Monday, November 26, 2012

Born To Be Famous?

The other day, while meeting up for coffee with friends and fellow fangirls, Emma and Jordyn, Emma said something along the lines of disliking the construct of celebrity and its effects on how people perceive and treat celebrities. I like this idea (as celebrity status is most certainly a construct... as is everything ever known to humanity) and, after talking about authorship a lot in one of my classes, decided to dwell a bit more on a topic pondered in the post "Two for Tea": there is a distinct difference between people who are considered famous and those who are not.

You're right; this is probably just an excuse to use another RDJ pic.
I think the Robert Downey Jr. quote used on "Two for Tea" still wonderfully sums it all up in, in Robert Downey Jr.'s beautiful self-reflexive way. His idea that certain actors will never be regarded like he is because they are have never appeared in a movie. Because, though they may be actors, they are not famous actors.

I have mentioned this idea of fame before but I feel like I haven't really discussed it in depth. It would seem that society assumes there is something incredibly different about a person who is famous versus a person who is not. It's beyond the fact that celebrities (man, I really want to use scare quotes around that, but I feel like it'd get really annoying really fast as many times as I'm probably going to use that word in this post. So, scare quotes are implied) are wealthier, receive more media attention, and somehow more important the rest of the general populous of the world and thus entitled to our worship (to put it bluntly). That's not to say that celebrities aren't talented or influential or that I myself am not obsessed with celebrities (because that would be the biggest lie ever). No, this is just the observation that celebrity A) is a construct, B) is a pretty strange idea when you think about it, and C) means different things to different people in different places.

A) is pretty straight-forward. Celebrityism (okay, that's not a word but needs to be) is a construct, meaning we as human beings made it up. B) gets a little more complicated. Somewhere between now and... oh, I don't know, the dawn of civilization?... we decided that certain people with certain status and positions in society were more important and deserved worshiping and respect (ex: religious officials, kings, emperors, you're already way ahead of me by now). Then, because we like to talk about people, especially about what other people are doing, we mixed this admiration with gossip. I somehow feel like King Henry VIII helped stimulate this because, let's face it - he was acting like the most dramatic of celebrities and that definition of this construct didn't even exist yet.

On that note, I think a quick etymology of the word celebrity is order here. According to, the word comes from French, meaning a "solemn right or ceremony" and from Latin, meaning "multitude, fame" or "frequented, populous." Around the 17th century it began to mean the "condition of being famous" and by the 1800s it became used as a term meaning "famous person."

Which is perfect, because my next chronological marker would have been the Victorian era, in which it seems that social standing, gossip, and being really interested in what other people were doing - especially if they were wealthy and important - became more central in Western society. It also gave Oscar Wilde a lot to write about.
And then, somewhere around the time of early Hollywood, celebrity began to distinctly mean people who worked in the film industry, music industry, and, later, the television industry. Because today, when we think of celebrities, these are usually the first groups of people that come to mind. Writers and athletes and certain heirs can fit into this category too, but for the most part, celebrity refers directly to those who have some interaction with Hollywood (which, for all intensive purposes, will include the music industry in this post. Though Hollywood is about film, since corporations now tend to own both studios, television channels, and music labels, this is simpler). I say Hollywood in particular because of C). There are celebrities in Bollywood and Korea that I will never know about because they aren't recognized by our culture as being famous, simply because they may not have much interaction with Hollywood and thus don't come across our radar. If it wasn't for the fact that I have friends who used the internet a lot more than I used to, I would have never heard of Torchwood or John Barrowman and thus would never have heard about Sherlock or Benedict Cumberbatch or Martin Freeman or Mark Gatiss or Tom Hiddleston and currently wouldn't be sitting here blogging about all of this. Because, while some of my American friends might know Cumberbatch as "that guys who's in the new Star Trek movie" they haven't heard of Sherlock and probably haven't seen Atonement. Mentioning Tom Hiddleston is currently a bit easier because The Avengers is ridiculously popular but to most non-fangirls he's just "that guy who played Loki." (Herein lies a vital distinction, between those who are intrigued by an actor's portrayal and feel the need to find out more about the actor and either A) continue on the happy jaunt to fansqueeing or B) simply retain this knowledge and may keep tabs on this actor out of a more casual interest, and then there's those who never learn the actors name, aren't interested in it, and continue on doing whatever they were doing before. Dude, this needs a post of its own to sketch this all out....) Anyway, my point is that Mr. Hiddleston and Mr. Cumberbatch are really only known to the general public of the United States of America for their roles in Hollywood and because of their roles in Hollywood and thus (for the most part, so far) avoid being in things like Entertainment Tonight and People magazine and so on (though apparently Senore Cumberbatch was on TMZ one time but I don't know anything about this because generally TMZ gives me a rash so I try to avoid it). Because these publications and shows are more interesting in seeing Lindsey Lohan's life fall apart before their eyes and finding out what shoes Kim Kardashian is wearing because they're "American celebrities." Not to say we don't care about celebs from other parts of the world; we do - but they have to achieve some certain level of importance before we can care about them. How exactly this is achieved is a mystery to me.

