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Star System

Page history last edited by Jeff Martinek 12 years ago

The Star System


“Celebrities are the icons of media culture, the gods and goddesses of everyday life” –Douglas Kellner 






The star system is the promotion and circulation of stars’ images, voices, and personalities. It created celebrities out of actors, performers, and sports players. Social changes caused by people moving from rural areas to urban cities caused distress and anxiety for individuals and coincided with the emergence of the star system. As people searched for personalities to model themselves after in their new lives, they turned to the images that the mass media gives them. The railroad, telegraph, photography, and motion pictures were all influential in the emergence of the star system. Celebrities who exhibit perfect, confident behavior are idolized by their audiences and become icons of mass media.

Social Changes in History


Social changes in the United States coincided with the emergence of the star system. Urbanization caused the US to switch from a primarily rural society to a primarily urban one. The Bureau of the Census states that “The U.S. population was 20 percent urban and 80 percent rural in 1860; by 1880 it was 28 percent urban, and by 1900 40 percent urban” (US department of commerce…). As mechanization of farming increased, less labor was required to feed the nation efficiently and the best employment opportunities were in new urban factories, foundries, plants, and mills. People benefited materially and had more wealth at their disposal; the average number of hours of weekly work also dropped. This meant that people living in the city had more free time and more money to figure out where to spend. James A. Garfield observed about the new leisure time-“We may divide the whole struggle of the human race into two chapters: first the fight to get leisure; and then the second fight of civilization-what shall we do with our leisure when we get it?”. A variety of opportunities in which people could invest their time in arose: city parks, libraries, vaudeville shows, circuses, Wild West extravaganzas, museums, minstrel shows, amusement parks, horse races, and motion pictures. Baseball also provided the chance for people to be spectators; an increasing number of enthusiasts began to faithfully go to the park to cheer on their favorite teams. [1]


The New Individual


As people left the rural way of life for the city one, they left behind the rural social existence. Rural areas had a strong social emphasis on conventionality, togetherness, and unity and imposed those ideas with restrictions on the individual. Their self-definition was guided by religious beliefs and behaviors. Upon moving into urban areas, those limitations were removed, leaving people to their own devices for personal definition. Individuals were also more alone than in their new city environment, with more control over the directions their lives could take- “One’s private life was also increasingly of one’s own making, rather than being handed to a person” Fowles. There were more job opportunities and less rigid behavioral standards. [1]


Even before this time period of urban dwelling, the idea of self and individualism was celebrated. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 essay “Self-Reliance” claimed that, “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members” and “Who so would be a man, must be a nonconformist.” This ideal was difficult for city dwellers to achieve as they increasingly became lost in the crowd. The change from the close-knit countryside to the loose-knit city resulted in feelings of distress and anxiety. James Bruce, a British lord and historian, predicted that the city life and mindset will “increase that nervous strain, that sense of tension”. Losing a framework of purpose caused people to search for new modes of existence. [1]


The Search for a New Model of Personality


In order to alleviate their mental distress and find their sense of self, people turned to self-help manuals and behavioral guides. These self-help books focused on strengthening character and inner strength. People found these to be lacking of meaningful support, and a second type with a new emphasis gained favor: books that emphasized developing a personality, something that wasn’t an issue until the sense of identity was called into question. Americans previously identified themselves by their cultural heritage, family tradition, community, church, political persuasion, and profession. Now, individuals needed to have personal charm to get others to like them. In order to set themselves apart from others and escape anonymity, people looked for models of personality to shape their own after. [1]


People found these models in the increasingly present images of stars-on stage, screen, and the playing field. Celebrated actors became “celebrities” and, at a critical time when other institutions were disappearing, offered various models of the well-integrated self. Audiences thought they were witnessing the ideal whole and resolved person because “Stars seemed to exude the perfected, confident behavior that unanchored city dwellers coveted” Fowles. Actors in motion pictures would face challenges in life and overcome the forces of evil and authority, giving viewers the exalting inspiration that they too could cope with their strange new world. [1]


The Role of Technology




The star role could never have been established without the proper technologies to circulate star images to the public, allowing a large number of people to focus on a small number of celebrities. The popularization of stars began after the Civil War; the performers themselves traveled around on railroads and information about them traveled through telegraphs. Certain performers started to stand out from the rest. A national audience for actors and actresses was also developed with the help of the railroad and telegraph. Companies were able to tour easily and quickly, increasing the extent of exposure. Telegraphed accounts of performers, both old and new, resulted in audience familiarity. This left the public feeling a need for stars and this need was met through the circulation of their images as photography and photographic reproduction advanced. Photographs of stars faces began to circulate widely in the 1880s and 1890s. [1]


The Influence of Motion Pictures


This promotion of stars’ images advanced greatly with the introduction of motion pictures. The ability of photography to circulate the image and the theater’s ability to present the star in performance were combined into a new technology that ushered in the age of the star. People everywhere were provided with simultaneous exposure to a star, giving them the common experience of the celebrity performer. The most attractive feature of films was that the audience could observe the star’s behavior which the audience was most curious about because, as Fowles states, “Behavior defines a social entity and reveals the person within”. The distance between viewer and actor was reduced, especially with the close-up shot. The focus on the face captures attention; Fowles states that the face is “the avenue to the soul, the inner personality of the star”. The personalities were highlighted by the dialogue, plot, other characters, and cinematography, and the audience now had personalities to help shape their identity. [1]


The addition of sound also helped to promote the star system. Sound films cost twice as much to make and so directors focused on stars as the central element to movie production. Movies began to sell their stars and started to systemize their development; more successful stars would get more work and the less successful would be pushed out. Celebrity actors often became stereotyped, which restricted experimentation in roles but brought steady work. During the Depression, ticket sales dropped but fans did not lose commitment to their stars. Some people mailed in letters of adoration and others organized themselves into fan clubs. “In 1934 there were 535 recognized clubs, with a combined membership of 750,000” Alexander Walker. Even in times of turmoil and distress, fan devotion remained high and unchanging. The trend continues today. Stars are often worshiped and as Douglas Kellner says, “Celebrities are the icons of media culture, the gods and goddesses of everyday life”. [2]



Celebrity Worship Syndrome


"We as a society are becoming overly preoccupied with celebrities and the fantasy images it evokes."

