Published: Dec. 1, 2008 By ,

(part of a series in Special Issue #48: GOING CHEAP? Female Celebrity in Reality, Tabloid and Scandal Genres – Edited by DIANE NEGRA and SU HOLMES)

[1] What is it with female celebrities lately? While the good girl/bad girl categories of a ludicrously dichotomized cultural script of femininity have long been in operation, these poles now seem to be moving further apart in a celebrity landscape peopled by remote cinema goddesses and overexposed tabloid “trash.” Furthermore, recent saturation coverage of female stars “in crisis” contrasts forcibly with the journalistic restraint often exhibited in relation to male stars. If current media codes invite/expect us to “root against” such putatively “toxic” stars as Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse, it is taken for granted that we “root for” their troubled male counterparts. We revel in our disgust over the latest round of paparazzi “crotch shots” of panty-less female celebrities, and extend sober judgment in regard to (British reality TV star) Jade Goody’s racist remarks about her Celebrity Big Brother (2001-2007) housemate Shilpa Shetty. Meanwhile, we are asked to wish Owen Wilson a rapid and complete recovery from the depression that led him to attempt suicide and we celebrate the career longevity and personal recovery of Robert Downey Jr. as one aspect of the public consumption of summer blockbusterIron Man. When Heath Ledger died suddenly in early 2008, A.O. Scott of The New York Times railed against the “rituals of media cannibalism,” positing Ledger as “ensnared in a pathological gossip culture that chews up the private lives of celebrities” (Scott).On the Internet shocked early responses to the star’s death not infrequently expressed surprise that it was Ledger who had died rather than one of the many headline-making female celebrities who normally dominate coverage. “‘Heath before Britney?’ wrote one. ‘Something is seriously wrong with the world.'” (‘USA Today’).

[2] By summer, 2008 such gender-based representational incongruities were explicit enough to attract media commentary in their own right. In comparing the treatment of male and female celebrities when it came to such events as drunk-driving, suicide attempts and mental illness, Alex Williams declared after interviewing industry professionals for a New York Times article that:

[M]onths of parallel incidents like these seem to demonstrate disparate standards of coverage. Men who fall from grace are treated with gravity and distance, while women in similar circumstances are objects of derision, titillation and black comedy (Williams).

Contrasts such as these catalyze reflection about the intensifying double standard underlying a postfeminist cover story about gender egalitarianism. They also invite questions about the extent to which dignity and privacy are increasingly gendered in the context of celebrity representation. In a postfeminist representational environment, femininity is routinely conceptualized as torn between chaos and (over)controlserenity and agitation. Female celebrity models for creditably managing the (feminine) “work/life balance” are often positioned as only precariously and temporarily stabilized; we are invited to play a “waiting game” to see when their hard-won achievements will collapse under the simultaneous weight of relationship, family and career. One reason why stories of professionally accomplished/personally troubled female celebrities circulate so actively is that when women struggle or fail, their actions are seen to constitute “proof” that for women the “work/life balance” is really an impossible one. It is useful to bear this in mind when assessing a media climate dominated by stories that work to consolidate a strong cultural consensus about “out of bounds” behavior for women and proffer the pleasures of identifying and judging it. At the same time, and as discussed below, this assertion about the construction of female celebrity careers is in itself shot through with the judgments which structure the contemporary crisis of value surrounding celebrity: after all, the concept of work (as well as ‘merit’ or ‘talent’) is increasingly seen as being evacuated from contemporary explanations of fame – especially in its gendered (feminine) forms. In this issue, we seek generally to explore some of the ways in which femininity and fame intersect: in particular we contend that the ambiguity/instability of contemporary celebrity has been industrially and culturally feminized.

Typologies of Contemporary Female Celebrity

[3] A major strand of the coverage of physically, emotionally and/or financially “out of control” female celebrities is predicated on public fears that we don’t know what talent is anymore and that the traditional expectation that fame is based on talent is dying out, giving rise to a set of illegitimate female celebrities who are famous for “nothing.” It seems clear that these fears particularly crystallize in the arena of reality television whose crisis of value is often largely personified by women. Additionally and distinctively, it is clear that crisis female celebrity is sourced in the body. In fact, as Margaret Schwartz persuasively argues in this issue in her analysis of the fad for ‘upskirt’ paparazzi shots, it is possible to posit a link between the anatomical and the cultural here: after all, both the female genitals and the concept of female celebrity are seen as representing a perceived “lack”, “unearthing an unconscious connection between female celebrity and male pleasure, emptiness, and trashiness”. The intense scrutinizing functions of a culture of checkbook journalism and paparazzism, as well as the circulating capacities of the Internet, have furthered this emphasis on corporeal / sexual surveillance, enabling for instance, the sex tape to emerge as a new credential for female celebrityhood (Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian). While such technological shifts have tended to facilitate the promotion of a set of high-profile, sexed-up “bad girls,” other typological categories have also emerged or been re-energized. Postfeminist culture’s embrace of marriage as the pre-eminent state of achieved femininity, and its re-certification of stereotypes like the “golddigger”, have also helped to usher in a wave of celebrity “wives” whose dependent status (whether actual or imaginary) is grist for public condemnation – even as such women become style icons and revenue-generating figures sometimes far in excess of their partners. In recent years, the British tabloid press has coined the now widely-used term “WAG” to designate a new category of high-profile, free spending (and thus “free loading”) “Wives and Girlfriends” (frequently of soccer players on the English National Team), the most celebrated/excoriated of whom have been Victoria Beckham, Coleen McLoughlin and Cheryl Cole. In a manner that is typical of the new textual synergies at play in the contemporary media environment, the celebrity of these women was constructed primarily in the broadsheets and lifestyle media but heightened by the concurrent airing of television series such as the fictionalFootballers’ Wives (2002-2007). Another comparable case is that of the widely reviled Heather Mills, ex-wife of beloved pop star Paul McCartney, frequent subject of caricature as a mercenary woman unfit to partner a national icon, and focus of assiduous press attention that has consistently painted her as a fraudulent, manipulative hysteric.

