Second Edition
Celebrity Culture
and the American Dream
Stardom and Social Mobility

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Introduction

Welcome to the online resources accompanying Celebrity Culture and the American Dream by Karen Sternheimer. Using examples from the first celebrity fan magazines of 1911 to the present, Celebrity Culture and the American Dream considers how major economic and historical factors shaped the nature of celebrity culture as we know it today. The book explains how and why Hollywood celebrities can help shape our understanding of American society, the changing nature of the American Dream, and the relationship between class and culture.

Resources

Click on the tabs below, to view the resources for each chapter.

Chapter 1: The American Dream: Celebrity, Class, and Social Mobility

Summary

  • Key point: Celebrity culture provides seemingly tangible examples that the United States offers social mobility to those special enough to achieve it
  • Throughout the past century, celebrity culture has been a central promoter of consumption
  • Celebrity stories can serve as both morality tales, highlighting their failures as examples of excess, and as ever-present examples of people who make it big in America
  • Defining Celebrity Culture: “Celebrity Culture” is the ephemeral atmosphere that surrounds fame, and includes the personal lives of the famous and the products sold directly or indirectly on the idea that their use will make the consumer be more like the celebrated
  • Celebrity stories provide visible examples of upward mobility in an allegedly classless society

Discussion Questions

  1. What is celebrity culture? The American Dream?
  2. How do stories about celebrities reinforce the notion of the American Dream?
  3. How do celebrity stories promote the idea of upward mobility?
  4. Discuss the relationship between celebrity gossip and gender.
  5. What is symbolic interactionism? How can it be applied to understand celebrity culture?
  6. How would a conflict theorist view celebrity culture? A functionalist? How would the two perspectives differ in their understanding of celebrity culture?
  7. What is the Horatio Alger myth? How is it reflected in celebrity stories?
  8. How are stories about celebrities linked with consumer culture?
  9. Describe how celebrity culture is related to the concept of social class.
  10. What are morality tales? Choose one recent example of celebrity news that could also serve as a morality tale.

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Chapter 2: Beyond Subsistence: The Rise of the Middle Class in the Twentieth Century

Summary

  • Key point: The burgeoning celebrity culture of the early twentieth century reflects the massive growth of the middle class, where movie stardom served as a visible example of the possibility of work without hard physical labor, the prevailing notion of the American Dream
  • The modern-day movie star was a reluctant invention to market the growing film industry
  • The new movie industry promoted performers’ respectability—not their wealth
  • Early twentieth century opportunities and upward mobility became part of celebrity culture
  • The early movie industry coincides with women’s mobility during the first wave of feminism
  • Celebrity culture promotes appearing and feeling like a member of the growing middle class

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Discussion Questions

  1. Why were movies—and performers—considered low-status in the early days of the movie industry?
  2. Describe the social context at the start of the twentieth century. What social changes took place that enabled the growth of the movie industry?
  3. What was the purpose of the earliest fan magazines?
  4. What tactics did fan magazines use in order to shift public opinion about movies? About “picture players?”
  5. What role did World War I play in the evolution of the movie industry?
  6. How and why did fan magazines tend to focus so much on female performers?
  7. Describe the advertisements in the early fan magazines. What kind of lifestyle did they promote?
  8. How did stories about celebrities in the 1910s reflect the Horatio Alger myth?
  9. Discuss how advertisements in the early fan magazines reflected the notion of upward mobility.
  10. How do articles about celebrities differ from those of the 1910s? In what way are they similar?

