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Why do these celebrities seem to be the exception in an increasingly divided world?


In our increasingly divided world, there are few things we can agree on, and among them is the world of celebrities.

Some celebrities are so beloved that they appeal to the majority of Americans, regardless of their political and social differences.

Dolly Parton, Tom Hanks, the late Betty White and Oprah are just a few of the celebrities who have cemented their reputation as 'American boyfriends'.

(Credit: CNN/Getty Images)

(CNN) --

In our increasingly divided world, there's little we can agree on -- not politics, not religion, and certainly not social issues.

But there's Dolly Parton.

This blonde icon with bangs is one of the few celebrities that most Americans absolutely adore.

Of her She has conquered conservatives and progressives, country fans and indie opponents, boomers who grew up with her and "zoomers" who have posed with murals of her face.

She's a feminist hero, an ally to the LGBTQ community, and a southern girl from the Smokies whose success story is a near-perfect example of the American dream come true.

She helped finance Moderna's covid-19 vaccine.

After decades of career, Dolly Parton is a symbol.

Parton is perhaps the most prominent example of an extremely rare category of celebrity: America's sweethearts.

Over the years, these celebrities have built a reputation based on kindness, authenticity and hard-won success that has elevated them above the stars.

They're the kind of celebrities who throw a housewarming party to appease a wounded country.

They inspire sympathy when photographed alone on a park bench eating a sandwich.

And when they die, they cause national mourning, as if Americans had just lost their own grandmother.

These "boyfriends" become symbols of American pop culture.

We turn to them for inspiration, moral guidance, reliable entertainment and even solace, says Claire Sisco King, an associate professor of Communication Studies at Vanderbilt University who studies celebrity culture.


"These are really difficult things that people experience every day: political division, concern for the future of the planet and the possible extinction of human life," Sisco King told CNN.

"So the idea that someone famous could be really nice gives people a sense of hope."

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Some of our biggest American boyfriends have been cultural fixtures for decades.

Celebrity culture scholars spoke to CNN about how certain celebrities rise above the rest of the Hollywood crowd to become public sweethearts and the meaningful relationships fans can form with these untouchable icons.

We want to identify with the famous

It may seem simplistic to focus so much on celebrities when their wealth and status largely shield them from everyday problems, but celebrity culture plays a bigger role than we think, says Sisco Kind.

Celebrities do "emotional work" for both their fans and their haters.

They allow us to feel things through them: we can feel love and adoration for someone like Dolly Parton or the late Betty White, because they can represent kindness and humility, but we mock more divisive figures like Kim Kardashian or Taylor Swift, than for some may represent narrow beauty standards or insincerity.

We also want to identify with celebrities, he says.

The US Weekly tabloid regularly publishes the "Stars: They're Just Like Us!" section, a collection of paparazzi photos of celebrities getting gas, shopping or dropping off their kids at school.

These types of images can reinforce the idea that celebrities are close, says Sisco King.

Jenna Drenten, an associate professor of marketing at Loyola University Chicago who studies celebrity use of social media, says it makes sense that we want to identify with famous people whose reputation for friendliness is equally well known.

"Often, fans use a simple rule of thumb: Does this person seem like someone I'd like to be friends with?" Drenten told CNN.

Tom Hanks is famous for playing likable characters that you can warm to.

(Credit: Sarah Meyssonnier/Reuters)

It certainly helps a celebrity build a reputation as a "boyfriend" when she's made a name for herself playing boyfriends, like Tom Hanks: between playing a cantankerous toy cowboy, he's played a widower whose kindness attracts Meg Ryan, a southerner who stumbles upon historical events and compares life to candy, a boy who grew up too fast, and Mr. Rogers.

Since many of his best-known roles are as good-natured guys, we associate him off-screen with that very character, Sisco King noted.

"We expect the actors to show us authenticity and a heartfelt emotional experience," he says.

"Because of that emphasis on authenticity, we tend to confuse actors with the characters they're playing."

Hanks is neither Forrest Gump nor Mr. Rogers, but he is clearly aware of his reputation, and lives up to it on red carpets or in interviews, Sisco King noted.

He acts like a "nice guy" because fans expect it of him.

We love success stories

Oprah became one of the most beloved television personalities of all time after overcoming a difficult childhood.

(Credit: Steve Jennings/Getty Images)

These boyfriends also support, often indirectly, the fanciful "American dream": that any of us can achieve great success with hard work, says Sisco King.

Oprah suffered various traumas in her youth, as well as racism and sexism in the television industry, yet she earned her own daytime talk show and built her own reputation as a bona fide television personality.

Even after becoming a billionaire, her many admirers continue to consider her a rare gem.

Dolly Parton grew up poor in rural Tennessee.

Keanu Reeves has experienced several personal tragedies that have earned him the affection of his admirers.

All the vicissitudes of his lives only add to his legend.

"The (celebrity) stories, from humble beginnings to greatness, become a way of affirming people's faith or hope that they can achieve something similar," says Sisco King.

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In a nutshell, according to Drenten: "Americans love come-up stories."

And when the people in those stories become titans in their industry and seem to cling to their humanity, we often can't help but cheer them on.

Social networks (and the pandemic) have made celebrities more accessible

According to Sisco King, our relationship with celebrities has become much more intimate in recent years, especially since the start of the pandemic.

