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Symbolism of Popular Culture


The old adage that a star was "discovered" has little truth in the modern world where the creation and manufacturing of celebrities is a multi-billion dollar industry. In this respect, hardly any celebrity is simply discovered but rather created. The creation and manufacturing of celebrities qualifies them as being products. In fact, in many ways, they might be the quintessential modern products.

While there is a definite conscious and coordinated effort involved in manufacturing celebrities, the question of the key types of celebrities needed by culture at particular times could well involve a number of unconscious factors and be very symbolic. If this is the case, the symbolic nature of celebrity as symbols should demonstrate the dynamics of symbolism such as duality, sequence and synchronicity. The key genres of dominating celebrities may therefore show a cyclical movement between such prime contextual symbols as masculine and feminine and there may be sequential steps in the movement between these dualities.

Still, this unconscious and symbolic nature of celebrity is difficult to understand in our modern era of over-inflated hype and marketing. As Philip Kotler notes in his book High Visibility, celebrityhood "has spread into every sector of American life." Kotler notes that so great is the value of visibility that the manufacturing and marketing of celebrities "now reach into business, sports, entertainment, religion, the arts, politics, academics, medicine, and the law." In fact, the celebrity may have replaced the hero as the dominating archetypal person of the modern world.

While American culture is increasingly involved with manufacturing celebrities, those celebrities which dominate culture may be products of mass collective unconscious rather than the conscious efforts of the vast celebrity-making machinery. High Visibility, as Philip Kotler reminds the reader, is about the business of fame and not the sociopsychological implications of celebrityhood. But symbolism needs to be concerned with the latter.

Out of the vast number of "celebrities" in modern American culture, symbolism is concerned with the handful elevated above the rest to star or icon status. This final elevation has less to do with conscious marketing efforts and more to do with broad contextual patterns. Modern marketing may create celebrities but dominating stars of a period are created by collective unconsciousness. They are needed by the culture as a whole rather than a particular industry or company. In effect, they are symbols or projections of internal psychological needs. While marketing and promotion certainly play an important part reaching celebrity status, it is the collective unconscious that does the choosing in the end. The collective is the audience and it is an audience far broader than merely those who are inured with celebrities or those that are most likely to attend movies.

There are a few key ways to look at celebrities from this symbolic perspective. One way is to see them all as part of an overall "constellation" similar to heavenly ones containing unchanging positions of stars. The key positions never change but rather different "stars" occupy these unchangeable positions through history. In this sense, the constellation has particular places "open" to be filled or "closed" and filled by someone else.

Another way is to see celebrities as symbolic of the dominant archetype of a particular period of time. The dominant male film star of the 50s was John Wayne who represents a very different symbol than a dominant male star like Leonardo DiCaprio of the 90s. Both ways are useful in seeing the symbolism of celebrities, one of the key "products" within popular culture.

1. The Constellation Of Celebrity

A review of gods and goddesses throughout history and contained in studies of comparative mythology from scholars such as Bullfinch and Edith Hamilton suggests a commonality between gods from various ages and various cultures. Modern research into the relationship of Greek mythology to psychology in The Eternal Drama: The Inner Meaning of Greek Mythology by Edward Edinger suggests mythology can be understood as "the self-revelation of the archetypal psyche." In Edinger's perspective, the Greek gods represent various parts of this psyche. This view is reinforced when one considers that the individual Greek Gods were associated with the key domains of sky or heaven, sea and earth. In other words, there is a strong symbolic correspondence between the Greek Gods and the basic elements of air, fire, earth and water.

The key Greek Gods involved seven Olympian Gods and six Olympian Goddesses. The fact that there are thirteen is because Demeter is not always present:

Olympian Gods

  • Zeus
  • Poseidon
  • Hades
  • Apollo
  • Hermes
  • Ares
  • Hephaestus

Olympian Goddesses

  • Hera
  • Hestia
  • Demeter
  • Artemis
  • Aphrodite
  • Athena

Similar to the ways Greek Gods arose largely from inner psychological projections, the same may be the situation with celebrities such as movie stars, political leaders, television talk show hosts, business leaders and kings and queens. Modern celebrities may have this symbolic correspondence to the ancient gods and goddesses which once populated the heavens and were as real to our ancestors as the stars and planets. Today, the "heavens" of the gods become the silver screen. But like the past, the "heavens" are still filled with "stars."

