I've taught my celebrity course several times now and each semester, the extra curricular activities of the stars provide us with more than enough fodder for classroom conversation. The art, of course, is to explore how such legal cases, public nudity, meltdowns and other tabloid fodder expand and intersect with the theories and histories under discussion. Of course, this needs a gentle guiding hand to ensure that we're not just entering into a mere gossip fest. One semester I taught the class as Britney divorced and started her gradual slide into notoriety along with Lindsay Lohan--most notably incarnated in the New York Post coverage of the duo, along with Paris Hilton, flashing themselves to the world.
Something that seemed so brazen then seems tame now, perhaps because of the actions that followed--I didn't teach the class during those months that Britney shaved her head and locked herself in a closet with her youngest son, nor while Paris, then Lindsay, were in jail/on parole/in Cannes not court because the latter "lost" her passport. Nor could I imagine the "F-you" manicure as suitable courtroom grooming, but times--or the respective players--were more innocent then. Or at least we imagined that to be the case.
As a media historian, I'm very aware that scandal is not new. In addition, I know that our fascination with celebrities has been as strong at earlier points in modern history--witness the fame of Lillian Russell, beauty and ghost syndicated columnist who was renowned more for her celebrity than her work as an actress. The rise of picture postcards and the ubiquity of the penny press were predicated upon a late nineteenth and early twentieth century audience's desire to read about the famous and their foibles. With mass literacy came an investment not in the titans of business and government (unless you were the press-seeking likes of Teddy Roosevelt and Thomas Edison) but in the showgirls, actresses, actors and models who emblematized the new leisure culture. As society changed, it turned inwards, examining itself and its most private moments as it made public the intimate lives of stars, many of them figures of little actual substance. Names like Mary MacLane are forgotten today but her revelations of her affairs with men and women scandalized and fascinated 1900s America--she may have been a 19 year old girl from Montana but soon she was a celebrity, not a fallen woman but the star of her own life story writ large in print, then on the screen. Like many such celebrities, she was consumed and then forgotten.
Indeed, the modern habit of the public engaging in microscopic self-examination via the consumption and judgment gossip/celebrity offer has had multiple incarnations--the simultaneous adulation/aura of the great Classical stars was always shadowed by other discourses--whether those about their ordinariness or their fall. Today, celebrity implosions are the more obvious media fodder but this has to be set against the uber-ordinariness embodied in the fascination with stars' families and pregnancies. Part of me wondered if marriage would be the new baby, given the inevitable onslaught of wedding coverage and the merchandising of C and W tat that would soon follow. But it seems that the baby still holds sway, something that will doubtless reach more insane proportions as the inevitable countdown to a royal baby gets underway in the press and online.
Returning to my original points, this week promises to be a doozy. Not only do we have the Oscars to discuss (or rather the investigation of stars, their dresses and the coverage of stars and their dresses in E!, gossip magazines and countless websites), and Lindsay's on-going court battles and courtroom outfit watch as we countdown to the possibility of more Lohan jail time. But we have a new shiny present from Santa, to borrow my dear friend Ben's words: Charlie Sheen. Now, granted Charlie isn't new to this. He's the same figure who, in less media-saturated, less celebrity obsessed times, shot his girlfriend in the arm, admitted to being a client of Heidi Fleiss, and even in recent months casually trashed a hotel room at the Plaza in one of his recent coke-and-porn star blowouts. But none of this was really huge news, and certainly didn't really capture the public interest in the same way as his recent verbal explosions. One of the obvious questions all this raises is about gender--if Lindsay's teeth were destroyed because of her coke habit (granted, this is something that may yet happen given that British actresses have lost their septums in the shower after excessive drug use), or if Britney had trashed a Motel 6 room, the chances are that we'd have been more shocked--or the magazines and websites and gossip shows would have expressed the outrage (and fascination) of the American public.
Certainly I think gender is relevant here--as seen in the American viewing public's casual acceptance of Charlie's naughtiness (as we'd call it in England) and the many chances he's been given. And as a gender scholar, there is plenty for me to discuss here. But I'm also interested in Charlie's methods of speaking to the public--or, to be more precise, his use of live media which have been central to this implosion. First he speaks to talk radio--something that obviously has to be live in a broadcast medium that still hones closest to this ontology. Then he turns to TMZ, part of the live, continuously updated feed that is the internet. Now he's appearing on Good Morning America and 20/20 this week. Now I know that these may not be entirely live (the live morning shows habitually record segments to play later). But his tactical use of liveness--or, as Jane Feuer put it in her seminal 1983 article, the ideology of live television--seems worthy of note and bespeaks of at least a new set of stratagems in our internet-gossip inflected era. Of note here Feuer actually discussed GMA as she outlined her theoretical argument (although I very much doubt Charlie is familiar with Jane's work). Another point of interest--Charlie and Lindsay seem to be conspicuously absent from the gossip weeklies. Perhaps their brand of fame is less advertiser friendly, but also, perhaps, their meltdowns and temperaments are more suited to a live medium with their continually updated scandals, precipitous falls from grace and their continual attempts to narrativize and update their own status, whether via twitter (for the younger Lohan) or the more traditional paths of radio, tv and Time Warner owned gossip websites in the case of Sheen?
Whatever happens, this week proves to be a good one for my class. I hope we can rise to the challenge--and the gifts--this week's celebrity scandals offer us.
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