Celebrities are Superhuman

Celebrities cannot be human. I doubt I am the first to conclude this; as we shall see, I think this belief has been internalised by most of us. No matter how stringently we might deny it, we would  feel  differently if we walked passed Beyoncé on the street then we do when we walk passed any ‘ordinary’ person. But while it may be enough to simply lament this odd dynamic, our subsequent veneration of celebrities clearly has some troubling implications that we should probably be more concerned about than we are. 

We are all aware of the impact celebrity intervention has on our awareness and prioritisation of issues. Would we really care so much about the situation in Tibet if the issue was not taken up by Richard Gere? Kurdish people also want a fully independent and autonomous state, and have also been subjected to cruel repression over their history, yet we seem to care less for them. Would so many of us be more outraged by violence committed against animals than the violence committed against people in, say, Somalia if the former issue had not been taken up a number of celebrities? Would so many people credit the claim that children can be cured of Autism, despite a complete lack of scientific evidence, if Jenny McCarthy did not lend her support to those advocating this position? I reckon probably not.

This veneration of celebrities clearly leaves us in a highly irrational position. The opinions of many of those in legitimate positions to contribute to public debate on an issue remain uncirculated within the public sphere, and stay within so-called ‘elite’ circles. Meanwhile, the opinions of celebrities who are likely to be less well-informed, and who certainly occupy a less legitimate position for pronouncing on issues, are given greater exposure to the public. But why does an opinion expressed by a celebrity carry so much authority for us?

Let me open with the premise that news-reporting is concerned with extraordinary events. Structurally, current affairs news broadly follows the format of either people doing extra-ordinary things or extra-ordinary things happening that will affect people. For example, this week we have seen reports concerning the Sumatran earthquake, anti-IMF riots in Istanbul, and ongoing discussion regarding policy in Afghanistan.

In contrast, consider some celebrity news reports this week. George Michael has been dismissing rumours that he and his partner are breaking up; Mel Gibson’s DUI has taken off his record; and Will Ferrel and his wife are expecting a third child1.

Are these really extraordinary events? I know a couple who have recently denied that they are breaking up, and they didn’t make the news; a guy I used to work with has recently had a DUI removed from his licence (admittedly without the racist back-story), and the media showed little interest; my sister recently had her third child, and received no news coverage. And yet, reporting these celebrity events in a way similar to how earthquakes, riots and warfare are reported encourages us to think that the conception of Will Ferrel’s third child is an extraordinary event: we should be surprised and interested that such ordinary and inherently human things can happen to him. But this encouragement to view such things as extra-ordinary events is pregnant with a further assumption. By persuading us that it is sensational when celebrities do characteristically human things, or characteristically human things happen to them, these stories are inculcating into us the notion that celebrities are not human. If celebrities were just ordinary folk, then there is no way that these events would be newsworthy; therefore, if these events are newsworthy (which we must allow, since they are in the news) then celebrities must not be ordinary folk. They are superhuman. As such, when celebrities do ordinary things it is against the natural order. It is perverse, shocking and scandalising. And we love it.

But, the existence of superhumans is a game-changer when it comes to ethical issues. It is the naturalisation of this view of celebrities, achieved through the celebrity gossip column, which leads us to endow them with this particular authority in public discussions noted above. Essentially, it ties authority to the very essence of celebrity. This means it is not what they do or say that makes us listen to their opinions; rather, our attention is drawn by the very nature of celebrity. Consequently, celebrities need not have any prior knowledge of a problem in order for their opinion about it to become an authority, circulated through the media and to be considered and even adopted by members of the public.

Clearly, this cheapens the value of public discussion, and potentially leaves it open to hijack and abuse. Celebrity gossip columns have a lot to answer for. 


1 You might object that I am clearly ignoring the two biggest stories involving celebrities this week: David Letterman’s admission of sleeping with his staff, and Roman Polanski’s arrest. While these both involve celebrities, I think that they both in fact qualify as “extra-ordinary events.’ Should an ordinary person have broadcast a confession that he had slept with a number of his staff to millions of people that would have been newsworthy; should an ordinary person who had openly avoided extradition to the US to face charges of having sex with a minor been finally caught, that would have been newsworthy. That being said, the fact that these stories involve celebrities has clearly made them bigger news, reinforcing how celebrities are ‘not like us.’

Martin Searle graduated with a B.A. in European Social and Political Studies from University College London. He subsequently worked for an international risk management company, and then on a campaign for the European Election held in 2009. He is now a graduate student of International Affairs at the New School.