Celebrity Culture and the Mechanics of Fame

June 20, 2019 | 4 books mentioned 10 min read

There’s a section of Sharon Marcus’s wonderful new book, The Drama of Celebrity, in which she examines the dizzying appeal of actress Sarah Bernhardt: “Why did hundreds of thousands the world over, including drama critics hired to be professional skeptics, find [Bernhardt] so powerfully attractive and so attractively powerful?” Marcus describes how Bernhardt—praised even by Henry James—had a “superlative management of her own body.” Marcus settles into a meticulous and fascinating discussion of how contemporary audiences and critics pored over Bernhardt’s every turn, pause, flail, and thrust.

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The Drama of Celebrity is full of these moments; part interesting anecdote, part revealing analysis. The idea of celebrity is at once everywhere and difficult to understand, but Marcus offers a robust consideration of charisma, fandom, and media. Marcus teaches at Columbia University, where she is the Orlando Harriman Professor of English and Comparative Literature. A founding editor of Public Books, she is the author of Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England and Apartment Stories: City and Home in Nineteenth-Century Paris and London.

We spoke about defiant celebrities, the parallels between religion and fandom, and who might be to blame for celebrity culture.

The Millions: In your introduction to the book, you explain that traditionally, media scholars have thought that there are three origins of celebrity, each competing with the others. First, that “celebrities themselves charm the media and wow the public.” Second: “the public decides who will be a star.” Third: “producers, publicists, and journalists determine who will be a celebrity.” Can you summarize your new theory of celebrity culture—and why you think readers should pay attention to the creation of celebrity in America?

Sharon Marcus: All of the theories cited above are wrong—because all of them are right. No one group has a monopoly on creating celebrity. Instead, celebrity culture is a drama involving three equally powerful groups: media producers, members of the public, and celebrities themselves. All three groups have agency, so all three groups influence the tales we tell about celebrities and fans, with none exercising full control. Stars aren’t always (or even often) pawns; members of the public aren’t all dupes all of the time; journalists and publicists are rarely omnipotent Svengalis. It’s the interactions of media, publics, and stars that create celebrity culture, and those interactions are dynamic and unpredictable. Publics engage with celebrity both as onlookers and as active participants—and have been doing so for a long time.

In an era when celebrities can exercise a lot of influence, it’s important to understand how celebrity works; to recognize that celebrities are not simply good or bad, deserving or undeserving; and to be aware that celebrity culture is much older than the internet, People magazine, or Hollywood. As I like to say, if you don’t like celebrity culture, don’t blame the internet: blame everyone. 

TM: Actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), whom you call the “godmother of modern celebrity culture,” is an absolutely fascinating figure—and her life is the perfect through-line and refrain for your broader arguments about celebrity culture. How did you first discover her life and work, and what drew you to her story as a foundational element of this book?

SM: Sarah Bernhardt has fascinated people for over a century. She belongs to a genealogy of great performers with powerful personas and strong aesthetic visions: Bette Davis, Maria Callas, Laurence Olivier, Madonna, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga. Like some of the people on this list, she was outrageous and liked to push limits. Like others on the list, she was a brilliant, highly-respected artist, hailed in her lifetime as a genius and still recognized as one of the very greatest actors of her era, which spanned the 1870s through the 1910s. 

Even better, Bernhardt’s story was triumphant rather than tragic. Her personal life was that rare combination: happy and interesting. She was a single mother who remained close to her only child, a son, who made her a contented grandmother. Her one legal marriage didn’t last long, but she had a lifelong relationship with the painter Louise Abbéma that seems to have given both women freedom to pursue other sexual interests. I’d describe Bernhardt as omnisexual. For most of her life Bernhardt also had a satisfying relationship to her work, and an incredibly successful, long-lasting career. She was classically trained in the 1860s and admitted to France’s prestigious national theater, but she found that too confining and left it to become a free agent. Between 1880 and 1882, she toured Europe, the U.S., and Canada, as well as provincial France.  Her earnings from those tours gave her the resources to lease her own theaters, in effect becoming producer, director, and star. For the rest of her life, she thoroughly enjoyed her freedom to call her own shots.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Bernhardt was, although my childhood obsessions were more focused on Hollywood.  That may be why I only began to understand how pivotal Bernhardt was to understanding the history of celebrity after my scholarly work took a turn towards theater history.

In 2003, I became a professor in Columbia University’s department of English and comparative literature, which also houses a theater Ph.D. program. Like most students and scholars of 19th-century literature, I had read only a handful of plays as part of my doctoral training. But once I began to work more with people whose focus was drama, I saw how important theater was to the 19th century.

In the 19th century, millions of people attended the theater each year in London, Paris, New York, Chicago—who knew? No one had ever mentioned that in any of my graduate seminars. Plays by Dion Boucicault, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and Victorien Sardou were more popular than most novels. Thanks to steamships and railways, actors and plays could travel, and 19th-century theater culture was genuinely global, making dozens of stage actors household names in many countries.