[4] It is essential to consider the extent to which contemporary female celebrities are placed to operate as lightning rods for a range of concerns. These concerns are certainly diverse and multifaceted, and might be understood to encompass everything from the quality of current media and culture and the unstable relationship between talent and fame, to the growing gap between the super-wealthy and the public at large. One means of explaining why the phenomenon of female “train wreck” celebrity is in the ascendancy is by noting the capacity of this category of female fame to produce incarnations of prevalent fears of social and economic disorder. Durable in both boom and bust years and seemingly “recession-proof,” the celebrity gossip industry is adept at generating narratives about the accumulation and misuse of wealth that are steeped in capitalist dogma. Micro-detailed investigations of the behavior of female celebrities are profoundly diversionary. The disproportionately large representational space they occupy may, among other things, draw scrutiny away from other cultural power-holders – particularly the financial and political elite. Thus, it is important to recognize just how much of the venom directed at women we “love to hate” is often sourced in old-fashioned class politics. Indeed, many of the celebrities who are most severely judged in tabloid media are those with working-class backgrounds that are then presented as explanatory of their “misbehavior” and “excess.” As Bev Skeggs has outlined, there is a long history of working-class women being associated with discourses of sexual and corporeal “excess”, and this history demonstrates how class has long functioned to regulate femininity. As Skeggs reminds us (in tracing various representational practices since the 19th century), for “working-class women femininity was never a given (as was sexuality)” (Skeggs, 99) and in this regard, “the distance that is drawn between the sexual and the feminine [is often]… drawn onto the bodies of working-class women” (100). In this regard, we might note here the class inscriptions of reproductive “excess”: the “demure” silence and/or secrecy surrounding the pregnancies of stars such as Angelina Jolie or Nicole Kidman (or the cloaked early life of baby Suri Cruise) contrasts with the media visibility of Britney Spears’ pregnant body, her woeful parenting “efforts”, or the open speculation surrounding her reproductive state (as she was filmed purchasing a pregnancy test in a chain drugstore the public was cued to wonder censoriously is she pregnant “again”?).

[5] A striking commonality among the kinds of celebrities whose careers play out in the “Going Cheap” mode is their white racial status. Latent in the coverage of what are deemed their antics and exploits is a sense of dismay that these women are flouting the behavioral codes of whiteness. This is one reason why the kind of “trashiness” these women are associated with is specifically “white trash,” a virulent term of race and class judgment and a label that – as Shelley Cobb shows in her essay here – is repeatedly (and almost obsessively) applied to their lives and backgrounds. Crucially, and in terms of the intersection of class and gender politics, such women are often presented as “over-reachers,” reverting to their original class characteristics in grotesque displays of recidivism. When we see photographs or video footage of Spears driving with her small son on her lap, eating fast food and emerging barefoot from a gas station restroom, Winehouse staggering and bleeding in the street in the early hours, or Goody spouting racist vitriol (“proof” of her lack of “education”), we are often invited to understand them to be reverting to (class) type. This notably speaks further to contradictions in contemporary explanations of fame: while the idea of maintaining a discursive continuity with the pre-fame self is seen as central to conceptions of celebrity “authenticity” (see Littler, “Keepin'”) – a formulation of selfhood which is often inflected with discourses of class and/or ethnicity – contemporary celebrity culture also celebrates the transformation of the self. Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn refer to the new strata of the “socially mobile media-ocracy”: people who “make it big”, but have little connection with traditional structures of influence, such as inheritance, education and training, and who are required to display the consumer fruits of their celebrity lifestyle (Biressi and Nunn,146).

