The recent loss of these two movie/TV icons strongly resonates with me, due to their powerful performances as actors. Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall, both very distinct performers, nonetheless left us with fond memories of profound magnitude. Both had moments in their past lives in which the road to stardom could have re-routed. Luckily, the barriers they faced were overcome, and prominence in their fields was achieved.
Reaching iconic status is a long, arduous road for many aspiring actors because of competition, long-hours, media issues, unstable income, and personal life interruptions. Some have it easy; most don’t. What helps right off the bat is having enough resources to carry you though the early years, having an appealing appearance and a certain charisma, proper connections, and opportunity. Regardless, society has to be notably moved not once, but many times, with an actor’s performances, in order for him/her to land the various awards (Tony, Oscar, People’s Choice, Emmy, etc.) their peers and society bestow.
The creation of social icons (persons symbolizing greatness in their career paths) is a process of constructing definitions of reality, e.g., Lauren was beautiful and sexy, from our perceptions – not from objective data, e.g., skin, hair, fabric, etc. If enough people believe something to be true, it will become for all intents and purposes, true. Kind of like “Cocky-Locky” and his prediction that the sky was falling, and everyone in the farm-yard acted as though it was falling. Or, someone of status predicting the stock market will crash and it does, for no other reason. This constitutes the “self-fulfilling prophecy” phenomenon of human behaviour. If enough people think she is beautiful, she will become beautiful, whereas in another culture she would not. If enough people from peer pressure believe an actor to be “fantastic” (oddly, whether he/she is or not), with the added help of the media, will become fantastic. This is but one form of the icon-ization process, the self-fulfilling prophecy.
Others include institutional support for aspiring greatness, such as a performer’s professional union, e.g., ACTRA, or a media company like the CBC or PBS, or the fashion industry, e.g., Kalvin Klein. Icons can be deliberately ‘created’, not always on their own merits. Merits can be obvious however, to the schooled or experienced eye, as with Williams and Bacall’s climbs to fame. There are many other actors who did not, or could not, rise from up from mediocrity, even with institutional assistance. I will leave you to imagine your own list of such persons.
The social construction of gender is of particular interest to sociologists. It refers “not only to individual identity and personality but also, at the symbolic level, to cultural ideals and stereotypes of masculinity and femininity and, at the structural level, to the sexual division of labour in institutions and organizations.” (Oxford Concise Dictionary of Sociology, by Gordon Marshall. 1996. p. 197) Hollywood icons have experienced the incessant idealization pressures from fans and media, to ensure they fit into and remain within, the stereotypes of success, glamour, sexiness, etc., that is expected of them. Gender identity and personality can form the sexual division of labour in institutions and organizations, as you may well deduce from the “glass ceiling” syndrome affecting aspiring women executives. It is quite possible (probable) therefore that women actor icons make less money – all else being equal – than their men counterparts. Tabloid media pick up on the income aspect as well as the fashion side and personal lives, of icons, and exploit it relentlessly in cases.
There can be a price to pay for fame, glory and fortune. Often this is psycho-social, from anxiety, forced seclusion, and drug addiction, to despair and suicide. Somewhere along the line of career-ism, ‘self’ and ‘other’ expectations may clash. The result can be, simply put, devastating, to self and significant others. Yet there are those icons who seem to be free of wreckage in their lives, who succeed handily at self-actualization.
Sociologists who study icons also witness the external effects of image-building, and get to see who does the image building, how, when, where, and why. This research can be particularly rewarding. Regardless, thank you Robin and Lauren for all that you have given us. The world is a much richer place for it.