Falling Stars: On Taking Down Our Celebrity Icons

Celebrities act as a symbol of capitalism. When we question it, we question them too.

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | May 2019 | 7 minutes (1, 868 words)

The shorthand iconography of the star has been the iconography of excess — furs, gold, pearls, diamonds, stacks of cash, lots of lights, lots of people. It’s luxury personified, the human being at its apex, the kind of intermediary between gods and humans that the ancient Egyptians didn’t just dress with jewels, but buried with them, transcending mortality. And who doesn’t want to be immortal? Especially these days, when we are very much the opposite: when aspiration has been replaced with desperation and extinction is the inevitable end, or maybe hell, but definitely not heaven. The old accoutrements of success, the ones that defined celebrity — wealth, power, decadence — are going extinct too. And anyone who continues to buy into them, is either performing satire (see Billy Porter in city-spanning golden wings) — or is, well, Drake.

The “God’s Plan” singer, who upon last estimation was worth around $90 million, unveiled his own private Boeing 767 cargo plane, Air Drake, in an Instagram video last week, a pair of praying hands on the tail fin speaking for us all. “No rental, no timeshare, no co-owners,” he said. No reality check either, apparently. While Drake framed it as his way of supporting a homegrown business (Ontario’s Cargojet), his very own “Heat of the Moment” lyrics — “All the niggas we don’t need anymore / And all the cops are still hangin’ out at the doughnut shops / Talkin ’bout how the weather’s changin’ / The ice is meltin’ as if the world is endin’” — caused a number of people to point out his hypocrisy. (He captioned the video, “Nothing was the same for real,” which I don’t believe is a reference to the planet’s demise, but maybe he was being meta.) It had been only seven months since Kanye and Kim Kardashian West were vilified for flying aboard a 660-seater Boeing. Basically alone. “No big deal,” Kardashian West said on Instagram. “Just like a chill room. This is, like, endless.” No, there’s an end. Their chill trip happened less than two months after the end days climate report came out.

At one point these stars were icons of the kind of success we aspired to. But having seen how the old capitalist system they symbolize has destroyed the world, the movement to destabilize it has also become a movement to destabilize them as its avatars. This includes idols of technology like Mark Zuckerberg, the once-envied wunderkind who is now someone who should be held “accountable”; business giants like Disney CEO Bob Iger, whose compensation is “insane” according to one member of the family dynasty; and political stars like Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke, both of whom were called out for their campaigns’ big donors. In our culture today, the guy who makes music out of his closet has the No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and the revolutionaries are schoolchildren. “The star is meant to epitomize the potential of everyone in American society,” writes P. David Marshall in Celebrity and Power: Fame in Contemporary Culture. “The dialectical reality is that the star is part of a system of false promise in the system of capital.”

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The debate over whether success should be defined by wealth goes as far back as civilization itself. I asked my brother, a philosophy professor specializing in the ancients (I know), when it first turned up in the literature, and he told me it was “the base note” through most of Plato. Then there was Socrates, who thought knowledge, not wealth, should be the marker of success, versus Aristotle, who thought wealth was essential to the good life. Regardless of their differences, greed, my brother said, was almost always considered pathological. But then along came capitalism, which was popularized (peut-être) by French socialist Louis Blanc, who wrote Organisation du Travail, in which he defined it as “the appropriation of capital by some to the exclusion of others.” Within capitalism, greed became associated with productivity, which was correlated with a successful economy, and so greed was good (you try not to quote Gordon Gekko!). Along with it, those who were greedy were accepted, even admired, under certain conditions. A 2015 study had a bunch of U.K. teenagers excusing Bill Gates’s extreme wealth (more than $100 billion) as merit-based, the necessary evil of a capitalist system in which a hard-working individual can triumph the way they would like to one day.

The celebrity is the ultimate symbol of success, which, under capitalism, becomes the ultimate symbol of greed. “Celebrities reinforce the conception that there are no barriers in contemporary culture that the individual cannot overcome,” writes Marshall. And though Julius Caesar ended up on a coin, dating the monetization of fame back to ancient Rome, you can blame the French Revolution for a modern star like James Charles, who launched a YouTube channel of makeup tutorials at age 16 and within four years had more than 1.7 billion views. After the monarchy was overthrown, power and fame no longer required inheritance, which is why celebrity is sometimes (erroneously) associated with rebellion. But while the common man was ascending, so was individualism, along with mass media and the industrial revolution. The lord and serf were replaced by the businessman and employee and bourgeois culture expanded at the expense of its working-class analog. The icon of this new capitalist society, which had been weaned on the Romantic Era’s cult of personality, was the commodified individual who reinforced consumption: the celebrity. As Milly Williamson explains in Celebrity: Capitalism and the Making of Fame, “Celebrity offers images of inclusion and plenty in a society shaped by exclusion and structured in want.”

