More Celebrity Atheism

Celebrities can't be role models

Posted Aug 08, 2009

In my previous post I explained the basic principles of celebrity atheism: Sure, there are actual people who correspond in some sense to well-known celebrities such as Beyonce or Scarlett Johansson. However, what we encounter out here in the everyday world is usually not those actual people, rather we encounter highly scripted, airbrushed, and staged images that the actual people help to produce. The images are not the people; the images are, like the fictional characters in a film, symbols rather than physical beings.

Why does this matter? It matters in several ways, here's one of them: Many Americans, whether or not they are explicit about the matter, consider celebrities to be role-models. They want to be like celebrities, or they want to actually be celebrities. Consider an article on Angelina Jolie that appeared in Harper's Bazaar in earlier this summer. Based on polling data, the article asserts "women want to be with her and be her at the same time"

As we all know, this is hardly unusual: kids wear the jerseys of NBA players and practice their signature moves, fans adopt the clothing styles and favorite foods of the singers they idolize or choose their career paths based on their identification with celebrities. Sometimes critics suggest that certain celebrities are inappropriate role models because they take drugs, get arrested for battery, or whatever. But I'd like to suggest a more basic reason that celebrities aren't good role models: they aren't people.

Take the Angelina article I mentioned, written by Naomi Wolf. I've got nothing against Wolf (although some others do), she's a smart writer with more readers than I can even dream of. But she's a celebrity believer, or at least pretends to be one in order to get her work published in Harper's Weekly. She tells her readers that Jolie "for the first time in modern culture, brings together almost every aspect of female empowerment and liberation."

Cool, way to go Angelina. Wolf goes on to tell us that Angelina has it all, she has Brad Pitt, first of all, but also she cares for "half a football team of children", does good deeds, all the while looking like...Angelina Jolie. And in so doing she shows all women that they too can have it all.

I demur. Images can be made to look like they have it all, but people don't. The person Angelina Jolie undoubtedly has disappointments, messes up, and doesn't look like "Angelina Jolie" much of the time. But even more important than the fact that people don't have it all is that people don't need to have it all, and setting that up as a goal is a recipe for constant dissatisfaction. Be a celebrity atheist, give up on the conviction that celebrities prove there's a perfect life out there, and focus instead on doing your best in an imperfect but also kind of remarkable world.

Peter G. Stromberg is the author of Caught in Play: How Entertainment Works on You.  Photo by Lewis Minor.