The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Friday September 24th

Column: COVID-19 killed celebrity culture

Last week, it was my 22nd birthday! But nobody cares about that. Here’s something more intriguing: two weeks ago, Kim Kardashian turned 40. That’s what people care about!

Or do they?

The Kardashian family is an interesting phenomenon. No member of that family is even remotely talented enough to justify the ongoing American fascination with them. They have done pretty much nothing of substance in the more than a decade that they have been in the public eye, and yet their popular TV show "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" has run for 13 years (the show will end next year, after 20 seasons).

Their popularity has flourished despite the scores of people who publicly hate them, including the creator of a Google Chrome extension that blocks any mention of the family from the Internet, and the thousands of people who engaged with the sentiment, “Everything I know about the Kardashians I learned against my will.”

So if everyone hates them, why do we keep watching?

A study by P. David Marshall, communications professor and celebrity expert at Australia’s Deakin University, argued in 2010 that celebrities hold such a firm grasp over the public in part because celebrity serves as a “pedagogical aid in the discourse of the self.” 

In other words, the one-sided relationship we form with celebrities in watching everything they do, say, wear and eat teaches us who we are, what we like and how we should (or shouldn’t) behave. The Kardashians offer nothing to the American public but their perfectly curated lives, and we lap it up eagerly.

But recently, the veneer seems to have shattered. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the American public has collectively grown tired of watching celebrities try to sympathize with us from their multi-million dollar homes. 

It began with the (literally) tone-deaf video released in March that featured Gal Gadot and other famous Hollywooders singing “Imagine” by John Lennon because, as Gadot wrote in her Instagram caption, “We are in this together.” (Gadot made $31.5 million this year, according to Forbes.) The video was immediately met with disdain, with criticism coming from a scathing article in The New York Times, Twitter and everywhere in between.

Next to enter the arena of absurdity was Ellen DeGeneres, who came under fire after she complained that social distancing was like “being in jail.” (She made $84 million this year alone and is ranked 12th on Forbes’ list of highest-paid celebrities of 2020.) The difference, of course, is that DeGeneres lives in a mansion, while prisons and jails are the sites of some of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the country.

Most recently, Kim Kardashian threw her 40th birthday bash on a private island. As you can probably guess, this, too, sparked universal backlash. People made jokes, pointed out that the waitstaff in the pictures she posted were wearing masks while Kardashian’s friends and family flouted social distancing and mask guidelines and generally lambasted her insensitivity at a time when COVID-19 cases are still on the rise.

Kim K’s private island party may be the last nail in the coffin of the cult of celebrity. The American people are simultaneously facing historic job losses, a deadly virus, racism and police brutality, a mental health epidemic and increases in intimate partner violence. At a time when over 30 million adults do not have health insurance and 19 million Americans do not have fixed broadband access, we have grown weary of the excess of the famous. With a few exceptions, all celebrities are showing us is how out of touch they are. 

Celebrity culture has been slowly dying since March. By the time the world emerges from the throes of this pandemic, I suspect it will have met its well-deserved end.


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