What is fame?

A couple of years ago, blogger PZ Myers wrote an entry in which he talked about one of his “gimme” questions on his final exams: name a female scientist. In that particular entry, he bemoaned the fact that the overwhelming majority of responses to this question, has been Marie Curie.

A few weeks ago, the comic strip Baldo had a series in which the father called the Kennedy Center because they have never honored a latino performer. It culminated in the person on the phone asking the father if he could name one.

Nobody was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this year. This was the year when the biggest names from the so-called “steroid era” were all on the ballot: Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens.

Rush will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in three months. Many people say — and I count myself among them — that this is long overdue.

The song Celluloid Heroes by The Kinks talks about the stars that are a part of the sidewalk on Hollywood Boulevard, astutely pointing out that there are names there that you might not recognize, but they were likely famous enough at the time of the stars being built into the Walk of Fame.

I was re-reading my old flashback blog entry on media celebrity. More than seven years have passed and I still remember who all of those people are, even if their names aren’t likely as well-known as they were in 2005.

What all of these individual stories have in common is the fundamental nature of fame. Take the science one. How many famous scientists can you name, regardless of gender? Sure, they’re out there, but if you’re not pursuing a career in science overall, the pool of names from which to pick is relatively small. The best known scientists of history — Kepler, Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, etc… — undoubtedly didn’t work alone, but why is it that we know their names better than so many of their contemporaries? It’s because the pursuit of science doesn’t universally lend itself to fame in any era. Even today: go up to the average person on the street and ask them to name a famous living scientist. I’d guess that the most common answer you’d get would be Stephen Hawking. Even when there’s big science news available to the public. Can you name anyone who was actually involved in the construction or launch of any of the rovers we’ve sent to Mars? I can’t. Now this is a profession that, whether we like it or not, has been historically dominated by men. So with such a small subset of scientists who qualify as being famous outside of their professional circles, it’s not a huge surprise that women would be even more poorly represented in response to a question like this. Only now are women beginning to break into this, and that’s undoubtedly a good thing, but it’s still an uphill battle.

The same thing holds true for a USA-centric entertainment venue, seeking out latino performers. It’s starting to change now, but that doesn’t make it easy to find a pool of people to honor at this level.

The halls of fame are interesting in and of themselves. This is a group of people that selects members of their own group as being “famous”. And surely, within their groups, they’re undoubtedly famous, but outside of the group, it’s not a given that the general public would know who they are. The Wikipedia list of halls and walks of fame has no shortage of groups where I’d be hard-pressed to name, off the top of my head, a single person who might have been honored there. (Although I concede that the AVN Hall of Fame must be a fun place to go sightseeing…) Whether we approve of the steroid use of the baseball players who were collectively snubbed for induction or not, we can’t really deny that they were and are famous. It raises the question, though, of what a hall of fame truly honors. Achieving fame doesn’t necessarily equate to greatness within the field that honors them, but halls of fame generally cite exceptional achievement. This is especially true for the sporting halls.

The media are good at creating celebrity. But, as Andy Warhol once pointed out, we’ve all got fifteen minutes of fame in our lives. The media do have a hand in that, to be sure. Does that make fame even more fleeting in today’s media saturated society?

I’ll let you know when my name has wider recognition outside of my own circles…