It was hugely refreshing to hear Caitlin Moran suggest this week that we need to treat "celebrity with the importance it deserves". I co-edit the journal Celebrity Studies, and although the academic study of stardom has something of a 30-year history, I find it both frustrating and bewildering that it is still not taken seriously outside of university contexts: Moran's comment is very much the exception.
Celebrity saturates everyday life, and we come into contact with the images and stories of celebrity many times each day - whether we actively choose to or not. Celebrity culture is now one of the major economic drivers of media production and it plays an important and varied role in shaping our sense of identity in modern society - a place to register everything from aspiration to dissatisfaction.
The inaugural Celebrity Studies conference is taking place this week at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, and is seeking to do just what Moran suggests. The conference addresses a huge range of issues, from celebrity charity work, 'queer' celebrity, the production of celebrity and digital celebrity to celebrity and Twitter, celebrity and feminism, political celebrity and the transnational and global flows of fame.
In the UK last weekend we saw the culmination of the eighth series of the X Factor, with James Arthur taking the crown. What might celebrity studies analyse here? What was perhaps most striking about this series was the extent to which - perhaps more so than ever before - it constructed celebrity as a form of escape across class boundaries: something of course, only offered to the lucky one or two who have the mythical 'X factor'.
Telling runner-up Jahmene Douglas that he definitely wasn't "going back to Asda", seemed to become something of an obsession for judge Louis Walsh. A similar logic was applied to contestant Christopher Maloney when Walsh told him he wasn't going "back to Liverpool". Yet host Dermot O 'Leary stepped in to qualify that Maloney didn't want to "escape" from his home city, presumably because the comment too nakedly made certain judgements about class, regionality and opportunity.
But there were no such reservations about Jahmene's 'home' at Asda: the sequence in which mentor/ judge Nicole Scherzinger made the pilgrimage back to the supermarket with the contestant - expressing delight in the wonders of the pricing equipment and fresh meat counter - was both awkward and patronising.
But class is not the only story here in terms of what is being escaped 'from'. In his book The Place of Media Power (2000), Nick Couldry spoke of how the media construct a boundary and a hierarchy between 'media/ ordinary' worlds.
Without even questioning it, we are likely to automatically report a sighting of a famous person ("Guess who I saw...?"), or to convey a link with the famous, however tenuous ("My cousin's neighbour went to school with Davina McCall..."). Even though the media world is, in physical fact, not separate from 'our' world, the perception that it is somehow a special, higher place, much more important than the lowly ordinary world, is worryingly pervasive. The X Factor is a highly visible example of a chronic anxiety about remaining in the ordinary world, while of course the successful contestants must claim to stay connected to their ordinary lives if they are to be received as real and authentic.
I think it's important for us to know about something with such pervasive cultural power - something which effects how all of our identities are judged and positioned. When they first heard about the launch of Celebrity Studies, journalists refuted its right to exist, with Matthew Bell from The Independent despairingly awaiting "plenty of pseudo-academic mumbo jumbo".
According to Bell, this was because there will be no "close-up pap snaps of Lindsay Lohan's tit tape here, or insider exclusives on the Big Brother house. Rather, readers can expect essays on the growth of the Jamie Oliver effect on political decision-making". We have not published said essay on Oliver, although we would welcome it, but what is most interesting here is that Bell's comment in itself immediately points to a further reason why celebrity matters: in seeking to contrast the apparently trivial and the serious, Bell conjures up an image of the titillating female body with the (hard-working and serious) male mind. From this, it is only a short leap to consider how male and female celebrities are often valued and treated differently in society, which in turn reflects on the relative gains or losses of feminism.
Celebrity culture plays a highly significant role in contributing to the existence of gender norms for example - and the remarkable disparity between the treatment of men and women in this regard is this both striking and revealing - in the so-called 'post-feminist' age .
Such reactions suggest a fundamental misunderstanding of what celebrity studies does, as if we
sit around hoovering up celebrity biographies, listening with enchantment to pop songs, or pouring over the latest scandal in heat magazine. We would respect these texts as sources of celebrity, but are more interested in what they can tell us about the cultural, political and economic production of fame, and in particular, its cultural power.
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