Perfect Illusions

In which the lies of our daily lives are presented and discussed.

Til den danske Pretty Little Liars Skrivekonkurrence, med valgmulighed nr. 3: "Skriv en tekst, der er bygget op omkring en løgn."


3. Perfect Illusions | Long version

We live in a world where essentially everyone are liars. We go through our days lying, we listen to others telling lies to our faces, we even go as far as to idolize liars. The biggest liars are perhaps exactly the ones we idolize the most: celebrities. They live most of their lives based on lies, to put on a certain façade for the public eye. They live in the illusions of perfection, putting ideas in our heads of perfect lives and appearances - and how much this should all matter to a person, in order for them to feel true happiness. They represent what we should all strive to be. But is that life even something to be desired?

World-known pop-art creator Andy Warhol once said: “More than anything, people just want stars.” With this quote, Warhol gives a description of what the everyday lives of the “common” people consist of regarding their desire for stars. This quote is, however, up to interpretation. Because what is a “star” really? Besides, of course, what The Oxford Dictionaries describe as “a fixed luminous point in the night sky which is a large, remote incandescent body like the sun” or the representation of a star in the shape of a five-pointed geometric figure. The kind of star Andy Warhol refers to, however, is a person who’s universally or at least locally well-known/famous by the masses and has a crowd of followers, who admire them. Usually, they will be famous for some sort of talent in the entertainment business. The quote means, that people want someone to look up to. They want someone with a life they can aspire to live or an image they can dream to obtain. Some also want to focus on someone else’s misfortune or fortune, so they can forget their own lives and problems for a while.

The fascination of famous people has always existed in our societies, and the adulation of certain individuals or groups can be traced all the way back to the gods and goddesses of Ancient Greece, and possibly even earlier than that. Whether it was big or small problems, people would worship the gods and goddesses of Greek Mythology in hopes of earning their favour. If you wanted a good harvest, you could build a shrine in honour of Demeter, goddess of corn, grain, harvest and fertility in these areas. Or, in a more desperate case, if you wanted to cure the deathly illness of you or your loved ones, you could either turn to Hades, god of the underworld, or Apollo, god of healing and medicine (amongst almost countless other things). In the times of the ancient deities came along Alexander the Great as well, who - according to Leo Braudy, Ph.D., professor of English at the University of Southern California - was the first famous person in a modern sense. He has said the following on the topic: “Not only did he want to be unique, but he wanted to tell everybody about it, and he had an apparatus for telling everybody about it. He had techniques for doing famous things. He had historians, painters, sculptors, gem carvers on his battles.”

In recent decades, the fascination with fame and celebrities seems to have drastically increased. This can be sensed by witnessing how rapidly a lot of concerts with very famous artists get sold out. A concert in the enormous Madison Square Garden, where every artist dreams of obtaining enough fame to be able to play, can be sold out in a matter of mere minutes, or seconds, even. This has been seen before with artists such as Taylor Swift - who sold out in 60 seconds in 2009 - and Justin Bieber - who sold out not one, but two shows in MSG in 30 seconds in 2012. Furthermore, Bieber sold out his entire U.S. and North American tour within one hour, according to his label, Island Def Jam. As such, the celebrity craze has reached a point where people are willing to pay loads of money just to stand nowhere near a celebrity and listen to music, which often sounds better at home with your headphones plugged into your smartphone or computer. In the largest of the concert holding arenas, you might not even be able to actually see the performer on stage, if you have a seat too far away. Your only hope to see your big idol in return for all the money you spend on the tickets to the event is the giant screens set up for that exact scenario. In addition to spending an abundance of money on the concert, many fans also buy tonnes of merchandise from the performer’s set-up-shops at the concerts (such as t-shirts, keychains, hoodies etc.), to show their dedication.

It’s a lot easier for young people today to follow and admire the stars because of modern technology and social media. That’s why fans of various performers are often at the age of young adulthood. This particular target audience has easier access to social media online because they basically spend their entire lives on such sites. The increasing focus on celebrities can, because of this, also easily be detected on social media. The capacity of a celebrity’s popularity can be measured in the number of followers or fans they have on various social media sites. If several billion people press ‘retweet’ every time you post something on Twitter or likes your photo on Instagram, you’re probably up there with the crème de la crème of the famous and infamous. On the downside, however, the current age of technology also makes it easier for the more excessive fans and followers to stalk their favourite celebrities. This can even reach a point where the celebrities can’t go anywhere in public without being followed by a crowd of fans and must hire full-time bodyguards to protect them from any possible harm.

As a matter of fact, this kind of obsessive behaviour has led to multiple studies on the psychological aspect of it all. The obsessive-addictive disorder where an individual becomes overly involved and interested with the details of the personal life of a celebrity is called celebrity worship syndrome (acronym: CWS). Even though the objects of obsessive attachments can be anyone who is “in the public eye”, it is evident - discovered with the help of research and criminal prosecutions - that these celebrities are often found to be someone from the world of television, film and/or (pop) music. Dr John Maltby and his team of colleagues have identified three independent dimensions of celebrity worship, based on their research on the topic. The names of these are: (I) entertainment-social, (II) intense-personal, and (III) borderline pathological and they are defined in the following way:

I. The entertainment-social dimension relates to attitudes where individuals are attracted to a celebrity because of their perceived ability to entertain and to become a social focus of conversation with likeminded others.​

II. The intense-personal dimension relates to individuals that have intensive and compulsive feelings about a celebrity.​

III. The borderline-pathological dimension relates to individuals who display uncontrollable behaviors and fantasies relating to a celebrity.

