Charlie Sheen's magnetic meltdown: Why do people care about celebrities?

The thinking behind the news.
March 3 2011 5:17 PM

The Irresistible Charlie Sheen

Why do we care about celebrities?

Charlie Sheen. Click image to expand.
Charlie Sheen

Serious question here: Why do people care about celebrities? Lacking whatever gene inclines people to tune to Inside Edition, or pick up US Weekly, or care what's up with Brad and Angelina, I have never understood. But while I am not much interested in celebrities, I am extremely interested in why other people are so interested in them. Here are some of the better theories.

Jacob  Weisberg Jacob Weisberg

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

The most obvious explanation is that humans enjoy living vicariously through those of our species who are richer, more famous, attractive, and sexually desirable than the rest of us. Whether couched in terms of envy, admiration, or derision, celebrity fascination begins as an exercise in imaging what it would be like to lead a more carefree and pleasurable life. Charlie Sheen's spree plays into the fantasy many of us harbor about taking leave of bourgeois convention. Flying off to the Bahamas on a private jet with beautiful porn stars, filling your briefcase with bricks of cocaine, telling the boss to go screw himself—this is behavior that bridges the gap between "how deplorable" and "if only I could."

The flip side of the fantasy of irresponsible fabulosity is schadenfreude—the pleasure we take in the misfortune of others. Gossip journalism has in recent years come to revolve more and more around the celebrity crackup. Sheen's implosion comes on top of those of Britney Spears, Mel Gibson, Tiger Woods, and many more who have massively embarrassed themselves in the media spotlight. Seeing the rich and famous screw up makes us feel superior, or at least not quite so inferior. Your life might suck, but it's probably better than Lindsay Lohan's or Brett Favre's at the moment. And thanks to the advent of reality TV, a lot of celebrities aren't even better-looking than you, either.

Our fascination may also go deeper than positive or negative identification and feed some fundamental human craving or embedded mental structure. One suggestion is that celebrity tattle sates our appetite for narrative. In his book The Political Mind, linguist George Lakoff discusses why Anna Nicole Smith's story had such purchase. He argues that certain "frame-based scenarios," like rags-to-riches stories, trigger an emotional response because they're imprinted in our brains. If we examine celebrity stories, the ones that gain greatest traction usually conform to some such primary structure. Charlie Sheen's downfall, for instance, is a classic "bad-boy" narrative—often the prelude to a "Prodigal Son" tale of redemption.

At a deeper level, celebrities may serve as surrogates for gods or heroes. Not long ago, I reread The Odyssey and was struck by how much Homer's gods resembled tabloid stars. Self-centered and vain, they go on drunken rampages, cheat on their partners, break promises, and demand constant adoration. The big difference is that the Greeks held them in awe, as opposed to the mixture of awe and contempt with which we regard most celebs. Because celebrities arrived during the early part of the 20th century, it is natural to suspect they may have filled the gap left by something that went away around the same time. In his 1962 book The Image, the historian Daniel Boorstin argues that celebrities replaced heroes. (It was Boorstin, not Andy Warhol, who came up with the idea that a celebrity was someone famous for being famous, or as he put it, "a person who is known for his well-knownness").But because celebrities are mere projections of ourselves, Boorstin argues, the effort to fill the heroic void with them is doomed to frustration.

Celebrities also play a role as a social lubricant. They give us something to talk about—a phenomenon that's especially pronounced online, where celebrity meltdowns are magnified to awesome proportions. There's a socially leveling aspect to this conversation. Like sports and the weather, celebs provide a democratic common ground. Shared amusement and scorn unifies us across ordinary social barriers. Through ritual public shaming, we affirm communal strictures against adultery, public intoxication, and other forms of misbehavior.

Next come various theories based on evolutionary psychology. Gossip clearly plays some elemental function. As Robert Wright put it in The Moral Animal, "knowing who is sleeping with whom, who is angry at whom, who cheated whom, and so on, can inform social maneuvering for sex and other vital resources. Indeed, the sorts of gossip that people in all cultures have an apparently inherent thirst for—tales of triumph, tragedy, bonanza, misfortune, extraordinary fidelity, wretched betrayal, and so on—match up well with the sorts of information conducive to fitness." At the level of instinct, our brains don't distinguish between gossip about people we actually know, and people we see regularly on TV or in magazines. Support for this idea comes from my colleague Jack Shafer, who noted some years ago the high proportion of celebrity news that is about reproduction and child-rearing. Hollywood stars serve as proxies for our ancestral in-groups in the contemplation of reproductive strategies.

Another version of this theory comes from a 2008 article in Scientific American ($), which attributed our celebrity obsession to status-jockeying. Some research findings: Men are mainly interested in gossip about men and women mainly interested in gossip about women; we care much more about those above us in social hierarchy than those below; we care more about people in our own age group; we care more about negative news (someone got arrested) than positive (someone won an award). According to Frank McAndrew, professor of psychology at Knox College, we instinctively collect information that can affect our social status. Negative information about higher-status, same-sex others is ammunition against biological competitors.

Finally, celebrity obsession may simply be economically rational activity in the sense that everyone involved in the value chain—celebrities, agents, producers, paparazzi, publishers, etc.—makes more money than they would otherwise. Celebrity "journalism" is not only diabolically popular but cheap to produce, which explains why People is America's most profitable magazine. To become a celebrity requires no talent beyond what Boorstin described as the ability "to get into the news and stay there." And for many, public humiliation may be a better business model than trying to gain admirers—see index under: release of sex tape, "accidental." Charlie Sheen may not get $10 million for his memoirs, but they're worth more than they were this time last year. It does not seem impossible that his "breakdown" has been entirely calculated.

Thanks to @Hirschorn, @williamcfoster, @pauldevlin and Laura Kipnis for sources and suggestions.

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