Well, not quite a total mystery. I was reading about piracy and authorship for my history of cinema and new media class and came across this quote in a selection by Carolyn Guertin: "The underlying assumption is not only a privileging of the established author over the new, but also the myth that only a select few in society are practicing creative acts" (9). I think being a celebrity is a certain sort of authorship that creates a different evaluation of one's work compared to an unknown actor/musician/etc and really points out certain people as creators to be acknowledged and revered. I mean, look at the Academy Awards. It's almost painful for me to watch as I know I'm not going to see the actors I'm really interested in seeing and I have to put up with pretending to care that some organization I know nothing about has decided to tell me which films are worthy of honor (and yet I continue to watch the Academy Awards... every single year... just in the hopes that Leo DiCaprio will finally win and I can feel justified for some reason. This gets into an interesting complication given my proud state of being a loser. Dammit; this also needs its own post). However, I also have to remember that just because the actors I'm interested in get no attention in the States, it'd probably be very different if I were watching the BAFTAs. This becomes easy for me to forget though, because of the media I see in on the newstands and on anything that isn't Tumblr.

I honestly don't know what the media would do without celebrities. Between all of the magazines about them, who I follow on Twitter, what is covered on news websites, and what forums talk about, I can guarantee that I know more about K Stew's love life than what's going on in Syria right now. With the growth of celebrity culture, not only did we get more interested in watching them act/perform/etc, we got a hell of a lot more interested in watching their lives in general. I've been trying to figure out why this came about, but I honestly don't know. The only correlation I can draw is between new media and a TV show called The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.

Ozzie and Harriet Nelson were a celebrity couple that starred in a TV sitcom that starred their real-life family. Though it was scripted and not a reality show, it was thought of as watching the Nelsons' home-life onscreen. Even the set was designed to look like the Nelsons' actual house. The show strove for realism, something I think we still strive for in our portrayal of celebrity life, though I rarely think it's delivered. Mainly because of this:

No matter how much the media pretends to know what's going on with a celeb's life or assume an interview reveals exactly who these people are, it can't do that. Unless you personally knew a celebrity, you couldn't really ever know either. The media doesn't know them and the fans don't know them... but damn, it still feels like we do.
This gets more complicated, especially with celebrities that don't act like celebrities. Take Simon Pegg for example. I just finished reading his autobiography Nerd Do Well and other than the fact that I think he's brilliant, I also forgot over the course of reading this book that he's a celebrity. I think this is a very good thing (although, I have to say, I instantly remembered the moment he mentioned that he used to hang out with Chris Martin from Coldplay at a bar in London. That was a bit much for me to handle). Too often the status of celebrity leads to a god-like status and isolation, as I've discussed before. But the forgetting that someone is a celebrity by their not acting like it, while it's a wonderful feeling, is also a bit baffling. Example - recently I've been paying more attention to Tom Hiddleston's Twitter. While I know very little about him, I can't help but get the feeling I know more about him than I actually do because 1) Despite 140 character limit, personality still comes across, 2) it's actually Mr. Hiddleston making the tweets, as far as I know, rather than a PR person, and 3) he doesn't tweet like a celebrity. What do I mean by that? I don't know exactly... it's just that his tweets are a lot more personable and user-friendly than say Tom Cruise's (okay, so Mr. Cruise actually doesn't tweet that much... it's his team or something). The point is, Twitter makes things really confusing, because I have a Twitter. I could tweet these celebs anytime, if I wanted to (I don't. Why? That would be a massive tangent. Ask me later). But there's something about Mr. Hiddleston and Mr. Cumberbatch's and Mr. Pegg's mindset that is different. Yes, they know they're famous. But they don't act like it. They absolutely keep certain aspects of their lives private and Simon Pegg would much rather tell you about his dog eating socks than about his family's personal affairs (one of the many reasons I love this man). But they don't mind fans coming up to them; in fact, they seem very appreciative of it and WANT to see their fans, unlike some celebrities that treat both the paparazzi and fans as if they were the plague. As Mr. Pegg says, in reference to appearing at Comic-Con, "I don't understand how any artist can reject positive feedback as if it is an annoyance or, worse, a burden...Even if you have been approached a hundred times in an hour, whoever is approaching you is doing so for the first time and is probably nervous. The least you can do is acknowledge their good-natured bravery and respond with a smile, even if you don't have time to talk to their mate on the phone or allow them to lick your face" (61).

Simon Pegg, can we be bros?

