1.) What is your name, occupation, website?
I’m Alyx Vesey. I received my MA in media studies from UT Austin back in 2008. I pay the bills as an archival aide and have written for Bitch, Flow, Tom Tom Magazine, I Fry Mine in Butter, Scratched Vinyl, and Elevate Difference. I also volunteer as a music history workshop facilitator for Girls Rock Camp Austin, which prompted me to pick up a guitar. I founded the blog Feminist Music Geek in April 2009. She’s an Aries. I’m a Leo. We get along.
Roseanne was family viewing growing up. I know some friends weren’t allowed to watch it because it was supposedly like Married With Children, which might mean that some adults thought all working-class people were crass and mouthy in the same ways. Anyway, I grew up in a matriarchy, so mom and I bonded over the show. I studied Sara Gilbert because I was obsessed with Darlene. Around this time I also learned that I was more like Lisa Simpson.
3.) Who are your heroes of contemporary celebritude, and why?
Critics and essayists are my heroes and heroines, especially if they write about music. I love getting the scoop, nodding along, arguing, and being knocked over by how they use words to convey elegant ideas. They also kind of disassemble the star system, because they tend to be cash-poor and write their feelings and occasionally look like they haven’t shaved or bathed. This conceptualization of celebrity might have more than anything to do with why I got involved in college radio and started championing independent music. In short, these people seem like they could be friends and I tend to lionize my friends, particularly the ones who write, teach, and take action.
I read Ann Powers obsessively in middle school, and she led me to the late, great Ellen Willis. Some folks whose work I enjoy are Molly Lambert, Maura Johnston, Audra Schroeder, Laina Dawes, Sady Doyle, Stacy Konkiel, Jenny Woolworth, Tom Ewing, Jessica Hopper, Latoya Peterson, Carrie Brownstein, Nelson George, Julie Zeilinger, Jennifer Kelly, Alex Ross, John Leland, John Savage, Simon Reynolds, Joy Press, Patrick Neate, Caroline Coon, Tricia Rose, and the contributors at I Fry Mine in Butter, Sadie Magazine, and Elevate Difference.
I also have a sneaking suspicion that I’d be friends with Jody Rosen and Rob Sheffield–the former because he seems to want someone to argue with him about his absurd love for Brad Paisley and the latter because of our boundless love for new wave girls.
4.) Who are your favorite participants, broadly speaking, in the history of stardom, and why?
5.) You can only be best friends with one person in all of celebritude, past and present. Who? How did you two meet? What’s your favorite thing to do together?
6.) You can only date one person in all of celebritude, past and present. Who? Where would you first date be? What would he/she get you for your birthday?
Ack — of all time? But crushes come and go. Jeff Buckley is my longest-standing crush, but I’m going to leave him out of this because it’s none of your business what we do with our free time. Suffice it to say I like short boys because we can share clothes.
Dating also connotes a certain innocence. If that were the case, I’d like to gallivant with Donald Glover and pump the new Childish Gambino mix before I appear as a guest on Troy and Abed in the Morning. But his star is rising and I don’t know how much free time he has. Also, our connection would seem like the kind honors students might have on a school trip, meaning nothing under the shirt and lights out by midnight.
But if we’re taking innocence out of the situation, it’s Leisha Hailey with our guitars and her gift to me would be reinking the arm tattoo she had removed.
7.) Who do you regard as the lowest depth of celebritude?
9.) What is the greatest/most bombastic moment of celebrity ever?
(Example: A-Rod posing for a photo shoot as a centaur)
10.) Where do you get gossip on your celebrities of interest? Explain more?
11.) How do celebrities and stardom relate to your own work/extra-work activities?
12.) Why is celebrity culture — and our attention, analysis, and discussion of it — important
Anne (or, shall I say, DR. PETERSEN) has already done a lot of work here explaining and analyzing how the star image works within the context of Hollywood (I am using “Hollywood” here as a catch-all for the system she describes). I’m here to talk about the Pioneer Woman from a feminist food studies perspective; part of this blog entry is an excerpt from my dissertation, which looks at how women use recipes, cookbooks, food blogs, and other texts to make themselves and their communities of meaning visible both within and outside of the context of domesticity.
In the spring 2011 issue of Bitch magazine, an article contending with the phenomenon of mommy bloggers complained that when Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman, appears on the Today show to make cinnamon rolls, she is never asked to discuss her success as a self-made media juggernaut. Rather, she is constrained within the identity of “Mommy” (or some other similarly domesticity-entrenched image) rather than celebrated for her professional success. Sarah McAbee writes,
Despite the complexity of these blogging powerhouses, the mainstream media seems content to categorize them as just, well, moms. Not professional bloggers, not businesspeople, not brands in and of themselves. [...] By emphasizing the domestic and ignoring the professional aspects of these figures, the media ensures that even the blogosphere’s mommy moguls fit neatly into the dominant pop culture narrative in which women have to choose between the competing world of family and career/creative work. Instead, bloggers like [Heather] Armstrong [of Dooce.com] and Drummond have actually made a business of their home life, blurring the boundaries between the domestic and the public spheres.
Well, yes and no. Of course the Pioneer Woman is going to talk about making cinnamon rolls on the Today show, because the Pioneer Woman is a product, not a person. No one is going to tune in to Oprah or a morning magazine news show to hear a woman talk about how she became a media mogul, because the identity of “media mogul” doesn’t fit the persona Ree Drummond has created for herself in the Pioneer Woman. In other words, I don’t think that the Pioneer Woman’s Today show cooking segments are part of some media conspiracy to keep women barefoot and homeschooling in the kitchen. Rather, they are way stations on the trajectory of professional development that Ree Drummond has plotted for herself as a celebrity blogger.
Laura Shapiro, in Something From the Oven (2005), describes the genesis of “live trademarks” in 1950s America that gave rise to the phenomenon of fictional female characters serving as home economics advisers to befuddled housewives. These contrived home economists included Mary Blake for Carnation Evaporated Milk, Chiquita Banana of United Fruit, Mary Alden and Aunt Jemima of Quaker Oats, and, of course, Betty Crocker of General Mills. These characters “were designed to project specific, carefully researched characteristics to women shopping for their households. ‘Ideally, the corporate character is a woman, between the ages of 32 and 40, attractive but not competitively so, mature but youthful-looking, competent yet warm, understanding but not sentimental, interested in the consumer but not involved with her’” (30). The image of Betty Crocker was crafted by General Mills in response to countless housewives writing in needing troubleshooting tips and advice for baking cakes, pies, and biscuits; “The company saw this as a good chance to communicate with customers, so home economists on staff answered every letter, signing them all ‘Betty Crocker’” (32). Some might argue that in addition to serving as the genesis of the live trademark, but also that of conversation marketing, in which a company strikes up a social relationship with the consumer. With that relationship came increased trust and, naturally, increased sales:
General Mills could see that Betty Crocker was unparalleled when it came to reaching homemakers and building trust in the company. The phenomenal success of Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book, published in 1950 with a then record-breaking first printing of nearly a million copies, showed just how much home cooks wanted the simply phrased reassurance and reliable advice they associated with her name. (Shapiro 34)
Betty Crocker is best known today as the symbolic figure on the cake-mix box, although Adelaide Cummings portrayed her from 1949-1964 in Betty’s various television appearances, delivering the carefully mediated combination of sentiment, empathy, authority, and references to General Mills products for which her constructed image had become known. Ultimately, Betty’s job was to demystify the process of cooking via emphasizing convenience items like cake mixes, enabling women to unchain themselves from the kitchen while continuing to lovingly provide their families with homemade foods.
Similarly, Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman, is a mediated image dedicated (in part) to helping people who are uncomfortable in the kitchen discover a love of cooking via her step-by-step instructional cooking entries. She shares stories of embarrassment and silly behavior, offers up gift suggestions, hosts giveaways of expensive items paid for by revenue generated by the site, and promotes a community of sameness that invites the reader to identify with the Pioneer Woman’s foibles. Only in this case, rather than providing the humanized face of a giant corporation, the brand behind the living trademark is Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman herself.
And yet, this has not always been the case with the Pioneer Woman. Where the blogger named Ree Drummond, writing in 2006 and 2007, frequently uses mild profanity; writes long, revealing entries in which she shares disturbing or humorous episodes from her past; and describes herself as a “malcontented, angst-ridden desperate housewife” (May 12, 2006), the blogger known as the Pioneer Woman writes pithy, self-deprecating entries that follow an established formula and adhere to a consistently breezy tone. However, because the archives of the blog’s early days are still relatively intact, readers can piece together a very different portrait of Ree Drummond, separate from the highly polished, mediated image of the Pioneer Woman of today. For example, the poetry populating the blog’s earliest entries, a series Drummond titled “Poetry of a Madwoman” and presented in “volumes,” is surprisingly candid and evocative. For example, “Volume 7,” published May 12, 2006, reads,
I’m a pool of flesh.
A puddle of exhaustion on the dirty tile floor.
I can’t get up.
I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.
I have no button on a chain around my neck
With which to summon help.
Would that I did so I could be whisked away
In an ambulance.
I’d ask them to drop me off at a hotel.
Two days of this heaven
And I’d muster the strength to carry on. Until next month.
Here Drummond expresses a deep sense of fatigue stemming from her duties as a housewife and mother and evokes the pathos of the Life Alert medical protection system commercials that feature feeble elderly people in dangerous positions after falling down. Unlike the people in the commercial, the enfeebled-by-housework Drummond does not have the safety net provided by the electronic assistance alert, and has no one to help her. She expresses a desire to spend two days alone in a hotel where there are staff to assume the duties she is responsible for on a daily basis: cooking, cleaning, and laundry. The underlying mood is that of a woman dissatisfied and exhausted by the grueling and repetitive duties incumbent upon her as a stay-at-home mother. While the tone is somewhat wry, the subtext is that the work of the housewife is Sisyphean and thankless.
A few days later, “Volume 9” (May 22, 2006) reveals a similar dissatisfaction with her body:
So very fat.
These thirteen bastard pounds
Cling to my gut
Like a marsupial suckling.
My thin, shapely legs
Are mankind’s greatest deception.
Just travel north a foot or two
And a blubbery hell awaits.
Bring me cheese.
Fresh mozzarella cheese.
And chocolate by the load.
I’m nothing but a toad.
Here Drummond ventriloquizes the self-loathing women are expected to express when they carry excess weight, and humorously expresses the tension between feeling anxious about that extra weight and wanting to feed that anxiety with chocolate and cheese. This stands in contrast to the self-deprecating tone Drummond takes in regard to her love handles and jiggly arms in her mediated “Pioneer Woman” image.
This cheery, self-deprecating version of the Pioneer Woman, I should note, is wildly popular. She is wildly popular not because the recipes are particularly remarkable – her repertoire includes chocolate mousse made from Hershey bars, cornbread, cinnamon rolls, chicken spaghetti, all very Midwestern, middle-class fare — or that homeschooling is particularly remarkable, but because she has crafted an online persona that women have responded to almost universally. The site garners more than 20 million hits per month. In a recently published New Yorker profile, Drummond reluctantly admits to bringing in more than $1 million from the site alone (who knows how much she’s netting from the advances and royalties from her books, any Food Network revenue, and Hollywood development deals).
The Pioneer Woman Cooks became a New York Times bestseller and was one of Amazon.com’s Top 10 books of 2010. When Drummond (along with her husband and children) appeared at BookPeople in Austin to promote her cookbook in December 2009, the second floor of the bookstore was packed and people waited in line for more than an hour to get their cookbooks signed. Black Heels to Tractor Wheels was a bestseller on Amazon.com before its February 1, 2011 release. In short, in five years’ time, the Pioneer Woman has become a cultural juggernaut among middle-class American women in an increasingly urbanized country. What’s disturbing about this is the absolute balls-out insanity she inspires in her fan base. At the aforementioned BookPeople event, the crowd chanted, football game style, “Pioneer!” “Woman!” “Pioneer!” “Woman!” When she came down the stairs, you would have thought the Beatles — even the dead ones — were re-enacting the British Invasion. And when Drummond took to the podium to speak, she said absolutely nothing. Oh, she said words, but they were completely devoid of meaning or interest … sort of like on her blog.
Penelope Trunk argues that Pioneer Woman engages in “housewife porn” and has created an online space in which no one ever fights with their spouse about money or is overwhelmed by the laundry (although Drummond does make joking allusions to a never-ending pile of laundry). Women, says Trunk, “don’t want to see themselves reflected back to them.” However, this only explains part of Pioneer Woman’s appeal to women of her approximate demographic. When it comes to the Pioneer Woman, women like to see themselves reflected back to them, because she has cultivated such an affable, folksy image. On the Pioneer Woman’s Facebook fan page, Drummond posts the occasional frivolous status update, like this one from November 10, 2010: “I think I’ll actually do my hair today instead of tying it in a knot and fastening it with a pencil.” This one-line status update garnered hundreds of responses (and “Likes”), including “omg, I do the pencil thing too,” “Mine has a pencil in it right now,” “I resemble that remark,” “That’s my favorite way to do my hair, though,” and “i thought the pencilled knot WAS doing our hair!” Many respondents adopted a tone of familiarity, as though they were addressing a close girlfriend: “oooooo, Miss Fancy!” “Now don’t go crazy. Next you’ll be spraying Sun-In and teasing.” “you go girl!” “Now, now, no need to get all fancy on us!” Women responded with staggering enthusiasm in response to seeing some aspect of their experience, however trivial, reflected back to them via the Pioneer Woman image.
