The Politics of Contemporary Celebrity

By Cavanagh, Robert | Framework, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview
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The Politics of Contemporary Celebrity

Cavanagh, Robert, Framework

The Politics of Contemporary Celebrity Understanding Celebrity, by Graeme Turner, Sage Publications, 2004.

In the holiday special finale of the popular BBC mockumentary series The Office., the odious hero David Brent is seen trying to turn the notoriety he gained from being on television into a career as a D-list celebrity. The joke, of course, is that Brent is completely and utterly talentless, and that this does not really prevent him from being just enough of a celebrity to embarrass himself spectacularly. Indeed, the central joke of the main character of The Office plays on the explosive growth of a new class of celebrity, in which a growing number of seemingly ordinary and talendess people achieve meir fifteen minutes of media exposure. The phenomenon of the "ordinary" celebrity is part of the increasingly complex nature of contemporary celebrity that Graeme Turner attempts to draw out in his book Understanding Celebrity. As Turner points out at the outset, the pervasiveness of celebrity in modern mass media suggests that it occupies some particularly important place in contemporary culture; one that has changed the way we understand the ordinariness of our own lives. In an effort to understand the politics of celebrity today, Turner's book covers an impressive amount of issues surrounding celebrity, from publicists, to Webcams, to the quick fame that comes from a freak accident. But like any survey, it occasionally frustrates the reader by failing to address in greater depth some of the more complex questions that arise from efforts to theorize celebrity.

The most familiar studies of stardom and celebrity have come from a film studies tradition, and one of the strengths of Turner's book is that he draws on a large body of literature in an attempt to understand celebrity not simply in relation to film, but across a number of different categories and types of media. Where the Hollywood star system made the term "star" relatively conceptually coherent, the term "celebrity" designates a far broader and more varied field, so much so that it can be difficult to pin down what, exactly, celebrity is. Turner offers the following definition:

Celebrity, then, is a genre of representation and a discursive effect; it is a commodity traded by the promotions, publicity and media industries that produce these representations and their effects; and it is a cultural formation that has a social function we can better understand (9, italics his).

Turner adopts this definition in his book to further determine what celebrity means today and how it functions. Namely, he wants to approach celebrity from two perspectives: production and consumption. These two topics are the titles of the second and third sections of Turner's book, and most of his analysis is focused on these two areas. It is a clever strategy, because by placing his emphasis on the practices and processes that surround celebrity, Turner is able to draw out the crucial contradiction that makes theorizing celebrity so difficult.

Following the logic of the Hollywood star system, stardom is understood as a carefully managed relationship of a consistent individual persona that transcends fictional roles and performances. As the phrase "genre of representation" suggests, Turner's analysis of the production of celebrity covers much more than just film stardom, and one of his most valuable contributions is his attention to specificity, whether of medium or genre. Television stardom is different from film stardom; both, in turn, are radically different from a celebrity brokered over the Internet. Furthermore, a celebrity persona is influenced by a wide variety of occasionally collaborating, but often directly competing interests. Celebrities, agents, publicists, studios, and tabloids, just to name a few, all have an interest in the manipulation of celebrity, and the shifting relationships between these interests render any celebrity image unstable.

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