[6] But in terms of what is usually painted as the negative reversion to “type”, it is instructive to invoke Gareth Palmer’s observations in “The Un-dead: Life on the D-List”, which question the pervasive emphasis on the contemporary “democratization” of celebrity. He argues that the media construction of reality TV stars in particular often offers “cautionary tales” about knowing “one’s place” (Palmer, 45):

As the D-List is composed of people who have emerged from the audience it may be the closest representation of the ordinary as celebrity. An analysis of how such people are treated [by the media] is therefore revealing about what the media suggest is the correct way for [people]… to behave, both as enterprising individuals and as “ordinary” people (Palmer, 38).

Palmer draws attention to the treatment of those who aim to prolong their fame, and it is understood that the respectable thing to do is to return “‘quietly’ to … [one’s] roots”, managing an inevitable decline with ‘dignity’ (Palmer, 45). While the shifting terrain of celebrity status makes such categorizations subjective (and subject to change), it is now hard to argue that this highly punitive and disciplinary framework is only associated with more ephemeral forms of fame. Although the British tabloid press in particular has long since evinced a “build ’em up and knock “em down” mentality, the sustained fascination with what appear to be spirals of physical, personal and professional decline has become central to the media representation of female celebrities in particular. (After all, the dismay that it was “Heath before Britney?” precisely speaks to an ongoing temporal investment in the trajectory of Spears’ apparent decline).

[7] Both critical gender studies and celebrity/ star studies have long since invested interest in the construction of social “types” (Dyer, “Stars”), and in this regard they might share some common conceptual ground in seeking to analyze the social types which now people the landscape of contemporary celebrity culture. After all, there is another representational paradigm for the discursive construction of female celebrities: the woman who consistently downplays, minimizes or disavows her own ambition by expressing a pietistic and disingenuous “priority logic” about the work/life balance. In the early 2000s, positively assessed female celebrities are forever reiterating their family values credentials and asserting that their professional lives pale in comparison to the higher order priorities of marriage and motherhood. When the top-ranked female tennis player in the world, Justin Henin, abruptly called an end to her career in a May, 2008 press conference, the 25-year-old informed us that up till that point she had been a “girl” and that upon her retirement she would begin the process of graduating into womanhood.

[8] In Shelley Cobb’s essay here, which is concerned with analyzing public discourse on three high-profile mothers of even more high-profile celebrity daughters, she offers one example of the stringent social judgments directed at women who seemingly flout the current codes of family values, exposing (and perhaps acting upon) the kinds of profit interests now so bound up with mass media portrayals of family life. When female celebrity life choices and personal circumstances do not fit (or no longer fit) within a “family values” script, one option is for them to be cast in the mode of another postfeminist archetype, the “sad singleton.” Celebrities such as Renee Zellwegger and Jennifer Aniston are thus treated with dismay or bemusement when they show up on the red carpet alone and/or “can’t find a man.” Equally, the idea of not conforming to (or perhaps falling in between) social types, is surely dramatized by Spears. No longer simply a sexualized, while simultaneously juvenilized, starlet, but not (yet) a “safe” maternal figure, Spears appears to pose a representational and ideological problem for a culture which valorizes the security of female typology. Typifying the extent to which the experience of actually “being famous” is self-reflexively encoded into much contemporary celebrity coverage, Spears sought to respond to the discursive and representational climate surrounding her in her hit song, “Pieces of Me.” While “answering back” to the opprobrium waiting to be heaped on female celebrities in the current media landscape (“I’m Mrs. Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous/ Oh my god that Britney’s shameless, Hopin’ I’ll resort to some havoc/ end up settlin’ in court/ Now are you sure you want a piece of me?”), the song also referenced the gendered difficulty involved in negotiating the work/ life balance (“Guess I can’t see the harm in workin’ and being a mama/ And with a kid on my arm I’m still an exceptional earner”). The song also foregrounds the gendered pressures of living under cultural – and thus corporeal – surveillance (“I’m Mrs. she’s too big now she’s too thin”), as well as what Spears positions as the seemingly absurd interest in the minutiae of her everyday existence (“I’m Mrs. most likely to get on TV for stripping on the streets/ When gettin’ the groceries, no, are you kiddin’ me?”).[1]

[9] Clearly, the concept of being a failed or “unfit” mother became central to the refraction of Spears’ apparent degeneration, and as the managing editor ofPeople magazine actually acknowledged:

If Britney weren’t a mother, this story wouldn’t be getting a fraction of the attention it’s getting… The fact that the custody of her children is at stake is the fuel of this narrative. If she were a single woman, bombing around in her car with the paparazzi following, it wouldn’t be the same (cited in Williams).

The editor casts the media pursuit of Spears rather charitably as evidence of a fascination with the ‘challenges facing a young mother’, thus downplaying the extent to which such celebrity narratives have increasingly emerged as representational yardsticks to measure restrictive ideologies of “family values”. Indeed, celebrity culture has become a highly visible arena in which models of the family, especially as these are related to narratives of female sexuality and ambition, are policed, shored up and approved (while the fervor involved in this process simultaneously bespeaks a context in which family values are struggling to retain their consistency and power).

