How stars like Dolly Parton and Tom Hanks became American sweethearts

by Jacob Solomon Feb 6, 2023 News
How stars like Dolly Parton and Tom Hanks became American sweethearts

One of the reasons he has endeared himself to fans is due to his quiet acts of charity.

Scottie Andrew works for CNN.

There aren't many things we can agree on in our increasingly divided world.

There is someone else named Dolly Parton.

One of the few celebrities most Americans love is the blonde icon with a blond hair. She has made believers of conservatives and progressives, country fans and independents, as well as boomers who grew up with her and her friends. She is a feminist hero, an ally to the LGBTQ community and a Southern girl whose story of success is a perfect example of the American dream. Moderna's Covid-19 vaccine was funded by her. Dolly Parton has been in the business for decades.

The American sweetheart is an exceedingly rare category of celebrity. For many years sweetheart celebrities have cultivated reputations based on kindness, authenticity and hard-earned success that have elevated them above your average A-lister. They are the kind of people who host an inauguration to appease a hurting country. When they are photographed alone on a park bench, they inspire sympathy. They prompt nationwide mourning when they die.

In American pop culture, these sweethearts are symbols. We rely on them for inspiration, moral guidance, reliable entertainment and even solace, according to an associate professor of communication studies.

Sisco King told CNN that it is difficult to experience political divisiveness, concern about the future of the planet and the potential extinction of human life. A sense of hope is given by the idea that a famous person could be nice.

Some of our biggest sweethearts have been part of the culture for a long time. CNN talked to scholars of celebrity culture who said that certain celebrities rise above the rest of the Hollywood set to become the public's sweethearts and that fans can form meaningful relationships with them.

We want to identify with celebrities

Celebrity culture serves a more important function than we realize, and it might seem glib to focus so much on celebrities when their wealth and status shields them from everyday challenges.

She said that celebrities do emotional work for their fans. They allow us to feel things through them, and we might feel love and admiration for someone like Dolly Parton or the late Betty White, because they can represent kindness and humility.

She said that they wanted to identify with celebrities. A collection of shots of A-listers pumping gas, shopping for groceries or dropping their kids off at school is featured in a section of the tabloid US Weekly. Sisco King said that the images can reinforce the idea that celebrities are likable.

An associate professor of marketing at Loyola University Chicago who studies how celebrities use social media said it makes sense that we would want to identify with famous people who are nice.

Fans often use a rule of thumb to determine if a person is a good friend or foe. The doctor told CNN.

It helps a celebrity build a sweetheart reputation when they become famous for playing sweethearts, like Tom Hanks: In between playing an irascible toy cowboy, he's portrayed a widower whose kindness attracts Meg Ryan, a Southern man who stumbles into historical events. Many of his best-known roles are of good-natured guys and we associate him with that persona off-screen.

She said that they expect actors to be authentic and emotional. Because of the emphasis on authenticity, we tend to confuse actors and their characters.

Hanks is aware of his reputation and he lives up to it on red carpets or in interviews. Fans expect him to be a good guy.

We love an underdog story

Sisco King said that these sweethearts support the "American dream" that anyone can become hugely successful through hard work. Her fans still love her even after she became a billionaire.

Dolly Parton was raised in poverty. A number of personal tragedies have endedeared him to fans. Their legend is due to all the trouble in their lives.

Sisco King said that celebrity stories from humble beginnings to achieving greatness become a way of affirming peoples faith in or hope that they can achieve similarly.

According to Drenten: "Americans love an uphill story." We can't help but root for them when they blossom into giants of their industry.

Social media (and the pandemic) made celebrities more accessible

Since the beginning of the Pandemic, our relationships to celebrities have become more intimate. They stayed in the public eye because they weren't working or doing press junkets. It felt like celebrities were like us at that time. It didn't last long once they started vacationing or escaping the virus in a comfortable home.

Tom Hanks got Covid-19 in March 2020 and was one of the first verified cases of the Pandemic. It was shocking to see that an illness could enter a celebrity's bubble. He shared the news with his followers on the photo sharing site.

We had easy access to famous people with whom we could develop para social relationships, or those one-sided relationships we have with celebrities. Most-to-all interaction deepened our feelings for certain celebrities.

It's easier to get access to certain celebrities, so we can get obsessed with them. That kind of heightens the para social relationship.

Access to fans should be provided by celebrities. Parton's team regularly posts on her behalf, sharing a mix of sponsored content and irresistible nostalgia photos. If Hanks' signatures are to be believed, he might post personally. In her videos, Oprah talks about what she cooks, where she hikes, and how she drags King along.

Even brief anecdotes about celebrities can travel far and fast, which can help boost the reputation of some sweethearts Tales of stars doing basic acts of good, such as Hanks delivering a platter of martinis to his table at the Golden Globes, often go viral. When a sweetheart celebrity doesn't reveal their good deed themselves, it deepens the belief that they're really good people.

Why Dolly Parton is the queen of sweethearts

Parton is a special case.

Sisco King said that part of what makes her so beloved is that she is loved by many different people. She can mean a lot of things.

Parton has overcome sexism and objectification to rise to the top of her industry, which can endeared her to people who are marginalized by race, gender or sexuality. Her songs are still moving decades later. She is who we want her to be.

This wave of fame has been used by Parton to her advantage. A live New Year's Eve show, a T-Mobile Super Bowl commercial, and an NBC Christmas special are just some of the things she has done in the last five years. There are third parties who sell prayer candles with her face on them, cross stitch patterns with her lyrics, or car air fresheners with her image on them. Lingua Franca sells sweaters with slogans like "What would Dolly do?" and "In Dolly we trust"

Fans haven't become cynical of Parton's marketing prowess. When a celebrity does something we don't like, we can "suspend disbelief" in a way to "compartmentalize those concerns"

According to a professor of psychology for Empire State College, Parton has good will capital. She is well known for her generosity and philanthropy. We think we know her well enough that we wouldn't care if she made a move.

American sweethearts can inspire us to do good

Parton and Hanks can be just as important to us as our loved ones are. Even if the love isn't reciprocated, we still feel connected to the ones we know.

It can be comforting when the biggest celebrities of the day include a billionaire tech executive with slippery fingers and a formerly acclaimed rapper who uses racist and antisemitic language

More good can come from engaging with a famous person. Adult fans of sweetheart celebs are motivated to join their causes because they care about them. When Parton draws attention to children's literacy, or when Oprah highlights antiracist efforts, fans may get involved.

Stever said that role models like that encourage people to care about others. All of these people have accumulated a lot of positive social capital that motivates their fans to support the good works that these admired celebrities support. That's what we need.

Sisco King said that engaging with celebrity sweetheartsallows them to process their own feelings. We can feel those emotions when we view their work or support them.

She said that it's the same reason we seek out films and television shows that make us cry. I think celebrity culture works the same way.

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