Is anyone playing the Kim Kardashian: Hollywood game anymore? The object was to use anything you had access to, whether material, money, or people, to advance. It was clearly a meta-tongue-in-cheek bit of cutesy puff, but it also wasn’t. Kim Kardashian West is you in the game and you in real life. Consumerism isn’t just consumption, it’s emulation. We consume to improve ourselves as individuals — to make ourselves more like Kardashian West, who is presented as the pinnacle of success — as though our self-actualization were directly associated with our purchasing power. And the same way we have commodity selves (I am Coke, not Pepsi; Dell, not Mac) we have celebrity selves. For instance, I’m a Winona Ryder person, not a Gwyneth Paltrow person (is anyone?). So my identity could very well be solidified based on whether I can find that Tom Waits shirt she always wears. And in these days of faces of brands, shaping yourself around Kim Kardashian West can actually mean shaping yourself around a $15,000 dress. “It is pointless to ask what Kim Kardashian does to earn her living: her role is to exist in our minds,” writes George Monbiot in The Guardian. “By playing our virtual neighbour, she induces a click of recognition on behalf of whatever grey monolith sits behind her this week.”

So who cares, right? So what if I want to be a $5,000 Louis Vuitton bag slung over Michelle Williams’s shoulder? It’s a little limiting, I guess, but fine (maybe?) — if we can trust the world to run fairly around us. According to a 2007 study in the International Journal of Cultural Studies, Brits who closely followed celebrity gossip over other types of news were half as likely to volunteer, less politically engaged, and the least likely to vote or protest. “It’s the capacity of these public figures to embody the collective in the individual,” writes Marshall, “which identifies their cultural signs as powerful.” It also identifies them as inert proxies for real community action. There is a veneer of democracy to consumerism, in that we are free to choose what we buy. But we are exercising our freedom only through buying (never mind that the options aren’t infinite); we are not defined as citizens, but as consumers. That the consumer has eclipsed the citizen explains in part why the appeals around climate change have been increasingly directed at the individual, pointing out how they will personally suffer if the world around them does — in a sea of individuals, the planet’s distress was not impetus enough. “The most important democratic achievements have been the result of working-class struggle and collective movements,” writes Williamson. “What is really extraordinary about working-class identity is not the potential celebrity in each of us, but precisely the solidarity and collectivity that is largely hidden from media representations of ordinary people.”

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When Time released its list of the 100 most influential people in the world last month, I noticed that under the Icons category one of the images was a silhouette. Among all of those colourful portraits of famous faces, Mirian G. was an individual erased. I initially thought it was a power move, that this woman had chosen to trade in her identity for a larger cause. It turned out she was a Honduran asylum seeker, part of a class-action suit filed by the ACLU on behalf of families separated at the border, and that she had to be anonymous to protect herself. “In 2018, over 2,700 children were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border,” wrote Kumail Nanjiani. “Since that number is so unfathomably large, I think it is helpful to focus on one woman’s story.” In essence, the magazine found a way around the individual-as-icon, turning a spot for one into representation for many. It was a timely move.

It’s not that fame has become defunct — one study found that a number of millennials would literally trade their family for it — but celebrity isn’t the opiate it once was. Younger generations side-eye star endorsements, while online influencers, who affect the tone of friendly advice, have acquired monumental cache. (Though James Charles recently lost millions of YouTube subscribers following a very public fallout with fellow beauty vlogger Tati Westbrook, he still has more than 13 million.) It comes with a catch, though: Millennials will actually pay more for brands that are socially responsible. This aligns with the growing number of young activists, not to mention the U.S.’s youth voter turnout in 2018, the highest in a midterm election since 1982. As Williams concludes, “celebrity culture presents the human in commodity form, but it also consists of its opposite — the human can never be fully contained by the self-as-commodity, and the persistence of humanity is, in all circumstances, a cause for hope.”

While the citizen and consumer were once conflated, they now coexist, a separation that sometimes leads them to be at odds. The celebrity, the symbol of the latter, can in the same way clash with the former. In a context like this, Alyssa Milano’s ill-conceived sex strike, the latest case of a celebrity ham-fistedly endorsing feminist activism, is no longer simply swallowed in good faith. There is no good faith left, not even for our stars. They are symbols of an economy that consumes everything in its path, and struggling with them is part of a collective struggle with the inequitable, exploited world we live in, one in which each callout will hopefully add up to some semblance of change.

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.