A look into who and what is shaping our generation
Kim Kardashian filed for divorce just 72 days after saying “I do.” Last year, Lindsay Lohan spent more time in the criminal justice system than she spent out of it. Britney Spears dated Justin Timberlake, married K-Fed, shaved her head and raised two children in between multiple stints in rehab.
These aren’t really problems, at the very least they’re not problems that should be effecting society at large. Kim’s lack of foresight, Lindsay’s contempt for the law and Britney’s general state of mayhem are sad, but as individual events, that’s really all they are. But they’re not just individual events — they exist within a culture that nurtures celebrity idolization. The week that Kim Kardashian got married, the Google search rate for “Kim Kardashian” was ten times higher than that of “Libya.”
The question isn’t whether American youth has a slight obsession with celebrities. We do, and the obsession is probably more than a slight one. From early childhood, we’re inundated with celebrity images from a media environment nearly saturated with celebrity idolization. The question isn’t even why; it’s a question of effect, and the answer lies in determining what role celebrities actually play in the lives of today’s 20-somethings.
According to Cyndy Scheibe, director of Ithaca College’s Media Literacy initiative Project Look Sharp, that role is different than the one celebrities play in the lives of children, pre-teens and adults.
“On some level everyone is affected by celebrities — certainly children and adolescents,” Scheibe said. “But by college age, people are more sophisticated and individualistic in terms of who they see as someone they admire.”
It’s at this age that celebrity influence becomes more than just an unconscious, unavoidable media effect. It becomes a conscious life choice. Some psychologists and media scholars believe celebrity influence is strong, and that the threat they pose is a valid one, because celebrities have the potential to do a great amount of harm.
Thin, pretty women and strong, good-looking, muscular men epitomize success in the industry, in which people with zero respect for the law or any inclination to behave according to social norms thrive.
College students especially seem to want nothing more than that level of success. A Pew Research Center poll found that 81 percent of students ages 18-24 valued “getting rich” as their most important or second most important life goal.
According to Scheibe, it’s within that complex that celebrity modeling finds it greatest potential for harm. She added that modeling relationships predicated on materialism “tend to set up an unrealistic expectation about the possibility that you could become like them — and that’s so very rare.”
If college students want to live like Kim Kardashian — and the statistics say they do — it makes sense that they’d want to act like her as well.
Child psychologist Fred Eisner is a clear supporter of this “strong effects theory,” which he explained means that celebrities have a huge effect on college students and influence everything from fashion to choice of music to way students think.
“College students are vulnerable because they’re forming their identities, and they’re not always enlightened enough to see the effects culture can have on them,” Eisner said. Understandably, the less aware students are of unconscious role modeling, the less likely they are to look for it, and the less likely they are to control for it.
But what about celebrities whose strongest relationships aren’t with parole officers and bartenders? Celebrities like Kristen Bell, Anne Hathaway and even Justin Bieber are young and successful, but use their success as platforms for promoting social justice and change. Last year, Bell raised $69,000 with mycharity: water. According to Eisner, the effect is fundamentally the same for celebrities with positive influence.
“Students are always copycatting, and you get both ends,” he said, explaining that students are just as likely to become involved with a charity as they are to pick up fashion tips from celebrities. It just depends of what they’re looking for.
Yet, some media scholars — such as Brenda McDaniel — argue that it really doesn’t matter what a celebrity is doing, as their influence is minimal.
“College students do nominate celebrities as role model but in terms of the impact on personality and behavior, personally known role models are more influential,” she said.
Despite what we’d like to think, we don’t actually know anything more about Kim Kardashian than we can learn from E! and People. As obvious as that may seem, that’s not a concept consciously understood by all students, and that comprehension gap can lead to what Scheibe refers to as parasocial relationships.
“We tend to think that we have an actual relationship with celebrities and other people we only ‘know’ through the media,” Scheibe said. “And we don’t — and they certainly don’t know us.”
These types of relationships not only lead to warped life views, but they’re also inherently one-sided, and a relationship not sanctioned by half the people in it can only be so powerful.
Celebrity influence then is often shallow, penetrating only deep enough to influence fashion decisions and hairstyles and products. At that point, is it even truly the celebrity’s influence, or are 20-somethings instead modeling themselves after human advertisments? Kim Kardashian officially endorses more than twenty products, including a questionable weight loss supplement, Sketchers, an in-home laser hair removal system and Charmin toilet paper.
Vendors are well aware of her reach and of the bizarrely strong attachments her fans have to her. According to Bryan Roberts, associate dean of the Park School and media effects scholar, as long as that attachment remains strong, the relationship between a celebrity and a brand will remain strong and someone like Kardashian is going to continue to be used as a tool to sell products. But when college students model themselves after these choices, they’re not actually modeling themselves after anyone; they’re simply consumers.
McDaniel said true role models for college students are more often found in true peers, and that “these individuals are likely to have one of the greatest influences on personality and behavior since the student spends a large amount of time with them.” They’re actual, tangible people with the potential to develop two-way relationships.
“It’s an actual relationship, which implies a two-way street and actual interactions,” Scheibe said, and added there’s an inherent strength in that type of relationship.
Eisner agreed, and defined the behavior as “modeling” and affirmed that it is “one of the most powerful forms of teaching.” Understandably, the more time we spend with actual people, the more influence they can have on us, and despite wishes otherwise, reading a two-page spread in People covering the intricacies of Kardashian’s wedding dress isn’t actually a substitute for an honest personal connection.
And it’s not as though students on college campuses today are lacking in accomplishments. As admissions requirements become more intense, even incoming freshmen are walking onto campus with impressive resumes. By junior and senior year, students are in high positions — as editors, presidents, student government body members— and these are people that actually are accessible. They’re other students that live and learn on campuses. According to McDaniel, if the students are actually spending time with these peer role model, the “positive pro-social behavior will ‘rub off’ on the individual.”
Idolizing Kim Kardashian — regardless of her power or prestige or media presence — simply can’t have that effect because reading People doesn’t equate to actually having a relationship with a person.
But Eisner isn’t so quick to discount the power of celebrity role modeling, arguing that one relationship isn’t necessarily stronger, just different. On a day-to-day basis, he conceded that “people you’re closest to have a greater effect than those who are far away because you’re more likely to adapt to them.”
He added that the type of modeling that’s most powerful is heavily dependent on the student. Students with lower self-esteem are more likely to gravitate towards peers with lower standards, whereas an incredibly confident student “is going to be more likely to copy individuals who do successful things — celebrities included.”
So, go ahead stalk Lindsay Lohan on Twitter — just remember to twitter stalk the class president too.
Kait Hulbert is a freshman IMC major who wants to be Peter Pan when she grows up. Email her at khulber2[at]ithaca[dot]edu.