[10] In this regard, it is clear that motherhood can become a site upon which the female celebrity can make a claim to “ordinariness” and “realness”, while simultaneously appearing to distance herself from the apparently more “shallow” trappings of “image” and fame (see Jermyn). Gwyneth Paltrow, for example, asserts that she keeps fit because “she doesn’t want to look like a mother who doesn’t care” (Bailey). In this regard, it surely comes as no surprise that motherhood can be figured as a redemptive (as well as punitive) discursive framework. When the career of the British reality star, Jade Goody, stood in ruins after she was accused of the racist bullying of fellow Celebrity Big Brother (Channel 4, 2007) housemate, Shilpa Shetty in 2007 (Goody was initially made famous by the third series of the UK’s Big Brother and went on to become Britain’s first reality TV millionaire), media coverage zealously reported her apparent fall from “Hero to Zero”. As Goody was ceremoniously divested of her celebrity status, she was required to verbally renounce the privileges which had brought this very identity into being. While rejecting the use of stylists and make-up artists for post-eviction interviews, Goody also pledged to reject the individual (and economic) rewards of a celebrity identity and to embrace the more “rewarding” (and humbling) identity of a mother: “I’ve not thought about the future – magazine [deals]… and so on – I’ve only been thinking about being a good Mum to my kids,” she avowed (“The Wright Stuff”). Furthermore, as Emma Bell examines in her essay here, celebrity motherhood can be figured as “redemptive” in a range of different ways – intersecting, for example, with the increasingly pervasive appearance of narratives of mental illness as a “naturalized” part of (especially) female celebrity culture. As Bell demonstrates in her analysis of three British “bad girl/mad girl” pop-feminists, while narratives of mental illness are frequently foregrounded to explain the “excesses” of a “bad girl” persona, ascension into motherhood can simultaneously be figured as the zenith of ideological recuperation (while “failure” in the role can be seen to point to ongoing mental malaise).

[11] Critics like Mara Einstein have contended that what was once known as the “social gospel” (essentially the notion of obligation toward the poor) has effectively been transferred from figures of religious authority to celebrities (Einstein). Certainly one of the most common ways in which female celebrity virtue is currently celebrated is through acts of public charity and altruism, and we have increasingly seen such acts presented as an extension of “family values.” Maternalism pairs particularly well with high-profile do-gooding – as we can see in the highly-publicized recent activities of Angelina Jolie and Madonna. When female stars explain their interest in aiding disaster victims or the underprivileged, they often do so by citing their motherhood as an explanatory feature of their care for others and the world at large. For instance, Celine Dion famously and emotionally called for the public to support Hurricane Katrina victims by invoking her motherhood (which had already sourced a print and broadcast campaign for Chrysler minivans in which she appeared with her son and a song “A New Day Has Come” in which she sings of her love for him). Another reason why the profile of female celebrity do-gooding has been conspicuously raised in recent years is suggested by Jo Littler’s account of celebrity charity in which she writes that “public displays of support for ‘the afflicted’ are a way for celebrities to appear to raise their profile above the zone of the crudely commercialized into the sanctified, quasi-religious realm of altruism and charity” (Littler, “I Feel”, 239). At a time when female celebrities circulate in an environment of representational extremism, with tabloid degradation as one option and iconic exaltation on the other, the performance of social generosity and care can be crucial to categorization of the latter type.

[12] Current codes for celebrity representation also tend to synthesize sexist and ageist logics. They are punishing of young and midlife women in related, but distinctly different, ways. US culture would seem to be particularly awash in prurient coverage of the teen nymphet (Miley Cyrus, Lindsay Lohan). Yet when such figures are too overtly or “wrongly” sexualized they can prompt moral panics that reverberate through cable news coverage and the tabloid press. In 2007 the premiere example of this phenomenon was 16-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears’ announcement of her pregnancy, an announcement that briefly provoked multiple category crises as Spears’ suddenly contested image (as a vivacious “tween,” a sweet Southern girl and foil character to her older sister) led to a wave of intense coverage. Highlighting the divide between youthful female celebrities who operate as cautionary tales and male celebrities whose behavior is largely immune from public referendum we might juxtapose the policing of the nymphet alongside the triumphant longevity of oversexed, swashbuckling senior citizen men (Mick Jagger, Harrison Ford, Hugh Hefner). Furthermore, and as Kirsty Fairclough explores in her article here, the circulation of discourse on “appropriate” gender roles and ideals has become ever more central to contemporary celebrity culture – especially as propelled by the rising popularity of the gossip blog. Increasingly “bitchy” and malicious discourse is sanctioned by such sites which essentially take pleasure in the surveillance – and thus policing – of the female celebrity body, arguably fostering an ever more limited range of female representational tropes.

