Monday, February 20, 2012

The New Celebrity: How New Media Affects Celebrity Texts

A post from George Takei's
popular Facebook Page
In Paul McDonald’s discourse on stardom in The Star System, celebrity is defined as a systematic exposure of the star text in such a way as to reinforce Capitalist male hegemony while appearing on the surface to merely entertain. This structure presupposes an audience that is entirely unaware of such businesslike positioning, instead buying into the concept of the American dream – that celebrity is the result of hard work, dedication, and charisma, a concept Max Weber loosely describes as a kind of supernatural quality, in this case an inborn talent, which allows them a level of success inaccessible to just anyone. Thus, we have been led to believe celebrities are where they are because they deserve to be. However, with the popularity of new media forms and the ever increasing efficiency by which information can be distributed, the star system has been forced to become a much more complex entity which no longer exists solely in the hands of producers, if it ever did.

Jim Carrey brings a "Jim
Carrey" quality to all of his
In his article “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Walter Benjamin asserts that because of the way film is constructed, the actor is rarely able to engage with his character or his audience and is therefore presenting not his role, but his self, to the camera. The star is not an actor in the traditional sense, but rather a person on film given prominence by the camera, through which the audience must experience the character. Benjamin argues that because anyone is capable of being filmed, we are all, in a sense, a kind of expert on film. Further, because the film is constructed with a level of care for detail impossible in other theatrical arts, and because the actor is required to model the reality that is reflected in their surroundings, the viewer is encouraged to be hypercritical of film. For a star to maintain their stardom, they must be able to jockey their way between performance and an audience relationship outside of the film itself.

Autographed photos
remain important to fans.
That relationship may once have been easy to control, as in the past it has been achieved through fan mail, clubs, and conventions, but with new media and its ability to reshape the celebrity text, the power of celebrity now rests in the hands of the blogger, the YouTube uploader, and the tabloid publisher, whose agency in reshaping star texts has become almost as important, if not more so, than the films these stars produce. In his article “New Media – New Self: The changing power of celebrity”, P. David Marshall addresses several of the changes celebrities today must face in maintaining their fame in response to this shift.

Drew Barrymore saves whales in
real life and on film in Big Miracle.
One suggestion is that celebrities such as Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt have allowed their personal lives to attract more publicity from tabloids and bloggers in order to keep themselves a matter of constant discourse in the absence of films. Celebrities may go so far as to create imitative scandals preceding the release of a film in order to gain publicity. Thus, rather than ever accept these celebrities as characters in a role, we are encouraged to interpret their identity in reality as equal to that which they portray in film. As Rebecca Williams points out, Drew Barrymore’s role choices have shown her agency in shaping her star image while taking advantage of the power of the associative relationship between actor and role. The interpretation of Barrymore’s casting in any particular role is contingent upon an understanding of her personal outlook on her career, with which the audience is already expected to be familiar.

"It's like people only do things
because they get paid. And that's
just really sad." ~ Garth Algar
The celebrity today is no longer able to separate film performance from product endorsements. As distributed media, both in terms of home video and internet streaming, become the primary means by which viewers experience film, producers cannot rely on income from commercial breaks alone and thus interweave advertising into the film itself, a phenomenon known as product placement. Product placement in film has become so common that it often goes without conscious awareness, explained away as character preference rather than a reinforcement of brand consumerism. We only seem to become aware of product placement when it is purposefully brought to our attention, usually in the context of parody. In a popular scene in Wayne’s World, Wayne Campbell says “Maybe I’m wrong on this one, but for me ‘the beast’ [acting for television] doesn’t include selling out” as he demonstrates in an obvious fashion eating from a bag of Doritos. In the same scene, when told that compliance is his choice, Wayne responds with the Pepsi slogan “Yes, and it’s the choice of a new generation,” then drinks from a can of Pepsi. Wayne’s commentary here both criticizes product placement in television while reinforcing it in film. With the exception of Nuprin, the products advertised in this scene (Pepsi, Doritos, Pizza Hut, Reebok and Nike) are popular with the demographic expected to be watching the film.

Thankfully, Jack Bauer's loyalty to
his country is stronger than his
loyalty to car makers.
Reception to product placement in television has been characterized by mixed responses. Such deals can disrupt the viewer’s suspension of disbelief when visually obvious, such as the prominence of Ford (and later Toyota) vehicles in the series 24, Apple products in The Big Bang Theory, as well as the prevalence of various branded products in 30 Rock. The fact that these instances of placement are noticeable is suggestive of the fact that product placement in television is somewhat new and unusual, but ultimately effective. However, this practice requires the celebrity to sacrifice aspects of their image in “selling out” to corporate forces.

