Are Celebrities Modern Tragic Heroes? || Visual Essay

Are Celebrities Modern Tragic Heroes? || Visual Essay

WARNING: rapid camera flashes from paparazzi in this video… listen to the audio only if you have any phototsensitivity which this might set off.

So this is a thing I’ve been thinking about a bit, about imagining people complexly, and celebrity, and what that entails. A bit because of Kesha, and the fact her job means she’s dealing with her trauma so publicly.

It’s a bit different to what I normally do, I don’t even know tbh.

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At the risk of sounding like a cliche high
school essay I’m going to give a dictionary definition. Not from the Oxford English Dictionary, but
the Dictionary of American History which defines Celebrity culture as “a symbiotic business
relationship from which performers obtain wealth, honors, and social power in exchange
for selling a sense of intimacy to audiences” “Americans are invited […] to believe
they know celebrities intimately.” This creates a tentative balance between dehumanisation
and ultra-personal connection. Individual inner-most secrets can be uncovered
in the media, while the totality of a person remains unrevealed. Comparatively, Shakespeare’s tragedies,
according to the critic Coleridge are “constantly occupied with the world within”, emphasising
character and inner lives and allowing an audience to scrutinise a hero based on his
soliloquies in addition to his actions. In this way, these fictional characters become
more real and arguably more worthy of empathy in our eyes than the actual people who hold
as much fame. Today, does the tragic form demonstrate a
universal desire for some form of catharsis, or even schadenfreude, visible in the fascination
with and vilification of those who stumble and fall in the public eye. As an audience in theatre, we must identify
with the tragic hero- essentially creating an elevated version of ourselves, in order
to complete catharsis and experience pity and fear. For this, there must be imperfection. The question is, is the photoshopped, scripted
interview, 24/7 publicist controlled aspect of celebrity a barrier to this connection? Would a celebrity’s fall be the impetus
for us to see them as a tragic hero? Or would it shatter the illusion that we hold
onto that they are our heroes even our friends, and instead foster disappointment and a feeling of betrayal? In Susan Sontag’s book “Regarding the
Pain of Others”, she posits that “Being a spectator of calamities […] is a quintessential
modern experience”, ultimately in response to international journalism and free press. Although she is referring to the ability of
the public to witness events of international importance; corrupt governments, civil unrest,
and the reality of war zones, her ideas can easily be applied to the downfall of any pop
culture icon. Yet, the latter is often engaged with on a
more widespread and personal level, with details of lives absorbed and discussed at a greater
rate than the seemingly more important news. Perhaps this is because it is easier to comprehend,
a tragedy which is more accessible than the death of hundreds, a way of positioning themselves
directly against another person, or a continuing justification of an ongoing trend in modern
iconoclastic behaviour. Celebrity culture is nothing new- from the
cult following of the du Maurier novel Trilby at the turn of the Century, to the women who
paid for the sweat of their favoured gladiator in Ancient Rome, elevated status and admiration
are universal, perhaps demonstrating a human desire, parallel to that of the American Dream,
to, as F. Scott Fitzgerald so aptly phrased it “run faster, stretch out our arms farther”,
in pursuit of a life we feel owed. After all this quintessential American Dream
and its unattainability is ultimately the source of much modern American tragedy. In Shakespeare’s Othello we see heavy and
complex external forces at work to create a situation in which his hamartia might surface
with devastating results, through the incessant machinations of Iago. This language-heavy, goading, manipulative
character can easily to compared to the media frenzy surrounding celebrities today, with
gossip blogs, paparazzi and phone-tapping. Shakespeare’s Othello is an unusually domestic
tragedy with contained consequences, in contrast to those whose results effected entire countries
in their dealings with royalty. Modern celebrity, on the other hand, explicitly
involves the national media as a presence of control over these icons, ensuring, although
the consequences would not directly effect an entire country, that the entire country
would hear about it. It demonstrates, in both form and content,
the linguistic and performative power in lies, gossip and other direct subtleties, and this
is only enhanced by the ease and extent of communication in the 21st Century. Tragedy isn’t the only celebrity narrative
played out in the public eye… there’s the come back story, the feud, the sex scandal
…. but that’s all they are- narratives. often stripped of their complexity and designed
for entertainment not information. It taps into our entirely human desires for
inspiration, titillation, damnation. People often argue that celebrities are fair
game, that when they agree to act or play sport or speak out, they are also implicitly
agreeing to become a partially written character that the world has unlimited permission to
edit and rewrite and scrap altogether. That they belong to us in the same way characters
belong to their authors. And maybe it’s that, that inability to imagine
people complexly in all of its forms, that’s the real tragedy.


  1. That's why I care about genuinity in celebrities, especially musicians, more than anything else. It's very different to be into Paramore, for example, than Katy Perry or Taylor Swift.

  2. Since you brought up Shakespeare, I think Coriolanus is an incredible study of celebrity/fame as well as all sorts of other things (such as violence, fascism, etc.). He is also perhaps the only Shakespearean tragic heroes who has very few soliloquies. Those he has trace his train of thought but reveal no introspection. Great video!

  3. Very good essay/opinion piece on celebrity culture in comparison to the concept of the tragic hero! Very well written as well. My only question I have is, what is to be done about a paparazzi/media that plays both Iago and Shakespeare to their own benefit? Certainly we, as a global culture, cannot just accept that celebrities and their lives are being reduced to the suiting narratives of the paparazzi?

  4. I am literally on a FAB, INTELLECTUAL YOUTUBER ROLL….discovering the various 'small YouTuber' playlists has been the highlight of my day. Thanks Rowan for adding to the the glory of what the platform can be!

  5. I have been thinking about this a lot since Jennifer Lawrence got attacked for being mean to an interviewer. What has always bothered me about this and especially the tumblr social warrior side is that celebrities are attacked for every little mistake they make. We all have bad days. We all snap at people who did nothing wrong. But we aren't attacked and called an asshole by thousands of people for it

  6. This is so interesting and well said. Also the visuals are so shocking, it's rare that we see so much of this side of celebrity, when it's usually so glamourised.


    Aye to everything you said, I love your take on how the celebrity culture feeds into some of our perennial needs as human communities and yet does so in a reductive, often harmful way whereby feelings of both intimacy and damnation are amplified and we feel the need to objectify people to make sense of the overwhelming complexity around us.

  8. Great video! I think most people want to be famous but don't realize the horrors that come with it. It is not only the harassment by the press but you also lose control over your identity and individuality. People will perceive you as you like and there is so many people watching you it is hard to change that perception. I also just posted a video about Black Hermoine and reading Character diversely on my channel and linked your video on it in the downbar. I know I am really late to that conversation but I wanted to discuss it and I would love it if you wanted to watch it. I'll link it if your interested. Again I loved the video. Have a nice day:)

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