-James Houran, psychologist with the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine 


A team of researchers from various universities in the United States and Britain have recently identified a psychiatric condition they have named "celebrity worship syndrome", an obsessive-addictive disorder in which a person becomes overly involved with the details of a celebritie's life. The researchers claim that a third of us have, to some degree, an unhealthy interest in the lives of the rich and famous. A celebrity worship scale consisting of three levels measures people's interest in celebrities, ranging from: Entertainment Social (casual stargazing), to Intense Personal (the person seems to feel a connection with the star), to Borderline Pathological (admiration turns to obsession and stalker behavior). Horan claims that celebrity obsession has proliferated more since the creation of mass media: "Celebrity worship...has probably only become intense as it is given the technological advances that allow us to create societies, market them to a worldwide audience, and share information about them". Some gossip magazine columnists claim that our obsession with celebrities lives are a form of escapism and a way to dull emotional pain after events like 9/11, the ailing economy, and the war in Iraq. Horan also concedes that a certain amount of star admiration is normal; evolutionary biologists say that it's understandable to want to emulate celebrities because it is a natural part of development to want to identify with those who are famous. "Humans, unlike other species, obtain most of their information about the world from other humans," says antropologist Francisco Gil-White. He claims that humans rank successful individuals highly and model ourselves after them. [3]

Here is a video of a very emotional Britney Spears fan who shares his feelings about the recent criticism and treatment Britney has received in the media. The argument could be made that he has Celebrity Worship Syndrome.



Cartoon Icons


Cartoons can be influential in children's lives, as they identify themselves with and emulate their favorite characters. Concern arises out of this when the cartoon characters are engaging in questionable behavior for children. A study published in March 1999, looked at 50 G-rated animated films made over the past 60 years, including those made by Walt Disney Co., MGM/United Artists, Warner Brothers Studios, Universal Studios, and 20th Century Fox. It found that more than two-thirds of the films featured tobacco or alcohol use in the story without any messages of negative consequences of the substances. Tobacco and alcohol were not only used by the bad characters, but were also used by the good and neutral characters and were shown to have enticing and fun qualities. Animated films are glamorizing tobacco use in much the same way as the tobacco industry used Joe Camel to glamorize tobacco use for children. Cartoons with animals are especially influential in that regard. [4]


Cartoons also tend to have gender stereotyped characters which can affect the development of children's self images as they identify themselves with their favorite characters. In a study that examined the gender-stereotyped content of children's TV network cartoons, male characters were more likely than females to use physical agression. Female characters had a lot of behaviors reflecting fear, acting romantic, being polite, and acting supportive. [5]


Implications for Media Ecology


Here is a video of the transformation a model's image goes through for a picture.



The Star System has the potential to affect several different kinds of media. As previously noted, motion pictures

were promoted through the celebrities in them. People became fans of certain personalities and invested their money and time into the activity their celebrity was associated with. Media is extremely influential in perpetuating a star’s image. The telegraph was an early example of mass circulation of stars; now, radio, Television, Motion Pictures, and the InterNet are all important in the distribution of images and information. As new technology develops, people have both a greater and more immediate access to celebrities than ever before. People’s obsession with celebrities poses the question, “Why are we so infatuated with those who are famous?” The media with which we view them does not tell us whether or not these are the people we should model ourselves after. The lifestyle promoted by stars is, in reality, often unattainable to the average person; this could leave people with an unsatisfied feeling as they fall short of their favorite celebrity lifestyle. Douglas Kellner says that, “In a global media culture, celebrities are the manufactured and managed deities of the contemporary moment.” This implies that the celebrity image is shown as realistic and ideal, but is actually created and perpetuated by the media. The media has the power to widely distribute information and images, as well as the power to create and influence those images.


[1] Fowles, Jib. "Mass Media and the Star System". Communication in History. Pearson Education, Inc. 2007.


[2] Kellner, Douglas. "Media Culture and the Triumph of the Spectacle".


[3] ABC News. "Celebrity Worship Syndrome: Is America's Osession with Stardom Becoming Unhealthy?". PropagandaMatrix. 2001-2003. 14 Apr 2008. <http://www.prisonplanet.com/240903celebrityworship.html>


[4] ABC News. "Smoking Cartoon Characters". ACS News Center. Apr 1999. 14 Apr 2008. <http://www.cancer.org/docroot/NWS/content/NWS_1_1x_Smoking_Cartoon_Characters.asp>


[5] Campbell Leaper, Lisa Breed, Laurie Hoffman, Carly Ann Perlman. "Variations in the Gender-Stereotyped Content of Children's Television Cartoons Across Genres".

Journal of Applied Social Psychology. Vol 32 Issue 8 Page 1653-1662. August 2002. <http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1559-1816.2002.tb02767.x>.

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