Like the "constellation" of Greek gods, modern celebrities might also be viewed in a type of constellation with some holding the position of Zeus and others holding positions such as Apollo, Aphrodite and Athena. While there may be overall movement of the entire constellation, most of the positions within the constellation remain relatively fixed and stable. There are certain key positions either occupied or empty in the present constellation. It is always in a constant state of change though as stars "fall" and new ones "rise" out of collective culture. There will never be another Princess Diana but there will emerge another world "princess" because this symbol is needed. One will emerge to fill the vacuum left with her passing. There is an empty space in a particular need area and an unstated but strong invitation by the collective unconscious for another celebrity to move in and fill this particular position.

Marketing and advertising (conscious actions) create celebrities to a certain extent. But the need already exists within the unconscious. The quick rise to stardom of a particular actor or actress is often related to the right marketing or the best film "vehicle." The vehicle though is merely a contentual symbol within the overall contextual symbol of the times.

In the past, mega-celebrity status was usually tied to film box office appeal but in the post-modern world this is less frequently the case. Witness the incredible celebrity status of Princess Diana or the 80s celebrity status of Madonna who has now crossed over into films. Today, it flows into such areas as business (Bill Gates), science (Steven Hawking) and media (Rush Limbaugh, Larry King, Ophra Winfrey).

Celebrity status might also be conferred upon certain political leaders such as Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy. But as a general matter, political leaders need to be placed in a separate category and considered not as celebrities of the moment but rather as overall symbols for particular eras of history. It also needs to be remembered that the position of political power by itself confers a certain amount of celebrity on the individual. Psychohistorians such as Lloyd deMause suggest that political leaders (really Presidents) are symbols of collective fantasies of the nation and serve as "containers" for projecting what is good and bad within the overall collective unconscious at the time.

2. Archetypes of Celebrity: Box Office Appeal

Just as Zeus was the dominant god of Greek mythology, the celebrity constellation may also contain a dominant god. This god may represent the aspect of the psyche that has come to importance at particular times. In other words, key celebrities may have relationship to key events in popular culture. How does one locate the Zeus (or Hera) of the particular moment? One method using the symbols of popular culture might be to look at leading male and female box office stars in America over the years.

A review of top stars from the fifties into the nineties provides material for interesting observations about the symbolism of collective culture during these times. The following chart can be created from selecting names appearing the most times in the particular decades:

Top Film Stars By Decade

One can easily see a change in the qualities of leading box office stars between the various decades. One decade places more importance on the Zeus qualities while others more importance on the Poseidon qualities. In terms of symbolism, one could say that the feminine archetype dominates particular periods while the masculine in other periods. And with this archetype the feminine qualities in males and the masculine qualities in females.

For example, John Wayne of the 50s can be considered around the Greek God Zeus while Tom Cruise and Leonard DaCaprio of the 90s a type centered around Poseidon. The power of Zeus comes from above. The power of Poseidon from below. From a Jungian perspective, one could say that anima (the feminine side in man) is shown by Cruise and DaCaprio. The dramatic shift is evident between the two decades.

The same dramatic change can be noticed in female stars. Marilyn Monroe of the 50s had the vulnerability of the goddess Aphrodite. The same might also be said for Doris Day and Julie Andrews of the 60s. The feminine dominates in these film stars. The situation is much different in the 1980s and 1990s with the goddess Artemis shown in stars like Fonda, Streep, Midler and Roberts. In these stars, the animus (or the masculine side in women) has a domination.

It may be relevant also that some stars more clearly dominate decades than others do. For instance, some stars appear three or more times as top box office stars in certain decades while other decades there is more of a shifting. The 90s show a shifting back and forth with Tom Arnold the top in 1990, Kevin Costner in 1991, Tom Cruise in 1992, Clint Eastwood in 1993 and Tom Hanks in 1994. However, the 1970s was clearly dominated by Barbara Streisand holding top spot six of the ten years. Might continued popularity show more of a sureness of need and changes in popularity show more of a shift in what collective culture considers important?

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