I realized that to understand the 19th century, I had to understand theater. And if I wanted to understand theater, I had to focus on the actors who were theater’s main attractions. That led me to Bernhardt, the 19th century’s best-known actor, and one of the first modern celebrities.

TM: I grew up in New Jersey during the 1990s, where Donald Trump’s penchant for spectacle was regular news—so it surprised me when people seemed confounded by the speed of his political ascension. You skillfully examine Trump at select moments in The Drama of Celebrity, including in your chapter titled “Defiance.” How might understanding the social elements of celebrity defiance, as well as celebrity culture in general, help us understand the rise of Trump?

SM: Celebrities often represent our ideals, and for some, normalcy is an ideal, which leads to stars who embody the norm du jour. But celebrity culture also shows that normalcy is not our only ideal, because figures like Katharine Hepburn, Muhammad Ali, Madonna, and Lady Gaga became celebrities by being openly indifferent to norms.

I would not say that Trump is typical of most defiant celebrities. True, he shows contempt for rules that most other people and certainly other presidents at least pretended to follow. But stars like Muhammad Ali and Lady Gaga broke rules in order to expand possibilities for marginalized people. Trump disregards norms to expand possibilities for himself, and to assert the right of straight white men to do and say whatever they feel like. To my mind that makes him a bully, but Trump’s supporters see him as a maverick.

Defiant celebrities exist across the political spectrum. That suggests there’s something we like about defiance itself. What might that be? As social creatures, we have to follow a lot of rules; in exchange, we reap the benefits of belonging to a collective. But that doesn’t mean we don’t dream of being able to enjoy those benefits without paying their costs. Celebrities have wealth, status, power; their success is social. When they succeed despite defying convention, they make it seem possible that someone could be rewarded by society for openly disdaining what society holds most dear: its power to regulate individual excess. The spectacle of celebrity defiance lets us indulge the anti-social fantasy of getting something for nothing. And because social existence can be exhausting and constraining, many of us like to indulge in anti-social fantasies.

TM: “Fandom is often about excess, fantasy, and obsession,” you write. “Audiences under the spell of celebrity attraction daydream, sigh, weep, faint, shriek, roar, and swarm. Whether stampeding or swooning, fans treasure the ecstatic experience of feeling their autonomy, reason, and individuality melt away under the influence of the stars.” I love those sentences from your “Sensation” chapter. Could you talk more about fandom as an ecstatic phenomenon (or perhaps even as a religious one)?

SM: There are many parallels to draw between religion and fandom, depending on how one defines religion. Historian Peter Brown understands religion as fulfilling mundane social needs, so he interprets Christian saints as evolving from pre-Christian patronage systems. People went from asking powerful living friends to intercede on their behalf to praying to dead saints for help. Centuries later, people sought help from celebrities. World-renowned actor Edwin Booth received hundreds of letters between 1860 and 1890; many of his correspondents asked him for advice, money, jobs, and free acting lessons.

We can also define religion as offering transcendent experiences that take us out of ourselves. There too, fandom can resemble or be a religious experience. Fans invest favorite celebrities with superhuman powers, just as believers do with gods. Just as many people find ways to connect to a god they will never see or touch, fans turn stars into imaginary friends. Fans often worship in groups, whether attending a baseball game or a stadium concert. Being part of a crowd can amplify emotion and intensify belief just as a religious service can. A few years ago, I was walking along Seventh Avenue in New York City when suddenly a bunch of teenagers ran past me, screaming “Nicki! Nicki!” They were rushing to surround a limousine carrying Nicki Minaj to a concert. I don’t usually like crowds, but at that moment, I felt the thrill of being in the middle of one.

Ecstatic fandom isn’t always about melting into a collective, though. Star worship can be a surprisingly private experience. There’s a specific thrill to knowing that you can gather material about someone who is by definition known to millions of people, and sequester yourself with it. Many fans develop quirky and secretive relationships to celebrity media, and their behaviors are interesting and important. To research The Drama of Celebrity, I looked at hundreds of scrapbooks from the years between 1880 and 1920, and many seemed very private and internal. One man living in Rochester, N.Y., almost never went to the theater in person—his albums included only a few theater program and ticket stubs. Instead, he clipped material from newspapers and magazines in order to document almost every play, opera, or film mounted in New York City annually. High, low, middle, he didn’t care: pictures from vaudeville acts and follies appear next to reviews of avant-garde European theater troupes. The act of reading about performances meant more to him than attending them; he found mediation more alluring than immediacy.

People who attended live performances often had a surprisingly individual experience of them. Sarah Bernhardt drew big crowds, yet people describing what it was like to see her perform often give the impression that they were alone with her in the theater; they rarely describe their neighbors’ reactions. It’s as though their awareness of her blocked out everyone else present. The experience was ecstatic because she took theatergoers out of themselves by absorbing them completely in her performance.

