While Miley Cyrus may have had a controversial year in 2013, thanks to the twerk, that tongue and the embarrassing grinding of Robin Thicke, it didn’t stop Forbes honouring her as one of the “brightest stars” and putting her in their 30 Under 30 list. Extrovert Lady Gaga also made the list, which made us question are these stars really sending out a dangerous message? Jai Breitnauer investigates…
It seems that despite everything, I owe Miley Cyrus a debt. Her ‘twerking’ antics at the VMAs and subsequent Wrecking Ball video turned my normally silent hair appointment into a worthy debate. “I just don’t understand why she thinks she has to do that,” my stylist kept repeating with obvious disgust. And while I was relieved this confident 20-something was as horrified as me by Miley’s performance, I also couldn’t help notice the cleavage, the manicured talons, the eyeliner and cheeky thigh tattoo peeping out from the hem of her mini-skirt. Despite her outspoken concern over Miley’s behaviour, this woman was very obviously influenced by the cult of celebrity.
Walk around any mall in the UK, America or Australasia, and you’ll see girls aged 13 to 25 heavily made up, flaunting tight clothing and a look of distain copied straight from MTV. And the influence of celebrity doesn’t stop at questionable fashion choices. Unhealthy relationships, alcohol and drug abuse, poor financial decisions and illegal activities are all glorified by celebrities across the globe – and this somehow affects our own moral barometer.
“As a hyper-social species, we acquire the bulk of our knowledge, ideas and skills by copying from others, rather than through individual trial-and-error,’ says Jamie Tehrani, a social anthropologist from Durham University in the UK. “But we pay far more attention to the habits and behaviours demonstrated by famous people than those demonstrated by ordinary members of our community.”
This is because our brains have evolved to respect and defer to people with skills and knowledge we desire. Unlike other primates, whose social hierarchy is based on dominance, the result of violence and fear, humans share a globally unique characteristic – a social hierarchy based on prestige.
“Based on the respect and admiration of members of one’s community, prestige is given voluntarily to individuals in recognition of their achievements in a particular field, and is not backed up by force,” explains Jamie. An important evolutionary step, it allowed our ancestors to adopt cultural learning; recognising and accepting skills across a population. It’s why we talk about historical figures with reverence and build on their achievements. “But it can make us susceptible to copying traits that are of no use in themselves, or which may even be harmful,” warns Jamie.
“What celebrities do is they create trends, and they install desire around lifestyles that young people want to emulate,” says Tammy Anderson, Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware. This is the reason why companies use celebrities to endorse their products – people want the trappings of fame. “If they do that with fashion, then of course they’re going to do that with drug use,” Tammy warns.
Lady Gaga, interviewed earlier this year on late night US talk show Watch What Happens Live, admitted to using club drug ‘Molly’, a form of ecstasy that has been responsible for several deaths in the US this year. She tried to balance her revelations by warning people off the drug. “Be careful with Molly,” Gaga told the host, Andy Cohen. “If you get to know Molly too well, you might end up like me!” But despite pulling a grotesque face to suggest she has been damaged by the drug, Tammy is concerned Gaga’s revelations send the wrong message.
“Who wouldn’t want to turn out like Lady Gaga?” Tammy says. A strong, talented and successful woman, many young people dream of a lifestyle like hers, and with other stars like Madonna referencing ‘Molly’ there is a growing concern the overall message is that drugs and success go hand in hand. “When Gaga warns of the dangers she is being partially responsible,” admits Tammy. “But perhaps silence is the best medicine.”
It’s not just specifics like drug and alcohol abuse worrying parents. A UK poll in June saw Miley Cyrus voted as the worst celebrity role model of the year, with 41 per cent citing her inability to make positive life choices as the reason behind their vote. Rihanna, recently thrown out of Sheikh Zayed Mosque after posing inappropriately for photographs, responded by posting nude ‘selfies’ on Instagram. Even Yahoo boss Marissa Mayer allowed herself to be photographed in a sexually provocative manner for September’s edition of US Vogue, suggesting that the key to success as a woman is to make yourself sexually available – a very dangerous message indeed.
“In the past any useless traits we acquired as a result of prestige-biased learning were offset by the benefits of picking up useful skills,” says Jamie Tehrani. “In the long-run, it was an effective, adaptive strategy. However, I am far from convinced that our attraction to prestige continues to promote superior cultural knowledge and skill.”
But can we really blame celebrities for our poor social choices? I remember my own mum’s words: “If they jumped off a cliff would you follow?”
“I honestly believe that if a child grows up in a home with morals, ethics and good family values there really is no outside influence to change them,” says Billie Mobayed, 47, from Dubai, owner of Life Model Management. The mother of three, including a 17-year-old daughter, feels a sense of relief that children in the UAE are sheltered from some of the more worrying celebrity images. “I’m originally from Scotland and married to a Lebanese national. We’ve lived in the UAE for 24 years and bringing up our three children here was a very conscious decision. Even so, I feel women who become sexual objects are fighting for attention, negative or positive. Something has gone wrong in their lives not to have self worth and high opinions of themselves or their families. It all comes down to a stable upbringing.”
Dubai-based Clara Townsend, 17, believes teens can see through the negative imagery often focused upon by the media. “Lady Gaga, for instance, stands for individuality and loving yourself for who you are, with her songs helping thousands of young people already. Her fans don’t necessarily follow everything she does,” says Clara. “Miley Cyrus’ performance didn’t do anything for women except teach younger girls what unacceptable behaviour it was.” And while there is well-documented evidence of celebrity behaviour developing a social trend, it seems that the way celebrity is presented in the media, rather than the behaviour itself, is the important factor. Take the Werther effect as an example, the phenomenon of people copying celebrity suicides. After Marilyn Monroe died there were 200 more suicides than usual that month, mostly copying her overdose and among women in the same demographic. But further research has shown that the media presentation of Monroe as a tragic heroine played a large part in encouraging these deaths, and journalists are now encouraged to only report suicide in exceptional circumstances.
Jamie Tehrani uses diet as an analogy. “We have an evolved preference for sweet-tasting and fatty foods because they motivated our ancestors to seek out ripe fruits and meat. But in today’s world of mass-produced confectionery and intensive agriculture, these previously adaptive tastes have led to a massive obesity epidemic. Similarly, we can think of the mass-media as junk food for the mind. Quick. Convenient. But not exactly nutritious. We gorge ourselves on images of wealth and success because they appeal to our appetite for prestige.”
In our complex society the purpose of celebrity has become distorted. Rather than encouraging people to emulate the skills needed for success, our brain is overdosing on images of lavish lifestyles we can never hope to achieve. We latch on to the aspects we can imitate – the dodgy clothes, questionable behaviour and unhealthy relationships – because that is how we are programmed to behave. But it is the notion of celebrity itself that is flawed, not our behaviour. If we changed our focus back to our friends and community, then our moral barometer would re-adjust too.
“My daughter’s role models are family members, her aunts, my mother-in-law and my mother,” says Billie Mobayed, who maintains strong family values have given her daughter a positive framework within which to judge her decisions. “She has admiration for women who do humanitarian work and charity and Princess Diana and Princess Haya would be high on her list. She is not at all impressed by celebrity or wealth.”
While society and the media continue to give weight to celebrity, good or bad, our pre-programmed brains will continue to attribute prestige and copy their behaviour as best we can. But if we draw our gaze in, focusing on our community and our family, we can use our evolutionary deference to our advantage, focusing on those more worthy of our admiration.