The Mixed Bag of Hero Worship

A long-held belief says that the more things change the more they stay the same. Hero worship exemplifies an unflagging notion of something woven into the fabric of society, save an occasional upgrade to keep with the times. The concept remains intact through the ages, though the players and the circumstances of course do not.

Definitions of hero worship may differ, but an entry in Urban Dictionary defines hero worship as to “obsess over a certain person who you think is better [or] more talented than you.”

Actress Angelina Jolie, right, and actor Brad Pitt at the 84th Academy Awards in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles, Feb. 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

Nineteenth century Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle had poignant words on hero worship, calling it a “heartfelt prostrate admiration, submission, burning, boundless, for a noblest godlike Form of Man.”

Eric Berger, a science writer in a piece in the Houston Chronicle, puts hero worship in historical perspective. “[It has] allowed our ancestors to recognize and reward individuals with superior skills and knowledge.”

From olden times of bowing down to princes and rulers, hero worship has advanced to idolization of celebrities, claims Mr. Berger, who ponders the evolutionary basis to hero worship.

“In other primates,” he says, “the social order is defined by dominance: a deference to the strongest.” He adds that human societies have progressed to where prestige or veneration is offered to individuals who accumulate wealth or attention.

Hero worship feeds off of untold numbers of readers with a steady appetite for the scoop on circles whose lifestyle for most is out of reach, argues Wael Khairi, a film critic whose commentaries appear regularly in the Chicago Sun-Times. Stories and pictures of celebrities have little sway with the readers’ lives except for temporary release from reality. Clearly, pictures of Kylie Jenner, internationally known jet-setter, traipsing the sand on the Turks and Caicos in her string bikini, do not help folks back home pay the bills. Nor do stories about Justin Bieber ransacking his hotel room in Los Angeles, or soon-to-be-former spouses Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie abusing Botox.

How much celebrity worship is enough, Mr. Khairi asks. Why do we worship celebrities as if they were gods? He connects this to pursuit of the American Dream, through the eyes of “a hard working family, owning a modest home, and living the simple life.” The public sees what celebrities have and desire the same for themselves. And if not to be, then they live life vicariously, through the celebrities.

“The average American spends half of their time chasing this new unattainable version of the American Dream and the other half of their time watching those who are living it,” he adds.

Tod Lindberg, a research fellow at the Hoover Institute, claims that celebrity worship is a symbiotic relationship between fans and those they worship. “Movie stars, athletes, and pop singers command attention and affection as never before,” he says.

And the public gives it to them.

Thus, “fans,” a derivative of “fanatics,” adopt quirky habits such as becoming an imperceptible face in the crowd at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood on Oscar Night, waiting hours for a flicker of their stars, who glide along the red carpet and into the inner sanctum of a swank society that’s off-limits to the mortals outside.

At Michael Jackson’s 2005 trial for child molestation, radio station KNX reported hundreds camped out near the court house in Simi Valley. “To show our support for Mr. Jackson,” shouted a fan. After the not-guilty verdict, the late singer flew off in private jet to Bahrain for what his spokesman said was “much-needed R&R.” The fans had a day job to get back to.

Ancient or contemporary—hero worship or celebrity worship—the world’s religions all warn about the adulation of mortals. In today’s hip culture, the first of the 10 Commandments in Christianity about idolatry should be (in a light-hearted sense) the envy of any pop artist for being Number One on the charts for the millennia.  

Philosophies such as China’s Confucianism also thwart notions of idolization, instead beckoning followers to a virtuous path of “filial piety,” or venerating one’s ancestors.

Confucius himself was alleged to have said, along with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt centuries later, “Great minds talk about ideas; average minds talk about events; small minds talk about people.” The last, of course is where celebrity worship resides, a place that many might agree distracts the mind from the things that matter, things like global warming, political corruption, war, and famine.

But there is a flip side in the hero worship conundrum, says Charlene Muhammad of the Final Call, a weekly newspaper in Chicago. “Entertainment and sports figures’ names and images have been used to encourage voting,” she says, “raise funds for natural disaster victims, call for intervention in political and social conflicts, create and fund charities, youth programs, music and arts education, anti-violence campaigns and anti-AIDS efforts.”

The good cited by Ms. Muhammed can be documented by renowned figures lending their name—and money—to worthy causes. Brad Pitt and Angeline Jolie chipped in a million dollars for relief in Haiti after the country was decimated by an earthquake in 2010. Pop star Madonna, Chris Martin of Coldplay, and actor George Clooney also contributed hundreds of thousands, setting an example to their millions of fans to follow suit. Even reputed Hollywood bad girls Lindsey Lohan and Paris Hilton showed a big heart by tweeting to their legions of fans to contribute.

Brad Pitt also rolled up his sleeves to help re-build houses after the 2006 hurricane that destroyed New Orleans. His example got others to do the same.

Throughout the year, A-listers’ names are linked to causes from lupus awareness to autism awareness to breast cancer awareness and beyond. Names like Jennifer Anniston, Reese Witherspoon, and Beyoncé are among the innumerable figureheads, or honorary chairs, whose name-recognition draws funds.

Recognizing the two sides to every story “focuses the picture,” says Mr. Khairi. “To fully understand celebrity worship is to take all theories and opinions into consideration and drawing up conclusions.”

Timothy Wahl’s experience in business, education, the sciences, and the arts gives him a unique platform on a spectrum of subjects.

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