In today’s tedium of quarantine my roommate and I found ourselves looking up various actor’s salaries and profits from their various films. Many surpassed $156M from a single film, which is a mind-blowing number to try to wrap one’s mind around. Who needs that much money in a lifetime, much less, from a single job which took, what, a few months?
It’s easy to launch a barrage of spiteful missiles at how ridiculous it is for such a holy few to make such ungodly amounts of money. It’s easy to ridicule these actors and the studios compensating them for their work while we work our worthwhile jobs a teachers, carpenters, marketers, or what have you, but the issue with Hollywood is entirely your fault.
Think about it: unless you have not consumed a single film or series in years, you are the person to blame for the disparity in wealth inequality among entertainers. If these celebrities are the gods of the modern age, who are the people who put them upon their pedestals? The people paying jillions of dollars to be entertained.
Why is Keanu Reeves raking in money like leaves? Because we are dying to escape from our own lives and into the action-packed world of John Wick, and willing to pay to do so. And again the next night with another Netflix special. And again the following night on Amazon Prime or HBO. It makes sense.
You cannot rightfully be enraged by how rich these celebrities are until you stop paying them.
But why do Americans (and the rest of the world) place such a high value on this entertainment? Because we are so deeply unsatisfied with our own lives. If you want to see what someone values, look at his bank account and see where his funds go. Does he value clothes and how he looks? Is it books that he buys? Or, as is proved by the astronomical income of celebrities, are we paying to be entertained?
Until I lived in Los Angeles and was on TV several times, “getting a peek behind the scenes,” I imagined that these people were somehow other than me, ontologically. That they were greater than me in some qualitative way that I could not attain.
For instance, we hear about someone like Justin Bieber or Shawn Mendes gaining fame out of nowhere from some initial home videos, but by the time we hear that backstory, the person is already a superstar. A more-than-human. They didn’t actually come from a suburban home like ours; they descended from the stars.
The distance between me and them, their lives and mine, seemed sublime. Like they are more than human and larger than life. Chances are, you think the same way, and the opportunity to partake in being entertained by them is an act of worship more than mere distraction. Don’t believe me? Ask the average American about their sexual ethics and you will quickly find that more than anything, their sexual ethics have come more from media influence than any deep thought or religious study, Christians included.
How do people like Michael Jackson elicit godlike responses from fans, causing them to weep and fall down at his feet in awe? I would argue that it’s less of what the man himself has done, but more about the cultural construct which has painted these people as greater than in some mystical, untouchable way.
As someone who has had women fawn and “fangirl” (their own words) over him, I can tell you two things: It messes with my head to be elevated to such a lofty position, and given enough repetition, I could begin to see myself as such a demigod. Secondly, I am no different than anyone else. Ask my roommates or family and you’ll quickly find how human I am — and this applies to every celebrity out there. Yet by repetition of their own importance, both to them and to us, the culture of celebrity worship becomes established. They see themselves as worthy of adoration (and money) and we are more than happy to give it to them.
In a landscape where religious icons and liturgical worship is evaporating faster than Antarctica’s ice, it’s not hard to see why we’ve sought out replacements. Shopping malls are the new cathedrals, lines with images of the saints of capitalism — models in fancy clothes. Who shows us how to live? Those with the most followers on Instagram rather than the pious saints of old.
It’s clear that we value entertainment highly, and even more than usual in this odd season of quarantine. So how do we push back against this allure to make the holy men of YouTube and Netflix even more transcendent?
Read a book.
Turn the screen off.
Look closely at the reality around you and attempt to wake up from the culture of celebrity toe-kissing which surrounds us like a thick fog. You’ll be healthier for it, and perhaps help the rest of the country wake up to the radical disparity between us and the famous, segregated like the Rich Man and Lazarus.
Regardless, as long as we continue to insulate the pockets of celebrities and their producers, we can’t complain about how much they get paid. Capitalism is a system designed to reveal — not to decide — the worth of everything on earth.
Evidently, we value our celebrities a whole lot.
Think about that for a while and decide if that’s something you want to perpetuate, or if you will allocate your value to more worthwhile things.