Rethinking the Hermeneutics of Stardom: Celebrity and Gender
Julie Wilson, Allegheny College
In one of the first book-length studies on stardom, Edgar Morin wrote:
The stars endorse everything: toilet articles, make-up, refrigerators, beauty contests, racing competitions, athletic events, six-day bicycle races, benefits for writers at war or for noncombatant writers, charity bazaars, election campaigns. Their photographs are front-page material in newspapers and magazines. Their private life is public; their public life, publicity. The stars play a social and moral role as well; they satisfy the gossip columns of the heart…The star participates in all the world’s joys, pities all its misfortunes, and intervenes constantly in its destiny.
Morin’s quote and the image of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks "endorsing” the Red Cross capture so much of what I find fascinating about stardom: its profound social flexibility as a discourse ("refrigerators,” "beauty contests,” UNICEF); its perpetual blurring of public and private, promotion and reality; and mostly, its power to participate--to intervene--broadly in social life, from "the gossip columns of the heart” to fields of global humanitarianism and governing.
Indeed, the phenomenon of stardom is incredibly rich, owing not least to stars’ economic values for the media and cultural industries, but also, and more fundamentally, to the ways stars appear to us as individuals. As Richard Dyer writes in his introduction to Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society:
We’re fascinated by stars because they enact ways of making sense of the experience of being a person in a particular kind of social production (capitalism), with its particular organization of life into public and private spheres....Much of the ideological investment of the star phenomenon is in the stars seen as individuals, their qualities seen as natural...what makes them interesting is the way in which they articulate the business of being an individual, something that is, paradoxically, common, since we all in Western society have to cope with that particular idea of who we are.
Perhaps then, the most essential thing that stars "endorse” are liberal modes of reflecting on and engaging the self. From the mundane, private concerns of everyday life (family, love, relationships, consumption) to the public events seen to make up history, the discourse of stardom encourages pedagogies of subjectivity across myriad social fields germane to liberal political imaginaries.
Richard deCordova showed that the invention of stardom was intimately bound up with concerns about big screen idols and pedagogies of citizenship. The very idea of "the star” and the contours of star discourse emerged out of desires on the part of a burgeoning Hollywood film industry to show its personalities as model citizens, thereby dampening moral panics about movies and the Hollywood lifestyle. Popular magazines featured spreads of stars in their private lives acting ‘normal’ as everyday citizens. In turn, stardom eventually came to hinge on what deCordova elaborates as a hermeneutic mode of reception, as audiences were encouraged to get to know--to investigate and interpret--the ‘real’ lives and ‘true’ hearts of glamorous Hollywood luminaries who, it turns out, are "just like us.” The cultural potency and flexibility of stardom comes from this hermeneutic mode of reception, as audiences are positioned as deeply invested in stars’ personal behaviors and commitments in the private sphere. Theoretically at least, stars can "endorse everything”--from make-up to global citizenship--because audiences are assumed to care about the cares of the star.
Despite these insights from prominent scholars, when I started my research on "Stardom, Sentimental Education, and the Shaping of Global Citizens,” there was surprisingly little work about stars and their relationship to liberal citizenship. While much research on stardom and celebrity culture is hermeneutically oriented--centered on interpretations of how star representations articulate (or don’t) to broader ideological matrices that define a particular conjuncture--relatively little work deals with how this hermeneutic mode of reception gets put to work within broader liberal regimes of governing. My approach to the cultural powers of stardom focuses on showing how stars emerge as cultural technologies of governing. That is, stars are discursive sites that facilitate the government of the self--an evermore crucial linchpin of (neo)liberal regimes--by providing a highly individualized terrain where audiences work on and shape their own dispositions towards social life via representations of the personal, private lives of stars.
My research traced the practical, technical, and material roles that stars like Danny Kaye, Audrey Hepburn, and Angelina Jolie have played in U.N. led regimes of global governing by engendering pedagogies of global citizenship. Less interested in the hermeneutics of particular images, I wanted to understand how stardom’s hermeneutic mode of reception has been taken up and instrumentalized within specific institutional contexts of global governing in order to achieve a host of contradictory political, social, and cultural aims. However, since completing my Cinema Journal essay, and moving on to other projects, I can’t shake the idea that rethinking the hermeneutics of stardom also puts new and important questions about celebrity and gender on the table. After all, stars can’t "endorse everything,” thanks to the gendering of stardom itself.
As my essay argues, the modalities of citizenship encouraged by globetrotting, do-gooding stars are highly feminized: they involve care and consumption in the private sphere and therefore stand in sharp contrast to the realm of "real” politics. This is not surprising. Stars have long been thought of as belonging, first and foremost, to consumer culture: they are, after all, "idols of consumption,”often charged with undermining the serious business of citizenship and education. When they step explicitly into politics and governing, they are often alleged to transform meaningful civic engagement into entertainment spectacle. So, at the same time that stars can materially enter social realms that are not necessarily yoked to commercial culture, the fact that star discourse is organized around the private lives of "idols of consumption” means that the orientation and organization of star discourse is itself profoundly gendered.
Indeed, because of the articulation to the feminized, "irrational,” and "Other” realms of consumption and domesticity, stars, and particularly female stars, figure in sharp distinction to the rational, self-possessed individual subjects thought to anchor the free market and democratic rule. Stardom’s liberalism is thus culturally schizophrenic, connected via broader gendered hierarchies to liberalism’s imagined underbelly of excessive consumption and sentimentalism.As much as the discourse of stardom seems to shore up liberal political imaginaries, it also perpetually troubles and disrupts them thanks to stardom’s close ties to consumer culture and the domestic sphere. For example, I often find myself wondering to what extent caring stars and their pedagogies of global citizenship contribute to a feminization of certain modes of global politics. What are the implications of these gendered articulations of celebrity and citizenship?
Over the past several months, I have started to think more about these "big picture” gender questions and the surprising lack of theoretical work on stardom as a gendered phenomenon. Of course, there is much outstanding research on specific stars, gender practices, and audiences; however, most of the highly theoretical work on stardom and celebrity lacks an explicit gender focus. In hopes of getting at these "big picture” questions, I am currently working with Brenda Weber to see and theorize celebrity as a transmediated discursive terrain inseparable from gendered notions of identity, citizenship, and labor, as well as cultural value and social merit. We’re interested in the ways in which the study of stardom is always at some level a gendered analysis, as, thanks to the hermeneutic mode of reception, the mediation of celebrity is deeply embedded within existing constellations of identity and difference and the broader social, cultural, and political-economic hierarchies that constitute them. For example, our respective current work aims theorize different modalities of "reality” celebrity (Brenda is working on MTV’s Teen Mom star Farrah Abraham, and I have been thinking about celebrity "mommy blogger” Glennon Doyle Melton) in terms of the transmediation of genders and sexualities.
Our hope is that, through this on-going work of taking gender as a central category of analysis, we will be able to better theorize emerging saliencies of stardom and ever morphing cultural powers of celebrity.
 Edgar Morin, Stars, trans. Richard Howard (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005): 3-4.
 Richard Dyer, Heavenly Bodies: Stars and Society (Hampshire: Macmillan Press, 1986): 17-18.
 Richard deCordova, Picture Personalities: The Emergence of the Star System in America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001): 112-113.
 Leo Lowenthal, "The Triumph of Mass Idols,” in The Celebrity Culture Reader ed. P.D. Marshall(London: Routlegde, 2006).
 See Don Slater, Consumer Culture and Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997):54-59.