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Age of the social media celebrity

Over the last several decades, the American female celebrity has been a physical representation of the values and trends of popular culture. In recent years, movie stars and pop singers have given rise to a new kind of celebrity: the blogger, the beauty guru, or the fashion icon. Instead of working their way up through the music or film industry, these women are self-made, social media celebrities.

Through social media, anyone can grow a following and make their voice heard. Fame is no longer restricted to the chosen few on TV. These social media celebrities achieve their fame and grow their followings by being relatable to their followers. They live a life that is beautiful and appealing, but also realistic and achievable. When the average woman feels disconnected from models and movie stars, she can instead watch YouTube videos and browse Instagram feeds of her chosen, real-life role models.

However, watching these effortlessly perfect takes on normal life can create unrealistic expectations for how things should be. Often, casual YouTube videos are completely staged and photos are edited to perfection. Though women can relate to and be inspired by social media celebrities, they also need to be aware that this isn’t real life; it’s social media. Still, these women aren’t acting a part. They’re simply trying to portray life in the best possible light and give others ideas, inspiration, and positive entertainment not found elsewhere in media.

History

Celebrities reflect changing culture by being living symbols of the values and themes important in the current popular culture. The icons people look up to are a representation of what is important to them. Over the last several decades, culture has experienced upswings and downturns in the importance of beauty, sex, feminism, and other issues. Many celebrities, in specific female icons, have represented each stage of our changing culture.

One of the first movie stars, Audrey Hepburn is an icon through the ages for her style, goodwill, and poise. Audrey was involved in aiding the  war effort during World War 2 and dedicated much of her life to aiding children through UNICEF. She was independent, strong, and made her mark on the culture. Besides promoting patriotism and charity, her personal style and example made the culture more classy and elegant. To this day, her signature little black dress represents an empowered yet graceful woman. The feminine ideal during this time was to be beautiful and demure, not overtly sexy. Audrey Hepburn clearly represents the style and values of the 1950s and early 1960s.

However, during this same time the cultural values began to shift. Marilyn Monroe is seen as an icon for the sexual revolution and womens’ liberation. Marilyn’s fame as a sex symbol began with her nude calendar and her lack of shame for it. She was open about her sexuality as she introduced a seductive nature to traditional Hollywood glamour. She showed that demure beauty and sexuality both have a place in culture. Marilyn Monroe encouraged the growth of sexuality in popular culture, but her fame was a result of restlessness and heightened sexual prominence in the postwar culture.

While Marilyn Monroe was a symbol of sexuality incorporated into a traditional and pure culture, in the following decades Madonna symbolized a complete overhaul of culture, sexuality, and feminism. Whereas in Marilyn’s time, sexuality was one facet incorporated into popular culture, Madonna represented a sex-centric culture. Her take female empowerment was sexual promiscuity, whereas in the days of Audrey Hepburn, female empowerment was a result of patriotism and charity. Madonna didn’t care for any boundaries or restrictions, she continuously pushed the line on what was considered acceptable for TV and entertainment. The popularity of Madonna shows the prominence of sex in culture and the disregard for previous standards and values.

A more modern continuation of the Madonna culture, Britney Spears used innocence and sexuality to build her career. She proved that sex sells, and became one of the most successful pop stars of all time. However, after her breakdown in 2007 many of her fans mocked her and developed a distaste for the culture she represented. As Britney fell, a new generation of pop icons grew.

The reigning pop queen of the early 2010s, Taylor Swift conveys youth and innocence. From her country songs about growing up to her transition to more grown-up pop, she has retained a clean, sincere image. While she sings about relationships and love like the above mentioned singers, she alludes to sex without pushing it outright. Taylor’s image: classy, strong, and beautiful, calls to mind that of Audrey Hepburn.

As our popular culture has moved back and forth on issues like female empowerment and sexuality, some values have remained constant, one being beauty. In the last few years with social media tools like Instagram, every woman has the power to become a celebrity. If a woman can figure out what culture is and what people want to see, she can become an icon.

Analysis

While social media stars each have their own quirks and personalities, much of the strategy and general themes of their accounts are the same. These general themes are in response to the demand from their audiences– mostly girls and women, depending on the nature of the account.

