Simonetti 1 Do you want to be famous? Do you idolize figures in popular culture? Is it one of your goals in life to become a celebrity? According to Stuart Ewen in chapter five of his study of American consumer culture, All Consuming Images, you are dreaming of a state of “wholeness” or “recognition of identity” in your life that can never be fully attained. He argues that as a result of this dream of a better, more exciting and “whole” life, those who wish to be famous feel alienated in the sense that they are ultimately discontent with their lives as they are. In this essay, I will show why his argument may be dated and no longer correct, that the desire for fame and having celebrity idols is not as alienating or detrimental as it once was, and that with the right mindset, it can actually be enriching to constantly challenge oneself, to try harder, and to reach out to more people. First, I will examine the theoretical perspective through which Stuart Ewen views celebrity culture, and I will further examine his theory of the “dream of wholeness” and why he believes it can be alienating. Next, I will briefly juxtapose Ewen’s theory to Karl Marx’s theory of the estrangement of labor, which will shed light on precisely what type of alienation to which I am referring in my argument. I will then provide a modern-day social context for these theories using statistics about celebrity culture and the demographics of those who follow it. Finally, I will back up my argument with excerpts from and photographic portraits of seven interviews I conducted with students who have aspirations of becoming famous. The first part of Stuart Ewen’s theory suggests that the dream of wholeness begins with a dissatisfaction with the self. In advertisements, when we see “perfection” in the images of models, we idolize these figures and subconsciously relate them to ourselves. This is silly of us to do, first of all, because stars are constantly told what to say and their photos are edited to the extreme. They are then mass-produced, at which point, Ewen suggests, the “aura” or intrinsic value of the original images are lost (Ewen 1988, 93). Still, as a result of these images, we
Simonetti 2 constantly keep a tab on the way we look, and we start to see ourselves as “objects” rather than “subjects” (Ewen 1988, 89). We become more and more uncomfortable with our own skin, and in a very capitalist way, we thus buy products to fix what now seem to be mistakes on our bodies until we live up to the “beautiful thinghood,” or the fake perfection, of the images we see (Ewen 1988, 89). Because of these perfect, air-brushed images in the media, he argues, we are essentially dreaming of perfection in our own physical image. And because this is impossible, Ewen says, we are essentially alienated from our true selves (Ewen 1988, 91). Next, Ewen continues to focus on how celebrities affect style. He says that the “style market capitalize[s] on something ‘hot,’ to turn popular desires into demographics” (Ewen 1988, 97). When the public seems to like the clothing style on a celebrity, manufacturers make sure the style is available for the public to wear. Ewen also cleverly observes that for both middle class citizens and celebrities, the primary expression of wealth is consumption, so celebrities become models of a seemingly attainable but ultimately ridiculous way of life for the middle class (Ewen 1988, 100). Celebrity lifestyle is portrayed in movies as lavish, unrestrained, and endlessly wealthy, so these ways of life modeled for the middle class tend to be very gaudy and expensive. People then start to buy knock-offs to make up for styles they don’t have, become over-obsessed with their appearance, and so on until they grow even more alienated from their true selves. Moreover, according to Ewen, capitalist consumer culture, which provides compensation for nearly any request in exchange for a sum of money, gives us all the freedom to desire (Ewen 1988, 100)....
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