In a country with a former reality TV star as president, headlines such as “Kim Kardashian Goes Braless” and millions of people tuning in to the “The Bachelor,” Americans idealize stars and view stardom as the pinnacle of success. This obsession with fame is exacerbated in the 21st century because social media platforms enable us all to pursue fame by being our own paparazzi.
Grisham Writer-in-Residence Catherine Lacey explores and critiques celebrity culture in her 2017 novel The Answers, which follows the fictional story of character Kurt Sky’s “Girlfriend Experiment.” In the novel, Sky claims that his movie star status has made it impossible for him to form genuine connections with people since they already have preconceived notions about him, so he hires biotech researchers and twenty or so women to each act as a specific girlfriend in hopes of building the “perfect romantic relationship.” For example, there’s a “maternal” and an “angry” girlfriend.
“When strangers recognize you and know stuff about you, it makes things really confusing,” Sky says in the novel. But nowadays with 68% of American adults using Facebook and 71% of 18 to 24-year-olds using Instagram, Sky’s qualms apply to the majority of people since most of us act like celebrities on our social media platforms.
Before social media, the paparazzi were freelance photographers who pursued celebrities; but now anyone with a cellphone – even my 11-year-old cousin – can upload thousands of videos of themselves to sites such as “musical.ly.” In The Answers, Sky’s fictional assistant, Matheson, says, “What used to be just in Us Weekly is now on every corner of the Internet, constantly dehumanizing many of our most emotionally intelligent and talented members of society.”
Constant self-documentation of every mundane aspect of our lives – Snapchat stories consisting of “Going to work,” “Ugh, 5 more hours left,” “Yay, I’m finally off!”, “Time to get wasted,” etc. – have earned my generation the title of “iGen,” which not only represents our technology addiction but also our obsession with ourselves, which we can see in Kurt Sky’s narcissism: he spends hours and hours talking at his “emotional girlfriend” about himself and his life without once asking her about her life.
Sky’s self-obsession reflects that of our president. In late February of this year, NBC national political reporter Vivian Salama gave a lecture on campus and said that Donald Trump goes against protocol by asking for press to accompany him everywhere – even to a simple hand shake with a visiting official.
“He was a reality TV star and finds it very normal to have cameras around,” Salama said.
Like Sky, seeing his face all over the media makes Trump feel powerful, but more importantly it makes him feel wanted. In The Answers, Sky talks about how when women found his home address and stood at his front gate, screaming his name and “watching his windows with a sniper’s focus,” he felt “a slight annoyance followed by a flood of pleasure to feel so wanted, to feel he had driven someone moderately insane.”
Social media and fame is also a band-aid treatment for our negative feelings. Whenever we are feeling self-conscious, we can upload a photo to Instagram and receive likes, whenever we are angry, we can write a Facebook rant, whenever we are lonely we can Snapchat our friends. But none of these remedies are long-lasting – the likes, comments and snaps give us instant gratification but do not make us confront the roots of our issues.
Like the character Matheson said, “The value we have placed on superficial knowledge of the personal lives of our celebrities is quickly creating a sort of emotional vacuum.” And in a country where the majority of the population act like celebrities and paparazzi on social media, the majority of people experience such an emotional vacuum.
Jacqueline Knirnschild is a sophomore anthropology and Chinese double major from Brunswick, Ohio.