Unseemly

Gender, new media, and the denunciation of 21st-century fame hunger

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in Features

Literature cannot be the business of a women’s life & it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it, even as an accomplishment & a recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, and when you are, you will be less eager for celebrity.

So pontificated the English poet laureate, Robert Southey, in a now infamous letter to one Charlotte Brontë in 1837. And while commentary on this letter has focused, understandably, on the senior male poet’s urging of private domesticity on the emerging female artist, here’s the phrase that captures my attention: “eager for celebrity.” Southey was intently calling upon a relatively recent usage of the word “celebrity;” though the OED tells us that “celebrity” was in use since the 14th century, originally to suggest public esteem or the pomp of sanctified rites, from the mid to late 18th century, connotations of the term “celebrity” bifurcated, and celebrity came to be distinguished from the less evanescent and more socially respectable “fame.” So in using the term, he was quite mindfully connecting a desire for down-market fame with misdirected femininity. There is a long history of what I call the “unseemly woman:” women who disregard Southey’s warning and who are widely understood, whether rightly or not, to be desirous of fame in a way that is considered overly “eager.” Today, those women suffer public denunciation in terms that are just as gendered as they were in 1837: think, for instance, of one of our more repellent current phrases: “fame whores.”

Backing up to the 19th century to consider Brontë’s imputed celebrity whoring might seem anachronistic or inappropos. Dare we conjoin the name of the author of Jane Eyre with that of Miley Cyrus? It’s important that we do. To assist us, we can call upon the burgeoning academic field of celebrity studies that is devoted to analyzing the condition of public visibility. But in spite of the existence of several perceptive studies of celebrity in earlier historical periods, such as Tom Mole’s Byron’s Romantic Celebrity and Julia H. Fawcett’s Spectacular Disappearances: Celebrity and Privacy, 1696-1801, a quick glance at the large, stimulating international conference that the journal Celebrity Studies sponsors every two years show us a discipline that is still, to a great degree, stuck in the present. But our thinking about celebrity must be anchored in a thoroughly historicized frame of reference, and so it follows that any thinking about today’s “unseemly” fame-hungry women needs to ground itself in a rich history of that denunciation. I need to go back much further than Brontë, in fact, to the 17th century, to the scientist and writer Margaret Cavendish (1623-73), jeeringly referred to as “Mad Madge,” who wrote frankly and unapologetically of her desire for fame in her memoir, A True Relation of My Birth, Breeding, and Life. I need to return to her near contemporary, Aphra Behn (1640-1689), playwright, novelist and spy, thought scandalous for her sexual frankness, who wrote, “I value fame as much as if I had been born a Hero; and if you rob me of that, I can retire from the ungrateful world, and scorn its fickle Favours.” In the annals of unseemly, fame-eager women, Behn’s proclamation qualifies as a 17th-century mic drop.

My fascination with unseemly eagerness for celebrity grows directly out of my interest on its inverse condition: reluctant celebrity. In my recent book of the same name, I argue that reluctance, which is a mixed affect — carrying on with an activity thought to be socially productive while experiencing or expressing a dragging emotional undertow of unwillingness — is a public feeling that is more available to celebrities who are white, straight, cis-gendered males — available, that is, in the sense of being a performance likely to win widespread social approbation. But if reluctant affect is a viable affect for these people to perform, that can only happen if there is an abjected performance of eagerness for fame circulating in the public realm that can inversely construct and prop it up. In my collaborative research with Pamela Ingleton, that abjected eagerness found a name, and it was Kardashian. As we argue in a forthcoming paper in Celebrity Studies, “In their self-characterisation as social-media-made celebrities and, perhaps more importantly, external characterisations of them as the de facto media sell-outs against whom other celebrities (often explicitly) position their own social media (non-) involvement, the Kardashians, as non-reluctant celebrities, become the exceptions that prove the rule, inversely defining the privileged, reluctant expressions of more ‘accepted’ stars.” Stars like Daniel Craig, George Clooney, James McAvoy among others, who have all carefully distinguished their thespian “craft” from the ill-gotten social media gains of the Kardashians.