What I love about his discussion of being a celebrity is that he never expected to be famous. He used to fanboy over Carrie Fisher and still fanboys over Star Wars and couldn't believe it when he met Steven Spielberg. He, along with Mr. Cumberbatch and Mr. Hiddleston have certainly not let fame go to their head.
I'd like to think that most celebrities haven't let fame go to their head. They don't think they were born to be famous - they recognize that they put in a lot of work and got very lucky and managed to get a big break. I'd like to think many of them think like Robert Downey Jr. and recognize how bizarre it is that they are granted fame but other artists are not. They seem to understand that something very bizarre lies between them and their fans. And that there doesn't seem to be a good way of redefining this construct. They can't not act like celebrities; the media prevents this. We can't not think of them as celebrities - the media prevents this and social status and monetary assets also make this difficult. The best we can do seems to be the following:

1) Remember celebrity is a construct: For as much crap as fangirls get for their love and adoration of celebs, I also believe that fangirls may be better at this than other parts of the population. The Fassbender self-reflexive piece above is a perfect example. I see quite a bit of this online and, while some fans do not want to be self-reflexive, others really are. I think supporting this attitude of knowing the mediation that occurs between us and celebs while simultaneously fighting to remember they aren't different from us is important to reconfiguring how we treat celebs.

2) Everyone is a celebrity: Okay, so I know given the current construct of celebrity that this isn't the case. I also know from the way that celebrities are currently treated that I don't think this should really be enacted on the total populace of the world. What I do mean is that if we simply think of celebrities as people who are really good at something and deserve to be acknowledged for that, then that's all 7 billion and then some people in the world. This of course leads to the argument against the idea of "everyone is beautiful" I saw the other day. Apparently, if everyone is beautiful, then no one is beautiful, because some people just are more beautiful than other people so stop perpetuating this lie (that was the gist of the post, at least). Maybe I'm alone here but I have seriously never met an ugly person. Really. And beauty means different things to different people and therefore, acknowledging that everyone is beautiful means there is more than one aspect to beauty and, since I've yet to meet a person who wasn't beautiful in some way, even if I did end up disliking them, I just end up reinforcing my own opinion. Damn you, confirmation bias!

3) Respect fan culture: I honestly believe that if more people in society accepted their inner fansquee, the world would be a much more positive place. Perhaps not necessarily happier because being a fan is complicated and sometimes exquisitely painful (2013 or 2014 until Season 3 of Sherlock? I understand and respect why, but STILL... I can't help but feel the perpetuating despair of a deeply loved element of my life being pushed farther and farther away, sort of like when my tall friends dangle things over my head and I can't reach them...) but being a fan focuses on just being more positive. I am seriously a more enthusiastic and optimistic person now that I've embraced my inner fangirl. I feel like the celebrities who are interactive with their fans are more comfortable with themselves and have more rewarding experiences. But maybe they're more interactive with fans because they're more comfortable with themselves and so on... who knows.

I just wish society was more accepting of fans and more respectful of them. Because, really, if Hollywood didn't have fans, they wouldn't be raking in the dough like they do. Which caused me to have an interesting realization this weekend: why is it that the Academy Awards acknowledges the work of directors and actors and certain facets of film production but they never really acknowledge the viewers or the fans? Maybe they have, but it's probably rather minor and it's certainly not like there's any fan representatives who get recognition. I think this is a major shortcoming.

I'm not entirely certain how this could be remedied, as fans are so diverse and having even a group represented who (in this magical utopia in my mind) would be allowed to give a speech wouldn't even begin to cover all the fans that could be shown. In this way, we'd just be focusing in on a certain group and privileging them above the rest and we'd end up with these fan celebrities... fanlebrities, apparently. I suppose it would be better than nothing, but still... I don't know; it would take some super self-reflexive fans to get the point across that they're just the tip of the iceberg. It'd be a lot easier if celebs thanked their fans in their acceptance speeches but, you know, they're on the spot and nervous and their thinking about how they can't forget to thank their best friends and families and so on. No, it'd just be really nice if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences remembered exactly who's watching the movies out there... that'd be great.

I am seriously feeling pretty impassioned about this. For the most part, I'm content with blogging and trying to make "a difference by thinking little thoughts and sharing them widely" (Judith Halberstam, you are a genius) (21). This works best for me. But this... for some reason, the Academy Awards have become a great representation of all the things I have problems with in Hollywood and culture and yet represents the conundrum of something I still love and strive to honor and respect. The Academy Awards are aired live to allow the viewers of films to make them feel like they're involved in the interaction even though they really aren't, despite the fact that the viewers are the ones who go to see the films in the first place. I really want to do something about this disparity. I don't know what yet... but something. Anybody with me on this?

All citations from:

Carolyn Guertin. “Introduction: Ambivalence and Authorship.”
Digital Prohibition: Piracy and Authorship in New Media Art. Continuum International Publishing, 2012.

Judith Halberstam. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press, 2011. 

 Simon Pegg. Nerd Do Well. Gotham Books, 2011.

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