Thursday, November 08, 2007

Teens and Fame

When Jake Halpern set out to write “Fame Junkies,” his book about what is now a universal obsession with celebrity, he was surprised to uncover studies demonstrating that 31 percent of American teenagers had the honest expectation that they would one day be famous and that 80 percent thought of themselves as truly important. (The figure from the same study conducted in the 1950s was 12 percent.)

This fascinating factoid comes from a recent New York Times article on Tila Tequila and the rise of a new class of people: the talentless famous. In this age of MySpace and Internet voyeurism, reality TV shows and obsession with all things celebrity, any regular person can gain a following through strength of personality and outrageous behavior. We've democratized fame in so many ways, and the millions of people who thought that their lack of talent, brains, beauty or charm would prevent them from ever being well-known now have hope that they too can be the next Omarosa, Kim Kardashian or Brody Jenner.

But I was shocked to read that this trend has permeated society to the point where a whopping 31% of teens honestly believe that they'll be famous. It would be fascinating to learn more specifics on what these kids think they'll be known for, and how many of them just want to be famous for being themselves. I wonder if traditional routes to fame (sports, music, acting, politics, business, etc) are being pushed aside for the "internet sensation" careers. Reality TV and the internet have certainly made it far easier for people to attain fame quickly, without having to undergo the years of training or working multiple jobs to continue following their passion. In addition to not needing skill, you don't have to work hard to gain your fame. What could be more appealing to the instant gratification generation?

I wonder if this frenzy to be famous comes in response to the incredible academic pressures placed on this generation of kids. The competition to get the best grades, be involved in every extracurricular activity and sport imaginable and get into the best colleges is higher than it's ever been. The "every child is above average" attitude is held as the standard for students, and those who can't perfectly follow the path laid out by their parents and schools are made to feel like failures. If you don't succeed in school, if you feel like you're slow or unpopular or just different, you might be searching for an alternative.

The stars of the Internet age are famous for embracing their outrageous personalities and the qualities that make them strange or different; they only have to be themselves and people love them and admire them. On top of that, they don't really have to work and they have fun all the time (or at least appear to). You can imagine how refreshing that idea must be to a kid who feels like he'll never live up to the standards of his parents and teachers, with their narrow view of success. If you don't see yourself succeeding by following the traditional path, you might view internet/TV fame as a serious alternative. If Perez Hilton can do it, why can't I?

It's unfortunate that our society sends a message to teenagers that being famous for being famous is a viable alternative to going to college and having a regular, boring job. Kids need to learn that there are a million ways to live their lives, but being famous for 15 minutes doesn't guarantee happiness (in fact, it almost seems to guarantee an unhappy and unfulfilling life). Many of these "celebrities" are already old news and it will be interesting to see if the backlash against people who are famous for no real reason grows, or if we're doomed to see a generation of Tila Tequilas.


Kim said...

I agree with a lot of what you said. I saw part of the Kardashian's show last night and my question was "What is her talent?" It reminds me of Paris Hilton, who's famous for being famous, or just a big party girl. Reality TV has a big role in giving non-actors and sports heroes a celebrity status. It's all a part of our culture where celebrities are dissected and worshipped and hated all at the same time. Now "regular" people can have that fame or notoriety.

Arlene said...

Just by lucky coincidence, I found Jake Halpern's book on fame in the library about two months ago and didn't stop reading until I turned the last page later that night.

Click! At last a highly entertaining and articulate explanation for so much in our culture.

It seems we are all being encouraged not to be "ordinary" or "boring" at the expense of all other virtues. Being a kind but unflashy person with useful skills and a willingness to put them to work is now seen as a fate practically worse than death...and the result is this weird toxic fame culture.

Why are we buying this idea?

In Halpern's book, the chapter on aspiring child actors and their associated parents and grandparents hanging out in an LA apartment complex is unforgettable and haunting. Everyone involved could be having a real life--learning or working at something real--but instead all are self-condemned to a dreary limbo far from home. The family sacrifices are huge, and all for five minutes in a commercial!

Don't miss this book if you want to understand modern society.

Anita said...

Excellent post. I work in a midsized high school in the midwest. What strikes me most often about the students I encounter is the sense of entitlement that these young people have. It's not just the fame, it's the fortune they expect, too. They seem to think the world owes them something for nothing. It's chilling, sometimes. My opinion is that so much school time has been spent, grades K-12, *reinforcing the child's self esteem*. The best things for these kids would be not building their ego, but teaching the benefits of hard work and serving others in some way. Humility is a very underrated quality in today's society.

Mom 2 Divas said...

I agree with Anita. A couple of years ago I read an article in a newspaper that showed a link between high self esteem and criminal activity. As Anita mentioned, many of the youth of society have a sense of entitlement which isn't earned nor warrented. We need to teach then character education to become whole human beings.

Sarah said...

I agree. I was reminded of this post today when I saw a commercial for the new Life game. When I was a kid (I'm 30 now) you got married, had kids, bought a house, got a job, etc. in the game of Life. The new version has a group of 13 or 14 year olds and the twists and turns of the game have them becoming movie stars, getting entourages, racking up money on credit cards, and more. It feeds into a totally different set of expectations.

Anonymous said...

I also agree.

I am a teenager and am doing a project on how the media affects teenagers and the outlook that they have on life.

One of my main questions is whether they want to become famous (As i have to distribute many questionnaires to teenagers). The answer to this was yes and the reason? The reason was because of fame and money.

If i am truthful, i would also like to become famous because i feel that as being a teenagers in the 21st century, that the media has changed the perceptions that i have on life. Although i want to become a celebrity, i feel that i know it is a distant dream that will never come true.

The way in which schools portray the showbiz life has a high impact on teenagers as when i watch films for lesson purposes at school in social studies, i feel they only highlight the good side of fame. Although it is unintentional, it is patronising to me however, my fellow students thoroughly enjoy watching these movies that will one day destroy their self esteem and confidence.

All in all, excellent article in my eyes which truly captures the real issue of teenagers and fame.