However, this image is tinged with cynicism. The philosopher Kenneth Burke writes in A Rhetoric of Motives (1950):
The extreme heterogeneity of modern life, however, combined with the nature of modern postal agencies, brings up another kind of possibility: the systematic attempt to carve out an audience, as the commercial rhetorician looks not merely for persuasive devices in general, but for the topics that will appeal to the particular “income group” most likely to be interested in his product, or able to buy it. (64)
This aspect of identification is crucial to persuasion and, within the market, cookbook (or romance novel or children’s book) sales, not to mention ad revenue generated simply by surfing to thepioneerwoman.com. So, if Pioneer Woman holds her hair in place with a pencil and I, too, hold my hair in place with a pencil, I identify with Pioneer Woman and feel greater kinship with her. The more kinship I feel with Pioneer Woman, the more likely I am to purchase The Pioneer Woman Cooks ($27.50), Black Heels to Tractor Wheels ($25.99), and Charlie the Ranch Dog (a forthcoming children’s book based on Drummond’s beloved Bassett hound, Charlie, who is featured extensively on the website; $16.99). The success of the Pioneer Woman model depends not on women identifying with the exhausted woman in a puddle on the filthy tile floor, but on identifying with the woman who jokes about her jiggly arms or idly contemplates dyeing a blue streak into her hair. Women will spend money on someone who gives voice to their own insecurities without the inconvenience of meaningful engagement with painful issues.
I see two major reasons behind Pioneer Woman’s appeal to readers. The first is that she (the mediated image) represents an idealized woman, a frontier version of the angel in the house with a 21st-century twist, one who offers up domesticity as escapist entertainment. She offers a nostalgic image of a pastoral Midwestern existence that, while a simulacrum, has found traction in a nation that is increasingly urbanized. Second, in the process of “keepin’ it real,” Drummond-as-Pioneer-Woman regurgitates hegemonic tropes of femininity and masculinity in that she frequently posts worshipful entries extolling her husband’s virtues, which include his chaps-clad rear end and muscular forearms; additionally, her pet name for him, Marlboro Man, conjures up images of rugged Western masculinity and virility while also gesturing toward an iconic advertising campaign for the Marlboro cigarette brand. At the same time, the matrix of feminized domesticity she constructs through her posts about cooking, her children, homeschooling, and home-related product recommendations such as quilts and jewelry-storage systems reinforces the image of Drummond as the angel in the (ranch) house, attending to all things domestic while her rugged, virile, Dr. Pepper-swilling husband attends to manly things outdoors, like working cows and castrating male calves. As the evolution of the blog suggests in its movement from the emotionally visceral to the imaginary, it is in the imaginary that the Pioneer Woman finds her audience. A recent entry (“Ten Important Matters,” January 26, 2011) featured three separate (and previously published) photographs of Marlboro Man’s leather chaps-clad rear end, and dozens of commenters left messages of thanks for these snapshots. Pioneer Woman’s readers vicariously derive pleasure from these images because they identify with Drummond and, therefore, have some claim on Marlboro Man themselves.
This is the relationship that keeps fans flocking to Drummond’s website: she offers up an idealized vision of domestic life, one in which the housewife gripes cheerfully about her neverending chores, extols the virtues of her adorable children, and gives voice to her unwavering desire for her hunk o’ burning love husband. It’s also a vision of idealized whiteness, which I find the most troubling, given Drummond’s runaway success. In the current (May 9, 2011) issue of The New Yorker magazine, Amanda Fortini offers up a profile of Drummond, and describes how the blogger edits a digital photograph of her son:
She deepened the colors, rendering his skin alabaster white, his lips rosebud pink, and his eyes a lovely but artificial shade of blue. Critics complain that her pictures are so digitally enhanced that they distort reality, but that’s the point. She’s painting a fantasyland, where everything — flowers, quilts, kids, hotel rooms on her book tour — looks like dessert.
(image borrowed from thepioneerwoman.com)
This passage took my breath away. It was an aspect of the site that I had not yet noticed or analyzed, probably due to the blind spots of my own white privilege, but there it is, in vivid, living color: Whiteness as dessert. But that’s sort of the narrative of pioneering itself, isn’t it? The pioneers (think Laura Ingalls) are romanticized icons of Western progress, fighting harsh weather, uncertain food supplies, and — worst of all — Indians (*gasp*) in order to realize the promise set forth by Manifest Destiny. The American Dream, while certainly accessible to and enacted by all Americans, is rooted in a rhetoric of whiteness.
So, when Drummond tells Fortini that, “I’m an example that you should never assume that where you are in life or what you’re doing is going to remain exactly as it is forever. If this can happen to me, who knows what you might be capable of doing?” she unwittingly gestures to the 19th century strain of American exceptionalism that believed in white folks’ divine right of conquest. Go West, young man! Come and take it! Anything is possible if you just put your mind to it! Pull yourself up by your bootstraps! Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses!
But even Betty Crocker eventually reflected the “melting pot”:
Today’s guest post comes from frequent contributor Alaina Smith, who first introduced me to Dooce’s particular brand of Jack-Mormon, dog-mortifying humor more than five years ago.
Heather Armstrong founded Dooce.com in February, 2001 when she was a single, 28 year-old working as a web designer in L.A. A year later, she was fired from that job, after a co-worker forwarded the link to her blog to the vice presidents of her company.
The incident was picked up on Metafiler, and thus, “dooced” – getting fired from your job because of content on your personal website - entered the modern lexicon. Heather and her husband moved from LA to Salt Lake City to be near their families shortly thereafter, where Heather supplemented writing with freelance design work until she began earning enough advertising revenue to blog full time.
In the last decade, Armstrong’s blog has grown up with her. Heather married her boyfriend, moved back to Mormon country, bought a house, and had two children. What started as the cynical, self-conscious musings of a good-girl-gone-bad, who had escaped her Southern, Mormon, upbringing to drink whiskey and listen to Interpol in LA, morphed into one of the world’s most popular mommy blogs.
When Armstrong had her first child in 2004, she wrote with painful honesty and a wicked sense of humor about both the joy and overwhelming confusion of new parenthood. She also chronicled her battle with post-partum depression – she was diagnosed with clinical depression prior to her pregnancy – including her stay in a mental hospital when her first daughter was six months old. Her trademark style –overshare so funny it’s endearing coupled with gorgeous photographs – and her willingness to admit how hard parenthood often is, endeared her to millions of readers. Many of them were mothers themselves, who expressed their gratitude that someone was finally writing honestly about modern parenthood. (There are also many, many people who despise Heather Armstrong. She and other popular mommy bloggers have entire hate sites devoted to them – but that’s a whole other post.)
Dooce.com is now the full time job of both Heather and her husband, Jon. The blog supports an online community and a merchandise store. Heather is the author of a bestselling book, was named by Forbes as one of the 30 most influential women in media in 2009, and just signed an exclusive development deal with HGTV.
Even though her notoriety has grown immensely over the last decade, Heather Armstrong has maintained a tightly controlled brand. She does not contribute regularly to any publication – online or print – other than her own blog. She has authored only one book, and has not signed any product endorsement deals. Her media appearances have generally addressed only parenthood or blogging. She still blogs about the mundane details of daily life; four recent posts discussed a new necklace, her husband’s fender bender, the party favors at her daughter’s sixth birthday party, and her family’s Sunday morning tradition of baking and eating cinnamon rolls.
The Forbes list of powerful women in Media includes many of the top female journalists in America. The rest are women who appear on lifestyle television, where they tell American women, not just subconsciously, but directly, how to be: Oprah, Tyra Banks, Martha Stewart, Kelly Ripa, Rachel Ray, the ladies of The View.
In the past, Armstrong has strongly denied accusations that she uses her popularity to influence her readers or “bully” companies – see her very detailed, explanatory post following a Twitter firestorm that erupted when she tweeted, to over a million followers, that consumers should boycott Maytag appliances. She also fiercely guards her right to raise her children without depending on the approval of her readers. FAQ number one on her website reads:
Should I send you unsolicited advice?
In a recent post entitled “Check Up for Self Delusion,” Penelope Trunk, another popular female blogger, recently wrote, “Probably the most accurate representation of women is in the blogosphere. There is no filter here, no need to appeal to both Peoria and Pasadena all at once.” She goes on to compare Dooce.com with an even more popular mommy blog, The Pioneer Woman.
“The Pioneer Woman is largely housewife porn. The men are hot and rugged, just like in a romance novel. The author, Ree Drummond, is running an operation similar to Rachel Ray or Martha Stewart, but she markets herself as a stay-at-home mom […] The Pioneer Woman’s traffic is absolutely through the roof, proving the appeal of preposterous escapism. Dooce, on the other hand, is more gritty, and has about half the traffic of Pioneer Woman. [...] I think the truth is that women don’t want to see themselves reflected back to them.”
As Annie has written extensively, the appeal of most popular celebrities, especially female celebrities, lies in our simultaneous identification with and envy of them. The women of lifestyle television must maintain a similar appeal: we identify with Rachel Ray’s desire to make dinner in 30 minutes, but we envy how easy she makes it look.
Heather Armstong is the only internet personality on the Forbes list, one who has built her career on telling us how she IS, vs. how we should BE. Rather than developing an identifiable-yet-enviable star persona, she has built a brand around the precept that Heather the blogger IS Heather the person – if you don’t like it, don’t read it. Her argument seems to be that any influence she has is a byproduct of personal transparency combined with exposure born of popularity – and she has managed her brand as such.
By signing a deal with HGTV, Armstrong has entered new territory – where she will use her brand to develop programming and sell advertising. If the blogosphere offers the least mediated version of American womanhood, its media darling just sold herself to perhaps the most mediated arena in American womanhood: lifestyle television.
All photos sourced from Dooce.com. Heather, if you read this, please don’t sue us – we will take the photos down if we need to.
(Today’s Guest Post comes from Liz Ellcessor, a Ph.D. student in media and cultural studies at the University of Wisconson-Madison. Find her fantastic blog at Dis/Embody.)
The latest stage in the neverending, intertextual, multimedia, and much-maligned rise of the stars of MTV’s “reality” series The Hills has centered on Heidi Montag Pratt’s extensive plastic surgery. “10 Procedures at Once!” People, trumpeted, complete with a quotation from Heidi that she is “addicted” to plastic surgery – a believable claim, as this is at least the third set of procedures the 23 year old has had done since emerging on the celebrity scene (a nose job and bigger breasts preceded the most recent improvements).
There has been quite a bit coverage of the stars of The Hills during its 5 seasons. Castmembers including Heidi, her husband Spencer Pratt, Audrina Patridge, Stephanie Pratt, Whitney Port and Brody Jenner have been the subjects – and financial beneficiaries – of celebrity tabloids, particularly US Weekly. Hills star Lauren Conrad, has appeared on more “respectable” covers, as well, including Seventeen, Entertainment Weekly and Cosmopolitan. Heidi and her husband, Spencer Pratt, are largely excluded from these venues, where other co-stars sometimes appear, as well as from cast events that Conrad attends. Due to feud after the second season – involving Lauren, a sex tape, Perez Hilton, and some tasteless interviews by Spencer – subsequent seasons of The Hills largely kept the couple apart from the putative star of the series, cordoning them off in their own plots and excluding them from promotional activities that involved Conrad. Since Conrad’s departure from the show, the Pratts have had a more significant presence, but Heidi was still denied the “starring” role as narrator, a part given to Conrad’s Laguna Beach nemesis Kristin Cavalleri.
Yet, Heidi and Spencer are perhaps the most visible Hills cast members in contemporary celebrity culture. Through their Twitter accounts, Heidi’s music career and Miss Universe performance, appearances on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!, a boisterous public religiosity, interviews with David Letterman and a close relationship with Perez Hilton (plus their own hired paparazzi), Speidi are available for consumption at every click of the mouse, push of a button, and trip to the grocery store. Spencer attributes their pop cultural success to their willingness (particularly his) to play the part of the villain, engendering a love-to-hate-them response that carries an audience from outrageous fake Mexican wedding to outrageous fake LA wedding to multiple plastic surgeries.
