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The stars aren’t like us anymore. They are us.
To say Chris Pratt has undergone a cultural transformation is an understatement. The doughy goofball of Parks & Recreation has officially become the ab-studded star of the moment, turning small roles in Oscar noms Moneyball, Zero Dark Thirty, and Her into blockbuster leads in The Lego Movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, and next summer’s Jurassic World.
But the swiftness of his career’s about-face (he spent the beginning of this century living in a van and fishing for his own food in Maui) often mirrors that of the other “It” personality of the Millennial era: Jennifer Lawrence.
Both have lived double lives as cult-driving action heroes, Pratt as Peter “Starlord” Quill and Lawrence as Hunger Games heroine Katniss Everdeen. But what sets them aside from generic action stars is their combined effort to hone their love amongst Hollywood elites: while Pratt has slowly found himself amongst previously mentioned Oscar bait, Lawrence has won two Academy Awards from three nominations—and she’s not quite old enough to rent a car.
What has really driven the love for them online, however, has been their off-screen personalities. Jennifer Lawrence is famously GIF-able and seems to refute any and all assumptions about media training. Pratt, meanwhile, has spent his newfound level of fame showing off both his skills at braiding hair and early-aughts hip-hop karaoke (not to mention toeing the line by telling the story of when he full-frontal flashed Amy Poehler).
What these antics highlight is a shady region of celebrity known as “realness.” By simply acting like goofballs, Lawrence and Pratt are slyly uprooting the expectations we have of box-office favorites. Late night TV, for example, was built as an industry upon the idea that people want nothing more than to hear about Cameron Diaz’s vacation or Tom Cruise’s new workout regime.
Stars like Pratt and Lawrence, however, have quickly realized audiences have officially tired of anecdotes driven from pre-interviews or dolled-up plastics going through the motions agencies and studios have drilled into their skulls for decades. Just as in politics, the unscripted actor can quickly become the star of the moment. The aforementioned bore that has been the celebrity talk show format has even caught on, celebrating hosts like Fallon, Kimmel, and Craig Ferguson for ignoring the impulse to pamper a celebrity just for being famous and pushing them out of their comfort zone.
This is not to say, however, that either Chris Pratt or Jennifer Lawrence has followed the same road to fame. In the ever-gender-segregated world of Hollywood, both stars have had different standards to perform to and have done so with aplomb. Whereas Pratt has littered blogs and Twitter feeds with no-apologies photos of his transformation into an honest-to-goodness Last Action Hero, Lawrence has always fit a very classic view of beauty, resting in that sweet spot we’ll call “The Bombshell Next Door.”
While Pratt’s physique is as crafted a piece of marketing as any trailer, it’s an important note that part of his authenticity relies on his past as a Jack Black stand-in. While certainly never ashamed of Andy Dwyer (as he shouldn’t be), Chris Pratt as both a personality and a clickbait commodity rests on his familiar portrayal of bro culture on P&R. With his love of Dave Matthews Band and beer, Andy Dwyer is more-than-reminiscent of the classic-rock-loving and ladies’ man Starlord.
The foot Pratt has in bro culture raises its own problems. For example: Is Chris Pratt a douche? He certainly fits a lot of the mold, what with his shameless gym selfies and borderline workplace sexual harassment. Salon finds him guilty as well, yearning for the “doughy, lovable” Chris Pratt of yore (and by yore, I mean “literally just months ago”). I’m more prone to agree with NRO’s Daniel Foster, who said of Pratt’s impromptu Eminem imitation, “If you think he’s a douche, it makes him douchier, If you think he’s cool, it makes him cooler.”
Jennifer Lawrence is likewise a Rorschach test for how we attempt to “know” famous people we’ve never met. It’s fairly easy to paint her as yet another empty-headed starlet coated in makeup and diet pills, but you really have to want to see her that way. In the same vein, blogs, Twitter, and Reddit have pushed aside the fact that she is now more removed from everyday society than we could ever hope to be in order to focus on how “real” she behaves.
Once again, fame mirrors politics. In both arenas, the idea that “authenticity” is a selling point only serves to highlight the entire artifice of the system itself. The different standards Pratt and Lawrence have had to perform to in order to seem “real” are eerily reminiscent of what we expect of political candidates. Sarah Palin strode to fame by exhibiting, for better or worse, an openly “folksy” lifestyle and attitude whereas someone with nearly identical political views—Mitt Romney—was constantly derided for appearing robotic, removed, and rehearsed.
Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are speaking to twentysomethings the same way Palin spoke to small-town conservatives and Romney to rich bankers and businessmen: By appearing to be one of them (although Pratt is actually 35, highlighting again the differing standards he and J-Law have been presented with).
Unlike politicians, however, we want to be like celebrities because we honestly believe we could become a celebrity. They make it look so effortless, after all. We want to believe it’s possible to, like Lawrence, be incredibly sexy and incredibly likable. Likewise, we want to believe it’s never too late to transition from a beer gut to the abs befitting a Marvel superhero (it should also be noted that Pratt spent his early twenties stripping, leading to the assumption his “new look” might not be all that new for him).
As is the case with most things, this push for authenticity amongst our celebs is being forced by the Internet. Chris Pratt is on Twitter as much as me, for example, which could lead a certain mindset to believe I and what I have to say are as important as what he has to say. If only enough people noticed me, goes the zeitgeist, I could be a superstar like him.
And this future is certainly panning out to be at least somewhat true. In a study of 1,200 teens, for instance, YouTube stars were found to be more popular amongst 13-18 year olds by a wide margin, with Smosh, The Fine Bros, and PewDiePie far outranking the nearest Hollywood celebrities, including J-Law and, for some reason, the late Fast & Furious star Paul Walker.
The big takeaway, says Variety, is that “teens enjoy an intimate and authentic experience with YouTube celebrities who aren’t subject to image strategies carefully orchestrated by PR pros.”
What this spells is success for likable stars such as Lawrence and Pratt and a slow death for the traditional gatekeepers of fame. While media training can certainly be important (Justin Bieber is also just trying to be himself), a certain openness to improvised moments and off-script appearances goes a long way to rebranding millionaire celebrities to a generation raised more on YouTube videos than traditional sitcoms (it’s noteworthy that nearly every traditional star from that Variety report is more known for their film career than any TV show).
To paraphrase Pink Floyd, celebrities of this new era must be guilty of showing feelings of an almost human nature. It is no longer good enough for celebrities to appear as untouchables pandering to their peon populace. In the vein of those YouTube stars, a true fanbase can no longer come from just good looks and talent (though those are as important as ever).
Like Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, our stars must now have an “interactive” personality, one that can do more than look good on camera. We want to know you, but only if you’re likable and charming just enough for it to be believable. We’ve officially reached the nexus point between viral fame and reality TV, wherein our biggest movie stars must only act when we want them to and give us nothing but themselves the rest of the time, if only so we can celebrate our own untapped potential.
The stars aren’t like us anymore. They are us.
Photo via MingleMediaTV/Wikimedia Commons
Gillian Branstetter is a reporter and essayist who specializes in the intersection of technology, LGBTQ issues, and privacy. In April 2018, she joined the National Center for Transgender Equality as a media relations manager.