6 Modern-day Martyrs: Fans’ Online Reconstruction of Celebrities as Divine (1/4) – Social Media and Religious Change

Rebecca Haughey and Heidi A. Campbell
6 Modern-day Martyrs: Fans Online
Reconstruction of Celebrities as Divine
The infiltration of the celebrity phenomenon in contemporary popular culture is
glaringly apparent in the flashy headl ines of magazines and tabloids and the
very existence of a 24-hour celebrity news cable channel, E!. Consumers obses-
sion with and supposed intimate connection to these distant yet fam ous strang-
ers has been researched from a psychological standpoint as the manifestation of
a pathological defect (Maltby et al 2004). However, a closer examination of indi-
viduals extreme reverence and high regard for the select celebrity elite provokes
further questions about the nature of so-called celebrity worship as just that
the authentic practice of implicit religion. While a review of the medias histor-
ical development reveals a definite connection between the creation of the celeb-
rity and the mass medias promotion of select individuals, innovative online so-
cial media can be inferred to have further revolutionised fans roles in the
construction of celebrities and their unique public identities. Media professio-
nals have been stripped of their exclusive narrative power as a multiplicity of in-
dividual fans have emerged, wielding the unprecedented ability to publish their
own understandings of celebrities onl ine through a wide variety of public ven-
ues, such as blogs, Facebook, Twitter and website forums. Deceased celebrities
personalities become particularly malleable, as fans reflect on these celebrities
public lives and resurrect such famed figures into martyr-like individuals, whose
tragic deaths inspire reverence and heightened devotion. Through communally
constructed narratives, fans can integrate a celebritys martyrdom into the
greater context of a modern gospel, in which celebrities are viewed as higher be-
ings unjustly persecuted by an unforgiving mass media and general public.
This chapter explores how fans online actions can exhibit traits of implicit
religion in the way they frame celebrities as religious entities. First , a literature
review of the medias role in the creation of celebrities and fans roles in the re-
construction of celebrities identities is presented in order to understand how ce-
lebrity worship takes place and can be seen as a valid form of implicit religion.
Next, a case study examination of Michael Jackson fans creation of individual-
ised online tributes on memories.michaeljackson.com demonstrates the post-
humous reconstruction of deceased celebrities as divine figures. Michael Jackson
serves as a prime example of a celebrity who has been reconstructed by fans to
be a modern- day martyr, an individual who defied many cultural, racial and gen-
der expectations, but who ultimately is believed to serve as a sacrificial outcast.
Through their outpourings of praise, fans make sense of Jacksons unexpected
death by framing it as a divinely ordained act for the greater good of humanity;
in short, fans see Jackson as publicly victimised and finally free in death to spi-
ritually watch over his family and devoted fandom. Finally, from these findings
the central question of this study is addressed: How do fans online actions re-
construct celebrities as religious figures, and how can these be interpreted as a
form of implicit religion?
1 Defining implicit religion
Before we explore how fans construct celebrities as divine, a foundational defi-
nition of implicit religion must be established. Lord defines implicit religion as
the mode of behaviour exhibited, rather than the goal towards which the behav-
iour is directed (2006: 206). From this perspective, a fresh understanding of re-
ligion shatters notions of a sacred versus secular dichotomy, such that implicit
religion is not deemed authentic because of a link to the recognisably holy but
is noted instead in the observable actions carried out by a person, whether ran-
dom, habitual, impulsive or rational (2006: 206). Therefore, in relation to this
understanding, in order for celebrity worship to be considered implicit religion,
fans actions in veneration of celebrities must be analysed.
For this discussion, it is important to note that implicit religion must be rec-
ognised as religion that is deinstitutionalised yet demonstrates what Bailey
(cited in Lord 2006: 208) deemed the secular quest for meaning. More so
than simply meaningful behaviour, implicit religion has also been connected
to the creation of sacred symbols from the secular world; as Chidesters study
of Americans reverence for Coca-Cola led him to conclude, religion is about sa-
cred symbols and systems of sacred symbols that endow the world with meaning
and value (Chidester 2005: 214). In this sense, perhaps the public identity of an
individual celebrity could be seen as a sacred symbol, providing meaning to de-
voted fans. This is illustrated by Campbell and La Pastinas study (2010) of the
narrative framework used to reconstruct the iPhone as divine, in that fans adopt-
ed religious symbolism in order to spiritualise a secular icon and imbue it with
seemingly miraculous capabilities, thus framing it as a form of implicit religion.
