Taking ‘Celebrity’ out of Celebrity Studies . . and putting individuals back in

There is a curious distraction in the academic study of celebrity: there are too many famous people in it clamouring for your attention. They threaten to waylay your mind with their antics and shenanigans. You try to understand their import and consequences, the forces that create them, and instead you spend your time reading about film previews, parties, endorsements and the intensely observed clothing aberrations.

Celebrity, I suggest, is best understood with less attention to the individual antics in all this clamour. Try aiming low. You are bound to get distracted, so an attempt to attribute as little attention as possible to the individuals involved may well mean that you end up according the right amount.

There are four reasons for this. The first is that celebrity is produced. It is the product of media and publicity machines, of a larger political economy of agents, publicists, editors and others who determine who gets to be seen and noticed. Talent matters, but it cannot explain success or visibility. Fame machines (or in Gamson’s words ‘assembly lines’ of greatness) don’t necessarily need wonderful individuals to work. As Chris Rojek has observed, the celebretariat are industrial products.

Indeed one film director complained that Hollywood’s star system turned diverse looking girls into identikit images ‘The eyes, the lips, the mouth, the hair, all are done in a certain typed way. Their faces look like slabs of concrete. Maybe the average Hollywood glamour girl should be numbered instead of names’ (Cecile B. DeMille, quoted in Ewen All Consuming Images, page 89). The Economist once explained the trend towards reality TV stars purely in terms of the industrial interests of the fame machines – revenues from such figures are much more easily controlled than from more serious stars.

This is approach is what Cheryl Lousley calls ‘decentring celebrity’ in her study of the political and sentimental context of Band Aid. It’s the approach I adopted when writing Celebrity and the Environment. And such attention to the machinery behind fame provides the value and substance for Graham Turner, Francis Bonner and David Marshall’s work in Fame Games.

The second reason is that what can be most interesting about celebrity is not what they say and do or who they are, not the stars themselves, but how people respond to them, what effects they have. What matters is not so much the celebrities as their audiences.

The problems of focusing on the stars, and not the process producing them, is most clearly demonstrated by those works which have made this error. They provide the third reason. For what results is a simply list – a list of names and the things which have made them noticeable. The trouble with such lists is that they make, in the end, rather boring reading. They have no particular logic defining where they should end, and what should be in them. They are collections of ultimately arbitrary detail.

I have come across this most recently in Stephen Gundle’s book Glamour. It is a very good list, and, as lists go, entertaining and well written; it is a useful source book. But Prof Gundle appeared primarily to be interested in who was glamorous and what was glamorous about them, rather than explaining the forces which made particular glamorous people so visible. He gestures to these structures, for example saying ‘Behind the scenes a large number of professionals played a vital role in creating and sustaining the contexts, events and individuals that basked in the aura of glamour’ (page 169), but in the end we do not learn enough about these processes. The result is much richer in trivia than it is in insights into the political economy of glamour. Other reviewers found the same problem. Caroline Weber in the NYT called the book ‘more of a jumbled catalog of glamour’s incarnations than a sustained analysis of its significance and staying power’. Veronica Howell in the Guardian observed that Gundle ‘can’t, or doesn’t want to, analyse the techniques that create visible physical human perfection, or the illusion of it, on which the industry of glamour relies.

Ironically the consequence of this sort of writing is that it fails to accord adequate attention to the individuals in question. Individuals do matter, but, we can only appreciate how, why and when they have mattered if we understand properly the machinery surrounding them. This is the fourth reason for decentering celebrity. We can only understand the greatness of the great once we know how much of it was down to them, and how much was a more corporate or collective decision. Paradoxically it is precisely because individuals’ decisions, characters and personalities can count for so much that we need to look beyond the individuals themselves.

This matters a great deal where celebrity, charity and politics interact. A good deal of the interactions are carefully produced and managed. But some of the more powerful and surprising have not been; their power can only be understood in the context of the creativity, anger, naivety etc of particular individuals. Two examples from Dorian Lynskey’s book 33 Revolutions per minute will suffice. Nina Simone wrote Mississippi Goddam in a fury of creativity after hearing the news of the bombing of a church in Alabama in 1963 which killed four young girls attending a Bible study. More recently the Dixie Chicks found their political voice somewhat accidentally during a conference in London in 2005. In an offhand remark on stage Natalie Maines apologized to the British audience for George Bush and drawled that ‘we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas’. The result was financially disastrous, and a somewhat fiery baptisim into US politics. Although what is interesting about this also is not just the spontaneity of the remark, but they way it has been managed into a commercial force shaping a later album, especially as criticizing George Bush becomes less of a betrayal and more of a patriotic duty.

These are by no means unusual examples. I have analysed the patterns of charitable endorsements displayed by celebrities in the Look to the Stars website. Stars most involved in charitable work are not associated with particular agencies or managers. That aspect of their public lives is clearly more individually directed. And for people particularly heavily involved in charitable tasks, such as Joanna Lumley or John Snow, their activities probably make little sense commercially. It certainly goes against the general course of action that agents prefer, which is that their clients choose 3-4 charitable organisations to support. The charitable commitments of more heavily committed celebrities can probably be most easily explained by their personal inclinations.

We can think about this in another ways. In 1986, Igor Kopytoff observed that commodities and people are normally quite distant categories in our minds, but that people can be commoditized, and have been in all sorts of ways. The example he chose to examine was slaves; Patrick Gleary, in the same volume, looked at the case of sacred medieval relics. Celebrity provides another instance: they are commodities, things that are both industrially produced, and commercially exchanged, and at the same time they are people. Attention only to the people when analysing such commodities is unlikely to be satisfactory for long; but equally so will be attention only to the commodity aspects. I began this blog with the dangers of focusing only on the people – because I perceive that to be the bigger risk. Happily we can put the idiosyncratic, the individual, the people and personalities back in best when we can understand the machineries at work.

Ewen, S. (1988) All Consuming Images. The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture. New York: Basic Books.

Gleary, P. (1986) Sacred commodities: the circulation of medieval relics. In: The Social Life of Things. Commodities in Cultural Perspective., ed. A. Appadurai, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gundle, S. (2008) Glamour. A History. Oxford: OUP.

Kopytoff, I. (1986) The cultural biography of things: commoditisation as process. In: The Social Life of Things. Commodities in Cultural Perspective., ed. A. Appadurai, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rojek, C. (2001) Celebrity. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.

Turner, G., Bonner, F. & Marshall, D. P. (2000) Fame Games. The Production of Celebrity in Australia. Cambridge: CUP.




About Dan Brockington

Researcher at the University of Sheffield
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1 Response to Taking ‘Celebrity’ out of Celebrity Studies . . and putting individuals back in

  1. Pingback: Constructing Celebrity Advocacy | Development@ Manchester

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