While this villainous narrative is certainly a part of the plot of The Hills, particularly seasons 3-5, it is most certainly more directly applicable to Spencer than to Heidi – while his vitriol towards Conrad spewed forth, Heidi seemed to retain a desire to regain her friendship with Conrad, and seemed uncomfortable with some of Spencer’s more outré anti-social behavior. Having rewatched early seasons of The Hills recently, I want to suggest an alternative reading of the program and its extensions into gossip blogs and tabloid publications. Removing our focus from the aspirational elements and relatable themes of young women trying to make it in the big city, Heidi’s “character” – a version of herself and her star text – emerges as a potential tragic figure, undercutting the spectacle of the program and her own celebrity with a sense of impending doom.
During the first season of The Hills, Heidi was the second lead. Living with new best friend Lauren Conrad, attending school before beginning a new job, meeting a new boyfriend, and acting as a supportive friend to Lauren’s pathos, Heidi was charming. She was funny, she liked dogs, and while she may have seemed a little professionally unfocused, she carried a youthful optimism and was an important part of the show’s emerging dynamic. Yet, even in these early shows – and her brief appearance in Laguna Beach a retrospective view clearly illuminates what will become Heidi’s tragic flaw – like Macbeth’s, it seems to be ambition. In Heidi’s case, the ambition is not necessarily for a kingdom, but for attention and fame. Her runway kiss with Cavalleri, her desire for a music career, dropping out of college for a PR job, changing her appearance – all seem to point to a young woman eager to be popular, visible, adored.
As Shakespeare’s Macbeth killed the king, Duncan, with the encouragement of Lady Macbeth, giving his ambition full flower and leading to his downfall, Heidi’s ambition bloomed with her relationship with Spencer. In the context of The Hills, Heidi could never become the star – it remained Conrad’s show, and when Heidi moved out at the end of season two (to live with Spencer, whom Conrad disliked), it dramatically shifted her out of the central plots. Short of killing Conrad, what were an ambitious reality starlet and her celebrity hanger-on of a boyfriend to do?
By all appearances, Spencer used the time between seasons to take the text of The Hills well outside the borders of the MTV storyworld and tell the world a different story. Using Perez Hilton to get his message out to the public, Spencer asserted that rich-girl-next-door Conrad had made a sex tape with her drug-addicted ex-boyfriend. This attempt to tarnish Conrad’s image – complete with some extremely personal insults – could have utterly changed the direction of The Hills and Heidi and Spencer’s future success. Had it worked, had audiences turned on Conrad and MTV have released her to cut their losses, Heidi was still in a strong position as the second female lead – the show could easily have reoriented around her story. Though Spencer’s role in the sex tape rumor has been largely acknowledged, Heidi’s possible participation in or support is unclear – in an infamous scene, Conrad screams at Heidi, “you know what you did!”, but, in fact, we don’t know what Heidi did. Did she calculate that professional success, acclaim and attention were worth whatever falling out might ensue with her television friend? Did she turn herself over to a pernicious influence in the form of Spencer, her very own Lady Macbeth?
In the end, this ploy failed – Conrad and the boyfriend denied the rumors, MTV stood behind its proven star, and Heidi and Spencer were increasingly pushed to the periphery of the show. From this position, their newly chosen role as “villains” emerged, as Spencer continued to lambast “LC” and encourage Heidi to revel in the ended friendship. Within the show, Heidi’s discomfort with this was visible in her stated desire to reconnect with Conrad, in her desire for female friendships generally, in her dissatisfaction with her relationship with Spencer – even as they moved toward marriage, the couple fought openly and constantly. Additionally, though, Heidi’s on-screen presence lost its verve and charm. She seemed an increasingly wooden actress going through the motions, as she probably was, given the largely scripted or directed nature of the program. Was Heidi uncomfortable in this story, in this representation of self and image that would follow her outside the television screen?
The sex tape scandal is illustrative of the rise of Speidi outside The Hills as well, as it marked the moment when the extratextual, multiplatform, gossipy discussion surrounding the series became more interesting than what the dream-like reality soap opera could deliver. Suddenly, the “real” story of The Hills was always already happening – events transpired in the tabloids months before they aired, in edited form, on television. Here, then, Heidi and Spencer could shine – generating tabloid stories, staged photo opportunities, new music videos, and more, the couple found an alternative path to achieving a degree of celebrity notoriety. Ambition, then, was realized.
But, as Speidi’s antics evolve, this retrospective reading of Heidi as a tragic character primes us to wonder about her (inevitable?) fall. At what point will the ambition that drove her so far – ending relationships, losing status, staging PR stunts, releasing embarrassing music, getting extensive plastic surgery – begin to harm her? And at that point, what is the responsibility of those of us who watched her transformation from afar? Given the bodily extremity of Heidi’s latest news cycle, the tragic sense of doom seems all the more palpable, and the fall all the more imminent.
Today’s post features a roundtable of various scholars from the Twitter media studies universe, all of whom (myself included) are invested in the Globes for rather different reasons. Read on — and make sure to weigh on the question posed at post’s end.
Hollywood’s only shining moment of the night
I’m going to go ahead and say it: this year’s Globes was a game changer. And while it isn’t in any way predictive of who will actually win the Oscar (or the Emmy), this year’s show was markedly different than those of past years. Different, and, in my humble celebrity opinion, worse. It was more transparently commercial — and the artists involved registered their cognizance of that commerciality (and the general practice of studio bribing) accordingly. (See Nikki Finke’s incisive take down here). To my mind, even though it aired from 5-8 on the West Coast, it had all the trappings of NBC primetime: unfunny, trite, and throwaway. The electricity and spontaneity the Globes historically connote: gone. Here’s a brief break-down of what went wrong.
1.) Gervais stunk. I’m sure we’ll elaborate on this further, but let’s just agree that his particular brand of humor did not lend itself well to the Globes format.
2.) At the risk of sounding elitist — and again, this is a point that we’ll have to discuss at length — several wrong things won for all the wrong reasons. The wins for Glee, Robert Downey Jr., Sandra Bullock, Up in the Air, or Avatar made this much abundantly clear. Now, I’m not saying that I don’t like Glee or RDJ, or that I didn’t appreciate most of Up in the Air, or that I don’t value the achievement and innovation of Avatar. Heck, I even kinda sorta like Sandra Bullock. But they weren’t the best in their categories — that much is near universally agreed upon. They’re popular and likable, but not the best. Which is why I repeatedly Tweeted that this year’s Globes were resembling The People’s Choice awards — not lauds from a group of critics. I’m particularly incensed by Bigelow and Mulligan’s losses.
3.) 90% of the celebrities were wooden. There was obviously not enough champagne drinking going on. Maybe it was the rain? The general spark and spontaneity generally associated with the Globes was gone, and I blame James Cameron’s massive ego for sucking all the oxygen out of the air. When Robert De Niro has the best and juiciest speech (okay, okay, rivaled by that of RDJ) you know something’s off. There was no Pitt Porn, there were few bitch faces (save that of Jessica Lange, who gave two excellent ones — one for Drew (who didn’t even thank her) and another for Cameron’s trite call to “pat ourselves on the back.”) There was one moment when it looked like George Clooney’s Italian Queen was perhaps giving him a happy ending under the table, but they cut away too quickly.
4.) No really. Nothing exciting happened. I thought we were headed for greatness when the now-skeletal Felicity Huffman went off the rails in the early moments of the ceremony, but hers was the last gaff of the evening. I also loved Julia Roberts vintage asshole behavior during the red carpet — with Tom Hanks by her side, she made fun of NBC and yelled “who’s Natalie?!?” when Billy Bush decided to cut his losses and leave them be. But shots of her flirting with Paul McCartney simply couldn’t salvage a dry night.
5.) And I blame the director. Of the broadcast, that is. There was a paucity of choice reaction shots. There were all sorts of opportunities to catch the stars reacting poorly — when Gervais was digging on writers, say — but there was a lot of rushed panning and random celebrities. Why couldn’t we have more shots of William Hurt’s beard? Like all the time? Enough of Julia’s smile and Meryl looking quietly bemused. Let’s get some extended Clooney nookie action, or at least Cameron passive aggressively looking out the corner of his eye at how hot his exwife still is.
It’s like a party where you drank a lot and know you’ll be hungover the next day, but didn’t actually get the feel the joyful and giddy pleasures of being intoxicated. And that’s just the worst. Almost as bad, that is, as Sandra Bullock winning Best Actress for a movie about white people saving black people.
Myles McNutt (Graduate Student, TV Critic/Blogger)
I don’t want to sound as if I’m speaking out in support of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, but I think it’s important to clarify that this is not, in fact, a group of critics. They are (primarily) members of the press and little more, closer to tabloid reporters than to a Roger Ebert (not to suggest that Ebert himself is perfect, but he is unquestionably a critic and not a reporter). Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent so much time in the past ranting about how the HFPA fetishizes the new, continues to elevate HBO over the rest of television, and somehow has never realized how inane their supporting acting categories are, but I’ve come to the point where I’m almost rooting for the Globes to go off in bizarre directions.
The problem is that, while most of us have written off the show, the industry has not: the Globes have an influence on the Oscar race (Bullock, for example, is now guaranteed an Oscar nomination), and every star (except for Robert Downey Jr., who revealed the “HFPA are nuts” line of argumentation in his speech) thanks the Hollywood Foreign Press Association as if they are a voting body that deserves to be recognized as a legitimate sign of a film/show/star’s quality. I don’t blame them for this, but I do always worry about providing the show any sense of legitimacy. I might, in a bubble, be fine with Sandra Bullock’s win in terms of the Globes being the only non-fan-voted awards show crazy enough to give her an award for making history as the only woman to topline a film earning more than $200 Million, but I’m not so fine with the idea that her performance could knock out a more deserving competitor (Mulligan is safe, I think) come the Oscars.
What’s convenient about viewing the show from a primarily television perspective, however, is that they have extremely little impact: their love for things which are popular or airing on cable means that few shows are going to be “rescued” by a Golden Globe win, and because there’s such a long gap before the Emmys (and because the Supporting categories are organized so differently) there’s really no correlation. So on that front, I’m sort of glad Glee won a Golden Globe, since its chances of coming close to winning an Emmy are slim; the Globes sit in that liminal space between popular and legitimate, and I think that defines Glee almost perfectly, so it feels “right” (in so much as it feels kind of wrong, but in a way that I’ve come to accept).
I agree with Annie that Gervais was a failure, and would argue it was a combination of both the format not being built for a host (too many categories, too little time to develop rhythms) and Gervais not bothering to try very hard (which I expand upon here). And while there may not have been much exciting happening in the ballroom itself, I thought there was some great banter on Twitter: without the online engagement, I probably would have found the show excruciating. In the end, though, I guess my expectations were such that what we saw felt almost comfortably precisely, and I guess my Golden Globes-related cynicism might finally be close to depletion.
Hopefully next year will provide a refill – I don’t like being the closest thing we might have to an HFPA advocate.
Noel Kirkpatrick (Graduate Student, Blogger)
This had to be the dullest, least surprising Golden Globes in…well…forever (was no one drinking?!). Which is odd, since the thought of Ricky Gervais hosting had all of us very excited. In fact, that Gervais wasn’t very entertaining was probably the biggest surprise of the evening. The Globes don’t have the leisurely pace of the Oscars, and Gervais has always taken over an awards presentation in a leisurely way. There’s no room for him to do his awkward comedy bits (with Steve Carell) when you have to move so briskly. It’s that scruffy, pig-nosed guy coming in from nowhere and tweaking the institution that makes us laugh, not him getting swallowed into it.
I’ve never been a fan of how the Globe organizes its dining tables, and it’s telling. The television folks feel scattered, sometimes way in the back, while the cinema folks are all very up front, easily shot for the cameras (though, the camera work in this telecast was ABYSMAL). It perpetuates this sense of stratification between cinema and television. Indeed, the telecast not only does it with its seating chart, but how it presents awards. The television awards are mostly up first, instead of scattered throughout. Why? To keep the audience, that they assume cares more about movies, watching to see who will win. (Even more telling is the presence of an award for lifetime work in film but not one for television.) This is a well stood upon soapbox, so I won’t belabor the point any longer save to say that people watch these award shows on TV, not on a silver screen and that matters. (Or it should matter more.)
Interestingly, however, I think this ties back into the elitism that Annie mentions. I can’t comment on most of the film winners simply because I haven’t seen most of the nominees, and neither did/could most of the people watching from home (How many people in the home audience saw An Education? My mother hadn’t even heard of The Hurt Locker). Yes, it’s not the People’s Choice Awards, but Bullock, Downey, Jr., and Cameron essentially, as Myles noted in the Twitter conversation, bought their Globes with box office dollars, not with merit. Perhaps in the face of sagging award show ratings, the HFPA decided to do the arty television (notice that we’re not really chiding them for their television votes (except for ignoring Neil Patrick Harris, c’mon people!)) and the mainstream movies to keep people viewing.
I personally always tune in for drunk celebrities.
