Celebrity Culture and the Pandemic
Updated: Sep 9, 2020
“Covid-19 is the great equaliser”, they say, but some have been ‘more equal than others’. Covid-19 has been blind to the economic or social status, but some people have not borne the brunt of hardships brought on by it. The pandemic has transformed everything in its path, often irreversibly. This is also true for the celebrity culture. This refers to a culture of “pervasive preoccupation with famous persons and an extravagant value attached to the lives of public figures”. The culture may be common, but people’s perception of celebrities varies across the world.
During this pandemic, most celebrities have taken to social media to keep their popularity intact. However, instead of the usual award ceremonies and galas, the content they post, has focused more on their domestic front, or as it is more popularly called- ‘Celebrity Covid Content’. Curiously. some of this content has been applauded while others have faced severe backlash. These differences have revealed interesting differences in cultures across the world. For the American masses, celebrities hold aspirational value. They have approachability and presence in the public eye. One actor, Geffen, even went as far as to post a picture of himself isolating himself on his expensive yacht, while requesting everyone to stay indoors. Recently, Gal Gadot organised a sing along of John Lennon’s Imagine; and social media is rife with celebrities posting pictures of their huge lavish homes. These posts have irritated several fans. Through messages recorded from their comfortable, luxurious homes, several stars have requested their fans to donate money to Covid-19 relief efforts. Fans quickly turned on celebrities, accusing them of their own neglect in donating, and ‘making the poor man pay’. Voices have also aggressively highlighted the unfair privilege of celebrities- their houses, health care access, facilities, etc. The pandemic has introduced social and economic uncertainty into people’s lives. Stress and mental health issues have multiplied exponentially. This has manifested in extreme intolerance for insensitive posts in social media.
Even though ‘Celebrities being out of touch’ is not new, it seems as though the extreme inequality became evident as people came face to face with celebrities in their personal spaces. Everyone was supposed to isolate themselves and follow health advisories, however, for celebrities, homes were bigger, household help was present and it was obvious that there were no looming shadows of economic hardship - something fans are quick to point out when captions like “We’re all in this together” are put up. Capitalism had promised the principle of ‘meritocracy’, i.e. if you work hard, you will achieve success. Celebrities have always been the flag bearers of this concept. However, the pandemic has greatly reduced any hopes of social and economic mobility within societal hierarchies. People in fact felt confused and betrayed by their icons.
Remarkably, Indians have not reacted in the same way. In India, celebrities are glamorised and pedestalized. They are viewed as nothing less than gods, with even actual temples being set up for actors like Amitabh Bacchan and Sachin Tendulkar! The pandemic has humanized these celebrities. Fans have applauded and appreciated no-makeup selfies and videos of their domestic life. Even posts that included statements akin to their hollywood counterparts did not face the corresponding backlash. Rather, they received positive responses, with several celebrity families like the Bacchans and Khers, contracting the virus, it seems as though the illusion of divine immortality that surrounded them has been shattered - “They fall sick, in much the same way that we do.” Funnily enough, people were comforted by this.
Karishma Upadhyay, a writer from The First Post, categorized the Indian Celebrity Covid Content into two phases. In the first three weeks, the content seemed slightly disconnected - informational videos of hand washing and posts on mundane activities like cooking were widespread. While people enjoyed this, it seemed to be privileged and preachy. After all, this was something they did as a matter of routine. After that, the content seemed to take on a more realistic and authentic tone. Even though it did not appear sensitive, the mindless boredom of social distancing began to reveal itself. When Katrina Kaif posts no-makeup selfies or an actress rants about the lockdown, people found it funny and felt a sense of empathy for them. Since Bollywood has traditionally been perceived as a superhuman realm, their predicament became a subject of humor. It is important to note that there are a few people calling out privileged behaviour in India as well. This was apparent in the recent twitter attack against Abhishek Bacchan. However, this was simply one reaction in a sea of adulation and prayers for health.
This glaring difference in reactions seems to stem from the fact that American celebrities are maybe not perceived as ‘divine’ as Indian celebrities - the self comparison that followed led to their downfall. Indian celebrities stayed on their god-like pedestal and deigned to step down during this time, thus maintaining their unmatchable aura.
There could be several reasons for this. At a more logical level, the lowest socio-economic strata of India has lesser access to the internet and much lower engagement with online content than Americans. It is possible that there is a larger cultural difference that is being reflected. Social and economic differences are viewed differently in these societies. As mentioned, Americans hated celebrities because their privilege reminded them of the social mobility that they themselves lacked within society. This only annoyed them because their society marketed the possibility of mobility. On the other hand, it seems that Indians have placed celebrities in a completely different realm from themselves. Hence, when an actress complains about doing dishes, the middle-class housewife does not view it as a point of contrast; but rather is happy with the small similarity to her own circumstances. There is not as much of an expectation of social mobility in a society as notably fatalistic and religious as India’s.
There is no correct way to view social and economic hierarchies. However, this difference has impacted the celebrity culture of the different contexts in major ways. While Hollywood’s celebrity culture is crumbling, the Bollywood cult seems to have maintained its popularity even as changes gradually happen.
by - Josika Mahindru
Graphic by - Niharika Suri