At Abraham Lincoln’s deathbed, his sobbing secretary of war said, “Now he belongs to the ages.” But how well do the ages hold on to our memory? As Los Angeles bids hail and farewell to Kobe Bryant, his daughter and the others in the helicopter crash that took nine lives all told, it’s worth a closer look at the half-life of fame — who stays in our collective memories and why.
Andrea McDonnell teaches communications and media studies at Emmanuel College in Boston and is the coauthor, with Susan Douglas, of “Celebrity: A History of Fame.” Fame may be one of the most coveted commodities in the world, and the most fickle. Why does some fame last and some vanish? And will renown mean as much now that social media has put the instruments of creating celebrity in the hands of those who want to make themselves famous?
Kobe Bryant was and remains unquestionably famous. Why do some people qualify for and then retain that status?
I think about celebrity as something that is somehow stitched into culture or relevant to the social discourse at the time that it exists. Celebrities are people that we remember or think of more because their lives or their meanings can connect in with other pieces of what’s going on in the world, someone that we can share an affinity with or someone who can speak to what’s going on in our lives or in our broader culture.
They tell the stories of the time. They embody our values. They give us an aspirational framework to think about our own lives and what they could be like.
But then it’s true, they’re often replaced by other people who do the same or similar work for us in new ways, for different generations.
Chris Rojek, a scholar who has written a book called “Celebrity,” writes about different types of celebrity — celebrities who have achieved it versus those who were born into it or those who are just famous for being famous. ... He calls it ascribed, achieved and attributed celebrity.
That idea of achieved celebrity, it does make me think about athletes in the context of Kobe Bryant and Billie Jean King and Serena Williams, for example. These figures who have achieved something in an area of outstanding work that perhaps endures to the people who care about that sport or that realm.
So there, an example of achieved celebrity. Can you give me examples of ascribed and attributed celebrity?
People who are born celebrities, like the royal family, who are born into it and therefore are destined for fame. I think about Chelsea Clinton during the Clinton administration. I don’t think she desired that spotlight, but there it was.
And then, attributed — people who are famous for simply being in public a lot. Paris Hilton, I think of as an ascribed celebrity, where she comes from money, but she’s also an attributed celebrity, definitely. You could say the same about the Kardashians, that even though, yes, they come from money, but they also they also perform publicly in order to garner attention.
Oftentimes I think that the attributed celebrities are the ones that really quickly come and go. I think about people on social media or subjects of human interest stories, who something sort of happens to them and they become famous for a brief moment in the public eye.
When it comes to Kobe Bryant, he will be, I expect, famous for decades in the tranche of people who follow sports, of Lakers fans. So are there areas of interest where people will stay famous longer because there is, for example, always interest in baseball or maybe always interest in poetry?
People who are always interested in basketball or interested in the Lakers will probably know of him and be aware of his legacy for many years to come. It’s hard to say when there is a cutoff point of when people start to forget.
The closer you are to the interest area, whether it be geographical;y or in terms of your own care about an area or subject matter, your memory tends to be longer, whereas if it’s something that just peripherally you aware of, you may not be thinking about or talking about for very long at all.
A perfect example of this is when you take a walk along the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and you see stars for people whose names you know, whose work you know, and then you see other stars and go, “Who the heck is that?” This was someone immensely famous in his or her time, and now perhaps unknown, except to real fans.
You have that indelible marker, but even then, the memory is in some ways the most powerful element of what keeps celebrity alive.
What makes it last, then — a general kind of fame that, to most people in the Western world, you could say Shakespeare, Picasso, Einstein, Cleopatra, and they would know who you’re talking about.
Well, it strikes me that it’s very much about the stories that we choose to tell. What gets passed forward is really about what gets documented and whose stories we continue to tell over time. One of the reasons I think we choose to continue to tell stories about certain people is if they do help us to make sense of the world around us, and if they do fit in line with a broader narrative about culture and about life and the highs and lows of what we’re dealing with.
Part of it can be achievement, but it also seems to me to be about how their story helps us to appreciate the world or understand it.
I think about Marilyn Monroe, for instance. ... Even though she’s been dead for many years, you can still walk through any college dorm and see posters of her. You can think about her as an example of someone whose life tells a story about being a quote-unquote ordinary person, to go from having a, so to speak, ordinary life, to being extremely famous. She is an aesthetic inspiration for many. She has a story that is both beautiful and tragic, uplifting and pathetic. I think that’s a reason that she continues to persist.