Lindsay H. Garrison (Ph.D. student, blogger):
So the celebrities weren’t drunk, but the broadcast’s director could have been. So many shaky floor shots and awkward zooms – all for boring reactions and rushed walks to the podium. I’m with Annie: more of William Hurt’s beard, please.
The People’s Choice Awards Golden Globes were less than spectacular last night, with surprising wins that seemed more like picking the quarterback and the head cheerleader for homecoming court than the best acting talent or films. But I’m not sure I’d go as far as calling this a game-changer. While it’s easy to dismiss the HFPA for voting Avatar best picture along with Sandy B. and Meryl as best actresses (in a drama and comedy/musical, respectively), there were at least a few other head nods that didn’t seem like total celebrity suck-up: Best Original Song could have gone to U2 or Paul McCartney, but Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett took home the trophy for Crazy Heart. Jeff Bridges won over George Clooney for Best Actor. (Okay, that’s a stretch; Jeff Bridges isn’t a total ingenue, but his speech was great – who else thanks their stand-in?) Seriously, though. Yes, the Globes felt flat and too mainstream this year, but I’m not sure the Globes were ever really a truly magical event that their mediocrity is something I’m going to mourn for too long. I think their role as an Oscar barometer and box office nudger are still intact.
I mean, Avatar was already a clear front-runner for Best Picture; The Hurt Locker, Inglorious Basterds, and Precious have already made their Oscar mark with dominating wins at the Critic’s Choice Awards. I’m not sure this totally means Oscar failure for them or necessarily guarantees a win for Cameron and Avatar. Streep was already a front runner in the actress category, and yes, Bullock’s win does perhaps make her more of a stronger contender to Streep. So, we’ll see. But in the meantime, here are my thoughts on other parts of last night’s broadcast.
Notable TV win: Julianna Margulies for The Good Wife (in its first season on CBS). Margulies finally wins after being nominated six times for her work on E.R. (did you see her get a congratulatory kiss from George Clooney? Oh, Dr. Ross and Nurse Hathaway.) But The Good Wife is a show that intrigues me; there’s something about it that I really like, but something that keeps me from all-out loving it. Just renewed for its second season, its win here will hopefully allow Margulies and team to develop the show further and let it find its stride.
Most Wheels-Off Presentations: Harrison Ford looked like he hated being there and just wanted to go to bed (hopefully video will find its way online soon). Felicity Huffman could hardly get the words out of her mouth, and Taylor Lautner could hardly be heard over everyone still talking in the ballroom. Presenting the award for Best Comedy suited him well, but even on TV, it was obvious no one was paying him any attention.
Best Moments in Acceptance Speeches: My personal favorite goes to Julianna Margulies, who snuck a jab in at NBC (who was airing the awards show) when she thanked Les Moonves “for believing in the 10:00 drama.” Mo’Nique brought a tear to my eye in her heartfelt speech; too bad it was the first one of the night and seemed to be quickly forgotten. Scorcese gave a great speech in his win for the Cecille B. DeMille Award, captivating the room with his love for the art and desire to see it preserved. And James Cameron, G-d bless him, spoke a sentence or two of Na’vi while accepting the award for Avatar. (I know. Seriously).
Kristen (Phd, Late to the game blogger)
I can only blame CP time for why I’m late to this roundtable. But uh..I’m here. So here it goes.
First, I want to say that this whole section is in great part a conversation I had with some of my most trusted and respected bedfellows. So thanks IC.
Second, I disagree about Gervais. I thought he was a great host. Funny, smart, timely, and not afraid to state things the way they are and not the way publicists would like it to be. I’m not quite sure I want to return to the Hugh Jackman-esque/Billy Crystalitis that has been award show performers. I want someone who can make the celebs a little uncomfortable. They don’t just exist in that ballroom. They exist on the Pacific Coast Highway inebriated to the utmost and bedhobbing from star to star. Let’s not pretend like all is wel just cause you’re in some loaned pretty garments. And that is what I loved about Gervais.
I disagree with Annie on the being irate at the Golden Globes thing. In my opinion, to look to the Golden Globes as an indicator of “quality” like looking to the Nickeoloden summer awards to know who’ll be the next “it” person. A futil enterprise, indeed. I’ve said elsewhwere that I believe the Golden Globes are the Walmart of award ceremonies. Complete with Rollback prices. To expect anything LESS than populist award winners is problematic. As had been said about the “HFPA” (in scare quotes because if they’re journalists, then I’m Lady Gaga..and I ain’t), they are more concerned about partying with celebrities than about actually being concerned about awarding good films their due. Also, as I was reminded in an earlier conversation this move to the popular has slowly been emerging. Recall, the changes made to the Oscars to accommodate more populist movies by expanding the nominees from 5 to 10 selections in various POPULAR categories. Perhaps the Globes are following suit(especially since they can construct the winners as they see fit).
Which leads me to this point: I may sound a bit ornery but really, what is the point of televised award shows? Is it really to elect the “best” film? Is it really to appreciate and give praise to the films we won’t forget about by the time Memorial Day rolls around? No, as Laineygossip says, “it’s about style.” And, you know what, we need to be honest about that and admit that that is what it is. I will remember that Reese Witherspoon wore a fantastic gown and had fantastic hair and makeup. I will remember that Clooney and his Italian new young thang were there and she may have been entertaining him in ways untold underneath that tablecloth. I will remember that Julia Roberts needs to go ahead and retire because it’s over. I will not, however, remember The Hangover. I will not, however, remember The Blind Side (well, I might if it makes into my dissertation). Why? Because they will fade with time. And the things I remember are more about extratextual things rather than the films themselves. Think about it: Aren’t the less televised, lesser known critic circles really where we should be looking to determine what the worthy (that is, respectable, important, relevant, quality) cinema is? Televised award shows are placed in a set of boundaries that pertain to ratings and advertising revenue and popular acceptability. Forget Julia Roberts, “Who’s Natalie?!” deal. Insert into the masses’ mouth: “Who’s Kathryn Bigelow?!” I rest my case.
Finally, I really do think there’s something to minority actors and international actors acceptance speeches that functions to set the tone and generate some sort of appropriation device by which all other winners restate what the formers acceptance speech was. I’m thinking particularly about Mo’nique’s winning speech and Drew Barrymore’s “redo” of that. Drew don’t know Mo’nique. Probably won’t know Mo’nique. So for her to “shout out to her” in that way (despite Barrymore already being a nutter) is interesting.
Enough for now.
Kelli Marshall (UToledo, Unmuzzled Thoughts)
I think everything that can be said about this year’s Golden Globes ceremony has been said:
- Ricky Gervais was less than thrilling. However, as some have pointed out, it’s not necessarily all his fault.
- NBC (aptly?) was reamed throughout the ceremonies, e.g., “Let’s get going, before they replace me with Jay Leno” (Gervais); “Just want to say thanks to Les Moonves for believing in the 10 o’clock drama” (Julianna Margulies).
- The speeches of Mo’Nique (earnest), Robert Downey, Jr. (sarcastically amusing), and Meryl Streep (reflective) stood out.
- William Hurt’s beard was a highlight of the night. Just ask Noel Kirkpatrick.
- Witnessing The Hangover, The Blind Side, and Sherlock Holmes receive accolades prompted many to rename this year’s broadcast The People’s Choice Awards.
- Slow-talking Harrison Ford and eye-rolling Jennifer Aniston evidently did not want to be presenting.
- Kathryn Bigelow and The Hurt Locker were inexplicably shut out.
- De Niro and Di Caprio’s tribute to their mentor and friend, “Marty” Scorsese, was touching, funny, and well deserved.
- Upon accepting his award for Avatar, James Cameron spoke Na’vi. WTF?
My colleagues have already skillfully (and humorously) analyzed many of these events, discrepancies, and surprises. To this end, I will keep my analysis to a minimum, politely redirecting you to the above bullet points. I would like to mention, however, a bit about Twitter and its role in my Golden Globe experience this year.
Generally, I don’t watch award shows in their entirety. With TiVo remote in hand, I often fast-forward only to the categories that interest me (e.g., comedy/musical, drama, best film). This year, however, I decided to view the Golden Globes as they aired, tweeting while I watched.
Last night, my Twitterverse consisted of about 5 of 6 “film and media people,” grad students and professors, firing off tweets at each other about every 30 seconds. (Yeah, it’s hard to keep up!) Short statements about fashion (or lack thereof), awards speeches, winners, and losers flooded our Twitter accounts (apologies to my followers who had no real interest in The Globes). In 140 characters or fewer, we dissected the evening in real-time, cheering virtually for Dexter, Mo’Nique, and Glee, and booing virtually for Sandra Bullock, Sherlock Holmes, and Avatar. It’s a strange little community, Twitter. But it sure does make a three-hour event much more entertaining than it’s ever been before. Perhaps you’ll join us at the Oscars?
Having slept on my earlier comments, I do agree that this year’s Globes was not as much as a ‘game changer’ as I’d like it to be. I want people to be weirded out by this Globes, but listening to the chatter online, in the blogs, and on the air, no one seems to think this was all that special. WHICH KINDA FLOORS ME. Am I experiencing selective amnesia? Between the show itself (boring) and the chose of awardees (populist), it still seems much different — a return to Weinstein/art-house backlash that brought us a win for Gladiator and The Lord of the Rings over at the Oscars. Thus, in conclusion, I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on whether this particular Globes signified as different or as par for the course….and, of course, your own favorite and least favorite moments. Let the roundtable continue.
Note: Today’s post takes the form of a back-and-forth between me and one of the few people I know with equal parts sports and celebrity knowledge: Peter Holter. As such, he was the perfect choice to write a column on the allure (and persistent failure) of Friday Night Lights, a show that ranks amongst both of our personal favorites. Warning — Spoilers lurk below.
I’ve got a few celebrity stories under my belt. I stood next to Yao Ming at a baggage claim, I had dinner with Jessica Simpson, I rode a chairlift with Ralph Fiennes. I don’t get star struck, but I do usually find a way to make a fool of myself. Last summer I got a chance to add to my short list when I met Zach Gilford, who plays high school quarterback Matt Saracen on the NBC drama Friday Night Lights, at a bar in northern California. It turns out that we work for the same company in the summers.
One of the things that really bothers me about Friday Night Lights is the unrealistic nature of the football games, despite all the gritty realism that makes up the rest of the show. I hate that the Panthers will win one game 49-48 with a high-powered offense and sieve-like defense, then squeak out the next one 7-6. I hate that almost every game comes down to some last second miracle play. I really hate it when it’s fourth and a million with zero seconds left and no timeouts remaining and Coach Taylor calls a run up the middle that somehow goes for a 70-yard touchdown. And I really, really hate that the starting quarterback on a Texas 5A State Championship football team is 5’7”, 140 pound weak-armed kid that sometimes can’t remember how to throw a spiral.
With all that said, I really do like the show, because it isn’t really about football and I can overlook that stuff. So as I got introduced to Gilford I told him, “I watch your show, I like it.” It should be noted here that a) Gilford is even shorter than you think he is, and b) is surrounded by a horde of giggling girls that work for our company that swore beforehand that they were impressed by neither celebrity nor short men. As a non-celebrity, this is a maddening thing to watch – you will find yourself supremely disappointed in women as a whole if you ever get to see it. Gilford looked up at me and said, “Oh, so you’re the one.” Uproarious laughter from all of Gilford’s female hangers-on ensued, and there ended my Zach Gilford encounter.
I imagine that this wasn’t the first time his canned response had been so successful. It’s great for him because he gets to pretend to be humble despite the fact that questioner clearly knows that he’s famous. But it’s also very true: nobody watches his show. In three full seasons, Friday Night Lights’ best Nielsen rating was a 5.3 (about 8.2 million viewers), good enough to be the 52nd ranked show that week. That was season one, and the ratings have gone down and down ever since. And yet, it keeps getting renewed. It keeps getting nominated for Emmys. Taylor Kitsch keeps getting nominated for Teen Choice Awards. [Annie interjection: And it won a Peabody Award, for goodness sakes!] So why can’t NBC make it a popular show?
The show certainly doesn’t fit the mold of today’s successful television. The most popular show of the last five years has been American Idol. Dancing With the Stars routinely cleans up in the ratings. People can’t seem to get enough of their CSI spin-offs and medical dramas, and Friday Night Lights is none of the above. In fact, Friday Night Lights is part of an exclusive club of shows in recent years that can’t seem to find commercial success until they hit the DVD racks. For examples of this, see: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Arrested Development, and Mad Men to name a few.
When I told Zach Gilford that I watched his show, I was technically lying: I watched all three seasons on DVD. Season 4 is underway and I haven’t seen an episode yet. In fact, I am actively waiting for it to come out on DVD because I can’t stand waiting a week between episodes and because I don’t like commercials. So as far as the commercial success of that show is concerned, I’m part of the problem. And that’s a problem because people like me – the type of person that is going to watch and get involved with and love Friday Night Lights – generally isn’t the type of person that makes time to watch television.