This got me thinking more broadly about a whole category of women or woman-identified celebrities who have been denigrated for their imputed desire for celebrity, and while, as I have suggested, this is by no means a purely contemporary phenomenon, certain media developments in the first two decades of our century have fueled the denunciation of the feminized fame-hungry star. In fact, thinking historically about this phenomenon of the unseemly woman brought me to the realization that public panics about women desiring fame often coincide with those women taking up emergent media and using them well. In thinking about the fame-hungry, therefore, I triangulate gender, the public performance of affect, in this case eagerness, and new media, whether the “new medium” in question be print, film, reality television, or, in the 21st century, social media. My 21st-century fame-hungry female-identified candidates include, in addition to Kim Kardashian: Caitlyn Jenner, Paris Hilton, Miley Cyrus, at one point in her career Serena Wiliams, Kate Gosselin, “Octomom” Nadya Suleman, “late” Madonna, Tila Tequila, and, oh yes, Hillary Clinton, guilty of seeking the Presidency too eagerly. (Anne Helen Petersen calls her “a nexus of disgust”). I should say here, I suppose, that I’m not interested in whether the charge of fame-hunger is “true” or verifiable as such, if one could ever make such a determination; as with its inverse twin, reluctance, I am more interested in how the charge of fame hunger operates socially, culturally, politically, and whose interests it ultimately serves.

Like celebrity scholars Jo Littler, Heather Nunn, and Anita Biressi, I attend to the way in which performance of celebrity affect, in this case eagerness, functions in relation to a system of social power relations in a neoliberal time; as Littler writes about those embarrassing public celebrity apologies, “the performance of celebrity soul, or the performance of celebrity internalisation of social anguish, becomes a necessary part of contemporary celebrity, acting as an attempt to gesturally redress the insecurities of the system it is a part of.” In the case of the unseemly fame hungry celebrity, the scorn directed at such performances attempts to redress systemic insecurities that are at the heart of neoliberal regimes of affect in the following way. In our day-to-day jobs, those of us lucky enough to have them, eagerness is a public affect that is frequently pressed upon us, all the moreso if the labor we perform is precarious in nature. While we may harbor reluctant affect about the conditions of that labor, few of us have the privilege to express it openly. Take the example of the exponential growth of corporate-style company promotion in higher education. Academics are called upon to do ever more promotional work on behalf of our departments, faculties and universities. If we harbor reluctant affects about the casualization of university labor, say, or the narrow instrumentalization of our research, we’d best not express them during our film spots for our institution’s new branding exercise. This, too, is nothing exactly new, as sociologist Arlie Hochschild showed us in her classic study The Managed Heart, in which she formulated the notion of “emotion work,” drawing on examples such as female Delta Airlines flight attendants, who were expected to have a perpetual smile on their faces. But it seems to me that there is fuel aplenty at this particular moment, for “eagerness” to become one of the most incendiary and internally riven of our public feelings. Since “star images,” as Richard Dyer has taught us, “function crucially in relation to contradictions within and between ideologies which they seek variously to ‘manage’ or ‘resolve,” I think that the contradiction between desperately needing work and desperately hating the conditions of that work primes us to see the contradictions between caring too much and caring too little that are playing themselves out in the celebrities we consume.

For that reason, I think it’s no coincidence that in the 21st century, the desire for fame has become much more than a “soft news” topic relegated to the entertainment sections of the various news media. It has become a lively subject of social concern, pedagogical debate, and, in some quarters, cause for consternation and even panic. Taking the U.K. as an example for the moment, a 2006 report found that 16% of 16-to-19-year-olds believe they are going to be famous, and 11% of them declared themselves willing to abandon further education in order to pursue this objective. Two years later, in 2008, 32% of British teachers surveyed reported that their students modelled themselves on Paris Hilton. Both of these findings were received in the international news media as troubling evidence that an unreasonable eagerness to win a fame that is, at best, chimerical, is threatening realistic career goals amongst a generation of celebrity-besotted young people. Sometimes our work as celebrity scholars fuels these panics, but as a counterweight, I would point to the analysis of scholars like Kim Allen and Catherine Lumby, who have explored the gendered and classed, but not so much the raced, dimensions of this panic. Lumby sees a shift in these panics away from the fear of young girls’ “inappropriate” attachments to male stars to the fear that young women desire fame themselves. And Allen strikingly points out that, for working-class young women, “Achieving success through celebrity may . . . appear a safer and more realizable aspiration than that achieved within the formal education system.” She found, indeed, that when one surveys lower middle-class and working-class young women, the working-class women are less likely to be critical of the sort of fame entrepreneurship that was associated, at the time of the 2006-2007 study, with a figure like Victoria Beckham. Today, it would be Kim Kardashian. But as Imogen Tyler and Bruce Bennet point out in their work on the “celebrity chav” figure, attachment to celebrities who have been “depicted . . . as exploitative, aspirational parvenus” provokes reactions of “contempt” on the part of onlookers, as part of a process of policing taste and, through taste, of course, class.