From these examples we see how implicit religion can be characterised as pr ac-
tices including both m eaningful actions and language choices that allow fol-
lowers to make sense of the surrounding world by merging the secular with a
sacred understanding. Therefore we argue that , for celebrity worship to be re-
garded as implicit religion, there must be significant evidence that fans apply
their understanding of celebrities to their understandings of the greater world,
104
Rebecca Haughey and Heidi A. Campbell
and that their actions in reverence of celebrities create a religious experience,
whether through meaning-infused rituals or through religiously charged lan-
guage, thereby allowing fans to recast celebrities as new-age saints.
2 Understanding celebrity worship in relation to
popular culture and implicit religion
Based on this understanding of implicit religion, we see that fans use of online
mass media can be interpreted as a practice by which they construct celebrities
as divine figures to be worshipped, which exhibits an implicitly religious charac-
ter and process of meaning-making. In order to provide support for this thesis,
several issues must be explored. The first aspect we consider is how the mass
media have historically created the very concept of the celebrity by providing
constant public exposure to particular individuals, allowing them to accumulate
attention and become firmly lodged in the public realm, regardless of actual tal-
ent or accomplishments. Secondly, we address the role that fans those outside
the official media profession play in the reconstruction of celebrities particular
identities, especially with regard to the use of new social media. Lastly, we syn-
thesise previous research surrounding the argument that practitioners of celeb-
rity worship demonstrate the use of various characteristics indicative of an au-
thentic form of implicit religion.
The mass media has led to the very development of the celebrity by promot-
ing the constant public exposure of select individuals. For example, in Evans
(2005) reflection on the history of the celebrity, she explains that while fame
is a value that has always had to be mediated, it was not until the 1920s and
the advent of the film star a product of mass media that celebrities private
lives became nearly inextri cable from their on-screen, performed personas. Boor-
stin (1961: xxviii) explains how the term celebrity was coined to apply to a
largely synthetic product, in constant need of public attention from the mass
media and journalism venues in order to make the general population even
aware of their continued existence and to draw veneration of their perceived at-
tributes. Hollander (2010: 151) echoes these claims, deeming attention given to
celebrities to be largely artificial, in that being a celebrity is not dependent
on genuine talents, attractiveness or even the accumulation of wealth but is in-
stead generated by publicists, journalists and public relations firms. In this
vein, Rothenbuhler (2 005: 94) argues that we see an emergence of the Cult of
the Church of the Individual, in which the individual emerges as a celebrated
deity, with established celebrities at the top of the ranks. Importantly, he notes
6 Modern-day Martyrs: Fans Online Reconstruction of Celebrities as Divine
105
that this new church eschews physical or material bodies and instead is struc-
tured around the communication surrounding the individuals and is therefore
ultimately dependent on discourse and text. Not only is mass communication
necessary for the mere existence of celebrities, it is also through the mass
media that public understandings of celebrities personalities are manufactured
and revered. For instance, Elvis is still loved because the version of him depicted
in his movies is seen as solid evidence of his honesty, simplicity and other es-
teemed values (Rothenbuhler 2005: 98). Not only can the media present a biased
interpretation of a celebrity in his or her contemporary life, it can also recreate
them and perpetuate their fame after their deaths. A look into coverage of Mi-
chael Jacksons death by People magazine reveals an intentional avoidance of
the negative traits that had plagued his reputation while living his supposed
paedophilia and his ambiguous sexual orientation, among others –‘ultimately
purifying his private life after-the-fact (Hollander 2010: 147). This understanding
of the mass medias part in creating celebrities and defining their public person-
alities readily lends itself to an investigation of how fans, in turn, gather this in-
formation and reinterpret it for themselves.