I like Friday Night Lights because it tells a good story. It has terrific characters and the acting is first rate. I started watching it because I thought it was about football, but I’ve continued to watch it because it’s really about family; football and small town America just make a great backdrop. The people who watch television, though, who dictate the ratings and perpetuate what gets made, don’t seem to want to watch family and small town America. They want to watch celebrities dancing and they want to watch outlandish crime investigations involving beautiful people and beautiful detectives. The people that are going to appreciate Friday Night Lights for it’s subtlety and nuance probably don’t watch TV; they have DVD players, Netflix subscriptions and DVRs.
My appreciation for the show came into full bloom in season three, when Landry Clarke finally put a stop to his unrequited love affair with local bombshell Tyra Collette, comparing her to the kid in Shel Silverstein’s classic The Giving Tree. I hate that kid in The Giving Tree; I’ve said for years that that that book should have been re-titled The Taking Kid and I’ve cited it in my own life on more than one occasion, so naturally I enjoyed Landry’s reference immensely. I realized later, though, that this wasn’t the only reason I liked this scene. The easy thing to do – the popular thing – would have been to finally unite the two. Popular shows tend to take that route: they sweep characters like Jason Street under the table when the audience tires of them, they let characters like Buddy Garrity remain reprehensible and one-dimensional, and they make certain that lovable doofuses like Landry Clarke always get the girl in the end. I like Friday Night Lights because it doesn’t do that, but it may also be why most of America doesn’t.
And all this isn’t even mentioning the fact that NBC clearly doesn’t want it to be successful. Who airs a good show on Friday night? I get that it’s called Friday Night Lights. I get that high school football games are played on Friday nights. But that doesn’t mean you have to air the show on Fridays. We’re talking about a show that is catered to the 18-39 demographic – a part of society that has been conditioned for years to believe that on Friday nights, you must be out of your house, dressed up and doing crazy things like buying expensive drinks and trying to hook up. This is the de facto cool, and watching Friday Night Lights as it aired on Friday would be an iron-clad alibi that you are, in fact, not cool. [Annie interjection: Or that you do not, in fact, like high school football, since you're obviously home watching the show instead of shivering on the bleachers of your local high school.]
It’s a bit like a guy that never does anything to show his girlfriend he cares about her, and ultimately loses her because of it. If you don’t watch the show when it airs, you don’t help it’s ratings, you don’t help it bring in advertising dollars, and you may cost yourself several seasons of a great thing. If I ever get to meet Minka Kelly in a bar instead of Gilford, I’ll buy her a drink and tell her we’re all sorry.
First off, I have to admit a lack of objectivity when it comes to this show. It documents a town and football fanaticism very close to my own high school experience: I may not have grown up in Texas, but I knew what it was like to be on the sidelines of multiple state championship games, not to mention the unique dynamics of a working class town (and its corresponding devotion to football). Friday Night Lights is also filmed in Austin, which means I’ve had first hand encounters with Matt Saracen (next to me in yoga), Coach Taylor (watching a screening of Jurassic Park with his family at the Paramount), Julie Taylor (walking past me while I was drinking gin at The Driskell), Tyra’s mom (at the RTF Department Party) and the new set of East Dillon High (a mere three blocks from my home). Apart from my emotional attachment, I absolutely agree with Peter that there’s something remarkable about this show. But I, too, have never viewed the show when it airs. So what gives?
Let’s look to NBC, which, with this show, has only further demonstrated their complete inability to properly market a show. For me, the crux of the issue isn’t so much that the majority of quotidian television viewers gravitate towards reality television and Jerry Bruckheimer-produced procedurals. Rather, the root of the problem is Friday Night Lights’ incompatibility both with NBC and network television in general.
As Peter points out above, FNL is a quiet, nuanced show, with meandering, oftentimes unexpected character development. For every “Smash gets a try-out at A&M!” there’s a “Mac sorta-kinda apologies for his intrinsic racism.” The only one-dimensional characters on the show are Joe McCoy, Saracen’s military dad, and Baby Gracie. They even give Leila’s annoying younger siblings unexpected character. Such careful characterization and narrative development is by no means unique to FNL — see The Wire, Deadwood, Mad Men, Arrested Development, Pushing Daisies, The United States of Tara, and Battlestar Galactica, to name just a recent few. Importantly, you’ll note that only two of the aforementioned shows — Arrested Development and Pushing Daisies — were products of the networks. And both of those shows died early deaths: as Jason Mittell noted, Pushing Daisies was simply “too beautiful to live.”
But was it? Or was it simply “too beautiful” — or, more precisely, too idiosyncratic, with insufficient cliffhangers — to thrive on network television? As the networks continue to shed audiences to cable, video games, and Netflix, they have been forced to cater to the vast middle. That which is most appealing to the most people, such as B-level celebrities ballroom dancing — thrives. In part because it gets ratings, but also because it’s cheap to produce. And as NBC made clear with it’s decision to move Leno to 10 pm, NBC is interested in profit margins, not quality. What we now call ‘quality’ television has thus been relegated to premium cable and, increasingly, AMC, F/X, and other expanded cable options. The shows may garner smaller ratings on these channels, but they can also cultivate a solid fanbase — one that’s more likely to shell out the big bucks to pay for DVDs and box sets.
But what about Lost, you say? There’s a crazy show with idiosyncratic plot twists! That J.J. Abrams is crazy! And yes, Lost airs — and has continued to find success — on ABC. And while I concede that Lost, somewhat like 24, deviates from the network norm, cultivating narrative complexity, it also employs hyper-seriality. I don’t know if that’s a word, but the sentiment seems to come through: it addicts its viewers, almost enforcing a sustained viewership. Friday Night Lights may keep you holding your breadth as to whether or not Coach Taylor will remain at Dillon High, but it very rarely makes me count down the days until the next episode. It’s just not in the nature of the narrative — which is part of the reason that the actual football games are always contained within a single episode. The writers aren’t employing narrative trickery to sustain your attention. Unless, that is, Coach walking in on Julie and Saracen is narrative trickery, or the scene when Tyra’s mom tells Tyra that she’s always surprised her. (Even the descriptions of those scenes — each of which was wrought with emotion — reads as unengaging.)
In Season 2, we witnessed NBC’s attempt to mainstream the show, turning a show about football and family and working class Texas into one about rape, revenge, and murder. In short, they made it high melodrama. And it failed miserably. (Think too of 30 Rock‘s attempt to play the network game in Season Three, inviting a stream of guest appearances and focusing on Liz’s pregnancy desires. For me, at least, the magic went out of the show at the beginning of that season.) Part of me believes the FNL writers knew this plotline was going to fail — and felt nothing but thankful when the writer’s strike truncated the season. When the show returned for Season 3, it was if the murder/attempted rape had never occurred. Nor had Lyla’s evangelical phase. And it was AWESOME, if not wholly believable. That’s the sort of narrative elision I can get behind.
Which returns me to fate of FNL. Very few people appointment view it on NBC. But NBC seems to care little about the numbers, for the simple reason that they’re no longer footing half of the bill. NBC and DirectTV entered into a unique coproduction deal before the third season that essentially saved FNL: they’d split the production costs, DirectTV would air the shortened season (13 episodes, much like other ‘quality’ seasons on HBO, AMC, etc.) in the Fall on their DirectTV channel, then NBC would air the episodes in the Spring.
Late last year, after much hand ringing, DirectTV reupped the deal for two additional seasons, which means Friday Night Lights will be ours for the next two years. NBC can continue mis-marketing it as a sexy teen show, as they do in the picture below.
No matter. It doesn’t need to perform on traditional network levels, so it can develop as it will, continuing the trend of the absolutely remarkable third season. And judging by the first four episodes of season four, even though Coach Taylor and Landry now have to wear red, the show’s loyalties — to those who appreciate its particular style of storytelling — remain steady.
Confession: It’s the week before finals. Not only am I still enrolled in two classes (the last two classes of my LIFE) but I’m also conferencing with 60 students concerning final papers. And giving a final. And packing up my entire life to move to Walla Walla, WA for the semester. So we’re going to have a few guest posts to tide us over — including the following, from the uber-talented Racquel Gonzales, a graduate student in the RTF Department and soap opera (and soap fandom) expert extraordinaire.
In case you haven’t heard, James Franco of Freaks and Geeks, Spiderman, and Pineapple Express fame officially started his guest star stint November 20th on General Hospital, the long-running ABC soap. If you are scratching your heads, you are in great company with news outlets, gossip columnists, and arguably many Franco fans who just saw him in the Oscar-winning film Milk with a guest star appearance for 30 Rock. I’m not going to focus on James Franco’s reasons for temporarily showing off his acting chops in Port Charles because it has been exhaustively scrutinized, investigated, and rumored by almost everyone covering the story (including soap sites and fans in comment sections): Why is Franco acting on GH, a [insert dismissive, snarky comment regarding low budget/bad acting/cardboard sets]? Was it a bet gone wrong with Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow? Is he on drugs? Is it a school project? Why Franco why? Everybody wants justification as to why Franco, a movie star, would want to be on a soap opera, a supposed vast, vapid, bottom-of-the-barrel wasteland of entertainment and acting talent. I’d like to point out Franco has received ridiculously massive attention and publicity over this decision, possibly even more than garnered with previous projects. Ask not what Franco can do for GH, but what is GH doing for Franco?
I’d like to shed a little light on the other side: How did/do GH fans react to James Franco coming onto their soap? People not engaged in soap opera discussion or fandom may assume that viewers were verklempt and moon-eyed that a famous movie star came down from the heavens of Hollywood to guest star on their lil’ daytime show. While some were, I found other reactions a bit more complicated. As a media scholar, one of my research concerns is the negotiations between the contemporary daytime industry and fan communities online. I am still grappling with the potential differences between online and offline soap viewers, so I am speaking specifically about those fans that engage online. There were and continue to be varied reactions to the news. Understandably, there was a lot of confusion and dismissal of the news as a hoax because the story spread on soap message boards days before there were official blog entries confirming it on entertainment sites. How? A little tweet by Jillian Michaels about Franco coming on for two months. Who is Michaels to the soap world? Besides being a trainer on The Biggest Loser, she is also best friends with Vanessa Marcil. Some of you may know her from Beverly Hills 90210 or Las Vegas. If you’re a gossip follower, she is Brian Austin Green’s ex and mom to the little boy frequently accompanying Megan Fox in paparazzi pictures. However, GH viewers know her as Brenda Barrett, half of arguably the biggest supercouple of the 90’s and a third of the most popular soap triangle. A GH fan tweeted Michaels about Marcil coming back to GH, Michaels responded, and then the investigation started across several soap boards and on Twitter (including several tweets to a clueless Bob Harper, one of the other trainers of The Biggest Loser). Officially confirmation occurred after Steve Burton, aka GH‘s Jason Morgan, spilled the beans on Twitter. The contemporary gossip industry is always in a fight over breaking the news first. And in this case, online soap communities spread the story with each other even before soap gossip sites picked it up. I find this particularly interesting because calculated or not, it was a very successful way to get online fans invested in the news by way of a scavenger hunt.
Franco’s first day on General Hospital
Understandably, there was wide spread excitement and anticipation because there are Franco fans who are GH fans and vice versa. The lines between soap viewing, primetime show viewing, and film-going aren’t as strongly demarcated as they may appear though barriers are placed there. Based on some comments, Franco’s presence actually hooked lapsed GH fans into watching again—undoubtedly one of the goals of the ABC Daytime executives (Did I mention his character is named “Franco”? Just so there is no doubt about Franco and GH’s mutual exploitation of each other). However for others, there is annoyance and dismay, because Franco follows many recent guest star appearances on GH (see Bruce Weitz and Vincent Pastore) that typically result in stalled storylines across the canvas, a centralized focus on violence, and little to no long-term effects because these casting stunts are quick attempts to boost the ratings. Franco’s star power is more widely known than Weitz or Pastore, which prompted apprehensive considerations about how his character would affect other characters’ airtimes. Surprisingly, indifference seems to pervade fan debates about whether or not Franco is really that big of a star to merit such attention. He may be a good actor, but is he a star? On various forums, early shorthand for Franco was “that Spiderman guy” or “the dude from Freaks and Geeks,” which raises questions about how stars are defined in particular communities and points to a potential hierarchy in fan star-making.
