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.
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
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.
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
If you’d asked me last December about the shape of the year to come, in books or in broader strokes, I couldn’t have begun to predict it. In fact, you did ask me — or rather, The Millions did: my last “Year in Reading,” which I wrote towards end of my first term of a master’s degree, made pretty specific predictions about the months to come:
I’m here at University College London to study the digital humanities, so that’s a broad and varied body of literature, the history of mark-up and theories on user-centered design and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. All of that will be the story of next year’s reading.
Yeah…almost. To be fair, I did spend a good portion of 2014 completing coursework, doing research, and writing a dissertation; I was awarded my MA a few weeks back. I read plenty for the dissertation, but I won’t be offering up a UX reading list (…perhaps to your relief?). I have a long history of looking back and marveling at the certainty of my past self, particularly when my old predictions have failed to come to fruition. This time last year, I saw a path for the future, albeit a shaky one; I couldn’t have predicted an alternative fork, one the seeds of which were planted right around the time I filed that piece, when I received an email from the BBC offering me a press ticket to the premiere of the new season of my favorite show in the world, Sherlock.
I began my year in reading with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I’d been in the Sherlock fandom for nearly a year at that point — it’s why I tried so hard to get into the premiere — but 2014 was the year I started talking about it. Publicly, I mean: first in a piece contextualizing the show and the public’s reaction alongside the late Victorian public’s reaction, working my way through the 60 stories and some contemporary criticism. Then I published what I called a “B-side” — one in which I fully owned my fannish interest in the show and the canon. I’d written things over the years that hinted at being in various fandoms, at reading fanfiction, at my dedication to participatory media consumption, at having spent a possibly unhealthy amount of time thinking about the minutiae of Harry Potter. In this piece, finally, I went for broke: I called it “Fangirl,” and I laid it all out there. “I obsess,” I wrote. “I’ve always obsessed.”
That piece set me down a new path — and it shaped what I would read and write about for the bulk of the year. The initial response was a little overwhelming: I’d put something of my true self out there and assumed the worst, somewhere between indifference and mocking, but instead I found so many people that connected with it, that felt it articulated something in their own lives. I made a whole bunch of new internet friends. Soon I was writing about fan stuff for the New Statesman — part of my plan, I joked, to infiltrate Britain (via the media) from within. (Didn’t do much good, since I’m down to a matter of weeks in the country.) I presented pieces on being a fan at a few academic conferences. By the middle of the year, I was asked to write a regular column on fan culture in the NS. It’s strange and new for me, to have a beat, a broad theme around which a lot of my writing centers. But I’ve been a fan for a few decades now; it’s a joy to write about a topic that’s getting such mainstream recognition — and, haltingly, even some respect.
Last December I envisioned the coming year as one of focused reading, and in a way, I was right — I just couldn’t have predicted the focus. There was Anne Jamison’s wonderful Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World — I loved it so much I fangirled at her, and then we fangirled at each other. There was Fandom at the Crossroads: Celebration, Shame and Fan/Producer Relationships by Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larsen, a fascinating book that illuminates so many shifting dynamics in media and culture right now. I checked out the work of Henry Jenkins, one of the most prominent fan studies scholars: I used his Convergence Culture in my dissertation and Textual Poachers to inform my professional writing. I fell in love with Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl (and then, unsurprisingly, Eleanor and Park) — and then I fell in love with her Twitter account. I met Erin Clairborne when we were on a panel together at the Nine Worlds convention here in London over the summer, and I just finished her totally fantastic debut novel, A Hero at the End of the World, the first title from the Big Bang Press, which sources writers from fandom to pen original works. And fittingly, since I started the year with Sherlock Holmes, I’m ending with him, too: I just started reading In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, a new volume of collected short stories inspired by the Holmes canon, which I plan to write about in conjunction with the new Holmes exhibition at the Museum of London.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t put my money where my mouth is: the books I read this year were great, but then, so was the fanfiction. Over the years I’ve been asked if I’ve read anything good lately, and I’ve always bitten my tongue: I often have, but it’s not “real literature,” after all, but rather some 30-chapter masterpiece that someone has penned for free — for the love of the source material. I’m kind of done glossing over this major part of my reading life: for every good novel I read this year, I read a fantastic novel-length fic as well. And I’ve reveled at the very real shift I’ve seen in the past year: for every person who asks me what fanfiction is at a party, another leans in and says, “So…do you have any stories to recommend?”
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.