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Narcissism & Hollywood

So Hollywood is narcissistic?  Tell me something I don’t know, right?   Well, though we live here in Los Angeles, and we see our share of fantastically ridiculous behavior, I was recently surprised and grieved to learn more about the narcissism in this city and how it is effecting our culture at large.

Now, I must confess I love the current reality TV show Celebrity Rehab which is hosted by Dr. Drew Pinsky.  It’s a less than glamorous show where cameras capture celebrities in the context of struggling to recover from their addictions and destructive lifestyles.  Now, I don’t watch it because of some desire to see people at their worst, but rather because of the honesty.  Recovering addicts are forced be honest about their addictive and pathological struggles the way that God commands us to be honest about our struggles with sin.

In May, my wife and I sat in a lecture here in Los Angeles listening to Dr. Drew Pinsky and Dr. Mark Young talk about their new book for which they are co-authors, The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism is Seducing America. We went to this lecture to better understand some of the people we minister to here in L.A., as well as to better understand how to protect our children.  The title was intriguing, of course.  The lecture was entertaining.  The content was both surprising and heart-breaking.  At several points during the lecture, my heart was overwhelmed with grief over the dangerous situation our culture is in, and the tremendous brokenness of celebrities and their fans.

The core shift in thinking about Hollywood and narcissism was precipitated by these two men a couple of years ago.  After researching celebrities they published something quite contrary to prevalent assumptions:

“Narcissism is not a byproduct of celebrity, but a primary motivating force that drives people to become celebrities.”Journal of Research in Personality in October 2006.

They explained that it is actually a particular type of brokenness rooted in self-loathing and self-hatred which drives them to pursue public acclaim.  Dr. Drew spoke of how all of the people admitted into his care have experienced serious childhood trauma, without exception. He recalled how he has challenged his medical students to find an exception, but the exception has not been found.  He noted also that childhood trauma has increased algorithmically since the 60’s, and this alone is a major contributing factor to where our society and it’s celebrities are today.   Pinsky and Young write, “Celebrity narcissists aren’t egomaniacs with high self-esteem.  Rather, they are traumatized individuals who are unable to connect in any real way with other people.  They are driven to attain fame, with its constant stream of attention, flattery, and empowerment, because they need the steady trickle of adoring recognition to take the place of any kind of real self-love or self-respect.”

Where is narcissism at it’s height?  Reality TV seems to draw narcissists like nothing else.  When fame is the goal, and talent is irrelevant – all that is required is outlandish behavior in order to become famous.  The tragic part here is that they worship the idol of fame so intensely that they will sacrifice almost anything else to satiate this idol.  Producers have even been shocked at the lack of embarrassment these people have after seeing their behavior when the show is aired.

How does this really effect us, as the audience?  Well, There are two main responses:  On the one hand viewers may take the celebrity’s bad behavior as inspiration for acting out and feeling like the rules shouldn’t apply to them either.  On the other hand viewers find this as an occasion to sit in self-righteous judgment.  Both responses are spiritually dangerous because we fail to see our own sinful nature, and then fail to see these people as wounded, broken souls in need of grace.

Pinsky also points out that so much of the audience is not simply jealous of these stars, but the American public is becoming increasingly envious.  Envy, unlike jealousy, involves a desire to be on the same level with those we envy.  We either want to be given the same benefits as those we envy, or we want them to lose their benefits so we are all on the same level.  As you can see, this becomes an incubator for aggression, and hatred as the focus becomes what we don’t have, what we deserve, and what we think others do not deserve.  The scary part of this is much of our nation seems to be infected with this envy, and is living vicariously through these celebrities either in order to get a taste of “the exciting life”, or to dash the celebrities when they crash and make ourselves feel better by sitting in judgment.  Just think of the response to Anna Nicole’s death, where everyone wants the details about how many mistakes she made, but no one really mourns.

Leaving the lecture, my wife and I took the elevator to the parking garage – lamenting all that is broken in this “City of Angels”.  And to be honest, I know why the lecture was so moving – I am broken too.  Christians have been quick in the past to boycott and attack these deeply hurting people- sometimes forgetting that they are people.  It hasn’t helped Hollywood’s perception of Christians, and has made it harder to share the gospel with them.  Yet, that gospel is what their brokenness yearns for.  Actually.  Truth be told.  It’s the same gospel my brokenness yearns for every day.  To be fully known, and yet to be forgiven, and loved- not just by faceless fans, or the public press, but by the God who died to make me whole again.


Copyright © 2009 Joel and Michelle Pelsue. All Rights Reserved.  Used with permission.

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