Sex, Drugs, and Boredom

Why we should take entertainment more seriously than we do.

Celebrities and Scapegoats

It can be dangerous to be beautiful

In her classic study of Greek Mythology, Edith Hamilton suggests that certain myths reflect an ancient tradition of human sacrifice. Some comely member of a community might be given to the Gods, she says, likely at times when harvests were failing and the land had become barren. I am interested in her assertion that it was a person of great beauty who would be sacrificed. There are similar ideas in other religious traditions. For example, in her study of sacrifice in ancient Israel, Mary Douglas says that animals offered to God had to be good examples of what they are. A good goat must be offered; to sacrifice a crippled or otherwise flawed goat would be an abomination.

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The underlying idea here is that flawless creatures are both closer to divinity and the most likely scapegoats when things aren’t going so well. I think of this often when I’m standing in the supermarket checkout line and reviewing the latest headlines from the tabloids: an actress who has gained weight and looks grotesque in an inappropriate swimsuit, claims that dashing leading men are abusive or involved in clandestine gay relationships, divorces, rehab, etc. We all are fascinated by the beauty and life of celebrities, and even more intrigued by their delicious falls from grace. Details change a bit, but essentially it’s the same story, week after week, year after year.

And of course, the most mesmerizing fall a celebrity can have is to die, especially unexpectedly. Any celebrity death is of interest. Television actors who have not been seen since sixties sitcoms are worthy of mention on the national news. However, the deaths of major celebrities such as Michael Jackson or Princess Diana provoke reactions that span the globe and last for weeks. It is often said that fans are grieving the loss of celebrities, but I think that’s only partially true, especially since the fans do not actually know the celebrities.

So why are we ever intrigued by celebrity failures and transfixed by their deaths? These facts about our society can hardly be placed in the “rational behavior” category; these beliefs about celebrity reflect deep emotions and long forgotten superstitions. The fact is that while we worship celebrities, they are also scapegoats. There is a part of us that finds reassurance in their failings and their demise, and strange as it may seem, one can sometimes hear in the comments of celebrity mourners something like gratitude. Celebrities possess talents and attractiveness that, for many of their fans, make them the best representations of what humans can be. But as those unfortunate villagers from Greek prehistory could tell you, that can be a dangerous honor to bear.

Peter Stromberg, Ph.D., is an Anthropologist and author of Caught in Play: How entertainment works on you.

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