Celebrity as Cultural Authority: Media, Representation and the Politics of Fame
Bell, Katherine Margot
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Fame is a powerful source of cultural authority in early 21st-century media culture. Celebrities, and celebritizing discourses, are a staple of sanctioned knowledge and an important point of intervention in the study of representation and identity. This project asks how celebrity as a phenomenon frames social issues and how it intersects citizenship and consumer life. Using examples of celebrity philanthropy and activism, it looks at the ways in which the media create and sanction expertise and how celebrity as cultural authority is shifting in the era of new media. One premise of this study is that while celebrity is inevitable, it is also dynamic. I look at how the entertainment, political and media industries work together to produce celebrity and how online media expand the reach and possibilities of mediatized fame. I take on three thematic cases: two explore the use of culture industry celebrity on the "distant" problems of Africa; a third looks at how online media users produce a celebritized cultural authority regarding the domestic issue of homophobic bullying. I employ a cultural studies analysis on campaign publicity and media coverage of these cases. Industry celebrities, from Matt Damon to Madonna, deploy their fame on global problems such as poverty and AIDS; their charitable work, (re)produced unproblematically in the mainstream media, constructs Africa as primitive, exotic and passive. Celebrity is also a commercial transaction; I study Bono's Product RED campaign as a site of branded activism. People buy African-themed items, and the campaign markets the continent and its peoples to consumers as a lifestyle. Yet new media production enables a cultural authority that is not entirely beholden to the blazing spectacle of Hollywood fame. The It Gets Better campaign against homophobic bullying represents a flatter, more dispersed celebrity intervention. It is no less an expression of consumer capitalism, but Web 2.0 celebritization can be deployed to ends not wholly subsumed within the culture industries. This study demonstrates the problematic nature of culture industry celebrity intervention. It suggests that online media celebrity produce problematic discourses as well, yet they have potential to enable a progressive collectivized authority.
- Communications