Exploring the Celebrity Gender Divide

[13] The purpose of this journal special issue is to call for, and begin to model, a critical practice that is cohesive enough to fully address this phenomenon of the “new gendering of fame.” In using the word “new” here, we are mindful of the fact that claims of change and development in this area are complex, and as such, should be up for contestation and debate. After all, the idea (or rather lament) that modern fame is different and “new” from (apparently golden) “times past” has made a successful bid for legitimacy and acceptance – both in popular media discourse and aspects of academic scholarship. Such assertions also often simplify and dehistoricize rather than compare, despite the fact that there remains much historical research in celebrity studies still to be done. In terms of historical comparisons, the role of the case study should play a crucial role in this respect. For example, we might dip into 1950s British television to consider the phenomenon of “Sabrina”. A teenager from Blackpool “Sabrina” (real name Norma Sykes) achieved fame by appearing in the Arthur Askey variety show Before Your Very Eyes (BBC, 1953-58) as the “bosomy blonde” who didn’t talk. The press marvelled at how she had achieved fame “without professional experience or training,” and wondered if she was a “bosomy Frankenstein-style construction produced in the BBC workshops and stuffed with old scripts” (“Sabrina Phenomenon”). Even the BBC was concerned that her success was “out of control”, and as one BBC official put it: “She’s a wonder of our time which makes us absolutely terrified of the power of television. Whoever heard of anything being a screaming success for doing nothing?”‘ (“Sabrina Scare”). Such claims of pre-fabrication and groundless fame are of course ubiquitous fifty years later and this comment on Sabrina could easily have been penned about contemporary British tabloid celebrities such as “Jordan” (Katie Price) or Jodie Marsh. The “Sabrina” case also points to the need to consider the historical context when examining the trajectories and specificities of different media forms (compared to film, broadcast media and print media have so far been less extensively excavated). Perhaps somewhat predictably, television is positioned in the example above as the harbinger of a culture in which people will simply be known for their “well-knownness” (Boorstin) – creating “familiarity with images without regard to content” (Gamson, 271). In comparison, female stars from classical Hollywood cinema are regularly mythologized in nostalgic conceptions of stardom from ‘yesteryear’ – despite the fact that the studio system represented the industrial production of celebrity on a mass scale (see Gamson). Indeed, as Alice Leppert and Julie Wilson explore in their essay here on Lauren Conrad, star of the immensely popular reality series, The Hills,the gendered articulation of reality TV celebrity allows television to capitalize on earlier forms of female stardom (such as that emerging from Hollywood cinema) previously inaccessible within U.S. reality TV – opening up “new horizons for commodifying female stars and their fans.”

[14] It may well be the case that the discourses, ideologies and structures which concern us here are not in themselves intrinsically new in kind so much as in their sheer volume, rhetoric and circulatory capacities. After all, while the Internet may have vastly expanded the distribution of celebrity discourse, it has not necessarily revised its content and we might note the relative paucity of meaningfully critical or alternative sites within the celebrity blogosphere.[2] With the considerable expansion of content delivery channels, the increasing erosion of the boundary between public/private in the construction of the famous, and the attendant discourses of “ordinarization”, the judgment and punishment dynamics which shape the mediation of many contemporary celebrities appear ambient. While in some ways Britain is a particularly active marketplace for the production of this kind of celebrity, it bears noting that in the age of the celebrity gossip blog (,, crisis images and vignettes circulate transnationally.

[15] While it is unlikely, then, that the phenomenon analyzed in this issue is wholly new, we believe that it at least represents a significant intensification of pre-existing patterns and trends. The call for analysis in this sphere seems to be increasingly urgent given that, while this phenomenon prompted a proliferation of media commentary in 2007-8, it has not been central to academic discourse (although we acknowledge here the time-lag involved in publishing, and thus the extent to which academic work is often catching up with cultural trends). But this imbalance is particularly disturbing if we contemplate the limits of the media’s self-critique in this respect – a process which can invariably reinforce the power relations at stake in any phenomenon they purport to deconstruct. After all, a dominant explanation for what has been recognized as an explosive interest in the female celebrity “trainwreck” narrative was that its popularity was rooted less in “sexism, [than]… the demographics of the [celebrity] audience” (Williams). In other words, at least with respect to the celebrity magazine market, it is the desires of the female audience which are posited as driving the interest in these representations (Rebeck). We are informed that: “women readers actually like to see pretty girls screw up, we’re positively obsessed by it, to the degree that we want them to do drugs and get into drink-driving accidents and act like total freaks and end up in rehab or worse” (Rebeck). Setting aside the evident complexity of the question as to whether the media create “needs” or respond to them, this clearly reinforces a discourse of competitive (and deeply punitive) female individualism. Other explanations appear to lay the blame at the door of the celebrities themselves, but in such a way that similarly subscribes to essentialist notions of gender. As Roger Friedman, an entertainment reporter for explained, “female stars tend to make more compelling stories because ‘they are more emotional and open’ about their problems. ‘Male stars’, he said, tend to be ‘circumspect'” (cited in Williams). While we look to critique such facile explanations and blame paradigms, we are also wary of providing grist for an abetting critique. As a result of the “Going Cheap?” conference we hosted at the University of East Anglia in June, 2008 we were bombarded with media requests from many of the outlets that regularly generate “trainwreck celebrity” coverage. It seems clear that such outlets can politically insulate themselves by apparently sponsoring a limited and controlled amount of analysis of a subject which underwrites a consistent income stream for them.

