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The Fame Monster

note: some strong language is contained in this article

In our super saturated ocean of media, there are lots of celebrities floating around. Musicians and entertainers, famous politicians or notorious bad boys, and even a ton of people famous for…well…being famous. Is seems as though everyone is famous for something. You can get famous in just a few hours just by writing a tweet, posting a video, even just being captured in an image.

 

Ken Bone listens to Democratic presidential nominee Clinton debate Republican nominee Trump during their presidential debate in St. Louis
Ken Bone became an overnight sensation after his appearance in a presidential debate town hall

 

In a 24-7 media environment, fame seems to be almost as important as money, power, and status. In days gone by children dreamed of growing up to be doctors, lawyers, firefighters or ballerinas. Studied in 2007 by Uhls and Greenfield, the number one thing children wanted to be was famous.

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So what is fame? How do you get it and who gets to keep it? And once you have it, is it worth it? In this article, we’re going to look at the price of celebrity, not only for people who rocket their way to stardom but for our whole culture: how does fame change the world you live in?

In just a minute we’re going to look back in history to see how fame is different now than it was before. To start off, though, we’re going to hear from this guy.

Andy Warhol, artist, portrait, himself, white background

This is Andy Warhol an American artist. If you’ve ever seen these paintings of a soup can

or these of Marilyn Monroe,

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then you’re familiar with his work. Warhol was really interested in breaking down the line between high art—classical paintings and work important in the world of art—and low art, like soup cans and Hollywood actresses. Warhol was instrumental in the pop culture world. His work and his fascination with popular culture made the mundane seem special, where before only the great works of literature and art were worth studying. To Warhol, though, even the basic items of people’s everyday life were worth examining.

Warhol made art, went to parties, and, through his public activities and an art house nee club called The Factory, Warhol was also interested in making celebrities. He famously discovered British model Twiggy  and helped to catapult her to stardom, making one of the first supermodels.

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Perhaps Warhol’s most famous quote is this:in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.

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Look, he didn’t mean that everybody should be famous, or that this was like a squad goal. He was predicting that as the tools to become famous are more available, more people would use those media tools to achieve fame. Was he right? You better believe it.

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Sweet Brown, famous for saying, “Ain’t nobody got time for that,” in a local news report.

As we’ve learned, media messages have an impact on our perception of the world. Remember Gerbner’s Cultivation Theory that states that the more we watch TV the more likely we are to replace our own perception of reality with ideas from media. Media messages tell us what is important, what is worth doing, and who matters. Celebrities are like super-peers, acting as an image that we are to aspire to, so who are celebrities are will impact the norms beliefs and values of that culture.

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In the early days of movies and TV, there were only three television channels, and programming only lasted part of the day. That meant that being on TV was a more unique experience than it is now, something affording to a very small number of people. Now, with over 1000 TV channels, billions of YouTube videos and a camera in every pocket, we have a lot more channels than we used to have, and we have to fill up those channels with something. Simply put, the space for fame has changed dramatically, so the number of people in our culture that fill that space is larger than ever. Consider for a moment how fame has changed over time with these pairings of famous celebs from then and now.

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So how did fame become so easily available? The process hinted at by Warhol decades ago is something that media theorist Graeme Turner calls the demotic turn. Not demonic—though sometimes fame is a little devilish—demotic, as in everybody gets a turn. Here is Turners definition:

slide06You’ll notice that Turner isn’t talking about how important or amazing individuals are. He’s talking about getting people to fill the space that we have for fame—who is the it girl actress of the day, who’s everybody’s favorite hero or villain, who it the bad boy of the moment: these are all roles in our media culture.

Any person who has the chance to occupy one of these rolls becomes famous—usually not for long, not because of any great accomplishment, but because they are fulfilling a role, playing a stereotype in the culture that gains lots of attention. We think what makes a celebrity a celebrity is some special and magical quality, but more likely, they are an individual that fits a role in our media culture, they’re cast in that role and rocketed to stardom, whether they wanted it—or deserved it—or not. Turner calls them celetoids.

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Notoriety, name recognition, relevance: these are the keys to fame. It’s not about being the best, the most or the only, but about being the most widely known. Being a celebrity these days is about nothing so much as it is about being popular. The more followers, likes and fans one has, the more you can make the case that you are a valuable commodity in our media environment. Remember in a capitalist media structure, the main goal is to sell product—so anyone that’s going to get lots of attention becomes a valuable commodity media companies can use to improve their bottom line.