In thinking about fame hunger, I am indebted to the fine work that precedes me on unruly, excessive women: Su Holmes and Diane Negra’s work on the figure of the female celebrity “trainwreck,” Milly Williamson’s work on the “gendered denigration of the ‘ordinary’ celebrity,” and I want to single out as well two non-academic trade-published works, since I think academics don’t give enough credit to that which is not primarily directed to an academic audience: Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear . . .  and Why, and especially Buzzfeed culture writer Anne Helen Petersen’s perceptive study Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman. These works chart the ways in which mainly gender and class, again, inform judgments about women performing public selves “badly.” Williamson, for instance, shows how denunciations of two categories of female celebrity — the “ordinary girl” reality tv star, and the self-destructive pop star — disclose widespread anxiety about female working-class subjects attaining social visibility. Petersen analyzes the ridiculing of Kim Kardashian’s choice to dress sexily during her first pregnancy in similar terms, singling out the rather cruel memes that placed an image of Kardashian in a black-and-white color-blocked dress beside the image of a killer whale and asked, “Who Wore It Better?” Petersen concludes: “She tried too hard. Coded language, all of it, for a disrespect of the boundaries that separate class from trash — a distinction that has afflicted Kardashian from the beginning of her career, first because of her association with a sex tape (tawdry) and then for her affiliation with reality television (lowbrow).” Kardashian’s too-large-to-be-sexy body is consonant with classicist Mary Beard’s observation that, from classical times, women have needed to be culturally “small.” Beard refers to Telemachus in The Odyssey telling Penelope to get back to her loom because “speech” — “muthos” — the capacity to speak authoritatively in public is going to be his business, not hers. Sady Doyle, noting Beard’s point, makes the connection to our current cultural moment: “It’s no wonder, then, that we make such ugly, public sacrifices of women who’ve dared to become famous. The expansion required to make oneself heard or seen by the public — the act of muthos — is deeply at odds with the basic female work of getting and staying small.” I’d add that Kardashian’s pregnant body quite literally incorporates this act of expansion into the public realm, and becomes the focus of the predictable backlash. And because that body has been the locus of Kardashian’s celebrity manufacture, bodily excess and excessive fame hunger become read in mutually-defining terms. Let’s think back to Robert Southey’s promise/threat to Charlotte Brontë that once her body became properly sexualized (through marriage) and then presumably maternalized through childbirth, the desire for fame would retract, and she, too, would become, once again, properly “small.”

Moving from analyses of female excess in its various disapproved manifestations to fame hunger in particular, a good bit of the thinking about the phenomenon in celebrity studies circles has tended to pathologize it. The desire for fame becomes a psychological problem, and the task is to figure out what motivates it, in works by David Giles (Illusions of Immortality), John Maltby’s articles in the British journal of Psychology, and work that these two scholars have conducted in collaboration with others. One such study from 2008 found that the six factors at work in producing fame hunger were: ambition, meaning derived through comparison with others, psychological vulnerability, attention seeking, conceitedness, and social access. If these sound on the whole pretty denigratory, consider that this study eliminated the three other motives that might have been a bit less so: altruism, positive affect, and glamour. My concern with this approach is that it establishes the preconditions for the gendering and classing of fame hunger that feminist studies of the excessive woman critique.