The modern woman is busy, stressed, and craves peace and organization. She can feel that vicariously through an interior design account’s pictures of organization ideas and clean homes. Photography accounts show beautiful nature and happy people, and looking at those photos helps people calm down and relax. A common theme in many high-follower accounts is the aesthetically pleasing organization of the feed. Posts follow a cohesive color scheme and usually contain lighter and more muted tones. Curators of these accounts use variety and unity for the overall look of their feed, almost like an artist painting a picture. In fact, there are apps on the market that mimic Instagram feeds and allow the user to see what their feed would look like with photos before they post them. They can plan which photos work best and which order to post those photos. The aesthetic of the feed as a whole is a deciding point in whether or not someone looking at the page chooses to follow or not. In order to follow someone new, a user has to go to their profile and click follow. The individual photos blend together in a mosaic of light and color and if done well, people can’t resist following. Creating a feed of peaceful and relaxing photos is an art that the most popular Internet celebs have mastered well.

Every teenage girl is the same in that they all want to be different. There is no end to alternative, “rebellious” social media personalities. Twitter is a place where teenagers and older people too can show their personality and make an identity for themselves. They follow and retweet people who they want to be like, or who they want their followers to think they’re like. For example, girls trying to seem artsy and deep retweet pictures of poetry about love and heartbreak. Usually the poetry consists of someone typing a sentence and hitting enter in unnecessary places.

People who want to be alternative, punk rock fans can retweet 90s grunge band lyrics. Girls who want to travel the world retweet pictures of beautiful  mountains and lakes around the world. The “political enthusiasts” retweet CNN and their local senator and the feminists retweet Lena Dunham. When people can use their Twitter accounts to become a bland representation of some personality archetype, they grow followers very quickly. Accounts like “Common White Girl” and “Just Girly Things” have hundreds of thousands of followers simply for posting things that average users can relate to. Content doesn’t have to be original or creative, it just has to be relatable and easily retweeted.

Similarly, Instagram and YouTube accounts function the same way in that they offer younger people an identity. Younger followers of social media stars are often extremely loyal fans and defend every criticism of their idols– and for good reason. Every criticism of the star reflects on them since they find an identity and belonging as a follower of this person. Many YouTubers are open about their personal life and struggles like anxiety or relationship problems. Followers relate to them because they share the same struggles, except they have their lives together: they’re funny or beautiful or rich and they live the life their followers wish they had.

When followers find an identity in being a fan of a YouTube celebrity, sometimes it goes too far. They support their idols not only by watching videos and liking photos but by copying their behaviors, supporting controversial statements, buying whatever products the star endorses, and allowing their heroes to scam them and use them. Followers, especially younger teenagers, support and justify racist comments or unethical business practices because of how attached they are to the YouTuber. They also don’t realize that often, these people are sponsored by companies to recommend products and that the bathing suits from China really aren’t as high quality as the YouTuber claims.

Recently, NikkiTutorials, a makeup YouTuber, collaborated with a famous makeup company to make an eyeshadow palette under her name. Because of her star power, the company used cheaper materials and made the palette much lower quality than their norm– but for the same high-end price. They knew that teenage girls would buy the palette no matter what if it had Nikki’s name and endorsement. The plan worked and the palette sold out, even with all of the negative reviews. These consumers were so attached and supportive of Nikki’s name that they spent $56 on something barely worth $10. People would be better off finding identities and role models in people and things that won’t deceive or scam them.

One more major reason some social media celebrities have such a huge following is that they portray a relatable, attainable dream life. They might seem like they have their lives together unbelievably well, but they’re not saying scripted lines in a TV show or playing a made up part– or so it seems. They get their fame and appeal by saying “we’re not movie stars, we’re real life, and you can be like this too!”

While this is sometimes true, many times their lives and photos and videos are scripted. They commonly clean and decorate one wall of a chaotic room to be the background for videos and photos and pretend the rest of their lives are like the small, perfectly manicured piece they show the world. People become discouraged their lives aren’t as perfect as the lives they see on YouTube and Instagram, but they have to understand that these people’s lives aren’t perfect either. Real life doesn’t include Photoshop and professional lighting and editing tricks or 50 tries for the perfect shot. These social media celebrities are great at perfecting the 5% of their lives to show the world, but that doesn’t mean the other 95% of their homes and lives and families are perfect too. Some of them might be living a lie, but I don’t think that’s true of everyone. They’ve gotten to where they are by being real life– the best possible portrayal of their real lives.

As Hollywood and movies become further and further distant from the average American woman’s life, she can find kinship and entertainment in women just like her on social media. These social media celebrities aren’t necessarily famous because they have a certain talent that deserves to be admired, they’re famous because their existence fills a void that many people can relate to. People want to live through these celebrities and their perfect lives and hope of becoming like them. It’s the American dream: anyone from poverty and 12 Twitter followers can become successful and famous. Just like the self-made millionaires of the nineteenth century, the self-made stars give the average girl hope that she, too, can become somebody someday. Whether they desire beauty or identity or peace of mind, there’s a social media personality to get them there.

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