Saturday, September 07, 2002

Why do we follow celebrity romances?

The pictures and articles papering the checkout stands wouldn't be there if they didn't entice buyers. What makes the pairings and severings of people we've never met so interesting to so many?

Strangely enough, this is another question I've been considering for a while.

My earliest theory was that famous faces replaced the community gossip we would have known if we spent our lives in small stable communities. If the human mind is adapted to knowing a tribe well, following the relationships of neighbors throughout their lives, and using them as guides to forming their own relationships, perhaps as we began to live in large, frequently remixing communities, we sought other models to follow. Celebrities provided lives visible from wherever we might be living. The intensity of their images, shown larger than life and in the situations of heightened meaning and drama of their performances, replaced the more frequent but less interesting spectacle of having life long neighbors. Because they were in stories that compress time and images composed to have a greater impact, we gained the illusion of knowing them better than we do. And thus they felt like our neighbors. And thus they offered the relationship models we no longer had neighbors close enough and long enough to observe.

As evidence, I can only offer the dream I once had of being invited to a backyard barbecue with Tom and Nicole. I let myself in the garden gate. Nicole dished out the potato salad, and Tom tended the grill, while the kids dashed about within the picket fence. My mind had encoded Tom and Nicole as my neighbors.

My more recent theory is that we hunger for passion. The movies feed this hunger, with images of overwhelming, life transforming love. If we took a census of movie characters and compared it with a census of the United States, we would find that people in the movies are in vast disproportion more often young and in love -- especially the characters that matter, as evidenced by being more often onscreen and central to the stories. Our own lives feature youth and new love much less often. Our friends and acquaintances lead lives generally more calm than passionate. So we look to actors, these known faces who express emotion for a living, to see that someone, somewhere, is living the passion the movies have led us to expect.

Does the work of acting, inhabiting and letting show characters' thoughts and feelings, make one's own emotions more volatile and likely to be expressed? Or does the way we learn about celebrities' lives exaggerate their intensity? Or are our acquaintances veiling their passions?

I expect I'll have another theory another day. I feel one struggling to coalesce.

And both these theories are true. For some part of me, some part of the time, and so, I hope, for some of you.

My best wishes to all,
Anna Paradox

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