Practices of Looking

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The difference between a hero and a celebrity

1) Who are they?

A hero is authentic, whereas a celebrity represents derived values. A hero has achieved something; a celebrity is merely well known. A celebrity portrays an image, rather than her true self, with all its flaws and inconsistencies. Celebrities, like Madonna, continually re-invent themselves to stay in the public eye. What becomes important is not who Madonna really is, but what image she is projecting this year. What we see is not a true person, but the product of a brilliant marketing strategy.

Author Daniel J. Boorstin says, "The hero was distinguished by his achievement; the celebrity by his image or trademark. The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media. The hero was a big man; the celebrity is a big name." (1)

A hero is enduring, reflecting what she had done. On the other hand, celebrity status takes on a "flavor of the month" quality. As the media makes a celebrity, a celebrity can be unmade. When they fall, all gloves are off as the media tears their reputation to shreds, like the Bacchic women destroyed King Pentheus. After the celebrity has been destroyed, they are banished to the never-regions of "has-been" town. This contrasts with heroes, who join with the gods.

2) Who do they serve?

Joseph Campbell has pointed out that a celebrity serves only himself, whereas a hero serves to redeem society. As a result of serving themselves only, celebrities reap huge financial rewards, well beyond the value of their contributions to society.

The hero is a reflection of ourselves; we could become the hero. Heroes are accessible; celebrities are not. Celebrity status is only for the chosen few. They stand apart from the masses and we yearn for intimacy with them. In many cases, we believe that we do know them well. We do not want to become celebrities as much as we want to become friends with them. For example, many women would like to be Oprah's best friend, Gayle, rather than Oprah.

3) What have they sacrificed?

The notion of sacrifice is innately entwined with the fate of a hero, and this sacrifice serves to redeem or save others. A celebrity does sacrifice something, and that is privacy. However, the sacrifice of their privacy is of little benefit to society. Basically, celebrities are loved just for being who they are, not for what they do or have done for us.

Unlike a celebrity, a hero often remains nameless, such as the New York City firefighters who sacrificed their own lives on 9/11 to save others. Another example is Dave Sanders. Do you recognize his name as the teacher at Columbine High School who lost his life saving students on April 20, 1999? Or Tom Burnett, the hero of United Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11? These are examples of true modern heroes, who made the ultimate sacrifice of their lives to protect others.

This tendency to remain nameless supports the idea that a hero can be any person, and any person can rise to be a hero. A celebrity rises and falls with his name in lights. Often, the celebrity's name is not his actual name, but a stage name, another example of an inauthentic existence.

So, why are celebrities so popular? Celebrities may be manufactured, but they do meet a psychological need. They represent various archetypes, and as such, hold a fascination for us. Celebrity archetypes are replacing the hero archetype, described by Dr. Carl Jung as a person who fights evil, often in the form of monsters, to deliver his people from destruction.

The danger with the cult of celebrity is that the power of personality conquers substance. Inspired by celebrities, fans make decisions based on illusion, rather than reality. They tend to be focused on appearances and what others may think about appearances, rather than finding their own true selves and realizing their true natures.

Celebrity worship has been identified as an actual syndrome, and in a small percentage of cases, it has harmful effects. Researchers report that about one third of people suffer from Celebrity Worship Syndrome (CWS). CWS can have a positive influence, but in 10% of the cases, it can become obsessional, replacing conventional relationships. In 1% of cases, it can be pathological. CWS can deepen at times of crisis or when someone needs direction, such as teens.

As Joseph Campbell conceptualized the hero's journey, it is the journey of every person to undergo the series of challenges that life presents, find her own truth and return with it. It is a meeting with the divine. When a person overly identifies with a celebrity, he subverts his own hero's journey.

We confuse celebrity worship with hero worship. Hero worship urges us to become better people, that is, more authentic people. We are encouraged to make sacrifices for the good of all. Celebrity worship is about valuing the superficial and illusory qualities of the celebrities whom we view as successful. As celebrities rise and fall, these qualities change - hardly a firm basis for making life decisions.

In times of social upheaval, people search for a hero. If what we find, instead, is celebrity, we forfeit authenticity, substituting the rock of truth for the fleeting flame of fame. As Bono said, "When celebrities open their mouths about political causes, I get nervous - and I am one."


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