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TM: You engage critic Henry Jenkins’s seminal book, Textual Poachers (1992), which you say “radically transformed celebrity studies.” Jenkins’s position on active fandoms always struck me as interesting, yet rather optimistic—so your rethinking of this conception is quite useful. Now, in 2019, do you think the typical fan is active or passive (and does this depend on the medium of the content, art, or work that is experienced)?

SM: Henry Jenkins aimed to redeem fans by showing that they are not passive but active, not consumers but producers, not isolated weirdos but members of thriving communities. But what’s so bad about being an isolated weirdo, or consuming art instead of creating it? To the extent that Jenkins was saying that fandom blurs the line between consuming and producing, his ideas in 1992 were very prescient. But often Textual Poachers aims to present fans as authors in the most conventional sense: autonomous agents who produce freestanding, original works. That kind of fan is not typical. Few fans are writing fan fiction or even online reviews. Most of them are not even bothering to dress up as their favorite stars for Halloween.

Most fans hover somewhere between activity and passivity, or toggle between them, no matter where their interests lie—sports, music, movies, dog shows, ice sculpting. You can be a fan by engaging in reverie and contemplation. You can be a fan by being a collector, compiler, and arranger. You can be a researcher. You can be an imitator or impersonator. You can be a groupie or a stalker. You can be a creator. The ability to occupy so many different positions is part of the appeal.  

TM: Your book offers important new ways to think about so many elements of celebrity culture, and I appreciate your willingness to rethink foundational critical principles, such as Walter Benjamin’s theories of mechanical reproduction and originality. Rather than destroying “the actor’s singular aura,” you argue that “the age of mechanical reproducibility gave rise to its own version of aura,” what could be coined the “halo of the multiple.” Do you see the possibility of endless reproduction (and manipulation) of image as ultimately benefiting the celebrity’s power, or could it be seen as undermining it?

SM: Western culture has a bias against copies which have for centuries been viewed as diluted, marred, false, unoriginal, secondary. I find this odd, because culture exists only because of our capacity for copying and multiplication. When it comes to celebrity, any publicist will tell you that proliferation is always a good thing. Stars can afford to be selective about where their image appears only after they have become instantly recognizable. And how do they become instantly recognizable? By having their image, name, and story reproduced multiple times, so that more and more people become exposed to them.

Despite his claim that film celebrity was invented to compensate for the disappearance the live actor’s body, I think that Walter Benjamin recognized that multiplication generates its own glamor. He equated the aura associated with unique objects one had to travel to see with their “cult value,” but he also noted that the era of mass reproducibility had created an “exhibition value” associated with visibility. Celebrities have cult value and exhibition value. As real people who can be physically present in only one place at a time, they have the aura that Benjamin associated with cult value. And as representations who circulate as copies, celebrities also become endowed with what I call the halo of the multiple.

TM: Your book is written in such an effective, engaging mode: meticulously-researched anecdotes and scenes build toward a broader historical argument about celebrity culture leading to the present, and there’s also a very empathetic tone here—you seem truly curious about, and sympathetic to, the lives of fans. How have you experienced fandom in your own life? How have you perceived celebrities?

SM: I grew up in New York City in the 1970s watching old movies on network television and at the public library. The Academy Awards were a much bigger deal then than they are now, and when I was around eight, I took out a library book about the Oscars, memorized all the major categories, and bugged my parents to quiz me about them. My father liked movies, and knew a lot about them, so the quizzes often led to impromptu lectures. He’d ask me who won the Academy Award for best actor in 1936, I’d say Paul Muni, then he’d tell me about five other movies Muni made, what studios he worked for, and his early work in Yiddish theater.   

My Academy Award book got me interested in Vivien Leigh, who won two Oscars for Best Actress. I acquired my first research skills in order to learn more about her. I figured out how to use an index so that I could see more quickly if a book in the film section of the library discussed her. I learned how to use the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature (it was the olden days) to track down articles about her. I even learned how to use a microfilm machine in order to read New York Times reviews of all of Vivien Leigh’s films and theater performances. (A belated thank you to all the librarians at my local public library who let a 12-year-old handle microfilm.)

When I found books about Vivien Leigh in used bookstores, I bought them. I even began to cut out the pictures and assemble them in a scrapbook. So even though in adult life I am not much of a fan, I do remember what it feels like to be obsessed with a celebrity. And because the celebrity who interested me died the year after I was born, I never perceived celebrities as people one would seek out in real life.  They always seemed simultaneously close and distant, present and absent. Stars were people we could picture easily but never really know, people we might read about in books—or someday write a book about ourselves. 

is a contributing editor for The Millions. He is the culture editor for Image Journal, and has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, and The Kenyon Review. His newest book is Longing for an Absent God. Follow him at @nickripatrazone and find more of his writing at nickripatrazone.com.

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