And of course, the paradox is, had she lived until 80, perhaps she would have been unknown for the last half of her life and forgotten thereafter.
We often think about celebrities who die young or who sort of flame out early, and those figures I do think are sort of burnt into our collective memory because we do experience that collective trauma and sense of loss when you feel that someone’s potential is cut short.
You feel it even more acutely that their legacy has been curtailed in such an untimely way. ... Some of that you can see certainly with Kobe Bryant — the reaction, the depth of the reaction, due to the fact that it was just so shocking, because of his age and the age of the other people who were on the helicopter with him.
When people are 90, and they’ve had a great career, we celebrate them. ... It’s a feeling of loss, but not in the same way that it is when we see someone who dies young. I think they will hold that memory, feel it more acutely, and remember, this is how he died — not just this is how he died, and that he died young, but this is how I felt. This is how it affected me. This is where I was.
Has social media made it harder to become famous, paradoxically, because there’s so much competition?
On the one hand, the avenues for fame are so much broader and more diffuse and readily available. And yet our attention is ever more pulled away in many, many directions. It’s not that hard to get attention, but then to have a sustained impact, to have a broader reach of celebrity — that takes much more in terms of sustained, ongoing commitment to being in the public eye and then having people respond to you and, increasingly, responding to you in a positive way. Because people don’t hold back their negative attention on social media either.
So with young people ... they’re early adopters for these new forms of social media like Snapchat or TikTok. And so they’re both content creators and they’re using the site. And so it is, in fact, possible for ... young people, increasingly young, to become famous by broadcasting themselves in these ways with hundreds of thousands and even millions of followers.
Maybe that’s what makes someone like Kobe Bryant stand out in an age where all you have to do is take off your clothes or do something outrageous and put video of it out for people to see. He really did ... something remarkable for a long time.
Yes, I think so, I think athletes and very talented actors — inventors to a lesser degree, because our culture simply doesn’t publicize and celebrate them as much as they once were. But these people who have really worked hard to achieve something, to advance a sport, an industry, a field — that that can be positive and that can be something that has a lasting impact, and we may remember them for that impact, even after they’re gone.
I think as time passes, and we have more and more distance between the time of Kobe Bryant’s death and being able to put it in perspective, I think people will consider him in the category of being an athlete first and then a celebrity second, because of his contribution to the sport and his visibility in it.
I think celebrities give us insight into the joys and sorrows of life. We can celebrate when they get married and we can vicariously experience the enjoyment of childbirth, having a new addition to the family or an exciting new role or job or something like that.
But they also perform for us the negative. We follow them as they experience loss, as they go through relationship difficulties, and ultimately when they die. ... They are very human emotions, and part of the reason we’re fascinated with them is because through them, we can understand or we can tap into those emotions that are so common to everyone, regardless of their age or gender or race.
Fame can turn, and I think that we saw that in the tension or debate on social media around the meaning of Kobe Bryant as a celebrity after his death, people kind of trying to weigh and measure the positives and the negatives about his life.
And one way that celebrity ends is that people die, or their careers end. But another way, increasingly, in our social media economy, is that your reputation changes and people no longer wish to see you in the public space. We don’t find that value in you anymore.
So ... that, too, can be a way in which we see celebrities die, so to speak.
How do you mean?
Well, they call this now like “cancel culture,” right? So, a couple of years back, when the documentary came out about R. Kelly and the allegations about abuse and kidnapping against him, people were saying mute R. Kelly, don’t follow him, don’t listen to him, don’t listen to his music, he’s essentially a monster. And so, this idea that we are going to cancel people who are not worthy of celebrity, are not worthy of our attention, I think can be another way in which they sort of symbolically can be killed in the public consciousness.
On the other side, you had people who were angry that the accusations of sexual assault against Kobe Bryant were mentioned after he died.
Yes, absolutely. So there was this fierce debate: can we can we recognize the things that he did that were negative but still celebrate him as a public figure? Some people thought we should just not be celebrating this individual at all.
It really gets at this question of, can we hold these things in our minds together at the same time? How do we grapple with that? That, too, is a very human emotion.
We have a tendency to see things as either good or bad, black or white. And it’s really not often the case that that is accurate. And so how do we grapple with celebrities as imperfect people, which, of course, they are — because they’re people and we’re all imperfect. It’s difficult.