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The Joys and Sorrows of Being a Celebrity Fan: James Dean, Jerry Lee Lewis and Mickey Mantle

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Mickey Mantle
Mickey Mantle
(Image by Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism)
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By Bruce Lerro, Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism

"No one who frequents the dark auditorium is really an atheist"

Edgar Morin, Marxist Movie Critic


Cross-cultural uniqueness of celebrity culture

If members of a tribal society during Paleolithic or Neolithic times, or even members of Bronze Age Egypt or Mesopotamia, had heard about the United States population's devotion to celebrities, they wouldn't believe it. How could you become attached to a person you will never meet, whose shelf life might be five to 10 years and who doesn't know or care about your life? How can it be that during a period of adolescence these celebrities might be more important than one's family, relatives, friends? What if we told these ancient peoples that these celebrities came to be seen as more interesting than religious or political authorities? Again, disbelief. This article is partly experiential description of how that process of creating and sustaining celebrities came to be.

Questions about the differences between fame and celebrity

Is it possible to be famous without being a celebrity? Is it possible to be a celebrity without being famous? What is the place of mass communication in developing notoriety? Can a person be famous without the presence of mass communication?

What about the place of fans? Can you be famous without having fans? What is the relationship between charisma, sex appeal, and competence? Is it possible to be famous and not have charisma? Is it possible to be a celebrity and be incompetent?

Is there any difference between the psychological health of people who are famous as opposed to those who are celebrities? How relevant is capitalism to notoriety? Can there be celebrities without capitalism?

The place of celebrity in adolescent socialization

Every young boy or girl is socialized by different forces. Sociologists name at least seven sources of socialization: the family, the state, and religious authorities are usually the most conservative of forces. Liberal forces of socialization include education, friends, advertising, and celebrity culture (including movie heroes and heroines, sports figures and movie stars). Contrary to what you might expect, sociologists have found that neither advertising nor movie stars, sports figures nor musicians could compete with the more long-standing sociological forces of family, religious organizations, the state or education in terms of the internalization of values. However, this celebrity culture could definitively involve sidetracking the individual.

When I was about ten years old, like most middle-class kids of the late 1950s, I had my own room, and I could hang any pictures on the wall that I wanted. Who was on that wall? Was it a picture of my parents, grandparents or other relatives? Are you crazy? Were there pictures of the American flag or a crucifix? Not on your life! Were there pictures of my teachers? My teachers were nuns. If I ever got hold of a picture of them, it would be used as a dart board. My friends? We are getting closer, but friends were to be played with, not frozen into photographs. I had three huge posters on my wall. One of a sullen James Dean looking down; another of Jerry Lee Lewis burning down his piano, and the last of Mickey Mantle connecting for another long home run (the picture at the beginning of this article). What the movie stars, musicians, and baseball players meant for my socialization is also the subject of this article.

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Barbara MacLean and Bruce Lerro are co-founders and organizers for Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

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