February 14, 2008

It is not often that you will find respected academics saying 'I want to be Kelly McGillis, in Top Gun, kissing Tom Cruise', at least not in public. But the study of celebrity is full of surprises, as Matthew Reisz discovers.

There was a time when academics, like High Court judges, prided themselves on knowing nothing about popular culture. (A former books editor at Times Higher Education, very much in this old-school tradition, was once heard to ask: "Who - or what - is Kylie Minogue?")

Today, of course, the study of celebrity and celebrities is firmly established within universities.

As Tara Brabazon, professor of media studies at the University of Brighton, writes in The University of Google (2007), "The pathologisation of popular knowledge has repressed our students for too long. We have continued to isolate schools and universities from the lived experience of the people we are meant to be educating."

For Su Holmes, reader in film and television studies at the University of East Anglia, one of her aims as a teacher is "to make unfamiliar to students things very familiar".

No one can dispute the all-pervasiveness or significance of celebrity culture. Alan Dodd, researching for a PhD in film studies at the University of Aberdeen, points out that "Paris Hilton coming out of jail interrupted coverage of fighting in Iraq".

The "race row" involving Jade Goody and Shilpa Shetty on Celebrity Big Brother in 2007, argues Holmes, explodes the claims of "critics, scholars, viewers and broadcasters who had vocally insisted that reality TV offers us 'no insight' into society and culture".

Star studies, Holmes suggests, can illuminate "fame as a site of political and cultural struggle, dramatising prevailing ideological currents, tensions and aspirations at any one time". Some of her recent work has focused on media coverage of "female celebrities crashing and burning".

Holmes has co-edited a collection entitled Framing Celebrity (2006). The other editor, Sean Redmond of Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, tries to capture some of the toxic complexities of celebrity by introducing his undergraduate course in the persona of a character called Leif Memphis.

He starts in a fairly predictable way. "I want to be a star. I want to see and hear the screams of my fans and the roar of ecstatic applause. I want my name in neon lights and my handprints on Hollywood Boulevard."

Soon, however, his idea of the good life becomes more and more frenzied: "a helicopter on my luscious lawn"; "drug and alcohol excess"; "a size 8 supermodel in my heart-shaped swimming pool. Give me luxury leather." Along with "the glitz, the glamour, the sparkle and the existential glow", Memphis wants "to be harassed and harangued by the tabloid press ... I want to be a hard-bodied action hero, a smooth-talking Irish romancer, and an icon of male perfection. I want to be Kelly McGillis, in Top Gun, kissing Tom Cruise."

"The students laugh, thankfully," report Holmes and Redmond in their introduction to Framing Celebrity, "but they also begin to get an intimate sense of the footprints of contemporary stardom and celebrification".

Yet there are obviously questions about academic approaches to celebrity. The world is awash with information about celebrities' tableware and underwear, cellulite, tattoos, soft furnishings and fashion faux pas. Lads' mags lust over the latest actress or model. Academics are seldom in a position to dish the dirt, and few write with the panache of the best feature writers. So what specialist knowledge and expertise can they bring to the party? And do we really want or need to know anything more about Madonna or the Beckhams?

In the privacy of their own minds, academics who think about celebrities presumably feel much the same mixture of desire, envy and resentment as everyone else. But should they explore or even express such feelings in their work? Should they draw on their own experiences as fans, amplified by in-depth research and reflection, or should they be trying to see through the attitudes of the media and "ordinary fans" to the underlying attitudes to sex and race?

Dodd is pursuing a dispassionate analysis of the changing relations between stars, studios, media, hardcore fans and the general public. "Power has now shifted towards the audience," he notes. "Today, the audience is far more savvy and can spot a publicity stunt at 20 paces. Studios once had the power to shut down gossip magazines; now stars have to negotiate different power bases."

Chris Rojek, professor of sociology and culture at Brunel University, also tries to adopt as objective an approach as possible. Where fans focus on the personalities of "their" celebrities, his book Celebrity (2001) is more concerned with "the machine that creates the celebrity". The mushrooming of celebrity culture, he suggests, is not only about filling space in burgeoning media outlets but "suggests an absence or lack in existence which is probably ultimately related to the decline of organised religion".

When Celebrity proved a success, Rojek was offered three individuals - Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson and Frank Sinatra - as possible subjects for a further full-length study. None of these was personally significant to him, so he decided to ask his students. Much to his surprise, they told him Frank was the man - even the women seemed to be willing to overlook his obvious sexism, as at least you knew where you stood with him. Rojek's 2004 book, Frank Sinatra, published by Polity, explores aspects of postwar American masculinity and social history, while focusing on the question of "how a known wife-beater and member of the Mafia stayed at the top for 60 years".

Ellis Cashmore, professor of culture, media and sport at Staffordshire University, has also written a full-length book on Celebrity Culture (2006). Although he does not see himself as a fan - "I experience no epiphany in response to my subjects" - he is aware that "celebrity culture saturates us. It's inside as well as out; one can't stand outside it. I see myself as a watchmaker, taking off the back and looking at how it works. There isn't a total gulf between serious journalism and my sort of research."

Cashmore often uses individual celebrities as prisms for considering broader issues such as race. He notes that Mike Tyson, his 2004 book on the American boxer, considered "how the media fell in love with (Tyson), were outraged by him and then demonised him - and how eventually he felt he needed to play up to that image to make a living".

He has also analysed the pop singer Beyonce as "the ultimate colourless celebrity, falsely advertising a new sort of colour-blind America. Tiger Woods is similar. They are actually harmful to the development of equal opportunities, as they are used in order to say: the job's done, let's forget about racism."

Other academics seem to be less wary about drawing on their own feelings about celebrity. Linda Marchant, senior lecturer in photography at Nottingham Trent University, studies star portraits from the 1930s and 1940s as well as the rather different styles of "visual gossip" found in magazines today, noting how the pictures "seem to build a bond with their viewers and at the same time retain a gulf of unattainability".

"I find that analysis and sheer pleasure go hand in hand," she explains, "and at one conference I actually said that I was unable to apologise for loving the images - that was their purpose and design, after all." Other academics and high-minded types, she notes, often claimed to have seen them "over someone's shoulder on the train" or "in the doctor's waiting room".

Matthew Pateman, senior lecturer in cultural and media studies at the University of Hull, emphatically sees himself as a "fan-critic" who writes "only about people to whom I have had a direct emotional attachment, so in a sense my work is about justifying my own feelings". He is intrigued by "eclectic virtuosity", started his career as an English scholar and wrote on Julian Barnes, Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov before largely moving over to "celebrate the artistic potential of some parts of popular culture".

He has long been fascinated by David Bowie and "how far he was legitimately adopted by postmodern theorists as an exemplar of today's fluid, self-constructed styles of identity or whether his career actually represents continuity through change, often returning to the same issues such as the pop star as Messiah".

Pateman is equally fascinated by Buffy the Vampire Slayer and how "the show created a cult star out of the executive producer, Joss Whedon". He also brings in his knowledge of religious history, arguing: "There is a link between Buffy and St Cyril! The Church Fathers bring a particular kind of narrative - about the futureness of redemption - which forms part of the background to a show like Buffy."

Yet this scholarly approach does not exclude a far more personal link. For Pateman's then-girlfriend's 30th birthday party, they filled up the house with fake graves for a Buffy theme party. They were both dressed in character, she as Buffy, he as Riley Finn. The chemistry was clearly right. He proposed to her ... and was accepted.

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