America has long had an obsession with celebrity. It fuelled the fan magazines of the 1930s and 40s. In the 50s and 60s, Hollywood manufactured the images of the stars like the “dashing” Errol Flynn and the “womanising” Rock Hudson, carefully hiding the drug taking, alcohol abuse and homosexuality that the studio bosses feared would put off audiences, destroy careers and, more worryingly, damage profits.
The gossip and rumour became regular fodder of daily TV shows and magazines in the 1980s. And today reality TV shows pack the cable channels, with “real” housewives who live lives barely recognisable to the majority of real viewers or desperate bachelors who, on the face of it, would find little trouble scaring up a date yet have become so “desperate for love” they have to have a dozen impossibly glamorous women lined up to bid for their affection.
For magazines and TV channels, the attention seekers are wonderful. What started as cheap TV has become a cultural phenomenon. The new stars fill pages and hours, love any publicity, and become very malleable in contract negotiations when the finger hovers above the off switch on the oxygen of publicity.
And so perhaps it is no surprise that for three days last week on cable news shows, the financial crisis in Greece and the latest developments in the race to pick a president fought for airtime alongside the short-lived marriage of one reality star.
The build-up to the wedding was followed by the cameras, the ceremony was a multi-million dollar, two-day rating winner. This, some claimed, was the US version of the recent British royal wedding, the fairytale union of a sports star and a pretty young woman famous for being famous (The couple in question being Kim Kardashian and basketball player Kris Humphries, in case you missed it).
But after just 72 days, the divorce announcement was headline news. The pundits speculated, the panels brain-stormed what went wrong and even the writer Salman Rushdie weighed in on the internet through a series of tweets.
It would be easy to dismiss this as another example of the demise of American culture – but it isn’t. It’s not what British sociologist Raymond Williams would class as high culture. It may not be what many consider news but it is an event which connects people, gets them talking and even opens up discussion on serious issues such as the sanctity of marriage or, as the New York Times points out, why such brief unions are not considered damaging to the institution of marriage but same-sex unions are.
The audience is forgiving and cynical in equal numbers, dismissive and accepting, viewing events as somehow connected to their own lives or as a glossy fantasy which has only the most tenuous links to reality.
The Kardashians say the wedding was not a gimmick or a sham it was love, not exploitation of the audience.
If the audience decides differently, then ratings will fall, interest will wane and the spotlight will move on. The family will become a footnote, a brief mention in the history of reality TV shows. People may even struggle to remember their name, if they’re remembered at all.
And this strand of American culture will survive and discussions and connections will be made with the next reality star who will suck the oxygen of publicity while they can.