[16] At the same time, the topic we are centralizing here could also be treated by the media as self-evident – something which simply does not require analysis at all. Following a survey in Marketing magazine which revealed that while the five “most loved” celebrities in Britain are men (Paul McCartney, Lewis Hamilton, Gary Lineker, Simon Cowell, David Beckham), while the four “most hated” are women (Heather Mills, Amy Winehouse, Victoria Beckham, Kerry Katona), Barbara Ellen’s article in the Observer referred to the conference we had organized:

These results will be discussed at a University of East Anglia seminar [sic] in June – ‘Female Celebrity in the Tabloid, Reality and Scandal Genres’ – but why bother? The only surprising thing about these results is that they’re so unsurprising. Everyone knows that celebrity misogyny, the new blood sport of the masses, has been big business for years, hitting saturation point with Britney… Really though, they don’t need to hold fancy seminars on this stuff – a heat reader, bribed with a Crunchie, could tell them all they need to know in 10 minutes (Ellen).

Ellen here takes a gratuitous swipe at the consumers of celebrity coverage, doubling up her gender essentialisms by linking a female appetite for such material to the appetite for chocolate. While this cursory and demeaning assessment is based on an antipathy for the very idea that celebrity culture could be “studied” in the first place, it suggests that such disparities are best viewed through the naturalized sphere of “common sense.”

[17] Media and cultural studies have of course long since been committed to defamiliarizing the terrain of “common sense.” We suggest here that it is crucial not to lose sight of the fact that there are academic trajectories, frameworks and methodologies which can complicate the often simplistic and ahistorical statements proffered by the media to explain the gendering of fame. Such an endeavor must set aside the enthusiasm that still exists – among some academics – for generalization and oversimplification about popular cultural phenomena, including apparent shifts in the production of contemporary fame, audience investment in celebrity culture, or the social significance of reality TV. It must face the (admittedly ultimately impossible) challenge of taking stock of the disparate nature and sheer volume of celebrity-related rhetoric which now courses through the busy circuits of the contemporary media environment. In doing so, it must respect the conventions and norms of celebrity as a mode or genre of representation, while remaining attentive to the specific inflections offered by different media forms – as well as national, transnational and historical contexts. Finally, and most crucially, it must be robust enough to draw from the newest scholarship on gender norming and representational culture in the early twenty-first century, while fusing this with the latest historical, theoretical and conceptual insights of celebrity studies. This critical practice thus seeks to join together new scholarship on celebrity with new theories of gender in the postfeminist context. We fear that the conjunction between feminist media studies and other disciplinary subcategories may be fading as gender-based analysis is increasingly conceptualized as a stand-alone (and sometimes marginal) enterprise.

Gendering Celebrity Studies

[18] The need for an intellectual intervention of this kind is dramatized by the extent to which questions of gender have often been occluded in the rapidly expanding sphere of celebrity studies. Much like the cultural landscape of fame, the academic study of celebrity has become increasingly well-populated. As P. David Marshall described in 2004:

The academy has embraced the study of celebrity and fame over the last decade and it has accelerated in recent years. Sport stardom … film stardom … literary celebrity … journalism and celebrity … the psychology of fame … and media and the celebrity … have appeared as full-fledged books with a regularity that echoes the celebrity system’s own production process. This burgeoning interest in fame cuts across disciplinary study in surprising ways (Marshall, “Perpetual”).

The study of stardom and fame – associated in its earlier phases primarily with film studies – was initially reliant on a limited, while seminal, range of scholarly texts (e.g Dyer, Ellis). The work of Richard Dyer situated the analysis of stars in the realm of ideology and representation. Star “images” could be understood as semiotic “signs” and read as “texts” – dramatizing ideas of personhood, individualism and class, gender, ethnicity and sexuality at any one time. Dyer’sHeavenly Bodies went on to offer a detailed conceptual framework for contextualizing the star image: situating it within the myriad of cultural, historical and social discourses from which it emerged. But the later expansion of “celebrity studies”, as emerging from media, television and cultural studies (as well as sports studies, pop music studies, work on digital culture and beyond), has also widened the scope of analysis, not simply in terms of expanding the media focus, but with regard to critical, theoretical and methodological approach. Within celebrity studies, a sphere which recognizes that the media contexts of fame have become less distinct and specific, the subject has been approached as a set of broader cultural and political processes which are not necessarily anchored to, or explored through, a particular star/ celebrity image (see Holmes and Redmond).

