The existence in modem industrial society of a category of persons who are the object of intense curiosity and admiration centring round not only their exceptional performance of expressive roles in the entertainment world such as film stars—and also others in sport or ‘show business’—but also their ‘private’ lives, which become articles of public consumption, is not satisfactorily accounted for by any of the current theories. Many of these theories draw attention to the latent (unrecognized and unpremeditated) function of the ‘star system’ and its equivalents in non-cinematic fields in hindering the growth of realistic perceptions of the structures of power in our societies and creating a fantasy world which displaces social tensions without solving the problems that give rise to these tensions. But this approach fails to account for the ambivalence and negative or critical components in public attitudes towards the ‘celebrities’, for the fact that fans in ordinary life-situations do not seem to behave in an unrealistic manner as far as, for instance, the logic of industrial conflict is concerned, and the
There is a charismatic component in attitudes of fans towards idols in the sense of the recognition of a specifically extraordinary quality which commands admiration. But this charismatic component is rarely generalized to (for instance) political leadership and remains restricted to a specific sphere of achievement, to a specific role. The very fact that the professional role of the celebrity is so sharply segregated from other spheres and the standards of evaluation so differentiated as between the professional and other roles (political, economic, religious) indicates that there are built-in mechanisms in our societies to prevent the generalization of charisma. The fear of the generalization of charisma, of the possibility that celebrities with their access to the mass media of communications, and commanding a ready audience, might use their opportunities to gain effective power and seek to exercise charismatic leadership in the true sense by commanding a change in the outlook and conduct of the following, has often been expressed. Kazan’s film A Face in the Crowd explored this possibility although even there the star’s charisma was used to bolster a particular politician’s campaign in the first instance and not directly to win votes for himself. The James Dean cult showed something approaching true charismatic leadership, in that the way of life of the follower seemed to be moulded on the hero’s, but it only got going posthumously.
The above thesis seem to account for the fact that the celebrities, although their development has been considerably promoted by technological factors, viz. the mass media of communication and by economic factors such as market capitalism and the material interests that have grown up round the star system, are not necessarily bound up with them. For something like the celebrity syndrome occurred in classical Greece and Imperial Rome: this could be explained in terms of the degree of structural pluralism present in such societies, i.e. the possibility of separating ‘star’-roles from political, ecomonic, religious and other roles involving effective and institutional power and authority. In small communities, on the other hand, charisma cannot be restricted, social life benig so much more unified, and therefore we may have ‘heroes’ but not ‘celebrities’. In totalitarian systems, by definition, the autonomy of institutional spheres does not exist; moreover, in such would-be monolithic societies there cannot be admitted ‘political irresponsibility’ or public conduct which violates official norms since achievement or admiration of fans does not mean permissiveness towards such deviations. Hence, in totalitarian regimes, and holders of political power must also enjoy social esteem and diffuse admiration, as they must embody the social values to a superlative degree. Instead of the ‘celebrity syndrorme’, and just because it cannot function in such a society, the ‘cult of personality’ emerges. In pluralistic societies, there is a division between the holders of institutional power (economic and political) who on the whole, qua powerful cannot be celebrities and the celebrities who only retain their position by remaining outside the
The wealth enjoyed by the celebrities, the ‘fantastic’ earnings of stars, no doubt reflect the irrationalities of a market economy and violate the modal norms of distributive justice. At the same time it may be argued that this wealth is part of the price for the powerlessness of the celebrity, a powerlessness—in the sense of inability to control the life-chances of the public to impose specific sanctions—which also neutralizes the resentment that might otherwise be felt—or more intensely felt—towards them. Moreover the fame and the wealth that goes with the fame is predicated upon public esteem, and is therefore always revocable in principle, it emanates from the public rather than being imposed upon them. In conditions of scarcity-consciousness, the extreme mobility jumps of the stars—from nothing to fabulous wealth—would be envied; they are admired if the social structure is perceived as open. Class-resentment may be directed at the manipulators of the star-system rarely at the stars; or it may be directed at individual stars rather than the category as such.
Normally, social visibility is a means or consequence of social control: in the little community the fact that nothing one does can escape public notice is a means of ensuring that one’s conduct is geared to the expectations of others. Paradoxically with the celebrities we have maximal visibility and minimal privacy together with sheer inaccessibility to the public that so avidly consumes all that there is to know about them. Being inaccessible to the public they are immune to its punishing sanctions to a degree; in the case of the celebrities therefore visibility is coupled with isolation from the moral consensus of the community (indeed one of the stigmata of the celebrity is the greater permissiveness of the public towards its conduct at any rate in certain spheres especially the sexual). In a recent book (L’elite senza potere—ricerca sociologica sul divismo) Francesco Alberoni argues that the solution to this paradox lies in the root function the celebrity pattern performs. In a highly heterogeneous and diversified society, the immediate circles of each—neighbours, acquaintances, friends, relations—no longer seem to provide fair samples of the totality of experience, or in other words no longer seem representative of the over-all society in the same way as they were in the small local community. The lives of the celebrities, incessantly exposed, symbolize the ubiquity and permanence of certain common-human problems: they are ‘like us’ after all, and reassure us as to a basic uniformity in the major dilemmas of life, just because they are otherwise remote, and enjoy a unique degree of freedom from social control with temptations and opportunities which the fan lacks. Of course celebrities manifest both positive values (e.g. astronauts) and disvalues: but their heroic or notorious conduct takes place in a context almost wholly divorced from the constraints and possibilities within which the ordinary fan has to act.