The Celebrity Effect
If you follow politics even a little bit, by now you have heard that Oprah Winfrey is actively campaigning for Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama. Political commentators are busy asking each other what effect her support will have on his candidacy. Will she put him over the top to become the Democratic nominee?
Critics tend to overestimate the influence celebrities actually have on the public, fearing that we are blinded by fame and idolize Hollywood stars. Some think that they make us think it is cool to have kids without being married or be a single parent (as former Vice President Dan Quayle accused the fictional television character Murphy Brown of doing in 1992).
Oprah Winfrey is certainly not the first famous person to openly campaign for a candidate, but she is arguably the most powerful. No one can deny that she’s a one-woman empire of influence. But it is one thing to read a book because she loved it or buy a set of cotton jersey sheets because they made her Favorite Things show once upon a time (I’m guilty of this one myself…they are really soft!). It’s another to cast a vote based on a recommendation. After all, we can read lots of books and have several sets of sheets, but we get just one vote.
A lot of people might like to hear about celebrities’ private lives, about their families and relationships down to the most mundane minutiae from their lives, true or not. We may want to have their expensive stuff, or to try to look as good as some of them do, have as attractive a mate, but much of the news coverage of celebrities is more of a handbook for what not to do (like drive drunk, shave your head, lose custody of your kids, and so forth).
Celebrities are a lot like the popular kids in school—they tend to have the best clothes, new cars, and lots of friends (as long as they are popular). Everyone else knows who they are, but we might not really like them. In fact, we may enjoy finding out that they aren’t that perfect after all. In a large, heterogeneous society as our own, we tend to have fewer and fewer social networks in common with others--except for celebrities.
German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies had a name for this condition: Gesellschaft. Celebrities can become a form of social glue that helps us bond by our admiration and (frequently) condemnation of high-profile people and reaffirm a sense of shared morality.
In contrast, people who live in smaller communities have many of the same social networks and know lots of the same people. Tönnies called this kind of condition Gemeinschaft (which literally translates to mean “community”). This is not to say people in small towns have no interest in celebrities or celebrity gossip; in fact, condemning the “Hollywood elite” can serve to reinforce boundaries and shared values of a particular group.
But even though we might follow the stories of celebrities’ private lives (which are often more entertaining than their movies), people will not necessarily follow them to the polls or make other major life choices based on what the rich and famous are doing.
In fact, in contemporary American politics, celebrity status can signify being out-of-touch with mainstream voters. For one, both celebrities and the popular culture their industry manufactures give the impression that Hollywood is a morally questionable place. Sometimes celebrity endorsements have the effect of making a candidate seem to be one of “them” rather than one of “us.” Some candidates’ appeal comes from presenting themselves as populists or regular people. Ironically, the very nature of celebrity implies that someone is not ordinary. So too much celebrity support can backfire.
Also, celebrities are often rich, unlike most of the general public, whose median income is about $48,000 a year; (about a week’s pay for a modestly successful star). Their interests are not necessarily ours, even if we may agree on a few things. I happen to live in the same zip code as many celebrities here in Los Angeles, and while there may be some overlap in our opinions, economically speaking we are in different worlds.
Of course Oprah is not just your run-of-the mill celebrity. She encourages her viewers to find their inner-selves, to “use your life” as she often says, for a higher purpose. She is more than a pitchwoman (as some celebrities basically are). Since she appears to chat with the public on a daily basis and is open about her flaws and struggles, she seems more like “one of us.” Yet she is also an inspirational leader, and may transcend the “Hollywood elite” label so many celebrities cannot. (It also probably helps that her show tapes in Chicago, not Los Angeles).
With primary caucusing and voting just days away, we will soon see whether her support translates into votes. If nothing else, she and fellow celebrities are good at drawing our attention. Senator Obama will certainly get a look from many people who might not have paid attention to him otherwise.