we only value the appearance of individualism.

We don’t need fame to teach us this lesson, but when we think about who is famous, it’s a very small number of people, which leads us to think they must be special in some way. People do want to become famous both for narcissistic reasons and for validation, but there’s generally a job that goes along with fame. Celebrities are often entertainers and athletes who put in a lot of work for their professions, but they aren’t alone. They always have a team of people working behind the scenes, and they have to fit within a host of norms dictated by (an inequitable) society, but also by the studios, leagues, and companies they represent. They also have to make money for other people— or else they wouldn’t be covered in the media or endorse products. In the end, it’s a lot less about them as an individual and more that they simply “fit the suit.”

Lesson 3: Exploitation is ubiquitous, but that doesn’t mean it’s not harmful.

There are countless examples of celebrities who have spoken out about how harmful fame is, describing it as dehumanizing, as being bullied constantly, as belonging to everyone else, as having no privacy. It’s become more common for celebrities to talk about their mental health, but it stands to reason that fame itself could harm someone’s mental well-being. I think there must be psychological effects of being a celebrity, of wearing a persona, of being made into an object — of being exploited to the extreme. Part of my interest in this is because I’m autistic, and I do a lot of “masking” to try to fit in, especially at work, and I often feel alienated and a bit like an object. But I don’t have fans or the media or multi-billion-dollar companies expecting me to wear that mask at any given moment.

Lesson 4: The self is a precarious thing, and outside forces affect it.

Some people reach a level of fame where they aren’t just pawns, but have the livelihoods of a company, the reputation of a nation, and the aim of encouraging millions of people all around the world weighing on them. (Here, I have in mind BTS.) Even celebrities who aren’t that famous must be under a lot of pressure, and when there are outside forces depending on you and identifying with you, that must affect your sense of self. I think many of us know how easy it is to lose yourself when other people depend on you or when other people push their expectations onto you —but imagine amplifying that by millions, and it’s not clear to me how anyone could handle that kind of pressure.

Lesson 5: We live in a society where everything is for sale, including ourselves.

In capitalism, there’s a price on everything. We don’t need the institutions of fame and celebrity to tell us this either, but they provide a very clear case. When you are for sale as a product, that means a lot of parameters dictate how you can look, how you can act, and how you present yourself to the world. Selling some version yourself becomes your job, and in capitalism that means marketing yourself, presenting some version of yourself that fits into the right algorithms that predict the most clicks, most engagement, most profit. But if you’ve ever applied for a job, it’s like this too. The “ideal candidate” is always something unrealistic and unfair, even for the most mundane and unglamorous jobs. We have to work to earn money to stay alive, but we’re also expected to identify with our job, sell ourselves for it, feel lucky we have it, give it our all, even though most jobs are totally useless — what the late David Graeber called “bullshit jobs.”

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Lesson 6: We are constantly bombarded with messaging that encourages overconsumption.

People in the US especially are overconsumers — it’s not only the US, but we consume more energy, produce more waste, emit more greenhouse gases, and waste more food and water. Overproduction in the pursuit of endless growth encourages this. And I think it’s fair to say that our overconsumption extends to the media. Six conglomerates own most of the media, which includes both news and entertainment, and we are saturated with capitalist narratives that tell us to value wealth accumulation and products. We also have celebrities thrown at us to get us to buy things. We treat celebrities as if they are powerful, and the ones who are rich do have some amount of social power that most of us do not, but they’re also pawns of bigger capitalistic engines that just want us to spend more and consume more, and I don’t think it hurts to remember that.

This started with an exploration of the way Britney Spears has been treated by the media. I write this in the wake of seeing John Mulaney, a comedian, whose job isn’t one crafted like an influencer’s or an idol’s but who volunteers aspects of his personal life in his comedy, being eviscerated on social media and in the press. People on social media talk as if they have been betrayed by his life choices, as if they are owed a marriage that doesn’t end in divorce. I’ve seen the media take his openness about drug addiction and alcoholism as an opening not just to speculate about his romantic relationships, but to accuse him of sexual misconduct with absolutely no evidence. And it’s all very disheartening. This is a man’s life here.

The overarching lesson in all of this is that I think fame shows us how quick we are to dehumanize other people and see them as objects. Of course, we do also reward narcissists, and not all celebrities are good people. Some of them are outright bad people, especially as we reward billionaires (who shouldn’t exist) and politicians (who should be nothing more than public servants) with fame. But I do think we feel entitled to be more judgmental toward celebrities. Because they’re marketed to us in a certain way, we expect them to be more than human somehow.

If you take away one thing from this exploration on fame, I think it would be this: we’re all a bit dehumanized in this profit-driven economy, and even though changing our individual consumption doesn’t make much difference, I don’t think it hurts to remind ourselves that celebrities are just people, and the world would be much better off if we could all treat other people more humanely.

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Heidi S.

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