What “A Star Is Born” taught us about celebrity culture


Any movie starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga is bound to rake in a few bucks at the box office. But the 2018 mega hit, A Star Is Born, earned more than a few bucks, grossing almost $450 million worldwide — a massive haul for a movie we’ve already seen. In fact, this was Hollywood’s fourth remake of the film. The original 1937 version starred Janet Gaynor. A few decades later, Judy Garland landed the lead in the 1954 version, followed by Barbara Streisand in 1976.

Why do we keep watching this movie? Are we just suckers for recycled storylines? Maybe. But it might also have something do with a shared, primal fantasy. Deep down, we all want to be stars. We want to be famous. We want to be celebrated. Of course, hardly any of us will ever attain anything close to celebrity status, so we’re left to reconcile our celebrity obsession with the realities of an unremarkable life.

But an unremarkable life may not be so bad. For thousands of years, people found spiritual and emotional significance by avoiding fame. In some cases, they have aggressively rejected the celebrity others tried to force on them. Here’s what we can learn from their example.

The psychology behind our desire to be famous

A Star Is Born satisfies all the requirements of a great story. But behind the story, there’s psychology — a deep-seated desire to be recognized by others for our gifts and talents.

More than half of the people who become famous achieve celebrity status before the age of 30. Since the odds of making it big drop significantly with each passing year, a ridiculously high percentage of young people are willing to sacrifice traditional goals for fame. In a recent study, a third of millennials said they would rather be famous than become a doctor or lawyer. One in 10 would opt for fame instead of a college degree and one in twelve would abandon or disown their families.

Those statistics aren’t unique to millennials. Previous generations harbored fantasies of becoming the next Joan Baez or George Clooney. Truth be told, on a bad day I still want to be Bono and I’m well past the 30-year cutoff.

There’s no single motivation behind our desire for fame. Researchers have found that on the surface, there are three primary reasons why we crave fame:

  • The desire to be seen or valued
  • The desire to live an elite lifestyle
  • The desire to make others proud or help them

But when we dig a little deeper, we discover that our shared yearning for celebrity comes from our shared experiences of injury, humiliation and neglect. Maybe it was a parent with high expectations and an inability to offer praise. Or classmates who made us feel like we were never good enough. Or a friend who treated us cruelly.

Whatever the source of our obsession (and it’s usually more than one), we want fame because we think it will insulate us from the harsher realities of our experience. But that’s not how it works. The kindness we expect to find in celebrity never materializes. Actual celebrities are frequently wounded and vulnerable people, and their woundedness only gets worse over time because they experience a constant barrage of criticism and nastiness.

In the end, all celebrity really means is that people know who you are. Understanding, appreciation, love, kindness — all the things that motivate us to desire celebrity are illusions grounded in psychological and emotional brokenness.

A spiritual alternative to celebrity

From social media to politics, celebrity culture permeates every nook and cranny of American life. It’s even found its way into the church. In some circles, worship gatherings have become stage shows, pastors have become celebrity wannabes and congregants have become groupies, constantly chasing the next big thing.

Not all churches or pastors have embraced celebrity culture. But even those who recognize the dangers of celebrity culture talk about it and toy with the idea of incorporating certain elements of it into their worship events and ministries. Celebrity culture has apparently become the new normal in Christianity.

Yet, for thousands of years, spiritual leaders across religions actively shunned the idea of celebrity and the desire for fame.

  • In the gospels, Jesus walked away from crowds of people — not toward them. And when people discovered his claim as the messiah, he told them to shut up about it.
  • In the fourth century, the desert mothers and fathers — spiritual rock stars who devoted themselves to lives of prayer and asceticism — left cities because people started treating them like celebrities. When the crowds followed them to the desert, the desert mothers and fathers migrated to caves or lived on top of poles to escape attention.
  • Born a prince, Siddartha Gautama abandoned the trappings of royalty to live as a mendicant, begging in the streets. Moved by the suffering he saw, he began a spiritual quest that transformed him into the Buddha, or enlightened one.

Saint Francis. Mother Teresa. Gandhi. There are plenty of examples of men and women who fled celebrity to pursue a spiritual calling. Ironically, some of them became famous, even during their own lifetimes. But it wasn’t because they wanted fame. They became famous because they proved you don’t have to be a celebrity to live a meaningful life.

When it comes down to it, we all want to be celebrated. Appreciation, love and kindness are basic needs that validate us as human beings. They are signs that our lives have value, that somehow the world is a better place because we’re in it.

The way we discover our value is by celebrating others. When we recognize the inherent, God-given value in others, we experience an exchange of the love and appreciation we crave. Through the validation of other people and the gifts they bring, we find our own validation as human beings and as children of God.

As a work of fiction, A Star Is Born is a decent movie. It’s also a stark reminder that celebrity culture requires a few winners and a lot of losers. Without millions of everyday people cheering them on, celebrities wouldn’t exist. But in God’s universe, there are only winners — and it’s your job to celebrate them all.

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