Believe it or not, the most talked about soap appearance within the last few months for GH was actually not James Franco, but the return of Jonathan Jackson as Lucky Spencer. This news was released days before Franco’s yet dominated conversation for several weeks. Why would this news rival the appearance of Franco? First, Lucky is the son of Luke and Laura, the soap supercouple whose 1981 wedding still holds the Nielsen daytime ratings record. They were not just a soap phenomenon, but a significant part of American popular culture. If you think Franco is a big deal for the soap world, keep in mind that Luke and Laura’s wedding featured Elizabeth Taylor as the guest star. Therefore, there are strong historical connections between GH fans and Jackson, who played Lucky from childhood to a young adult, allowing the audience to see him grow up on screen from 1993-1999. Some have been hoping for his return to soaps though he has moved on to larger projects like playing Kyle Reese in the now cancelled Terminator: Sarah Conner Chronicles. While Franco is a huge star, he and his character have no ties to the GH canvas like Jackson and the character of Lucky Spencer. The daytime soap industry has traditionally used viewing memory and nostalgia to reward (and exploit) fan loyalty and tap into their textual investment. The “return” has always been an important narrative choice in the serial medium because of its emotional resonance with fans who have long viewing histories with a show. You’ll find really memorable soap episodes often feature guest returns by former actors and utilize flashbacks like One Life to Live’s 9,999th and 10,000th episode celebration in 2007. Nathan Fillion endeared himself to the entire soap community by reprising his role as Joey Buchanan for these episodes as a way of honoring his show business start, rather than trying to hide it. For many viewers, watching Fillion’s Joey reunite with old cougar flame Dorian in the 2007 episodes during his grandfather’s funeral conjures up their viewing memories of a relationship that began in 1994 (do check out Fillion’s adorable early 90′s ‘do)
I bring up Fillion’s case because it highlights the complicated negotiation between soap operas and its stars like having multiple actors in a single role. Though a fan favorite, Fillion was one of six different actors to play Joey Buchanan on OLTL. His tenure was from 1994-1997 and the aforementioned 2007 return episodes, however he was the fourth Joey and not even the actor to have played the role the longest. But he is seen as the quintessential “Joey” and soap fans followed him to his subsequent TV and film projects. However, other roles occupied by multiple actors can end up being a site of contention among soap audiences. This division of fan loyalty is often referred to online as being a character fan first (characterFF), an actor fan first (actorFF), and even a couple and show fan first, delineating where your loyalities lie. Due to the long, serialized nature of soap operas, recasting is a necessity since characters can exist for decades on the canvas and sometimes outlive their portrayers. Fans often have hierarchies in their loyalties towards particular actors or to soap characters regardless who is currently in the role, though preferences are made known. Quite common, fans follow their favorite soap stars when/if the actors migrate to another soap or even primetime. Soap stars may make daytime their permanent home like Susan Lucci (Erica Kane on All My Children) or move from soap star to primetime TV or film stardom like Josh Duhamel (ex-Leo on AMC). There is cultural caché that circulates around soap message boards about “discovering” a star first or being a fan before an actor makes it big since soaps comprise the early careers of many actors.
This division is the core issue over Jackson’s return as Lucky and a central reason why the news overshadowed Franco’s appearance. Plain and simple, it was old fashion drama behind the scenes. Jackson’s return was announced while Greg Vaughan, the third actor to play the character, was still in the role and starring in episodes. Likewise, Jackson made his premiere while Vaughan’s face was still in the opening credits of the show. This is not the first time ABC has switched between the recast and original portrayer. For example, AMC’s “The Real Greenlee” ad campaign celebrated the return of Rebecca Budig, the role’s orginator, while the recast Greenlee was still occupying the role. While that campaign garnered a lot of online fan criticism, the Jackson casting news was particularly angering to some GH fans because Vaughan had played Lucky the longest (from 2003-2009). Soap loyalty is cultivated with an actor-character’s constant presence on a show. But on the flipside, there are fan loyalties for the actors who originated the roles. And of course, many fans were caught between their love of both Jackson and Vaughan’s Luckys due to viewing memories with both.
Adding fuel to the fire, Vaughan tweeted shortly after the news broke that GH had decided to go in a different direction, thus letting him go to hire Jackson. In contrast, GH and ABC’s official stance was Vaughan asked to be let out of his contract. Soap forums erupted in various heated conversations: which actor was the true/real/only/most soulful Lucky? Are you a LuckyFF or a GVFF or a JJFF? Is ABC telling the truth or Vaughan? And possibly the most curious, was Jackson told Vaughan was leaving or getting fired so Jackson could return? Twitter remained part of these discussions as current GH actors tweeted their personal reactions to Vaughan’s departure. In regards to Vaughan’s truthfulness, countless posters defended him by pointing to his steadfast performance of Lucky during what many fans claim to be the worst period in GH writing history. During Jackson’s years, Lucky was a core character and written in a completely different light than under the current tenure, where Vaughan’s Lucky was written as a low-level antagonist to the mobster heroes currently central. If what partly makes a star is the role or roles he/she plays, how do we deal with multiple actors in a single role? These debates about the true Lucky brought out comparisons of fans’ viewing histories and their personal attachment to Jackson, Vaughan, and occasionally Jacob Young, who played Lucky #2 from 2000-2003. While recasting upsets are prevalent in the entertainment industry, comparison is difficult due to the shifting in-and-out of actors in a constantly moving, decades-long story. I would be curious to see the online reactions if the next Bond film had an accompanying “Sean Connery: The REAL James Bond” ad campaign while Daniel Craig got booted. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if a “Who is the true James Bond?” discussion hasn’t already taken place for many fans of the franchise.
Throughout, Vaughan and Jackson’s personal lives and personalities were central to conversations. Fans shared personal anecdotes from meeting the actors and from reading about each from soap magazines and soap gossip websites. Soap stars are produced and consumed for and by soap fans in very similar ways to those of film stars. At the grocery store checkout, the soap magazines are right next to In Touch, US Weekly, and People. There are soap gossip sites (and some “hidden”) that deliver rumors, casting decisions, behind-the-scenes antics, and industry practices for fans to devour or refute. Historically, the boundary between soap fans and soap stars has been purposefully collapsed in many ways to foster personal relationships (or feelings of one) to ensure viewers. Fan investment is the key to a soap opera’s success and this is one way to achieve closeness to the text—through its stars. Soap magazines typically talk about an actor in contrast or comparison to their on-screen counterpart, blurring the lines between character and actor. Furthermore, news about former soap stars (like Duhamel getting married to Fergie) always make the soap gossip circuit as do blind items. With the exception of The Young and the Restless, opening sequences that feature character montages don’t display actors’ names so that character identification is priority.
The daytime industry, ABC especially, promotes fan interaction with soap stars at events like Super Soap Weekend. Every year, the official GH Fan Club holds Fan Club Weekend in Southern California where fans can meet their favorite GH stars and other fans for a healthy piece of change. These events allow fans to take pictures, get autographs, and talk with soap stars as well as enter auctions to visit and tour the GH set. Most uniquely, the Fan Club Weekend event and smaller meet-and-greets throughout the year allow fans to Q&A with their soap favorites about future storylines, their personal likes and dislikes, and voice their frustration or admiration about the direction of the show. In fact, myriad online defenses for Vaughan became personal fan accounts about his cordial nature at these events and his honesty about Lucky’s unfortunate story direction. Thus, it’s important to note that relationships cultivated with soap stars are both an emotional investment of time and viewing loyalty, but also an economical one as these fan events are not cheap when factoring in travel arrangements and club dues. All these situations work primarily to keep fans invested in the soap opera text regardless of whether or not they are currently happy with the show.
Looking at soap fandom can provide another layer to the question “how are stars made and disseminated amongst fans?” As an on-again/off-again soap viewer and soap scholar, I find that the internet has made the negotiations among soap fan, soap star, and soap industry quite muddled and dynamic especially with star identification. If you are curious for extra reading, I highly recommend C. Lee Harrington and Denise D. Bielby’s Soap Fans: Pursuing Pleasure and Making Meaning in Everyday Life and Nancy K. Baym’s Tune In, Log On: Soaps, Fandom, and Online Community. Both are great pieces discussing soap fans as well as core texts used in academic conversations about the fan-star relationships in general. Also, check out the upcoming The Survival of the Soap Opera: Strategies for a New Media Era (University of Mississippi Press, 2010), a collection of various scholarship on contemporary soap issues in the digital age, including a personal article about GH nostalgia, industry-fan negotiations, and critical discourse surrounding General Hospital: Night Shift.
Much appreciation and thanks to Annie for providing me the space and opportunity to talk about James Franco, Lucky Spencers, and General Hospital.
The following is a guest post from R. Colin Tait, RTF Ph.D. student and my personal informant on all things Canadian, including Rachel McAdams, hockey, universal healthcare, and not paying for grad school.
Brennan: You know what? I still hate you, but you have a pretty awesome collection of nudie mags.
Dale: Yeah, I got ‘em from the seventies, eighties and nineties. It’s like masturbating in a time machine.
- Brennan (Will Ferrell) to Dale (John C. Reilly) in Step Brothers
First off, I want to thank Annie for letting me do some cyber-squatting on her otherwise excellent blog, and second, let me state at the outset that these thoughts are part of a larger work-in-progress, tentatively titled “Absurd Masculinity: The Time-Bending Comic Persona of Will Ferrell.” So thanks to all of you in advance for entertaining some of these half-formed (or perhaps malformed) thoughts.
This project is motivated by my larger interest in film nostalgia, particularly for the 1970s and as replayed in contemporary film culture. My central question begins and ends with Anchorman as well as a whole wealth of comedies, all of which highlight the absurdities of excessive masculinity across different time periods. I am interested in comedies set in the recent past – including Superbad (which seems to be set in the eighties), The Wedding Singer, in addition to The Royal Tennenbaums — a comedy(?) set simultaneously in a strange in-between place that is the seventies and the present.
Will Ferrell’s portrayal of Ron Burgundy is the chief illustration of this trend. We can add a series of films where the male protagonists depict man-children of a certain age (around the 40-Year Old Virgin mark) who haven’t “grown up” or are stuck in some sort of state of adolescent sexuality or man-child-ness. These films not only include the recent “Bromances” (I Love You Man, Role Models) but also the residents of “Old School” and certainly almost every one of Adam Sandler’s films, whose characters live in either a literal or figurative past.
Will Ferrell is the latest and most successful within this larger phenomenon, not only because of his appealing comic persona, but in the way that he seemingly destabilizes traditional notions of history, sexuality, and politics through his excessively absurd portrayals of childhood, adolescence, in addition to retaining a core stable of comic traits. I will argue that part of Ferrell’s appeal (and ultimately why he is so funny) is his willingness to pierce traditional notions of male power, to put his naked body in the service of destabilizing concepts such as attractiveness, and ultimately his association with eras that he has obviously lived through, representing the full range of childish or adolescent sexuality from the perspective of absurd critique. This work involves looking at the core of Ferrell’s comic traits including key scenes, as well as linking Ferrell’s success to a nostalgic depiction of both the way things were, but also the way that they never were. In this sense, I propose that Ferrell’s persona is “time-bending;” my allusion to the idea of gender bending but through his revisitation in particular eras. The reward of watching his films is built upon the fact that his comedy depends on our built-in foreknowledge that Ferrell is presenting us with the absurdities and excesses rather than the defenses of the eras he’s referring to.
In terms of contemporary film stardom, Ferrell is a consistent draw at the box-office, with some very big exceptions such as big studio films like Bewitched and most recently Land of the Lost. For the most part, his films from Anchorman onward (and his collaborations with Adam McKay) are consistently profitable and generally over-perform at the box-office. Additionally, as retrospectives of the first decade of the new millennium begin to show their faces, we can see that the 2000s were marked, in part, by the rise and peak within Ferrell’s career as he moves from the sidelines as a memorable bit player (some might say the most memorable player in certain films such as Old School and Zoolander) and emerges as a genuine box-office comedy star. As recently as this last week New York Times critic A. O. Scott listed the best of the last decade he almost mentioned Ferrell as a significant afterthought.
While sometimes associated with the larger movement somewhat problematically called the “Frat Pack” which is even more commonly associated with writer/producer Judd Apatow – whose “laugh factory” includes what could be effectively called a reparatory company of actors and writers such as Vince Vaughan, Ben Stiller, Jason Segel, Leslie Mann, Paul Rudd among many others – Ferrell brings his own brand of comic sensibility to the discussion, which may begin with Apatow, McKay and others, but remains consistently and uniquely linked to the actor’s comic persona.
Will Ferrell’s comic persona is unique insofar as it possesses the following “time-bending” features, “man as child,” “man as adolescent,” “man as reactionary” and “man out of time.” The best of Ferrell’s characters generally overlap these categories. First, Ferrell is associated with a “man as child” childish grown-up, prone to temper tantrums (and yelling) and wearing clothes that are far too tight.
(Quintessential Ferrell vehicle Elf)
This first category accounts for the actor’s first hits, particularly as he moves from a sideline and TV player to a bona fide box-office draw and carries through (somewhat more perversely) to Step Brothers.
The second category, “man as adolescent” is best embodied by “Frank the Tank” in Old School in addition to his depiction of President George W. Bush on Saturday Night Live and You’re Welcome America: An Evening With George W. Bush.