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Celebrities

Chapter 3: Prosperity and Wealth Arrive: Boom Times and Women’s Suffrage in the 1920s

Summary

  • Key point: Representations of celebrity culture during the boom years suggest that wealth is readily attainable to all Americans, and failure to achieve or maintain wealth is a product of personal failure rather than structural conditions
  • Celebrity culture highlights the massive wealth of movie stars during the economic boom
  • In a time of abundance, thinness becomes associated with mobility and wealth
  • Celebrity culture represents the excesses of the decade, with much attention paid to the immorality of celebrities
  • New economic opportunities for women also produce anxieties about women’s virtue
  • The stock market crash coincides with the end of the silent era and the downward mobility of many of its stars

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Discussion Questions

  1. Describe some of the social changes that took place during the 1920s.
  2. How did economic changes of the 1920s impact the kinds of stories told about celebrities?
  3. Discuss how the growth of the middle class is reflected in the magazines’ advertisements.
  4. How did concerns about celebrities’ immorality coincide with other social changes?
  5. Describe the changes women experienced during the 1920s. How are these changes reflected in celebrity stories of that era?
  6. How did Hollywood studios and magazines respond to the sex scandals of this era? What differences and/or similarities do you see between then and now?
  7. Discuss how stories and advertisements about weight loss reflect notions of upward mobility during the 1920s.
  8. Why were women more likely to be characterized as heartless schemers during this era compared with the 1910s?
  9. How did advertisements use fear of social rejection to sell products? How does this reflect social changes of the 1920s?
  10. Describe some of the similarities between this era with our own, as well as the differences.

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Celebrities and Historical Events

Chapter 4: Pull Yourself up by Your Bootstraps: Personal Failure and the Great Depression

Summary

  • Key point: Stories about celebrities served as attempts to prop up the notion of the American Dream; that wealth could be had by those willing to work hard
  • Reversal of fortune: Stories of celebrity “has-beens” cast them as personally wasteful or otherwise responsible for their own downward mobility
  • Anxieties about marriage failure were reflected in gossip, stories about celebrities, and advertising
  • As scarcity returned, celebrity thinness was described as dangerous, even deadly, and products promised to help readers gain weight

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Discussion Questions

  1. How did the Great Depression seem to influence celebrity stories?
  2. Why did stories focus on wealth during the Depression, rather than thrift?
  3. What challenges did the movie industry, fan magazines, and advertisers face during the Depression?
  4. How did changes in the movie industry coincide with economic changes in society? How were these changes reflected in fan magazines?
  5. Describe the concerns about independent women reflected in the fan magazine articles and ads. How are these concerns related to the economic downturn?
  6. How did the stories about celebrities during the Depression promote the idea that economic failure was the individual’s fault?
  7. Why do you think the Depression was so rarely addressed directly in fan magazines?
  8. Compare and contrast celebrity stories with letters from readers to fan magazines during the Depression.
  9. How did the magazines’ advertisements change between times of prosperity in the 1920s compared with the Depression?
  10. How do you think celebrity coverage during the Great Depression compares with coverage during the Great Recession?

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Celebrities and Historical Events

Chapter 5: We’re All in This Together: Collectivism and World War II

Summary

  • Key point: During the war, celebrity tales promoted a sense of American unity and sacrifice and suggested that stars were “just like us”
  • Even as the Depression continued and war broke out in Europe, celebrity magazines focused on stories of people rising to fame from nowhere to become wealthy
  • Entry of the U.S. into the war led to a populist tone in celebrity stories, encouraging a sense of national unity
  • The film industry presented itself and celebrities as intensely patriotic
  • Celebrities and celebrity stories promoted conservation, not consumption, in a time of rationing and shortages
  • Wartime labor shortages improved economic opportunities and upward mobility
  • Wartime man shortages heightened the anxieties about not finding a husband, which celebrity stories addressed directly

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Discussion Questions

  1. How did celebrity coverage change after American entry into WWII? Compare coverage during this time period to coverage during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  2. Compare the ideas of individualism with collectivism. Provide examples of each in celebrity stories mentioned in this and prior chapters.
  3. Describe how patriotism became central in celebrity stories. How does this compare to celebrity stories during WWI? Today?
  4. How has consumption been linked to patriotism in the distant and recent past?
  5. Compare how advertisements changed during WWII compared with previous years. How do these changes compare with advertisements today?
  6. How were women characterized in celebrity stories and advertisements during WWII? How does this compare to coverage in prior decades? To coverage today?
  7. Discuss how celebrity relationships were described in fan magazines during this time. How do these stories compare with stories about celebrities’ relationships today?
  8. Compare Hollywood’s overall involvement in the war effort during WWII with the more limited involvement in the war effort today. Why do you think the industry was more involved then compared with now?
  9. Discuss shifts in trends in divorce, marriage, and unemployment during this time. What impact do you think these changes might have had on how celebrities were covered?
  10.  Under what circumstances do you think a focus on collectivism could return in celebrity coverage and in the culture as a whole? Why or why not?