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Whether you’re trying to save all the puppies and kitties, or if you are a horrible human through and through, if everyone’s talking about you then you can be the star. But just like the most popular kid in your graduating high school class—not everyone that’s popular has earned all the respect they get. Reality TV stars are especially controlled by their relevance factor. Shows may shoot a variety of people for a season, but only those most interesting to fans will get big story lines on the show.

So it’s not the nicest, smartest, or most generous, but the most divisive, most engaging, most attention-seeking characters will get the biggest story lines, therefore the most popularity, setting up a cycle that privileges explosive and outrageous behavior over behavior we may find more acceptable in our own personal relationships.

Drink throwing, tuna catching fights, father-son bike-remodeling arguments, circling sharks in the Shark Tank: conflict drives reality TV, more than other scripted shows even. Why and how is reality TV so important? We’ve got to get into our time machine and go waaaaaay back to the not so groovy days of the 2007-2008 Television season.

Reality TV is certainly very tightly controlled in the process of production to shape stories and creating interesting plots out of people’s everyday activities.   While I am sure that your life is full of drama, there’s probably not enough for a 16-episode season. Producers ramp up fights, gossip, conflict and disagreement all to build more exciting stories. Yes they make up stories, and even tell people what to say and how to act, but one thing reality shows don’t have is union writers. The media industry has very strong labor unions—the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America in Hollywood to name just a couple. Every TV show that has a script has to use a union writer.

But in 2007-2008 TV season, there was writer’s strike. The Writers’ Guild of America went on strike and that meant that no shows that used a script could be made. What were the TV networks to do? Instead, TV networks turned to reality TV—free from union writers—to fill airtime. Instead of new dramas, TV was awash in reality shows. The networks learned something interesting—first, viewers watched the reality programming instead of totally turning off TV altogether, and second, reality TV was much cheaper to produce. There were no expensive actors, no scripts to pay for or costumes. Instead, regular people stepped up for their chance to be a celetoid.   So enough viewers + cheaper production costs=more profit. What looked to be a losing TV season turned out to be a very profitable one, and the proliferation of reality TV continued.

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Whether we’re talking about A-list celebrities or just the hero of the day from the latest viral video our media culture is absolutely obsessed with fame. Media technologies have made it easier than ever for someone to be known to millions, sometimes billions of people. That kind of power just wasn’t available to anyone in centuries past. Now that this era is here, analysis of who is famous can help shed light on the values of our culture.

The people that we make famous are a reflection of the cultural values that are most relevant at a given time. Remember, it’s not about what is right, good, just or best, but about what is popular—the lowest common denominator.

In media studies, the Uses and Gratifications Theory  says that we use media to help satisfy our urges, needs and desire. But how does media decide what people need? Using psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we can look at the needs that are most basic, and therefore most common versus those that needs that require basic needs to be met before we pursue them, thereby being less common concerns in the viewing audience.

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Those needs that are most common are likely to draw the biggest viewing audience for a media production. For example, think of the old adage that sex sells. Sex is a basic human drive, along with food, shelter, and so on. That means that media representations that feature messages about sex are going to appeal to anyone who has sex, wants to have sex, has had sex, or is interested in sex: that’s pretty huge audience. By contrast, the need for self-actualization—a deep and complex understanding of yourself and your life’s purpose—is a higher level need. Sure it may be great to sell yoga classes with ideas about self-actualization, but for many people, this idea may not be as relevant to their life at a particular time. Needs that are higher level, like self-actualization or belonging are sure to attract people, but it will be a more narrow audience than those basic human needs.

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Now it’s time to leave you with some questions to keep in mind while you navigate our fame-obsessed culture.   Think about some of the most famous people in our media universe and think about why they’re famous. What does their fame tell us about what we think is important or worth watching? Are we encouraged to focus on people who are doing what is right or just relevant? Are celebrities and celetoids truly powerful, or are they media product? And if they are products, do they really deserve our time, attention and hard earned money? There won’t be one answer—there isn’t just one kind of famous person. The next time you decide to be a fan of a celebrity, take a second to think about fame, and make sure they’ve earned your attention.

Beautiful Choices, Illusive Freedom

 

According to the ASPCA there are over 70 million pet dogs int he US.    each one, to it’s human, is a little fuzz ball of love.  So how could popele possibly judge the best dog in show in a matter of momments, without even a good ball throw?  Turns out, the best dog in show isn’t, surprise, the best dog there.

8cb640dfb3e7732b6e1e62f5f4076d00.jpgDogs in dog shows are juded against their breed convention.  This means the best dog is defined as the dog that most closely fits the rules for how that breed of dog shoul look.  None of the qualtiies that make you love your dog–fun, cuddly, playful, loyal–matter in the ring.  Its all about fitting the form as laid out by the Kennel club hosting the show.  Critics of dog shows say that the focus on sucha  narrow set of qualities leads to unethical breeding practices, including inbreeding, resulting in harm to the dogs, all in the name of the perfect pup.