Primary to fans emotional investment and time commitments to the vener-
ation of celebrities is the formation of parasocial interactions with these famous
figures. Chia and Poo (2009: 25) described this process as being that through
which fans experience the illusion of intimate relations to distant celebrities
through constant media exposure. Furthermore, as fans develop stronger paraso-
cial relationships with beloved celebrities, they also demonstrate a tendency to
emulate these celebrities, role-modelling select values they perceive the celebrity
to exhibit (Chia and Poo 2009: 26). Fraser and Brown (2005: 183 206), for exam-
ple, observed that Elvis fans developed an understanding of the deceased celeb-
rity through his music, posters and other media products, consequently empha-
sising such prosocial behaviours as his perceived generosity and politeness.
According to a constructionist view of the audience and celebrity, it is important
to disregard the assumption that celebrities have a definite effect on an impres-
sionable audience, but r ather to acknowledge that the audience is varied in its
reactions and that audiences can take up a variety of complex and competing
discourses to reconstruct celebrities (Stevenson 2005: 160). In short, fans are
an undeniable force in the manufacturing process of celebrities, and concern
should not be about what celebrities do to us, but what we do with celebrities
(Stevenson 2005: 142, original emphasis).
Thus fans are involved in an active framing process by which they forge par-
asocial attachments to certain celebrity figures. In particular, fans tend to proj-
ect onto the celebrity an interpersonal reality and a moral code, which they can
then proceed to emulate (Fraser and Brown 2005: 185). In this way, Fraser and
106
Rebecca Haughey and Heidi A. Campbell
Brown noted in their study that the Elvis fans drew attention to the kind way it
seems he treated his mother, for instance, while ignoring his drug abuse and
other rumoured self-destructive behaviours. Hollander theorised that fans atten-
tive study of celebrity is a by-product of modern societys attention deficit,
meaning that individuals fear they are not getting enough of the attention to
which they feel inherently entitled, with celebrities epitomising individuals
who are excessively praised and spotlighted, despite a lack of notable accom-
plishment or talent (Hollander 2010: 151). Celebrities success is somewhat irra-
tionally attributed to perceived positive personality traits, which allows them to
emerge as role models with influence over fans actions, and fans benefit from
the ambiguous morality of distanced celebrities (Fraser and Brown 2005: 185).
Furthermore, due to innovative social media technologies, the positive recon-
struction of celebrities is no longer exclusively restricted to media professionals,
as fans can create an original communal narrative with other individuals who
share a parasocial attachment to the same celebrity figure (Sanderson and
Cheong 2010: 329).
One means by which fans establish a universal interpretation of such celeb-
rities is through application of explicitly religious metaphors. While journalists
have already deemed Elvis to be ‘“like a saint (Porter 2009: 271) and trips to
Graceland to be pilgrimage[s] (Fraser and Brown 2005: 195), Sanderson and
Cheongs study asserts that fans themselves construct and negotiate celebrities
identities using religiously charged language. In particular, religious discourse
online aids fans in understanding difficult events, such as the passing of a be-
loved celebrity. The Internet allows fans to present preferred memories of celeb-
rities and share these tributes with others as a means to ameliorate the grieving
process and [offer] a sympathetic domain wherein an individuals feelings about
the deceased are both understood and valued (Sanderson and Cheong 2010:
328). In both Sanderson and Cheongs work on Twitter use to express grief
over Michael Jacksons death and Fraser and Browns on fans imitation of
Elvis Presley, fans could exercise selectivity regarding which values they per-
ceived to be exhibited in a celebritys life and incorporate those preferred values
into their own lives (Fraser and Brown 2005: 200). In this way, only positive as-
pects of Jacksons character are mentioned on memorial websites, such that he is
transformed into a veritable saint and tragic figure (Hollander 2010: 147). More
so than the communal experience, these divine reconstructions of celebrities can
provide higher meaning for individuals and ‘“resurrect media celebrities into
public consciousness, as fans mimicked behavior that one would expect from
a disciple of an actual religious figure (Sanderson and Cheong 2010: 328).
To summarise, online social media has furthered fans feelings of personal
connection to celebrities by dramatically increasing their sense of intimacy
6 Modern-day Martyrs: Fans Online Reconstruction of Celebrities as Divine
107