(Frank the Tank while still married)
The third category, “man as reactionary,” presents a man who is simultaneously in and out of his time, best embodied by North Carolina race car driver Ricky Bobby. In the case of Bobby, the childhood trauma of his father’s abandonment forces him to question his excessive materialist (and perhaps American) values at the end of the film.
(Ricky Bobby espouses the family values of a white baby Jesus and capitalism, brought to you by Pizza Hut and Taco Bell)
The most interesting of these categories for me (and ultimately what draws me to Ferrell as a performer) is “man out of time.” The atemporality of Ferrell’s portrayal usually infuses his characters with a self-reflexive commentary on the era his characters are set in. The fact that Ron Burgundy plays the jazz flute, an anachronism in our era to say the least, is part of this humor, as is the claim by designer Mugatu (in Zoolander) that his claim to fame was inventing the piano-key necktie.
(Ron Burgundy plays the jazz flute)
The reflexive presence of hyper-masculine Ron Burgundy, Ferrell’s portrayal as one half of the Woodward and Bernstein team (in Dick), the association of designer Mugatu as a former member of 80s group Frankie Goes to Hollywood, are examples of how this phenomenon plays out.
Ferrell’s best characters are borne of this temporal gray area. They are literally man-children born in the 1970s – sometimes literally like Brennan of Step-Brothers or Buddy from Elf, or are associated in some way with a previous decade – Ron Burgundy, the 70s anchorman, 70s Detroit basketball team owner Jackie Moon, or the cowbell player from the famous “more cowbell” sketch.
(My apologies, but this is the best version of this available on youtube)
Importantly, all of these characters are men seemingly “out of time,” males whose extreme whiteness and overdetermined masculinity are made absurd through the process of the film or (sketch’s) narrative. It is as if because Ferrell is of a particular age (moving onto forty, if not right in his forties) he best embodies this “arrested development” inherent in contemporary masculinity, which he both explodes the expectations of, while simultaneously reconstituting a new formulation of it.
I would like to suggest that Will Ferrell’s emergence as a star as dependent on two factors. First, Ferrell’s developed a distinctive comic personality over the course of the 1990s on Saturday Night Live during his tenure from 1995-2006. Second, I imagine that Ferrell’s depiction of a hysterical rendition of excessive masculinity corresponds with the nostalgic paradoxes of the post-9/11 era. Importantly, this “excessive masculinity” is really funny.
This initial period is formative for Ferrell and for his audiences, in part because of his collaboration with then-SNL writer Adam McKay. The duo would go on to form an effective partnership which accounts for Ferrell’s greatest successes, including his three biggest films, Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers. We can also see Saturday Night Live as an effective producer of pop-cultural personalities, references and star personas. In this way, it nearly resembles an earlier version of stardom in the Vaudeville era, where performers enter a market with fully-rendered star persona traits. To be certain, some performers fare better than others, but Saturday Night Live has more often than not been successful precisely because it so effectively creates and cultivates stars on its show. Although billed as an ensemble program, gradually it elevates certain performers over others, grooming them eventually for film stardom as others in the cast recede or become supporting actors in this system.
We can see Ferrell’s rise as following performers such as Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, Eddie Murphy and John Belushi, each of whom effectively constructed comedic star personas that expanded outward after years of apprenticeship in this staging ground. At the same time, we can see that the range of these actors and their roles remains consistent throughout their subsequent careers, so that the kinds of films that Myers, Sandler and others follow a limited set of traits and which usually exploit the personality traits honed on the Show.
For Ferrell, these traits included what are now staples within his film repertoire. They include the aforementioned temper tantrums, (as seen in one of his earliest sketches featured Ferrell as a father at Thanksgiving dinner who repeatedly threw over the kitchen table, declaring a censored “Fuck this, I’m leaving!”) in addition to imitating antiquated pop-cultural figures, including Neil Diamond, Robert Goulet and Alex Trebek (who is nearly atemporal as he exists in reruns and syndication) and the “more cowbell” guy.
In each case, Ferrell can be expected to throw some sort of temper tantrum, sing, or embody an outdated mode of male-ness, that has long since gone out of style. Ferrell’s physicality – and often enough what has been described as his “doughy nudity” – achieves comedic precisely because of its inappropriateness and its deviation from the norm. As with all Saturday Night Live comedians, Ferrell also became famous by imitating George W. Bush throughout his presidency.
This depiction of Bush as a petulant frat-boy is also interesting as a historical phenomenon. It is worth pursuing how these comedy traits carry over into different aspects of pop-culture, particularly as Ferrell crosses media into the talk show circuit (sometimes taking entire characters with him) and further expanding his comic presence across media industries.
(A fictional character pitching a real product)
(“Robert Goulet” appears on Conan O’Brien)
In this vein, Ferrell can be seen as embodying an older style of comic personality, such as Groucho Marx’s hosting game shows, and his later appearances on shows such as Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett.
History and Masculinity in Crisis?
Moving on to the specifics of Ferrell’s contingent history, I would like to follow some comments such as those made by K.W. Kusz who in his essay “Remasculinizing American White Guys in/Through New Millennium American Sport Films,” suggests that the ascent of comics such as Ferrell, Vince Vaughan and Judd Apatow’s are historically-contingent on the post-9/11 era and are reacting to a particular crisis of American masculinity under threat during the “War on Terror.”
While I find some of these ideas convincing – particularly Peter Alilunas’ excellent study across Vince Vaughan’s career, which certainly intersects with Ferrell’s – I find some of the valances of these arguments slightly problematic. This is especially true of the critical engagement with Talladega Nights, a film that Heather Laine Talley and Monica J. Casper state that they “are deeply concerned” with the possibility that the film presents another opportunity to “laugh at ‘gay men’” “Southerners,” or “the working class without “being critical of the assumptions that this humor depends on” (Laine and Casper 2007). Part of the problem with these analyses is that they take the films (and their various plot points) entirely seriously (which may be something that I am admittedly guilty of here) whereas Ferrell’s comedy leaves room for a certain amount of “play” and perhaps even some critique to take place. Added to this I would argue that what makes Ferrell’s persona so likable is he manages to take standard representations of gender, of maturity, of sexuality, and presents their absurdity for comedic effect.
The actor’s various outbursts during crisis points serve as part of this effect (such as Mugatu’s screaming of “I invented the piano-key neck-tie!” during the climax of the film) or as Ricky Bobby strips down to his underwear to run around the racetrack in Talladega Nights when he imagines himself to be on fire.
(Mugatu faces off against “Blue Steel”)
(Ricky Bobby is on “fire”)
In both cases, it is the inappropriateness the outbursts that provide the humor within these scenes in addition to Ferrell’s obvious and near-nudity.
Ferrell’s physical comedy is also important here, as one of the trademarks of this public persona is presented by the absurdity of his ubiquitous nudity. The most famous example of this is in Old School where Frank the Tank’s “Let’s go streaking!” provides one of the film’s most humorous moments. In addition, his climactic “ribbon dance” may have marked a turning point in the actor’s career. We can also expect Ferrell to break into an overly sentimental song from the 70s, 80s or 90s, as he does in this scene from Old School, but also in almost every other one of his films.
(Frank sings “Dust in the Wind” – a rendition that is as comedic as it is earnest)
In both examples, Ferrell seemingly explodes both the expectations of male camaraderie and love in addition to a bravura display of sentimentality and an implosion of gender expectations.
Finally, this expansion of boundaries can be seen in the penultimate scene in Talladega Nights as the actor’s climactic run to the finish line in order to beat gay French racecar rival Jean Girard.
(“You taste of America”)
What is interesting to me about this clip is the way that it combines and problematizes the notions of masculinity (and politics) as it simultaneously presents an ideological message (complete with a waving American flag in the background) in addition to a long man-on-man kiss at the end of the scene. Once again, the inclusion of all things, a Pat Benetar song is important, as it aids in evoking the simultaneity of the past and present, and its ongoing association with Ferrell’s comic personality.
Gender Politics and Sensitive Expressivity
I would like to end on this note, as I believe that Ferrell’s films and his comic stardom raises some interesting questions within a larger discourse of contemporary masculinity. The first of these ideas relates to the setting of many of these films, presenting absurdly anachronistic versions of “normative” masculine behavior and how in almost every case, Ferrell’s humor derives entirely on deflating and expanding these gender norms. Relating back to my earlier discussion of Ferrell’s “time-bending” qualities, Ferrell infuses past and present depictions of masculinity with either a childish or adolescent sensibility, in addition to his willingness to go over the top by way of a sickly-sweet sensitivity. Added to this is the notion that somehow Ferrell embodies “the way things” were in a hyper-stylized manner that ultimately opens the past up for ridicule.
Buddy the Elf is clearly the best (and perhaps most successful) example of this fusion of the man-child within a contemporary cynical sphere (New York City no less), but there are clearly numerous other examples. As the actor continues to be associated with specific periods and characters who live in the past, Ferrell’s inappropriate comic appropriation of these eras ultimately reward us with the big laughs that we get from watching one of his films.
Finally, Ferrell’s portrayal and association with George W. Bush, throughout and after his presidency may provide us with an interesting window through which we can view the political effect of Ferrell’s comedy. As opposed to critics like Kusz, who is prepared to take Ferrell’s films at face value as part of a larger movement of reactionary gender politics, perhaps we can see the comic’s portrayal of Bush as largely countering these claims.
In (one of) his most recent releases, Ferrell portrays the ex-President as a petulant and bratty Frat-boy, undercutting his potency as a hyper-masculine figure and great leader.
(“How come you’re the only one in our family that speaks with a Texas accent?”)
What is especially interesting to me about this scene is how the line between the portrayal of George Bush and Will Ferrell is so fine, and how this particular story allows Ferrell to use the full range of his comic persona, submerged within a larger historical figure. At the heart of things, it would seem to me that this presents an absurd critique of the excessive masculine patriotism that emerged during this specific time.
Maybe we’ll have to wait until Anchorman 2 to see how all of this plays out, but for now, I hope that I have outlined some of the larger points about Ferrell’s comic personality and made a case for his “time-bending” comic persona.
If not, I had lots of fun stringing a bunch of great clips together which is just as important to me. Thanks to all for reading.
Works Cited (or parenthetically referred to )
Alilunas, Peter, Nothing I Ever Do Is Good Enough: Masculinities in the Films of Vince Vaughan. MA Thesis, The University of Texas at Austin, 2008.
—. “Male Masculinity as the Celebration of Failure: The Frat Pack, Women, and the Trauma of Victimization in the ‘Dude Flick.’” Mediascape, UCLA (Spring, 2008).
Kusz, Kyle W., “Remasculinizing American White Guys in/Through New Millennium American Sport Films,” Sport in Society,2008, 11:2,209-226.
Talley, Heather Laine and Casper, Monica J., “A Response to the Motion Picture Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” in Journal of Sport and Social Issues 2007; 31; 434
Today’s excellent post comes courtesy of fellow UT media studies grad student Mabel Rosenheck, whose undying passion for the Phillies has *almost* convinced me to put away my Minnesota Twins Homer Hankie.
(Or maybe it’s just Chase Utley, who can really say).
And specifically, Chase Utley meet the minivan majority and minivan majority meet Chase Utley. Chase Utley is the Philadelphia Phillies 30 year old second baseman. Since getting the call up to the big leagues in 2003, Utley has been named an all-star 4 times, the best offensive player at his position three times and to Team USA at the World Baseball Classic twice. He hits for average (career .295) and power (20+ home runs and close to 100 RBI in his 5 full seasons as an everyday player). He has speed (stealing 23 bases this year, a career high). He has defense. He catches balls that should be hits in right field and throws to first to complete the double play. He is what baseball people call a five-tool player, a Mickey Mantle, a Hank Aaron.
He is also adorable. Not only does he have all-American good lucks replete with deep blue eyes that can send a 95 mile an hour fastball into the stands, but he has also been voted People magazine’s sexiest man in the World Series. Sexier than Derek Jeter. Sexier than Alex Rodriguez. Chase Utley is sexier than Kate Hudson’s boyfriend (or if you prefer a brunette on television, sexier than Minka Kelly’s boyfriend).
He’s also worried about the environment. And he loves puppies. Every athlete has a pet charity, Utley’s comes courtesy of his wife’s dedication to the PSPCA. And the reason she got so involved with the PSPCA? Because she wanted a life of her own when her husband is on the road.
But there’s more.
In 2007, Utley signed a 7-year, $85 million contract, foregoing arbitration and opting not to test the free agent market when his initial contract would have expired in 2012. In other words, he is loyal. And though 11 million is nothing to scoff at, with top players like Alex Rodriguez making close to $30 million, and Utley’s worth undoubtedly closer to 20 million than 10… It’s hard to call the guy greedy.
And the list goes on. He hates the spotlight. He just wants to be left alone so he can play the game he loves. He doesn’t want to be a hero. He just wants to help his team and win the World Series. He’s incredibly wholesome, but he’s also just crazy enough to drop the F-bomb on live television.