Like those dogs in the ring, human beauty takes the shape of conforming to a narrow set of norms.  This comes as no suprise to you smarty pants that you are.  A quick look around our culture shows us just how narrow the ideas of ideal beauty can be.

From magazine covers

vogue covers.jpg To youtube videos that assure us their process is sound in choosing the 100 most beautiful women out of 7.5 billion humans.

To the way models are chosen to represent “every woman of every age”

Since images of women who conform to beauty conventions are everywhere, they become the norm.  We don’t have to read into these convention to know that they are conveying the expectations for those in the culture.  It is explicitly stated over and over that theis is the expectation:

1D274907109615-141029-VS-perfect-body-2001.jpgAnd that meeting those expectations is tied to your consuption of products and services.

Where do these ideas about the body and beauty come from?  Biology, history, culture, art–any number of spheres of human experience influence what you, today think is beautiful.

A biologist might say that many of the thing we think of that make the human body beautiful may be tied to our own desire to mate and procreate.  In the clip below British zoologist Desmond Morris looks at our beauty norms and connects them with our animal nature.

Or we can go farther back, before greeks gods–or greeks for that matter. Anicient indigenous cultures around the world have their own ideas of beauty that have nothing to do with the Greek norms.  Venus, Oshun, and and Lakshmi are all goddesses of beauty in their respective culutres.

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Just like today’s conventional beauties, these goddesses are young, unblemished, shapely and fair of face.  Unlike today’s princesses, they did more than look hot: they invented love, created arts and culture or grew wealth.

These ancient codes come to us from across the world and thousands of years of human civilization.  Each human group, each era puts its own stamp on the idea of beauty as it marches across history.  Whether beauty is desirable for display or designed to remain carefully hidden, the construct remains important, especially in structuring relationships among and between genders.

It’s important to consider who it is that is deciding and defining these cultural norms.  Those that make the definitions wield power over the culture, since values and norms are not held in a vacuum, but are closely tied to societal benefits and consequences.  In western civilisation, early ideas of beauty are debated by the thinkers, writers and artist of the time.  Here from the Ennead Plotinus makes it clear that adherence to form–our dog show rule–is the rule for human beauty as well:

We hold that all the loveliness of this world comes by communion in Ideal-Form. All shapelessness whose kind admits of pattern and form, as long as it remains outside of Reason and Idea, is ugly from that very isolation from the Divine-Thought. And this is the Absolute Ugly: an ugly thing is something that has not been entirely mastered by pattern, that is by Reason, the Matter not yielding at all points and in all respects to Ideal-Form. But where the Ideal-Form has entered, it has grouped and coordinated what from a diversity of parts was to become a unity: it has rallied confusion into co-operation: it has made the sum one harmonious coherence: for the Idea is a unity and what it moulds must come into unity as far as multiplicity may.

Plotinus, 22 [Ennead I, 6]

Artist of the time were pretty obsessed with the idea.  Polyclitus, a 5th century sculptor wrote a treatise on the perfect form and in case you were unclear, he created a companion statue that showed what he purported to be the ideal human form–and here he is!

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Not your cup of tea?  Philosophers like Humes and Kant believed beauty to be entirely subjective–it’s in the eye of the beholder, so to speak.  Therefore, there were no hard and fast rules about what made someone–or something for that matter–beautiful.  Problem solved—especially for important people who were a little less than hot.  Wealth, status, mothering and godliness could give one the gentle glow of beauty in the 19th century.

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The domesticity-and-godliness school of beauty was faced with growing challenges created by the industrial revolution.  Along with electricity and cars, new fabrics and textiles and  new fabrications methods meant new kinds of clothing came into style.  The wide availablity of cheap cotton along with the invention and eveoloution of the home sewing mchine meant fashion had come to the masses.

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Of course now that you could sew it yourself, why make the same old thing? More form fitting, more comfortable clothes with lighter fabircs took place of heavy mulitlayered clothes.  Whale bone shapers of the 18th and 19th century gave way to steel and then lighter plastic based fabric in the 20th century. New fabrics and new fashions were accopanied by new values that encouraged women to participate in efforts to make themselves more beautiful. Later, an increasingly industrial society meant that women had leaisure time freed up by new inventions like the dishwasher, refriderator and washing machine.