Correctives though they are, the feminist studies of unruly women have their own silences, most notably concerning race. Denigration of public women has received plentiful explication along the axes of gender and class, but on race many of these studies remain silent. As you’ll have seen from my short list of 21st-century fame-hungry celebrities, whiteness is normative but not exclusive. Think here of USA Today’s derisive sniff at Serena Williams after her 2004 hiatus for knee surgery: “Despite her absence from the tour, Serena was hardly unseen;” as Anne Helen Petersen explains, she was criticized because “she made too many cameos on television shows, attended too many club openings, spent too much time designing her new line of formalwear . . . [S]he was too visible, too much of a celebrity” — too desirous of celebrity in all the “wrong” places, and not at all inclined to let herself be made “small.” Indeed, Williams has received disparagement aplenty for being improperly “large,” in several senses. But you would not look to the public reception of Serena Williams across her career for a portrait of a slacker, and so the overrepresentation of white women amongst those for whom fame hunger is an integral and lasting part of their star text remains relatively undisturbed and calls out for analysis from a critical race perspective. Although being denounced as a trashy fame seeker seems like the very reverse of privilege, as I myself have suggested in playing feminized fame hunger off of masculine celebrity reluctance, there is still privilege operating in the very fact of these fame seekers coming into mainstream visibility, even if it is only to serve as targets of social disgust. An immense, understudied demographic would be those who have been accused of thirsting for fame who have not gained even the modicum of disreputable celebrity that would render them socially visible. As Petersen remarks of female celebrities who go against the grain, most of them are white because “unruliness,” she reminds us, “is still largely the provenance of women who are white and straight.” Her comments raise the question of fame seekers and sexuality, but here I find queer representation among my fame seekers to be more significant, and this is because public sexual dissidence still attracts social opprobrium for supposedly being produced as self-serving spectacle, in spite of the fact that non-gender conforming and non-sexually conforming people receive precious little in the way of everyday advantage in their lives, to put it lightly.

The 21st century is a prime moment for thinking about feminized fame hunger and the question of relative visibility because of the development of social media: Facebook in 2004, Twitter in 2006, Instagram in 2010. Those years not coincidentally saw the rise of stars whose fame was denigrated in terms that conflate gender and social media use: Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian. There is, of course, a lineage operating here; Kardashian became part of Paris Hilton’s circle most memorably captured in the scene from The Simple Life when Kim helps Paris organize her closet. Reality television gold, that. But what we see when we set these two denigrated fame seekers together is the growing role that social media comes to play not only in Kardashian’s celebrity but also in its denunciation. Hilton, though she is celebrated or blamed, depending on whom you ask, as a pioneer of meme culture, still relied heavily on broadcast models for her celebrity labor, from the reality television of The Simple Life and other projects to film, music recording, and, rather disastrously, DJing. But Kim Kardashian has been a thoroughly social-media-made celebrity. Denunciations of her fame are linked to her prodigious online presence which is, in turn, discursively linked to the charges of shamelessness that are centered on her body. Indeed, body, digitality, and celebrity are so intertwined in denunciations of Kardashian that she has been at once criticized by critics of social media who see her embodiment as symptomatic of a degraded medium, and criticized by digital culture enthusiasts for not fitting the norms of masculinist geekiness. I refer here to the hubbub than ensued when Kardashian was chosen to deliver a keynote address at the Code/Mobile 2014 conference. Kardashian is at once denounced for being too implicated in these media and for being not implicated enough in the “right,” serious ways.

We appear to have come a long way from Charlotte Brontë and her eagerness for fame, and in some respects we have. Celebrities who identify as women and who have drawn upon the resources of social media to produce and maintain celebrity face a particular form of public shaming that links their corporeality to the inappropriate performance of eagerness — inappropriate in this neoliberal moment because it is attached not to subordinated labor but to life-storying entrepreneurialism. But whether it’s a matter of breaking into print or a matter of commandeering the resources of online platforms, eagerness that is not directed to a desired end, whether that’s heterosexual marriage/motherhood, or neoliberal mandated forms of employment will face public censure. For despite the widespread social encouragement of eagerness — in the young, in students, in aspiring workers — it is perpetually poised on the edge of its own over-performance: the socially disapproved condition of “trying too hard.” •

All illustrations created by Isabella Akhtarshenas.

Lorraine York is Senator McMaster Chair of Canadian literature and culture at McMaster University. She is writing a book on reluctant celebrity.

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