[19] These media, as well as disciplinary distinctions, immediately raise questions of cultural value, precisely because of the different cultural meanings which are attached to the terms “star” and “celebrity.” Although its meaning has changed over time, the term celebrity has the less prestigious lineage. As Marshall outlines, by the nineteenth century celebrity had become a term that “announce[d] a vulgar sense of notoriety” and “some modern sense of false value” (Marshall, ‘Celebrity’, 5, 4). While the term is also used within academic studies to simply indicate the contemporary state of being famous (an all-encompassing concept which cuts across different media forms and contexts), it is clear that discourses of cultural value are not simply eradicated here. For example, while stardom has long since been conceptualized as requiring an interaction between on/off-screen selves (“work” self and “private” self), celebrity is often deemed to connote a representational structure in which the primary, or only, emphasis is on the person’s “private” life or lifestyle. Yet this is where gender is clearly crucial. Given the gendered connotations involved in any use of the public/private dichotomy, such “conceptual” distinctions are far from neutral. Indeed, in the year 2000, and in an essay in the collection Re-inventing Film Studies, Christine Geraghty aimed to take stock of the terms and concepts which might be used to conceptualize fame in the context of the contemporary media environment. Importantly, Geraghty observed how women are “particularly likely to be seen as celebrities whose working life is of less interest than their personal life” (Geraghty, 12) – precisely because women are more identified with the private sphere, and their value as “workers” in the public sphere has historically had to struggle for cultural legitimacy. Despite the fact that the media and cultural fascination with the “private” lives and identities of the famous has accelerated substantially since Geraghty was writing, and despite the fact that the apparently devalued currency of celebrity – laments regarding the decline of “talent” and “work” – have been articulated with increasing fervor, there has been little follow-on work interrogating the significance of Geraghty’s observations about the inextricably intertwined nature of the conceptual and the political.

[20] To be sure, this is not to deny the long-standing – and ongoing – relationship between star/ celebrity studies and feminism: from Jackie Stacey’sStargazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship(Stacey), Linda Mizejewski’s Ziegfeld Girl: Image and Icon in Culture and Cinema(Mizejewski), Diane Negra’sOff-White Hollywood: American Culture and Ethnic Female Stardom (Negra), Rachel Moseley’s Growing Up with Audrey Hepburn (Moseley) and Adrienne McLean’s Being Rita Hayworth: Labor, Identity and Hollywood Stardom (McLean), to more recent interventions such as Catharine Lumby’s (Lumby) work on young girl’s relationships with fame culture, or Rebecca Feasey’s work on the construction of femininity inheatmagazine (Feasey), fame has been understood as being shaped by gendered discourses of construction and reception. But on a general scale (and as is apparent in the list above), gender has primarily factored in readings of specific star images – as traditionally emerging from the approach pioneered by film studies. With the expansion of celebrity studies since this time, it is not unreasonable to suggest that celebrity studies and feminist media studies have failed to forge a more visible, systemic or on-going dialogue, meaning that the issues which concern us here have often fallen through the analytic cracks. A gender-minded media studies practice that can account for the gendering of fame which pervades the everyday churn of celebrity culture – especially in its tabloid and “reality” forms – is still lacking. Given that, according to a popular magazine show on British television, celebrity can be referred to as “the alternative C-word,”[3] the gendered dimensions of contemporary celebrity, and the cultural discourses, economies, ideologies and pleasures which surround it, require urgent interrogation.

[21] It is also important to bring together the analysis of apparent shifts in the history of celebrity representation with the analysis of gender politics. It has increasingly been observed that celebrity has emerged as one of the ultimate means of self-validation in contemporary society. To cross the apparent divide between media and ordinary world (Couldry) is to be someone – to be rich in economic, as well as symbolic capital (Littler, “Keepin'”). This has implications for the relationship between youth, gender and fame, as Lumby observes in her article “Doing It For Themselves? Teenage Girls, Sexuality and Fame”:

Over the past decade… popular concerns about young women’s relationship to fame have been gradually shifting away from concerns about their irrational idealization of predominantly male idols to concerns that they are obsessively fantasizing aboutbecoming famous themselves [original italics] (Lumby, 342).

