New Year’s Resolution: To More Rigorously Critique Celebrity Culture

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As this NYT article, “A One-Way Ticket To Disaster,” aptly demonstrates, one of the only areas of the entertainment industry where women are proportionately represented (at a minimum) is in “scandal coverage.” The story is even accompanied by a “timeline of disasters” framed by these words:

“So many careers ran off the rails in 2007. And didn’t we enjoy the view?”

No, some of us don’t find “displays of personal collapse” all that edifying. And we can’t help noticing the messages that are being communicated: If you get fat, grow older, or simply wear the wrong clothes, your career and maybe even your life is over. Remember actor Tara Reid? Want to read about her “bloat,” her substance abuse challenges, her difficulties finding work now that she is over 30, or her “botched plastic surgery”? Go Fug Yourself has an entire blogroll category dedicated to tearing her apart. Here’s the text of one of the nicer posts:

Not too bloated, nothing popping out, hanging out, or trying to escape, no mascara dribbling down her face like strained carrots from the mouth of a baby… Yes, okay, I still think she’s lying about not getting a facial tweak or three when she went in to drain those godawful sandbags, but on the whole, it looks like her resolution to be less terrifying has indeed taken hold.

Ladies and gentlemen, let’s start a slow clap for Ms. Tara Reid, potentially (please forgive my reluctance to go full-bore on the optimism) a guttersnipe no more.

That’s the kind of thing women in the entertainment industry can look forward to if they become successful enough to be noticed by the media. While there probably isn’t any way to quantify the phenomena, it’s certainly my impression that women get hit a lot harder than men by “journalists,” and I’m not the only one. And while they are at the extreme end of a very nasty and superficial continuum, entertainers are not the only women who are made to suffer to avoid nonconformity.

I recently had a startling conversation with a group of college aged women about feminism, and their impression that feminism had accomplished little in terms of deemphasizing the importance of convention feminine female attractiveness. They felt that investing a substantial amount of time, money and effort into looking stereotypically “pretty” is a requirement for both social and career success, and that this message is almost universal. Where, they wondered, is the mainstream feminist response to Go Fug Yourself values? (Go Fug Yourself is far from the only misogynistic celebrity site but it is notable, regrettably in my view, for having a following among some women who define themselves as feminists, see e.g. links in this post). As this case demonstrated, employers have a legal right to require female employees to submit to the trappings of femininity, which are if not defined, at least communicated and legitimized by the “celebrity journalism,” that dominates tabloids, the Internet, and also the self proclaimed Paper of Record.

Feminism is risky to generalize about, but I feel very confident asserting that it does not require make-up, thinness, buffness, well coiffed hair, high heels, expensive clothes, hairlessness or youth, and it does not support anyone or anything that mocks or derogates women based on their appearances. Yet somehow this message is not being delivered to women who are very anxious to hear it.

–Ann Bartow

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0 Responses to New Year’s Resolution: To More Rigorously Critique Celebrity Culture

  1. Ralph M. Stein says:

    This is an interesting subject. I’m a classical music devotee and attend several concerts in New York City, the undisputed(?) cultural capital of the world, every week. I’m also familiar through CD collecting (compulsive) and reading periodicals with virtually all the up and coming virtuosi.

    There are many young women who are making their mark as violinists, cellists, pianists and occasional other instruments. CD labels and concert venues emphasize, with varying degrees, their mainstream femininity. Reviews of concerts often describe womens’ stage attire, rare is it when a man’s dress is commented upon unless like the violinist Nigel Kennedy it is a departure from the expected.

    I don’t know how the women themselves feel about this. Anne Sophie Mutter, one of the greatest violinists today, always performs in a strapless Dior gown but she has commented that European critics never mention her dress while American reviewers almost invariably do.

    One very talented violist, Lara St. John, virtually ended her chances of a top career by choosing to appear on the cover of her first classical CD topless with her violin covering her breasts. She looked like a young teenager and the reaction was almost wholly negative – she found herself having to defend her action. What was running through her mind? To whom was she catering? If one listens to the disc, there’s fine playing but the artist’s decision to use that photo, no doubt encouraged by the label, did bad things for her.

    The musicians with whom I’m familiar, either through personal appearances or recordings, are world class, make no mistake about it. But can it be that the genes that give birth to musical genius only occur in common with those that insure what a consensus would describe as “beautiful” or “pretty” or “feminine?” (Males aren’t wholly excluded from these extramusical standards as in the case of violinist Joshua Bell and podium newcomer Gustavo Dudamel whose “handsomeness” is almost invariably included in reviews of their art).

    Some years ago I attended a Liza Minelli show at Radio City Music Hall. She did something unique. She assembled a chorus of what she called her “Dynamo Divas,” women selected based on talent rather than physical attributes. Tall, short, thin, plump, young and old – they were a fine backdrop to her exuberant performing. But evidently to the audience, and this was clear, it was a burlesque. Very sad.

  2. boogie_check says:

    Ugh. You could feel the hate of women in the writer’s words…again a woman is judged by her looks instead of talent.