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Celebrities

Chapter 6: Suburban Utopia: The Postwar Middle-Class Fantasy

Summary

  • Key point: The postwar economic boom and growth of new suburbs seemed evidence that middle-class lifestyle was a reward available to all after years of struggle
  • The American Dream would be realized through a happy home life, rather than expansive wealth
  • After the War’s end celebrity magazines highlighted domesticity: happy marriages, beautiful children, and modest yet comfortable homes that seemed attainable for all Americans
  • Female celebrities stressed their deference to their husbands’ careers and wishes, challenging the images of feminist independence during wartime
  • Once considered the biggest cheerleader of American values, Hollywood came under suspicion by the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)

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Discussion Questions

  1. Describe the social changes that took place after the end of WWII. How did they likely affect consumers of fan magazines?
  2. Why did fan magazines shift from promoting women’s independence to women’s domesticity? What does this shift tell us about the relationship between social change and popular culture?
  3. How did celebrity stories reflect the growth of the middle class? Why do you think these stories portrayed celebrities as middle class rather than wealthy during this time?
  4. Discuss how stories describing celebrities’ homes mirrored changes in homeownership after WWII. What changes led to the rise in homeownership?
  5. Why were people more likely to marry in their teens after WWII? How was this shift reflected in celebrity stories? How does this compare with stories of young celebrities who marry today?
  6. Compare descriptions of celebrity marriages after WWII with those today. What might explain any differences or similarities?
  7. Why were children of celebrities more widely covered after WWII than before the war?
  8. How does coverage of celebrity children during the postwar period compare with coverage of celebrity children today?
  9. Why did the postwar Red Scare focus so much on Hollywood, despite its promotion of patriotism a few years earlier?
  10. Celebrity stories often portrayed the U.S. as a suburban utopia. Who was left out of this “utopia?”

Links

Celebrities

Chapter 7: Is That All There Is? Challenging the Suburban Fantasy in the Sixties and Seventies

Summary

  • Key point: Just as the U.S. entered a turbulent period of change, celebrity culture shifted with the dismantling of the Hollywood studio system; no longer did celebrity culture reflect and reinforce a dominant version of the American Dream, but highlighted antiheroes who challenged the social order
  • Articles focused on celebrities’ loneliness, challenging the notion that financial prosperity equaled happiness
  • Concerns about morality and the “generation gap” later gave rise to complaints about Hollywood’s “value deficit”
  • Stories of celebrities began to focus more on their transgressions and exposing their secrets
  • Issues such as interracial relationships and cohabitation became more common in celebrity magazines, and marriage no longer seemed the path to success and happiness as it had in the previous period

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Discussion Questions

  1. What was the Hollywood studio system? Why did it begin to collapse by the 1960s?
  2. How did the weakening of the studio system affect celebrity stories in fan magazines?
  3. How did celebrity stories of the 1960s and 1970s reflect social changes of the time?
  4. In what way does this era’s celebrity coverage reflect challenges to the 1950s notion of the American Dream?
  5. Describe how celebrity stories reflect a sense of alienation during this time. Why might people have felt more alienated then compared with previous decades?
  6. How did the civil rights movement shift the portrayal of African Americans in fan magazines? How do those changes compare with coverage of African Americans in celebrity magazines today?
  7. Compare and contrast the way that celebrity divorce was portrayed in fan magazines during this era compared with the previous chapter? Compared with today?
  8. Discuss how material wealth disconnected from happiness in celebrity stories of this era. Compare this portrayal to previous chapters, and to the contemporary coverage of celebrities’ wealth.
  9. Why do you think that marriage was less likely to be portrayed as an essential source of happiness during this time period compared with prior eras?
  10. Why did coverage of previously taboo behavior—like having children outside of marriage—become more common during this era? How does it compare with coverage of this issue today?

