Sharon Marcus Challenges Current Cultural Theories in ‘The Drama of Celebrity’

Who decides who gets to be famous? What does it mean to be famous? Sharon Marcus offers insight.

The Drama of Celebrity
Sharon Marcus
Princeton University Press
June 2019

To bring a new perspective to celebrity studies, Sharon Marcus goes back in time, using examples that predate the mediated celebrity culture that plays such a dominant role in the current news stream. In each chapter detailing a specific aspect of celebrity in her latest work, The Drama of Celebrity, Marcus draws on stage actress Sarah Bernhardt, who she calls “the godmother of modern celebrity culture,” for the stories that show the long history of celebrity. This moniker is rightly attributed to one of the first performers who deliberately created controversy and welcomed the adulation of crowds to expand own stardom.

One of the go-to definitions for celebrity can be attributed to historian Daniel Boortsin, who said that a celebrity is a person who is famous for being famous. As a rather circular definition, Boorstin’s fails to offer much insight. Marcus begins by defining celebrities as “people known during their lifetimes to more people than could possibly know one another.” To further stress that the practices of fandom are not a purely modern phenomenon, she also notes that stalkers and groupies were not uncommon among 18th century performers and authors.

Reviewing the traditions of celebrity studies, Marcus outlines the established triad of influence — media, publics, and celebrities themselves — to demonstrate how representations of famous people are created, shared, and interpreted. She adds that even in the late 19th century, newspapers and theater impresarios worked to advance certain celebrity narratives and to be a part of the culture of influence.

The first quality of celebrity that Marcus addresses is defiance. She begins with a short list of film stars renowned for defying social expectations: James Dean, Lady Gaga, and John Lennon among them. We are then carried back in time to Oscar Wilde, still known for his eccentricities and as a gay martyr in late 19th century England. When we come to Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), it is somewhat surprising to learn that Bernhardt’s acts of defiance centered around rejecting public opinion that she was too thin and therefore unattractive. Clear, society’s willingness to critique women for their appearance has a long history.

Marcus compares Bernhardt’s stance on the subject to Lena Dunham, as both women chose to publicly display their bodies despite being perceived as offensive for doing so. In the chapter on savagery, Marcus notes that cartoon caricatures of Bernhardt portrayed her as a grotesque circus attraction surrounded by savage fans. “Fan”, after all, is from “fanatic”, pointing to the extreme, irrational behavior associated with the public’s adulation of celebrity.

In her discussion of intimacy as part of the relationship between celebrities and fans, Marcus takes to task Henry Jenkins, one of the most influential academics writing about fandom. In his 1992 book Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture, Jenkins laid the groundwork for a view of fans as dedicated creators who create fan fiction, attend conventions, and participate in cosplay. He argued that fans are active participants in building on the media texts they hold dear.

Marcus, however, argues that “by extending insights drawn from feminist studies of female spectators to fans in general, Jenkins radically transformed celebrity studies, but did little to alter the value system that had trivialized fans in the first place.” She notes that most fans are more likely to be consumers than producers, and those who do produce content tend more to create scrapbooks than fan fiction or elaborate videos in which they portray characters from their favorite shows.

With this argument established, Marcus draws on the history of scrapbooking and collecting ephemera as a longstanding practice of fandom. The ubiquity of digital tools for easily creating more elaborate mediated models of fandom means that what were once scrapbooks are more likely in these times to be websites or social media accounts focused on paying tribute to a particular celebrity.

Marcus also brings a new perspective to the theoretical stance of Theodor Adorno, a member of the Frankfurt School whose critiques of popular culture and propaganda were influenced by his firsthand experiences of Nazi Germany. In her chapter on imitation, Marcus notes that Adorno took a negative view of the culture industry, which he saw as a distraction meant to placate everyday people no matter how poor their quality of life.

In contrast, Marcus offers extensive evidence to argue that celebrity culture is often useful in creating a more satisfying life and sense of self identity. One example comes from sociologists who found that after Lady Diana Spencer’s death, many fans turned to biographical accounts, imitating her strategies for dealing with infidelity, divorce, and eating disorders. Celebrities can, in fact, be positive forces for social change.

This does not undo the reality of living in a culture of critique: a simple misstep by a celebrity can invoke a mob response of celebrity-bashing on social media. As Marcus notes, even as “interest in celebrity seems to have reached historic highs, the value we ascribe to celebrities and to those who make them famous has reached an all-time low. Contemporary usage links celebrity with superficiality, artifice, and irrationality, and many now equate celebrity with worthlessness.” This circumstance hearkens back to Boorstin’s notion of being famous for being famous, as Marcus argues that actors, musicians, and other creatives in the culture industry are still praised for their talents.

Even those who find celebrity culture loathsome can still find it fascinating. Because the influence of publics, producers, and well known individuals themselves are always shifting, the triangulation of celebrity culture remains an effective framework for studying celebrity, both in the long view and in the present moment.

RATING 7 / 10