Faux Fame or Worthy Celebrity?

Detweiler - matrix of meaningsIn a chapter on celebrity in the excellent book, A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture by Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor, the authors focused both on the human need for heroes and the contemporary problem of faux fame.
"Celebrities perform a valuable social and theological function. Celebrities sharpen our ideals, bear our disappointments, and promote our hopes of immortality. The problem does not reside in celebrity itself but in the shifting sands of our criteria for fame. Rather than labeling stars as idols to be resisted, I consider some stars secular saints that deserve to be celebrated, maybe even venerated." (p. 90)
The problem is that we’ve forgotten the original definition of “fame,” which comes from a Latin root roughly translated as “manifest deeds.” (p. 95) Fame was reserved for those who “deserved it.” But most celebrities today are the product of the mass media and publicists. Several years ago, David Boorstin poignantly wrote,
“Shakespeare divided great men into three classes: those born great, those who achieved greatness, those who had greatness thrust upon them. It never occurred to him to mention those who hired public relations experts and press secretaries to make themselves look great.” (The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, 1961, quoted on p. 95)
Craig Detweiler, a screenwriter and Hollywood insider, talks about his encounter with Paris Hilton.
“I first encountered Paris and her younger sister at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival. At virtually every party I waited to enter, the Hiltons arrived with an entourage and immediately were whisked inside, past security, beyond the velvet rope… Was she an actress appearing in one of the films? A jury member handing our awards? No, just a hotel heiress with sufficient funds to retain an effective PR firm.” (p. 105)
But there are indeed celebrities that are worthy of the title.
The authors cite Oprah Winfrey and Bono.
“Bono turned his position as spokesman for U2 into a campaign highlighting third world debt relief… He has met with politicians as diverse as Vladimir Putin, Bill Clinton, Jesse Helms, and Kofi Annan… Yet on The Charlie Rose Show, Bono shunned the label ‘role model,’ believing that his indulgences in alcohol, cigarettes, and profanity disqualify him. But like King David, Bono’s failings are central to his music and his mission. Whether discussing his doubts (‘I Still Haven't Found What I’m Looking For’), shaking his fist at God (‘Wake Up Dead Man’), or taking on the self-important trappings of celebrity (‘God Part 2’), Bono’s imperfections make him much more lovable and human… During an era in which everyone wants to be famous, he’s proven that hard work, generosity, faith, and sincerity can still be celebrated, even in the midst of doubt.” (pp. 121-2)
I interact with young adults just about every day in my college ministry. It seems to me that these young people are more astute to giving fame to those that are worthy of respect. For them, movie stars and musicians are given more status based more on the quality of their art and the integrity of their lives than on how physically attractive they are. However, I’m sure that today’s publicists do a large amount of work to massage the public perception of today’s celebrities.

I think of James Franco, star of 127 Hours, who has been travelling the talk show circuit and has been featured on the cable news channels a lot lately. The main line has been to call him “a modern-day Renaissance Man,” since for the past few years, while pursuing a very successful acting career, he's been attending graduate school at Columbia University, New York University, Brooklyn College and Warren Wilson College and is currently takes classes at Yale University and the Rhode Island School of Design.

The handsome star with a one-sided smile seems to have a lot going for him: looks, a genuine talent for acting, and a eclectic list of outside interests. But is he worthy of all the media attention, or is it all public relations smoke?

Detweiler and Taylor end the chapter by saying,
“May we recover fame—rooted in deeds, tested over time—and imagine a future in which everyone is famous for all the right reasons.” (p. 123)

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