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Celebrities

Chapter 8: Massive Wealth as Moral Reward: The Reagan Revolution and Individualism

Summary

  • Key point: Just as a former Hollywood celebrity was elected on a platform of returning to “traditional” values, the American Dream of social mobility shifted to focus on the achievement of massive wealth, which was reflected and reinforced in stories about celebrities
  • Articles emphasized the dollar values of box office returns, salaries, home values, and the wealth attainable through celebrity status
  • As the gap between the wealthiest Americans and the majority expanded to 1920s-era levels, celebrity stories of extreme affluence suggested that this less attainable version of the American Dream was indeed possible
  • Like in the 1920s, celebrity stories of excess and failure reflected the notion that downward mobility was the result of personal character flaws and bad behavior rather than social structure

Discussion Questions

  1. How and why did celebrity stories return to focusing on material success during the late 1970s and 1980s?
  2. What factors led to the demise of the old Hollywood fan magazines? Why do you think magazines like People could thrive when the traditional magazines lost readers?
  3. How did celebrity stories reflect the shift in politics during the 1980s?
  4. Why do you think stories of people with massive wealth became more common at the same time as poverty rates grew and wages stagnated?
  5. How did the production of celebrity change during the 1970s and 1980s?
  6. Discuss why and how wealthy individuals became celebrities during this time.
  7. Why did Horatio Alger tales of rising from rags to riches become more common during this time compared with the 1960s? Compared to other prior eras?
  8. Compare and contrast the coverage of marriage in People with its coverage in fan magazines during the 1960s and early 1970s. Compared to other prior eras? Why do you think People’s coverage focused so much on marriage and money during this time?
  9. Why were wealthy people sometimes discussed in a negative light in People? How does this portrayal compare with coverage of business leaders, heirs, and other people of means today?
  10. What do celebrity stories of the 1980s imply about individualism? About social mobility?

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Celebrities

Chapter 9: Success Just for Being You: Opportunity in the Internet Age

Summary

  • Key point: While celebrities and celebrity culture play diverse roles in American society, one of their central functions is and has been to provide visible examples of social mobility in America, helping Americans believe that we live in an open society and ignore structural barriers to upward mobility
  • So-called reality programs and Internet sites like YouTube promote the belief that celebrity and wealth are more attainable than ever
  • Coverage of celebrities’ private lives has expanded and overtaken traditional forms entertainment; a star’s primary vehicle now is their life, rather than their performances
  • Versions of the American Dream shift along with economic and political changes; perhaps the downturn in the economy and coverage of “stars who lost everything” will produce a new version which celebrity culture will reflect

Discussion Questions

  1. Besides technological changes, what other important economic and social changes have taken place in the last two decades? How have these changes impacted the coverage of celebrities?
  2. How do people who are “famous for being famous” reflect the Horatio Alger myth? Dispel the myth?
  3. Compare and contrast the opportunities for fame in the internet age with broader economic shifts in the United States.
  4. Discuss the relationship between consumption and celebrity culture today.
  5. How have declines in revenues for traditional journalism impacted celebrity coverage in recent years?
  6. How and why did so-called reality television emerge? How has it altered the nature of celebrity culture?
  7. Who is most likely to profit from reality television? Why are some people better able to maximize their income by revealing their private lives than others?
  8.  Discuss how celebrity coverage today reflects ambivalence about overspending, consumption, and credit?
  9. How do celebrity stories provide lessons about both upward and downward mobility? Describe assumptions about both forms of mobility embedded in celebrity coverage.
  10. Imagine if celebrities did not exist. What do you think would be different in our society? Is it even possible to imagine American society without celebrities? If so, why?

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