Maltby and colleagues have found that there is a connection between the pathological aspects of CWS and poor mental health in UK participants of the studies. This can be high anxiety, more depression, high-stress levels etc. Furthermore, they have found that among teenage girls (aged 14-16) there is a connection between intense-personal celebrity worship and body image, since: “those teenage girls who identify with celebrities have much poorer body image compared to other groups studied”. However, data from 3000 people showed only approximately 1% demonstrate obsessional tendencies, 10% (often neurotic, tense, emotional and moody types) displayed intense interest in celebrities, 14% revealed a tendency to make a special effort to read about their favourite celebrity and to socialize with people who shared this interest, whilst the remaining 75% of the people expressed no interest in celebrities’ lives. Maltby states that an interest in celebrities is fine, “as long as it doesn’t take over your life”. Maltby and his team wrote, that celebrity worship brought both positive and negative consequences: “People who worshipped celebrities for entertainment and social reasons were more optimistic, outgoing, and happy. Those who worshipped celebrities for personal reasons or were more obsessive were more depressed, more anxious, more solitary, more impulsive, more anti-social and more troublesome.”

In addition to this, Adam Galinsky, an expert in ethics and social psychology and a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, has declared that: “Humans at the core are social beings, and research has shown that the less connected people feel, the more they turn to celebrities,” and that: “It's a very adaptive and functional behavior.” The reasoning behind why we find celebrities so fascinating has often been attempted to explain. One of the experts that have sought to do exactly this, is Dr John Lucas, a clinical assistant professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College and an assistant attending psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. He has said the following on the matter at hand: “Celebrities tap into the public's primal fantasies and basic emotions, lifting people from their everyday lives and making them believe anything is possible.”

Celebrities are defined by what the public, and specifically the media, thinks of them. Historian Daniel Boorstin defined modern fame thirty years ago in his book, The Image, like so: “The hero was distinguished by his achievement, the celebrity by his image. The celebrity is a person well known for his well-knownness. We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so realistic that we can live in them.” However, because of the importance of a celebrity’s image, the celebrities as individuals fade into oblivion, and nobody really cares about the people behind the public facades. The 1930s screen star Myrna Loy once said: “I daren't take any chances with Myrna Loy, for she isn't my property… I couldn't even go to the corner drugstore without looking 'right,' you see. Not because of personal vanity, but because the studio has spent millions of dollars on the personality known as Myrna Loy.” Consequently, there is a larger prize to pay for being a celebrity today, since they are not only adored but also scorned. “Celebrities have been demoted from gods of the natural world to agents of the flow of information.” Information has become so accessible that, “the wish for kings is transformed into the wish to know.”

On the other hand, Chris Hedges - who is a senior fellow at The Nation Institute and the author of Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle - believes that what really matters in our lives such as wars, global warming etc., doesn’t take up enough space in our minds, because of all the irrelevant topics we would rather fill our minds with. In his own words, “We are enraptured by the revels of a dying civilization.” He claims that the worshipping of celebrities takes up so much of our time because we want to see ourselves reflected in them, we want to become like them, to some degree. “We are waiting for our cue to walk onstage and be admired and envied, to become known and celebrated. Nothing else in life counts.” We want our lives to resemble the lives of celebrities, with wealth, power and possibly fame, even though most of our lives never will. Just like the celebrities of the world, we too strive to build a specific image on social media sites, so we can control how people see us, at least to a certain degree. We try to capture people’s attention, because, as Hedges says, we live in a world where not to be seen, in some sense, is to not exist. Therefore, “The route to happiness is bound up in how skillfully we present ourselves to the world.” We are promised an aggrandisement if we do specific things as we go through our daily routines. As Hedges says, “We consume these countless lies daily.”

And when the lies and promises don’t pan out for us, we are filled with immense frustration and self-doubt. Why can’t we do what others have succeeded in doing? “The worse things get, the more we beg for fantasy. We ingest these lies until our faith and our money run out. And when we fall into despair we medicate ourselves, as if the happiness we have failed to find in the hollow game is our deficiency. And, of course, we are told it is.” But, as Hedges points out, the poor can dine out only so long on illusions and afterwards, they will either be left with a feeling of outrage or a ferocious despair and diffidence - if not all of it. But surely not everyone can be such oblivious ignoramuses to the points presented by Chris Hedges, right? No, he doesn’t believe that is the case. Nevertheless, he does believe that our society has a way of dealing with the people who sees the society for what it really is. “Those who question, those who doubt, those who are critical, those who are able to confront reality, along with those who grasp the hollowness and danger of celebrity culture, are condemned for their pessimism or intellectualism,” he claims. In which he does make a good point. After all, why should we listen to the vituperative remarks of the naysayers of the world, when we could simply shut our eyes and ears, and continue to live in the illusion of true happiness until the day we die - when we are finally released from the perpetual and slightly fatuous desideratum of wealth, power and admiration?

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