The slanket may not be product
placement, but I wonder about the
Few celebrities have worked their way around the problem of selling out and one’s celebrity image. One working method has been to spin the concept of product integration (writing the product into the plot of the show) into loving parody. A recent episode of The Big Bang Theory, “The Beta Test Initiation” (S05E14), features Siri, Apple’s advanced voice recognition software native to the iPhone 4S, as a necessary part of the episode’s B plot: the only “woman” to whom Kunal Nayyar’s character can speak without the influence of alcohol. 30 Rock has further integrated branding into the writing to such a degree that it is often difficult to tell what is paid product placement and what is included for humor’s sake: in “The Ones” (S03E19), Tina Fey’s character wears a product called a “slanket” and when discovered by her boss, breaks the fourth wall in proclaiming “It’s not product placement, I just like it!” Using a different approach, Lady Gaga’s video “Telephone” incorporates many corporate products, some of which become a part of her physical presentation (i.e. Diet Coke cans as hair curlers), but also includes a number of fake products, such as a “name-brand” poison, that visually parody the practice of product placement. These tactics allow actors to maintain a sense of individualism in the midst of corporate influence.

Lady Gaga speaks for herself... and maybe Diet Coke.

Betty White maintains her hip well.
Facebook and Twitter have given fans more agency in the success or failure of stars than ever before. What once took a complex letter-writing campaign can now be accomplished with a few words and the click of a mouse: Betty White’s career was recently revitalized not by a brilliant Emmy-worthy role, but by a Snicker’s commercial that prompted fan David Matthews to create a page on Facebook titled “Betty White to Host SNL (Please?)!” The page attracted enough attention from fans, White's representatives and Saturday Night Live’s producers that then 88-year-old White was announced as the host for a special Mother’s Day episode. On the other end of the spectrum, a tweet from Michael J. Wolf regarding Alec Baldwin’s behavior on a particular American Airlines flight prompted a number of Wegmans customers to use Twitter to demand that the company pull ads featuring Baldwin. When the company promptly complied, Baldwin’s fans retaliated with “hundreds and hundreds of tweets, emails and phone calls”, prompting Wegmans to issue an apology and release the ads.

Sheen describes himself
as an "unemployed winner"
With so many potential influences on the celebrity image outside of the celebrity’s control, a direct line of communication between stars and their audiences is crucial for success. Today, celebrities will often write their own blogs, post statuses on Twitter, and create fan pages on Facebook that feed the audience a constant stream of information, both preventing their image from being forgotten and giving the star a level of agency in the way fans reshape their image. Many celebrities, particularly musical artists such as Lady Gaga and Fallout Boy, have used this medium to give their fans a sense of closeness and identification that is not possible through music videos alone. Charlie Sheen's recent fall from grace could provide an excellent case study of the relationship between self-representation and fan response.

Felicia Day: a model of
the self-made celebrity
Celebrities now must truly work to maintain a celebrity status: they must constantly be aware of their public image, on guard at all times to protect that image and be familiar with a number of tools with which they may do so. They must keep themselves in a constant state of relevance between artistic engagements. They must accept the audience as agents in their success, not simply consumers of a product. If at any time being a celebrity were difficult, it is certainly made more so by newer forms of media which democratize the process. And yet, somewhat conversely, it has become easier for some to circumvent the systematic production of celebrity and achieve fame through these new forms of media, as Felicia Day and Perez Hilton have done. It can thus be said that celebrity has left the purely commercial space that it once occupied and, as Marshall asserts, the distance between fan and celebrity “is narrowing quite dramatically.”

Dan Amira. “Alec Baldwin is Too Rude to Be in a Supermarket Commercial [Updated]”. New York Magazine
Eoin O’Carroll. “Thanks to grassroots Facebook campaign, actress Betty White to host ‘Saturday Night Live’”. The Christian Science Monitor

Max Weber. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Ed. Talcott Parsons. ISBN 0684836408.
P. David Marshall. “New Media – New Self: The changing power of celebrity”. The Celebrity Culture Reader. ISBN 0415337925.
Paul McDonald. The Star System. ISBN 1903364027.
Rebecca Williams. “From Beyond Control to In Control: Investigating Drew Barrymore’s Feminist Agency/Authorship”. Stardom and Celebrity: A Reader. Ed. Su Holmes and Sean Redmond. ISBN 1412923212.
Walter Benjamin. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.

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