As the question mark in Lumby’s title suggests, this immediately raises the complex and thorny issue of agency. Although Lumby is specifically interested in how, “put simply, the new lament about teen girls is not that they’re too passive in the face of the fame industry, but that they’re too interactive” (Lumby, 342), this question of the determinism/ agency binarism is clearly germane to the wider phenomenon which this special issue seeks to address. To label the treatment of Spears, Mills, Winehouse or Goody as simply the product of media misogyny is to paint these women purely as “victims” of a sexist media practice. At the same time, to position them as entrepreneurs of the self, active agents in soliciting particular forms of gendered (celebrity) visibility, is to simplify the complex – and always unstable – dialectic of power that exists between the famous and the media culture which brings them into being. Furthermore, as celebrity only exists (for us) within representation, this question immediately becomes a methodological tautology: it is to assume that we can separate the “real” intentions and actions of (for example) Spears as distinct from her media image. Such questions can only be studied as part of the celebrity image, as exemplified by the 2008 Sky TV documentary, Britney – Speared by the Paps (10 April, 2008). While the title of the documentary would suggest that Spears’ role within the media circus that surrounds her is less than active, the program itself primarily foregrounded the opposite view – offering “evidence” of late night bizarre shopping trips to local supermarkets (on one occasion she buys a large stuffed donkey), motivated by the desire to give the late night papparazzi something to “pap.” But it is clear that discourses of agency are often central to the very ideological tensions which surround the representation and treatment of female celebrity. The British tabloid/ TV star “Jordan” (Katie Price), initially famous for her enormous surgically enhanced breasts, is in part disliked for her entrepreneurial bid to exploit her “assets,” and her success in turning this foundation into the basis for a highly lucrative multi-media image. (Furthermore, her visibility and earnings continue to dwarf those of husband and ex-pop star, Peter Andre, who she met on the Reality show I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!) (2001-present).

[22] As Price’s case starkly illustrates, the currency of the female body is paramount in the current media economy. Of course, the body has long since been understood as central to the process of class inscription (Foucault, Skeggs), and it is clear that the star or celebrity body has become increasingly central to the ways in which famous people are represented and consumed. Needless to say, this is in itself heavily gendered. As Mina Gorji observes “Historically middle-class values have been expressed and enforced through control of the female body and regulation of desire” (Gorji, 3). While female celebrities can still be enshrined and celebrated as the ultimate example of aspirational fleshed perfection, they are also positioned – within a culture which seeks to constantly accelerate its access to the “authentic” celebrity self – as the sites upon which corporeal scrutiny will take place. No longer simply the province of the “heavenly body”, the celebrity self is to be prodded, probed and exposed in such a way that revels in the processes of corporeal fabrication, rather than the finished product itself (Holmes and Redmond, 123). One of the ways we can track the gendered placement of the contemporary celebrity body is through the far greater public attention paid to the plastic surgery procedures undergone by female as opposed to male celebrities. The Plastic People webpage (‘Plastic’) for instance, which takes as its mission the inventorying of such procedures, disproportionately lists 55 female against 10 male celebrities.

[23] In terms of the phenomenon under examination here, it is particularly important to highlight the complex interpenetration of tabloid, reality and scandal forms. Archaic concepts of television as a “lesser” medium, or of magazines as “aftermarkets” for celebrity principally and previously generated elsewhere, simply don’t hold up in the current environment where images and clips circulate freely, repetitively and non-sequentially. Broadcast concepts now emerge not only in mimicry of previously successful formulas, but also in response to celebrity produced on the Internet or tabloid media. Such is the case for instance in a clutch of reality sitcoms including Keeping Up with the Kardashians(2007-present), Hogan Knows Best(2005-2008) Living Lohan(2008-present) and My Super Sweet 16 (2005- present), all of which generate platforms for the production of a female celebrity from within the family (admittedly in the case of the last series, that celebrity is only symbolic and short-lived). Strikingly, these series attempt to neutralize the crassness of the “Going Cheap” paradigm by grounding it within a family values context in which parents actively manage the capital of their daughters’ celebrity bodies.

[24] As we concluded the preparation of this issue in late summer 2008, numerous signs of the ongoing public delectation for “cheapened” female celebrity appeared in ways both predictable and unexpected. As the US Attorney’s Office in Manhattan closed its investigation into the death of Heath Ledger public interest continued to swirl around the role played by tabloid queen (and former child star) Mary-Kate Olsen in Ledger’s death. Rumored to have supplied the actor with prescription medication and the first person Ledger’s housekeeper called upon finding the star’s body, Olsen has been perceived to be using her considerable financial resources to protect herself from scrutiny during the investigation. Suggestive accounts of the actress’ mysterious involvement have appeared – although no hard evidence has materialized to incriminate her. Yet the attempt to lay blame for Ledger’s death on a female perpetrator of the scandal-prone “Going Cheap” variety bespeaks the current comfort level with criminalizing the behavior of such figures in a variety of contexts.

[24] Even more strikingly, the phenomenon we have been concerned with here seemed to culminate in the unexpected politicization of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears in midsummer. When presidential candidate John McCain sought to smear his opponent in late July, 2008, his campaign produced “Celeb,” an ad in which Barack Obama’s popularity was likened to that of Hilton and Spears. A talking point for weeks in a variety of journalistic fora that would not normally concern themselves with such “low” subject matter, the ad also generated a fiercely funny parody response featuring Hilton, and may have had the unexpected consequence of casting a new perspective on normally unchallenged codes of female celebrity representation. “Celeb”‘s assumption that public disapprobation for such figures is automatic and universal appeared in such stark form that it seemed to backfire somewhat. If so, we take that as a positive sign of the potential for cultural/representational innovation resonating beyond the current political season.

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