Daniel Tencer: Why We’ve Come To Treat Celebrities Like Politicians And Politicians Like Celebrities

Our civilization has made a huge mistake confusing famous people for important ones, and that means more Trumps will be on their way.

By: Daniel Tencer

How have we come to a point where movie stars with nonexistent qualifications are major policy thought leaders, while U.S. presidents are chosen from among the ranks of reality TV stars?

I am not that old, yet I remember a time when it was rare to see a celebrity voice a political opinion in public — and almost unheard of for them to take to a public forum to attack their political opponents. It was simply not their role. Yet today, on social media, it’s practically expected for celebrities to take a stance on just about everything. 

It’s hard to argue the rising influence of pop singers and movie stars on our social and political debate has been positive. Since the advent of social media, they have spread hate — think Roseanne Barr’s famously racist tweet or Amanda Bynes’ assertion that Rhianna deserved to be beaten by Chris Brown for being “ugly.” They have spread anti-vaccine fake news, libellous comments about rivals, and have walked the line of inciting violence.

They are significant vectors of fake news. In a 2020 study, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the Oxford Internet Institute found that celebrities, along with other prominent people, were disproportionately responsible for spreading misinformation about COVID-19. While celebrities weren’t any likelier than others to spread fake news, their large social media audiences meant their fake news reached many more people than fake news from other sources.

It highlighted a reality about celebrities that is too easy for many people to forget: They are not meaningful authority figures. They are not experts in anything except (maybe) a particular performance art, and (maybe) being a celebrity. On any given issue, they likely don’t know any better than the average Facebook junkie. If you have had even a decent education, there’s a good chance you know better than they do.

People used to understand this. Until the past 150 years or so, performers held a relatively low status in most societies around the world (ancient Greece, with its glorious amphitheaters, was a notable exception). This made sense. After all, travelling troubadour troupes or circuses were seen in most cultures as a frivolity, a small luxury worth a few pennies and nothing more. During various Chinese dynasties, actors were “luxury goods traded among the elite.” In medieval Europe, they were excluded from the church, a practice that in some instances lasted until the 18th century

They were often outsiders in the communities where they performed. The people who provided entertainment were not as useful to society as, say, farmers, midwives or soldiers, seen instead as — in the words of a 1572 English law — “vagabonds and sturdy beggars.”

Then technology began to change everything. The advent of photography and the rise of penny newspapers created the first celebrities as we know them — the first performers known on sight to people they had never met. Then it became possible to capture a performance mechanically and reproduce it in audio and film form. 

The world underwent an economic and cultural shift. Countless travelling musicians, theatre actors and circus performers lost their livelihoods to cinemas and recorded music, and later to broadcast radio and TV. Vaudeville and illusionists all but disappeared. The power to produce culture concentrated in the hands of a small group of people — like Georges Melies and Thomas Edison — who had the rights and capital to launch the first film and recording studios.

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The relatively small incomes performers earned also concentrated in the hands of a few people at the centre of these new entertainment industries. A new, much smaller class of performers grew fabulously wealthy and fabulously famous. A perfectly understandable logical fallacy arose: If someone is rich and known the world over, surely they must be important. They couldn’t just be the equivalent of lottery winners, after all. (They were.) And so a new “entertainment elite” began to form in society.

The official union of the entertainment elite with the traditional societal elite came on April 18, 1956, when Grace Kelly, star of “High Noon” and “Rear Window,” married Prince Rainier III of Monaco. The media of the day gushed over the “fairytale” romance, a trick they would repeat in the coming years with the marriage of Jacquie Kennedy to Aristotle Onassis. The aristocratic class followed these trends, turning marriages into major global performances. See: Diana Spencer to Prince Charles, Kate Middleton to Prince William, and Meghan Markle to Prince Harry.  The media treated these emergent hybrid celebrity-aristocrats with a mix of voyeurism, adulation and — occasionally — derision.

Politics — particularly U.S. politics but to a lesser extent the politics of many other Western countries — began to blend with, and take on the qualities of, celebrity culture. And while today we tend to think of Hollywood celebrities as being left-leaning, it’s important to remember that the largest pillars of this shift — Bedtime for Bonzo star Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump of TV’s The Apprentice — were both Republicans. 

In my more than 15 years as an online news editor, I’ve learned very well that stories about celebrities will virtually always get far more traffic than stories about politicians. But then along came someone who threw that rule out the window, by being both: Donald Trump.

Knowing a cash cow when they see it, the media treated Donald Trump as a celebrity throughout his campaign and presidency. His outrageous demeanour and ability to continuously offend vast tracts of the public — itself a product of celebrity culture mentality — made him the perfect sellable villain in a kayfabe face. One reporter after another treated Trump in much the same way the National Enquirer would treat an aging movie star embroiled in scandal. Exaggerations, salacious rumours and hyperbolic language became the norm, even at times among the most respectable of news outlets.

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So where to now? Next up is the political career of Kim Kardashian, or someone like her. I’m not joking. One key moment in celebrity culture came in the early 2000s, when Paris Hilton created a new model of celebrity: Being famous for nothing, or, at best, for being born into the right family and looking good on camera. The Hiltons and Kardashians exposed the weak link between talent and Hollywood stardom — you could have the latter entirely without the former.

Though we tend to think of it as trite and unimportant, celebrity culture has now metastasized. It is a giant leap backwards for enlightenment values — a shift away from the goal of building more meritocratic, more rational societies. Trump’s election is but one consequence. The next step downwards is just a matter of time. Admit it, Senator Kim Kardiashian (D-Calif.) doesn’t even sound like parody anymore.

Absent some shift in public (and media) attitudes about where political authority comes from, I believe we are likely to see more Trumps, including left-wing Trumps. Wait, you say, what on earth is a “left-wing Trump”? Isn’t that a contradiction? Sadly, no. It’s easy enough to picture a left-wing politician who peddles outrageous lies, demonizes and caricaturizes their political opponents, insults allied countries, and — maybe worst of all — holds to a narcissistic world view that places their own goals and desires above objective reality.

Heck, aren’t there left-wing politicians like this already today?

The culture warriors who want to engage celebrities in the fight against Trumpism are instead engaged in a massive contradiction: They are enhancing and strengthening, not tearing down, the celebrity-culture foundation that created the Trump presidency.

To move forward from this point, it seems to me, we need to rediscover the true function of entertainers in society, and not confuse them for leaders. We need to realize it makes no more sense to worship a movie star or singer than it does to worship the camera that films them, or the mic they sing into.

Daniel Tencer is an independent journalist whose work has appeared at HuffPost, Postmedia and elsewhere. He is based in Montreal. 


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