Recently came across a TikTok video by the user @ayandastood, they posted a snippet of Zendaya’s interview in the British Vogue October 2021 issue. So definitely I had to get my hands on the magazine, first, because I’m a fan of Zendaya’s work and second, I was influenced by the TikTok post to read the interview at length. “The hope is to have a career where you can be in a position, financially, to just do things you want to do because you enjoy the work and not have to worry about other things… But I’m always like, I will always need to work. Because if I don’t work then everything can be gone tomorrow.” This statement stood out for me. The fact that even Zendaya, a renowned American actress, isn’t sure that she’s in a place where she can work for the enjoyment of her craft as opposed to the financial pressures of existing is quite interesting.
That interview forms the basis of this article in my pursuit to answer how capitalism sells itself to the masses. In the quest to answer the role played by celebrities under capitalism and how capitalism uses celebrities to further its ends, I arrived at two conclusions or arguments, whatever you’d want to call it. Firstly, is the function of distraction – The existence of celebrities is made in a way that is ‘fun’ to consume therefore we are distracted from the realities of our conditions, distracted from having discussions on topics that are uncomfortable or unfun to talk about because celebrities are easy and comfortable to discuss. This plays on our natural human disposition towards connectivity and comfort, which we mostly find through gossip, and capitalism manipulates that by creating people and experiences that are ‘more fun’ to talk about than the political and economic realities of our everyday lives. Remember Leonardo Dicaprio’s Oscars acceptance speech? The speech trended on almost every mainstream media because he talked about climate change. It became fun to talk about what Leonardo thought about climate change than talk about climate change. This idea is to use famous people as a distraction to make the masses lose focus on creating discourse for real life issues such as, capitalism, racism, economic inequality, climate change etc.
Secondly, there’s the function of aspiration that places celebrities on a pedestal that most ordinary people, if not all, aim to be like and this aspiration is profitable to capitalism because it pushes the belief that having wealth, status and influence is the solution to all our problems. In our aspirations to be wealthy and influential, we sub-consciously and consciously consume products and services in ways that allow capitalism to flourish. This is a system that places happiness and contentment just further away. We’re in a constant hedonic treadmill – you never arrive but you just keep consuming and trying to get there with the hopes of being comparable to your favorite celebrity. A system that strives to sell us stories of celebrities who rose from grass to grace and were rewarded for their hard work – a typical representation of meritocracy that reinforces the bootstrap mentality of ‘If Jay Z can do it, so can I.’
Capitalism encourages conspicuous consumption as a proxy for belief, therefore defusing the desire to interrogate and dismantle oppressive systems which aid in its survival. What I drew from Zendaya’s statement is that she is challenging the aspiration function. She is telling us that one can still feel like they would lose everything even if they are one of the most influential and wealthy celebs. That they, as famous people, are also on that hedonic treadmill, trying to reach that level of contentment that is always just further away.