Friday, January 27, 2012

Celebrity Musings

Reading celebrity gossip is one of my not so secret pleasures--from British tabloids (preferably in print but by necessity too often online) to US Weekly and online sites like, I enjoy the soap opera narratives, laugh at the imagination of some of the scribes and parse the cultural discourses that capture so many readers, most of them women. It's more than convenient that I'm also able to fold this pleasure into my own profession--I teach courses on celebrity culture (more difficult than you'd imagine as the material could so easily devolve into gossip and students often have no interest in its history or theory) and am writing a book on celebrity (along with another on femininity in popular media).

If you believe, as I do, that celebrity coverage involves a culture's efforts to understand itself (a self-absorption that itself reveals much about our society) two recent stories suggest we're at some kind of cultural tipping point--the kind that pulls together my not unrelated interests in femininity and fame. First there was the story of Heather Locklear's breakdown, which, like her career, was reduced to the margins. Second, and more visible, was the narrative of Demi Moore's collapse. Both offered opportunities for bloggers, commenters and the press to excoriate these women for aging in a culture that either expects women approaching 50 to become invisible or to package themselves into some limited niche (the quirky fashionista like Carine Roitfeld or Sarah Jessica Parker, or the actress who doesn't care about how she looks, per Meryl Streep or Glen Close).  While it is purely coincidental that two women who not so long ago were being praised for their beauty, then their seemingly miraculous ability to shun the aging process are now being derided for their self-absorption while commenters crow on that they should be sent out to pasture, call them hags and lambast them for their narcissism (which clearly individualizes a broader social problem), the convergence of these stories speaks to far broader social issues.

Some of the literature on postfeminism (most notably Diane Negra's work) points to the time crisis within contemporary femininity--not just the idea that we are all swamped with competing pressures from work, family, technology and the care of the self, but rather the sense that women are increasingly compelled to do more in the brief period between their twenties and early-mid thirties. As she points out, youth has become not only commodified--ostensibly a blessing inasmuch as it is no longer the province of those in their 20s, but one that comes with its own sting. If youth is commodified, then there is a pressure to maintain it, and once those efforts start to fail or if the labour becomes too obvious, too extreme, then the woman is ridiculed, critiqued and scapegoated. Of course, her failure is our failure--if she ages, so can we, and that seemingly overnight change from an early 30-something beauty to a 40-something under pressure to maintain her effortlessly dewy looks might affect us all. Cameron Diaz is only the most recent celebrity to face these charges and she won't be the last.

It's easy to join these dots. It's also easy to opine that maybe these recent collapses might constitute a tipping point in a beauty and youth obsessed culture. Again, history suggests this will not be the case. Hollywood is littered with stories of fallen stars and starlets--this book makes sad and compelling bedtime reading. In the 1910s, Fannie Ward (pictured below) was praised not just for her acting but her youthful beauty--something she maintained with parafin injections and other experimental treatments--but even as the magazines wondered at how young she was for 40 when she appeared in The Cheat (DeMille, 1915), she was lying about her age and was actually 43. For the record, she does look really young and less plastic that today's stars. Significantly, she did not face the backlash seen today--even though she worked in an era where the 18 year old Lillian Gish decided to lie about her age when she started her career in 1912, knocking off three years that would remain missing until her death at 99. If there was ever a youth-conscious era in movies, it was the 1900s-1910 where rumours that film cameras could make babies look like old men proliferated--perhaps to mask the cultural standards and fears that really underpinned the social fascination with young women. 100 years later, I know see how insane these standards were. In 2012, it is evident that anybody born in 1993 is very young, that a starlet born in 1986 is not borderline middle age. Yet growing up reading about 1910s cinema (I was a very strange teenager), I took on that culture's values and was often staggered at the youthful appearance of a star like Marguerite Clark who was born in 1883, thinking how amazing it was that she could pass for a young woman or child in 1916's Snow White and a number of other successful films.

Historical digressions aside, the contemporary examples also came with some personal cultural aftershock. I've made no secret of my anger and frustration with my body and its inability to fit my own vision of what it should weigh and how it should look. As a very skinny child (my parents were often asked if I ate) and a very slim teenager and young adult, I didn't like the weight gain that the 30s brings. As someone who likes to eat, I've been torn--exercise and healthy eating haven't really led to any substantial weight loss and I can't diet--I know myself and I know it doesn't work. But these older stars--like Moore, several years my senior--seemed to have the magic secret. I assumed trainers, tiny portions of less appetising food (I really doubt she eats pad kaprow with vegetarian duck and sticky rice, or shredded potatoes and green peppers with spicy cumin fish, or salmon masala with garlic naan or vegetarian ham bahn mi). I suspected appetite suppressants and smoking. Maybe recreational drugs or adderall. But it turns out all of the above plus anorexia.

As a media scholar, I don't subscribe to the idea that we imitate what we see on screens or that we passively absorb what's around us--the processes are too complex and variable to be so easily dismissed. But I have realized that as I get marginally larger, the bodies I see get smaller. I do not for one minute want to be as skinny as Demi Moore--even on the teenage models I see around Union Square, that kind of weight is not attractive in real life. But there is something there--and it is sobering and perhaps relieving to recognize that such skinniness post-30 doesn't come naturally or easily.

On a personal level, though, I still believe I need to lose weight but my goal is only to fit into the clothes I wore a couple of years back (none of my jeans fit and I want that to change). But the issues around female visibility, aging and weight remain ones that I think should trouble us even as we celebrate beauty, glamour and the fun and diversity inherent within femininity.


swinny said...

(I was a very strange teenager)

HAH! you and me both, sister.

brilliant, and i couldn't agree more. i am about 30 seconds away from my metabolism grinding to a screeching halt and i am crying bitter tears thinking about never being able to eat a terrible, terrible hot pocket again. do you mind if i tweet this post?

Moya said...

Tweet away--and we have to celebrate your job. I got sick last week and lay in bed with the lights out. But now I'm better.