Oscars 2022: Why I’m not talking about the Oscars

Photo by Gage Skidmore

When I was little and my mom sent me to Sunday school, I learned that one of God’s big things was that humans were not to worship any idols before him. Meanwhile, I was an only child who spent countless hours in her room listening to music and very much idolizing the performers. Suddenly, I was seriously fearful that I was doing something so wrong that I would go straight to hell.

I laugh about this now, but if we take God out of the equation, the sentiment is maybe not wrong. Why do we worship celebrities? Why do we admire Jennifer Lopez for looking 30 when she’s 52, and believe we should and could do the same? And why do we believe her when she credits the beauty products that she SELLS FOR MONEY?

Not to just pick on JLo. Take a more seemingly benevolent celebrity like Jamie Lee Curtis who has apparently not surgically or by injection altered herself to appear younger. Does that make her an example of moral excellence? She also wrote that children’s book about adoption, is a trans-advocate, and apparently plans to officiate her daughter’s wedding wearing cosplay. And OK this. These facts together have her on a pedestal of the highest moral authority in many minds including my own, admittedly. A saint, basically.

But JLo and JLC and everyone we’re talking about nonstop following the Academy Awards ceremony are actors, doing a job that’s not as challenging as, say, a surgeon’s or a social worker’s. Julia Fox cannot be bothered to learn the pronunciation of the German designer she wore to the oscars, has declared her unfinished first book “so far a masterpiece,” and nevertheless has 1.2 million followers on Instagram.

We hold up celebs models of human behavior, moral examples, arbiters of all that is good and correct in the world, even when in plain sight they behave otherwise.

This year, one of them even got away with physical assault on a world stage with millions of people watching. If a non-celebrity did the same, let’s just say he would not have received a trophy moments later.

For all I know, Jamie Lee Curtis favors rococo interiors and drinks peach schnapps. And let’s face it if I had a personal chef and someone basically carrying my body to workouts every day I’d also be insuring my literal ass like JLo allegedly did (and actually didn’t but that was a fun rumor).

Celebrities are almost never experts in anything other than acting. So why do we worship them as gods if they do the slightest bit extra, and often even when they do nothing else at all? How many celebrities actually donate a portion of their wealth to philanthropies or do volunteer work in their sometimes years-long breaks from work after earning tens of millions on a film? Some do. But their generosity is certainly not commensurate with their popularity.

Why, then? Scientists actually know the answer. Two answers actually: mirror neurons and the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Mirror neurons

Neurobiologists at the University of Parma in Italy discovered mirror neurons about 20 years ago. They are structures in our brain that don’t discern between when we are witnessing an action or doing it ourselves—they fire either way. The result is that when Frances McDormand wins an Oscar, I weep as if I myself were holding a golden statue.

Mirror neurons are probably why we can empathize with others and build social and cultural bonds. But the weird side of this neurological phenomenon is that we become so invested in celebrities that their successes or failures feel like our own.

The Dunning-Kruger effect

In 1999, Cornell University psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger studied the phenomenon of cognitive bias and unfounded overconfidence. They found that people who lack skill often can’t accurately discern between good and bad. And then we become so invested in our own, sometimes erroneous, beliefs we lack the ability to examine issues objectively, and feel it’s unnecessary to ask for an expert or trusted friend’s take.

Dr. Joe Kort writes in Psychology Today that this effect can extend to our worship of celebrities: we identify with them so strongly (thanks mirror neurons) that we begin to trust their judgement on everything instead of seeking out actual experts or researching topics on our own.

So instead of researching JLo’s beauty cream ingredients and discovering whether there’s any science behind them, we just trust her. For a very long time I believed that Bob Dylan was obviously and always a kind and caring person because I loved his music, and it took reading at least two long biographies to believe otherwise (not that he’s terrible but he’s no saint and was not kind to many of the women in his life, alas).

Anyway, this is why celebrity endorsements work.

So, did Chris Rock deserve The Slap? Is Tracee Ellis Ross an inspiration to women at midlife for wearing a red, revealing gown on the red carpet? Why did Bennifer skip this year (hello mirror neurons)??

I began the day asking these questions, and wound up asking who fucking cares?

The thing is, when we allow a celebrity to define what we value, we disempower ourselves. Instead of objectively examining our beliefs and seeking out actual expertise or a trusted friend’s opinion to gain knowledge, we just go with what, for example, Betty White recommends. OK nevermind because everyone knows Betty White was the actual best.

But instead of deciding what’s important to us based on what celebrities think, what if we stepped back and, I don’t know, thought seriously about the things we care about and do and why? Dunning and Kruger called it “metacognition,” and it means not only being aware of our own thought processes, but also understanding the patterns behind them.

Easier said than done, of course, but if everyone were skilled at metacognition, celebrity worship might not exist. We don’t even need to call it by a science-y word. Like blogger Really Jayyoh says, “Imagine if we got behind our friends and family like we do celebrities?!” Her latest YouTube video title is “Rhianna is pregnant. But how are YOUR kids?” It doesn’t always have to be binary—celebrities or yourself—but she’s not wrong to point out how much we might thrive if we spent less time thinking and talking about celebrities and more on ourselves and supporting the people we love.

And that’s why I’m not writing about the Oscars today, even though maybe I totally just did.

Thank you Jennifer Sullivan Brych for your help on this post!

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