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So far it seems as though it’s not just ideas about beauty and gender identity, but also the cold gears of capitalism that are grinding women into new shapes in the contemporary world.  In our own  time we are seeing again shifting images of bodies that are considered attractive or acceptable.  Is this born out of a new genration’s desire for equality and freedom?  Maybe not.

A typical fashiion model is a size 0, 2 or 4, but the average size woman in America is a size 12-14.  Plus size models are typically a size 8 while plus size clothing starts at 14. Its not just the line between traiditional and plus sizing as well.  The sizes themselves shift with consumer attitudes and the demands of the market.  Vanity sizing is a process by which stores rename sizes to make consumers think they fit a smaller size. Check out some of your favorite retailers below.

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In a world where language, image and lived reality are so wildly different no wonder women feel such conflict over body size and shape.  We have no shared way to describe ourselves or each other and our ideas are constatntly being manipulated in order to increase profits.

There seems to be a lot of push back–any number of campaigns that seek to challenge traditional beauty standards by featuring bodies typically unseen or not described in desirable terms.  Dove is most known for their Real Women campaign:

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While people were busy looking at these “atypical bodies” many failed to notice the accompanying product and copy was less celebratory and more antagonistic to those bodies.  The product that was being advertised in the original ad series was a thigh firming cream.  on the one hand, your body is acceptable enough to be a part of the marketplace, and by the way, your thighs are disgusting.  Additionally, later reports show that the campaign had used photoshop for retouching of the women who were size 4-12.

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Lots of ad campaigns have come out to “celebrate” real beauty.  Ads feature women whose size is often invisible on fashion runways.Before you start to celebrate, many of the images of “real women” are as skewed as unrealistic conventional standards. These ads maintain many of the conventions of a desirable body–young, cellulite free, relatively smooth belly, coke bottle shape, smooth skin.

aerie-realI mean, did this woman need to be retouched? No. We are certainly seeing a variety of body sizes, but what is being defined as increaing diversity is merely a slightly broadening of what is acceptable.  Women who are visible constinue to maintain the age-old conventions of beauty and appeal to sexuality.

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Instead we are withnessing a calculated move to expand the customer base in some industries while protecting that wide number of industries that rely on continued unrealistic body images and standards. This is a careful line to walk for multinationals like Unilever who owns both dove and Slimfast.

Which leads us to the idea of choice.  Third wave feminism is born in the debate within the feminst movement about sex, choice, the construction of the body and equality.  Whereas second wave feminist were as a group unwilling to adopt or endorse a sex-positive agenda, the third wave was more willing to engage thesese questions and the varied responses to them.  With several decades of debate over these issues there certainly is no one answer that easily applies across the board.

A deeper issue beneth the skin of body issues has less to do with beauty and more to do with the way that power rewards–or doesn’t–women who are willing to fit hegemonic beauty standards.  The battle between second and third wave feminist over beauty ideals seems to center here.  As women fight for an equal share of finanacial and social captial, does making choices that kowtow to hegemonic beauty ideals set us back or disrup the fight?  Second wave feminist worried that continued forward progress would be halted or at least confused by women participation in a beauty regimine set out by the patriarchy.  Third wave feminists argue for a braoder tent where women with varying beliefs, including around the body, can fight toghether for equality.

But here is the rub to balls-out screw-em-if-you-got-em-all-choice-all-the-time feminism:  can choosing the adoption of beauty rituals really be a choice?  Third wave feminists are cut from the same cloth as neoliberal politics which elevate choice and individuality above all else.  Whatever you want to do is up to and on you.   What seems like the freedom of born-this-way ideology though is problematic in a culture where the body is constructed in the media to sell product and reinforce dominnat cultural values.

Stripping, six inch heels, and the makeup counter at Sephora all seem like choices available to the modern woman.  A little nip tuck?  Why not–it is up to you.  But Jefferys and other feminists show us the deep rabbit hole of patriarchal culture we can choose to jump down when we engage in cutting, carving and coercing our body to fit hegemonic ideals.

Before you go hard claiming the cultural artifacts of western hegemonic beauty standards, ask yourself:

If women really do have choice to look any way they want why is there such a narrow set of choices for them in visible culture?

What if you looked perfect right now?  Would you do anything differently?

What would I do with the time and money I spend making myself look presentable?  What if every woman had an increase in disposible income and time–what would they engage in?

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What postitive social outcomes for women and girls could be achieved if the money spent on achieving beauty was used in other ways to enact policies for women?

These questions get under the skin of the false promise of a neloliberal culture.  A year of violence against trans women and women of color and continued inequality in pay show us that many of the fights of all waves of feminism are under attack.  If you want to put lipstick on, go ahead–as long as it doesn’t stop you from fighting for real freedom.