Our favorites didn't work or hold press conferences, so they kept themselves in the public eye with intimate internet snaps from quarantine or risqué cooking segments on Instagram Live.

That's when it seemed like celebrities were just like us.

(That didn't last long when they started going on vacations or escaping the virus in spacious, comfortable homes.)

Not to mention, the fact that Tom Hanks contracted covid-19 in March 2020 confirmed the severity of the pandemic for many people: his was one of the first verified cases of the virus among major celebrities.

It was shocking, at the time, that such a disease could penetrate a celebrity's bubble.

He shared the news directly with his followers on his Instagram.

That the pandemic occurred in an "era of ubiquitous digital networks" was a "perfect convergence," said Sisco King.

We had easy access to famous people we could develop parasocial relationships with, or those one-sided relationships we have with celebrities we'll probably never meet.

When most of the interaction happens virtually, the strong feelings we feel for certain celebrities are intensified.

"We can obsess over certain celebrities because they're easier to access," says Sisco King.

"That intensifies that sort of parasocial relationship."

The expectation remains that celebrities will continue to make it easier for fans to access.

Parton's team regularly posts on his behalf, sharing a mix of sponsored content, irresistible vintage photos, and even memes.

Hanks may even post in person, if his "Hanx" signatures are to be believed.

Oprah shares videos about what she cooks, where she goes on hikes and the mischief she gets Gayle King into.

Keanu Reeves' discreet acts of charity are one of the reasons why he has endeared himself to his fans.

(Credit: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for CinemaCon)

On Twitter, TikTok, and other platforms, even brief celebrity anecdotes can travel far and fast, which can help boost some boyfriends' reputations even further.

Stories of stars performing basic acts of kindness, from Hanks bringing a tray of martinis to his table at the Golden Globes to Paul Rudd reaching out to a beleaguered fan, often go viral.

When the press revealed Keanu Reeves' $31.5 million donation to cancer research, it only reinforced the belief that Reeves is a humble and genuinely good person.

Why Dolly Parton is the queen of brides

Even among American brides, Parton is a "special case," says Sisco King.

"Part of what has made her so beloved is that she's adored by people from so many different walks of life," says Sisco King.

"It can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people."

Parton has been considered a feminist icon who has overcome sexism and objectification to rise to the top of her industry, which can make her sympathetic to people marginalized because of their race, gender, or sexuality.

She is a talented songwriter whose songs continue to move listeners decades later.

She is who we want her to be, says Sisco King.

The always astute Parton knew how to take advantage of this prolonged wave of stardom caused by social networks.

In the last five years alone, he's stamped his name on a Netflix series inspired by his lyrics, an NBC Christmas special, a Duncan Hines cake mix, a Williams-Sonoma collection, a T-Mobile ad. for the Super Bowl and a live show for New Years (the last two in collaboration with his goddaughter Miley Cyrus).

There are also third parties who sell prayer candles with her face, cross-stitch patterns with her song lyrics, wrapping paper with her image, or car air fresheners in the shape of her wigged head.

Brand Lingua Franca sells nearly $400 cashmere sweaters embroidered with "What Would Dolly Do?"

and "In Dolly We Trust".

Resisting the charms of Dolly Parton is an almost impossible task.

(Credit: Jason Kempin/Getty Images for ACM)

And yet, most fans haven't grown cynical about Parton and her marketing prowess.

When a celebrity we love does something we don't like—Tom Hanks cursing the paparazzi and fans surrounding his wife, perhaps, or Parton lending her image to products we don't like—we can "suspend disbelief" in sort of to "separate those concerns when you're very interested in a celebrity," says Sisco Kind.

Parton has also amassed "goodwill capital," says Gayle Stever, a professor of psychology at Empire State College of the State University of New York who studies fandom.

"His generosity from him and philanthropy from him are well known, and people appreciate it."

Even if he does something that we wouldn't do, we are able to ignore him, because we think we know him well enough.

American boyfriends can inspire us to do good

According to Sisco King, celebrity boyfriends like Parton and Hanks can seem just as important to us as our real-life loved ones.

We feel united to whom we think we know well, even if the love is not reciprocated.

When today's biggest celebrities include a billionaire tech executive with slippery Twitter fingers and a formerly lauded rapper who uses racist and anti-Semitic language, it can be reassuring to see a mild-mannered figure like Paul Rudd or Keanu Reeves onscreen.

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Networking with beloved celebrities can also bring more benefits than video tributes and commercial merchandise featuring a famous person's face.

Stever says that adult fans of beloved celebrities are often motivated to join them in causes their idols care about.

It's important when Parton calls attention to children's literacy or Oprah highlights anti-racist efforts, or when Betty White advertises for animals, because they can prompt her followers to get involved.

"These types of models encourage people to be philanthropic and to care about others," says Stever.

"I think this serves a huge cultural purpose...all of these people have accumulated a tremendous amount of positive social capital that inspires their fans to support the good works that these admired celebrities support. We need it."

On a personal level, engaging with admired celebrities "allows us to process our own feelings," says Sisco King.

Seeing their work or supporting them, we can feel those emotions that we might otherwise bury."

"It's the same reason we look for movies and TV shows that give us emotional experiences. I think celebrity culture works in a similar way."


Source: cnnespanol

All news articles on 2023-02-06

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