What Phillies fans have known for years, the rest of the country, and perhaps the minivan majority in particular have discovered this postseason. Chase Utley is not only the man, he just might be their man. The Yankees may have won but Utley may have been the one to make the impression.
There are two linked star systems which must be explored in order to better understand where Utley’s stardom is, where it is not and why. First we should return to a few key points in Annie’s initial blog posting on the minivan majority and second we should examine the construction of sports stardom generally and baseball specifically.
The idea that “people of any race, color, creed or background can make something of themselves with hard work” is of course, the foundation of the American dream of success and affluence. It is also the idea that, perhaps more than any other, underpins the ideology of sport. Fundamental to Utley’s stardom is his dedication to the team and the game. Stories on him often refer to his aggressive workouts, playing injured and incessant game tape viewing. There are a few interesting contrasts to Utley here. One is the perceived laziness of a player like Manny Ramirez who, particularly when playing in Boston in 2008 was criticized for not running out grounders or hustling to fly balls. Another is the undisciplined bodies of big players like Yankees pitcher C.C. Sabathia who is 6’7” and 290 pounds whose size was somewhat inexplicably remarked upon repeatedly in game 4 of this year’s World Series. The point here is that hard work and the disciplined body are linked to a series of discourses which are vital to the game as America’s game, and both the game and the minivan majority as embodiments of America and the American dream.
Yet also important to note is that Utley’s body is not too disciplined. He is a model of moderation in every way. In his Phillies uniform we never see flexed biceps or rippling abs. The most we are treated to is a sly glance at his cute butt in tight baseball pants if the camera happens to be cooperating. Though some players conduct shirtless interviews in the clubhouse, never Utley. In endorsements, if not in his uniform, he wears baggy (but not too baggy) athletic shorts and a t-shirt tucked in to the waistband. Though drafted out of high school, he opted instead to attend UCLA where he met his future wife. They dated for 6 years, most of those years long distance, before marrying. Yet they do not embody strict gender roles. Though only now beginning to get press coverage, she is always portrayed as his equal and her confidence in front of the camera is in stark contrast to Chase’s shyness. She is a twenty-first century woman and he a twenty-first century man. They are conservative, as in “those who would like to conserve the current state of things.” She is not a radical feminist, but neither is she Victoria Beckham (or Kate Hudson).
This issue of moderation further speaks to stardom as a dialectic between the ordinary and the extraordinary. One of the brilliant things about sports stardom is how it upholds beauty standards in this dialectic. Utley doesn’t wear makeup on the field, he really looks like that. But we don’t love him for the way he looks (which after all is in part only extraordinary compared to his competition), rather we love him for the way he plays (which has its own aesthetics). And this dialectic is worth highlighting. His athleticism in concert with his good looks provides a powerful moment for awestruck gazes of both women and men, which I would argue is an important function of sports stardom for the minivan majority. Among the recent publicized examples of the male love affair with Utley are Mac’s love letter on a recent episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Joe Posnaski’s ode to Utley’s swing on espn.com. There has also been coverage in People and elsewhere of this team’s sex appeal for women. It is noteworthy here that minivan majority celebrity gossip outlets like People and Access Hollywood have developed an investment in Utley’s stardom and his start text in the past week or so. Though I’m sure they regularly follow Alex Rodriguez and Kate Hudson, there are never interviews with Jimmy Rollins’ fiancé, or C.C. Sabathia’s wife but there are with Jennifer Utley.
Though I could further explore the fascinating gender politics at stake in the Utleys, instead I wish to use this as a segue to another of Annie’s points about members of the minivan majority and the Utleys, they are white. Contemporary sports are generally dominated by blacks (and in baseball’s case, latinos). The NBA is 76% black, the NFL, 66%, Major League Baseball? 60% white (about 8% black, and %30 Latino). MLB, with a star like Chase Utley would seem primed for the minivan majority to launch him into superstardom. But the problem with Utley, I think, is that the sports media doesn’t know what to do with him. Because of his intense privacy (and being a legendarily terrible interviewee and never having any soundbites worth airing again and again and again), they can do nothing but watch him play, watch his white, male body in motion and watch that swing. and I think there is a discomfort there that prevents Utley from becoming a more conventional sports star. This is also however, what makes him potentially the perfect embodiment of the star. As Orin Starn related for the New York Times “we want these athletes to astonish us, but we also want to imagine them as someone like us.” With no fixed identity, Utley’s authentic, white masculinity allows the minivan majority– both male and female– to imagine away. He embodies (and brings forth) the anxiety of both the male gaze and the active female gaze up on the white male body. Thus far, People and Access Hollywood (though also It’s Always Sunny) seem to have been more successful in capitalizing on that anxiety which he embodies. It remains to be seen whether the sports media, ESPN or Major League Baseball will find a way to parlay Chase Utley into the minivan majority icon that he clearly could be.
(Note: The following post is another ‘co-production’ with my friend Alaina Smith,with whom I have debated the subject of many a blind item.)
“If every closeted actor in Hollywood came out, now, that would be something…
since I can count all the straight leading men on one hand.”
-Commentor BugMeNot on Deadline Hollywood Daily
Gay rumors in Hollywood are as old as the proverbial hills – from Cary Grant’s roommate to John Travolta’s apparent disregard for the conventions of the man hug. Any given week, Gawker’s blind item roundup includes at least one item about a closeted gay actor, and many of Lainey Gossip’s blind items address gay rumors (check out Cuba and Chocolate, Trailer Visits, and Two Boys in the City. And then there’s the one about the Flying Star.)
In light of this recent article in in the LA Weekly, and Nikke Finke’s response, we thought we’d take another look at gay rumors in Hollywood, some notable comings-out, and ask the questions: Do the rumors really matter? Is coming out career suicide? Or is America finally ready for its girls-next-door, action heroes, and/or certain well-known Scientologists to come out of the closet? (Hint: the lawyers don’t think so.)
Before we begin, we might take a step back and consider how rumor plays into the formation of star image. A few years back, I (Annie) published a piece in Jump Cut on Perez Hilton and celebrity gossip blogging. In addition to exploring the role of gossip blogging in the “new” game of star production, I considered how Hilton’s dissemination of rumor (especially concerning homosexuality) functioned: does speculating something about a star have the same weight as asserting it? Put differently, how do certain rumors potentially alter what that star signifies or “means”? A star may not, in fact, be gay – but how does hinting at homosexuality damage (or elevate) his/her image?
Cruise’s “accuser” Kyle Bradford
If gossip and rumors weren’t powerful, they wouldn’t be prosecutable. As multiple defamation and libel suits have claimed, associating someone’s “good name” with “bad behavior” may damage his/her potential as an earner. This argument was most forcefully articulated in Tom Cruise’s 2001 defamation suit against Chad Taylor, aka Kyle Bradford, who sold his story of a homosexual encounter with Cruise to a Spanish tabloid. Cruise’s lawyers claimed the following:
“Bradford’s defamatory remarks are of the kind calculated to cause Cruise harm in his profession and his ability to earn [...] Losing the respect and enthusiasm of a substantial segment of the movie-going public would cause Cruise very substantial sums. While the plaintiff believes in the right of others to follow their own sexual preference, vast numbers of public throughout the world do not share that view and believing that he had a homosexual affair and did so during his marriage, they will be less inclined to patronize Cruise’s films…” (Complaint is available in full at The Smoking Gun.)
Cruise and his lawyers thus construct rumor – and rumor of homosexuality in particular – as economically damaging. Cruise sued Bradford not only because Bradford’s story, according to Cruise, was not true – but also because even the implication that it might be true could damage Cruise’s career.
Perez Hilton and others have attacked this standpoint, arguing that it represents an antiquated and anachronistic understanding of society and its growing tolerance of homosexuality. Indeed, some celebrities are arguably more famous and successful after they come out of the closet than before: Ellen DeGeneres, Neil Patrick Harris. Additionally, some celebrities seem to be unaffected by admission or rumors of homosexuality – see the examples of Cynthia Nixon and Jake Gyllenhall.
Cynthia Nixon, most famous for her role as Miranda Hobbes on Sex and the City, was married to a man and raising children during the early part of the series (while her character, a ball-busting lawyer with short hair and tailored suits, was commonly mistaken for a lesbian).
Miranda before Nixon entered a homosexual relationship … and after
Nixon began a relationship with a woman in 2003, which became public in 2004, shortly before the end of the series. Arguably, Nixon’s personal relationship has had no major impact on her career; Sex and the City: The Movie (2008) had the biggest recorded opening for a film starring all women, and Nixon has played both homosexual and heterosexual characters since the series ended. Nixon has said she felt more stigma revealing her battle with breast cancer than her homosexual relationship.
Jake Gyllenhaal made his name in the early part of this decade play brooding, sensitive (heterosexual) types in films like October Sky, Donnie Darko, The Good Girl, Moonlight Mile and Proof. In 2005, he won popular and critical acclaim playing a gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain. He has been in serious relationships with actresses Kirsten Dunst and, recently, Reese Witherspoon.
At the same time, he is most famous for a role where he played a gay man, and he is strongly associated with E! Online columnist Ted Casablanca’s four-year-old blind item Toothy Tile, about a young, up-and-coming actor who pretends to be straight by maintaining high-profile relationships with women, but is secretly dating a man/men. There are entire blogs devoted to guessing the subject of this blind item – and Gyllenhaal is often the only, repeated guess. Yet, his star is also undoubtedly on the rise – he is up next in the eagerly-anticipated Brothers and the big-budget Prince of Persia, and appears weekly in tabloids with Reese Witherspoon and her children.
So why don’t revelations like Nixon’s, and the rumors like those surrounding Gyllenhaal, matter? Let’s look again at the underlying assumption of Cruise’s lawyers’ claims, namely, that insinuating gayness = defamation. That such an argument stood in court – and would most likely continue to stand – speaks loudly as to how far we haven’t come in terms of tolerance and acceptance. But it also implies that what’s really scandalous about ‘maybe gaybe’ rumors is not only the implication of homosexual sexual activity, but the revelation that a star has duped his/her public.
There’s an interesting tension here: the stars most fearful of gay rumors or scared to come out may be those with traditional (read: hetero) sex-symbol status, like male action stars or women who star in romantic comedies. This tension seems to have everything to do with the implicit contract negotiated between stars and fans, e.g., “I am what my image says I am.” When that contract is based on sex appeal (rather than talent or identification) and it is broken — usually through some sort of scandal, generally sexual — fans rebel, renege their fandom, or become generally disillusioned.
What’s at stake with ‘maybe gaybe,’ then, is not only the suggestion of “non-traditional” sexuality, but whether a star has duped or defrauded his/her public. Thus the reluctance of the anonymous celebrities and stars cited in the LA Weekly article: they’re scared not only of the massive task of renegotiating their images (even with the help of coming-out facilitator Howard Bragment), but of how such a renegotiation would compromise their relation to fans.
Neil Patrick Harris hosts the Emmys, to popular acclaim
But let’s be clear: more than anything, these stars are scared. Scared of losing roles, of the new labor that would be required to establish themselves (and their lifestyles) as the type of ‘gay’ that’s palatable (think Ellen), of losing their livelihood altogether. And that fear is justified, as much as we’d like to believe it isn’t. For Neil Patrick Harris and Ellen are in many ways the exceptions that prove the rule: Americans have not yet demonstrated their willingness to financially endorse a homosexual actor in non-niche, non-television roles.
But who knows? Maybe a star could announce his or her homosexuality and continue to play diverse, entertaining, and profitable roles. Fact is, we don’t know how the public would react if one of our leading heartthrobs announced that he was gay – whether that be Cruise, Travolta, Will Smith, or Zac Efron – because no one ever has.
American Idol winner Adam Lambert’s new album cover
In other words, it’s one thing for a niche star like T.R. Knight or Neil Patrick Harris, or a new star like Adam Lambert, to announce or confirm his homosexuality. It’s quite another, as underlined above, to admit to inveigling your audience for years. Thus, it’s this fear of the unknown – of what could happen when that contract between star and fan is so brashly broken – that reinforces and sustains the culture of silence and secrecy in Hollywood.
So, does ‘maybe gaybe’ matter? Gossip theorists believe that talking about the lifestyles and personal choices of stars and celebrities is a way of talking through our own identities – in other words, we displace issues and anxieties that have bearing on our day-to-day lives onto the lives of those in the magazines, making it easier (and less threatening) to work through sensitive issues. While rumors of homosexuality are by no means novel, they have certainly become more salient, and, to a certain extent, more audible, as the internet facilitates both the proliferation of blind items and potentially incriminating photos and the speculation they generate.
Maybe we talk more now about ‘maybe gaybe’ stars because we talk more about gayness and its place in society in general. And while it’s still somewhat dismaying that public opinion and public action don’t always correlate – as evidenced in Tuesday’s election – we may nevertheless think of how stars, and rumors about them, open up space for discourse and potential, if plodding, social change.