The changing face of celebrity culture

Kim Kardashin

Once your reputation made your name. Now it is often the other way round says TP O’Mahony.

In the future, sociologists seeking to explain the emergence, growth and significance of “ celebrity culture” in our time will almost certainly use the expression “the Kardashian factor” as a convenient shorthand description for what is a socio-cultural phenomenon.

Kim Kardashian, the voluptuous American reality TV star who is back with a new series of Keeping Up With The Kardashians, meets more fittingly than most other celebrities, with the possible exception of Paris Hilton, the definition of celebrity advanced by Australian academic David Rolph — “someone who is famous for being famous”.

She certainly epitomises in 2017 a culture in which a celebrity has come to mean a name that was once made by the news, but now makes news by itself, and where some persons acquire a quality or status characterised by a capacity to attract attention. For these persons there is the added advantage of having a name that has an interest-riveting and profit-generating value.

The temptation for some commentators on the media, or popular culture, to dismiss the rise of the cult of celebrity as mere trivia or the peddling of trashy shallowness by tabloids, is understandable but erroneous. In reality, it is a brash and provocative sign and symptom of a major cultural shift.

Not so very long ago (before The Sun newspaper abandoned the daily spread) the Page 3 girl acquired overnight celebrity status, with some — most notably Samantha Fox and Linda Lusardi — going on to develop other showbiz careers, founded on little more than a shapely pair of boobs and a willingness to display them in public.

Other manifestations of this shift are the universal appeal of soap operas, the emergence of Hello! magazine in 1988, the rise of reality TV, the huge success of The X Factor, the presence of Xposé on TV3, and of course the tabloid newspapers, devoted increasingly to the exploits, achievements, foibles, failures, tragedies, and sexual escapades of “celebrities” or even “sub-lebrities” (as one columnist has dubbed them).

Premier League footballers and their WAGS, minor showbiz figures, aspiring models, TV presenters, rock and film stars, royal personages, burlesque dancers, and talk show hosts — these now dominate sections of the media in a way that would have been unthinkable 30 or 40 years ago.

Yes, ever since the early years of the 20th century there has been the “yellow press”, as it was known in the USA, with a muckraking tradition. It wasn’t sexual shenanigans, though, that the “yellow press” wanted to expose. Theirs was a more serious concern. Corruption, not sex, was the “muck’ they were after.

As Neil Henry explained in his book American Carnival, the “muckrakers” believed “in the power of the press to uncover wrongdoing by political and business leaders in order to inform the masses and improve democracy”.

On the other hand, the preoccupation with and heavy emphasis on sex, on sexual affairs and sexual indiscretions and scandals, and on sexual deviance, is very much a post-Second World War media phenomenon. And it was really the sexual revolution of the 1960s that provided the stimulus and the context for the emergence of celebrity culture.

The two Kinsey Reports — the first on ‘Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male’ in 1948, the second on ‘Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female’ in 1953 — were the opening salvoes of the sexual revolution in America. It is also noteworthy that the first issue of Playboy magazine (featuring nude photographs of Marilyn Monroe) was published in 1953.

Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe

In the UK, the Report of the Wolfenden Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution was published in 1957, and led to the famous Devlin-Hart debate about the relationship between law and morals.

Back in Washington DC in 1970, the Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography appeared. This Commission was created by the US Congress in 1967, and its members were appointed by President Lyndon Johnson.

Two years later, the Longford Report on Pornography was published in Britain. Back in the US the sexologist Shere Hite, considered by some the inheritor of Kinsey, published two important pieces of research that became instant bestsellers — the ‘Hite Report on Female Sexuality’ in 1976, and the ‘Hite Report on Male Sexuality’ in 1981. The effect of all of this research was to blow apart accepted attitudes to, presuppositions about, and conventional views of sex.

The readiness of the public to accept bold and graphic novels and films were also an important part of the changing sexual landscape. Two novels — Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence, and Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (better known as Fanny Hill) by John Cleland — were the subjects of two celebrated court cases: R v Penguin Books Ltd (1961) in the Old Bailey in London, and A Book Named “John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure” v Attorney General of Massachusetts (1966), which was dealt with by the US Supreme Court. Both led to decidedly more liberal tests for “obscene” literature.

Starting with Baby Doll (1956), starring Carroll Baker and Karl Malden — a film condemned by the League of Decency — and Peyton Place (1957), starring Lana Turner, Hollywood played its part in ushering in the sexual revolution.

European films such as And God Created Woman (1957), starring Brigitte Bardot, and La Dolce Vita (1960), featuring Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg, were also part of this trend. In Hollywood, throughout the 1960s, this trend was continued with such movies as A Cold Wind in August (1961), The Chapman Report (1962), Lolita (1962), and The Graduate (1968).

The first batch of James Bond movies made in the 1960s, beginning with Dr No (962), From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), and Thunderball (1965), both benefitted from and contributed to the new permissiveness, with actresses such as Ursula Andress and Honor Blackman having such outrageously suggestive names as Honey Rider and Pussy Galore.

Ursula Andress was one of the first examples of a sex symbol in a more permissive era on screen
Ursula Andress was one of the first examples of a sex symbol in a more permissive era on screen

Films such as Carnal Knowledge (1971),starring Jack Nicholson and Ann Margret, Klute (1971), with Donal Sutherland and Jane Fonda, and Last Tango in Paris (1973), featuring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, did much more, though, to push back the boundaries of censorship.

In a 1974 case, Jenkins v Georgia, the US Supreme Court concluded that Carnal Knowledge was not obscene. Jenkins, who operated a cinema in Albany, Georgia, had been convicted and fined $750 for showing the movie.

In their book The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court, Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong revealed that, after watching a special screening of the film, Judge Thurgood Marshall complained afterwards: “I thought we were going to see a dirty movie.”

In delivering the opinion of the Court, Judge William Renquist (who would become Chief Justice in 1986) noted that the film was critically acclaimed as one of the 10 best pictures of 1971, and Ann Margret had received an Academy Award nomination for her performance in the picture.

In 1965, Penthouse magazine, founded by Bob Guccione, was introduced in Britain, and by the beginning of 1969 was selling in the US as well. It was modelled very much on the Playboy format.

But in November 1973 a new bolder, more explicit, raunchier and, many would say, coarser, competitor to Playboy and Penthouse arrived on the newsstands — this was Hustler magazine, published by Larry Flynt. This new arrival was going to land in trouble sooner or later.

It happened spectacularly in 1988 when the US Supreme Court had to deal with a case known as Hustler Magazine v Falwell. As Flynt himself wrote afterwards: “This was the landmark decision that made parody protected speech.”

The story of Flynt, who turned out to be an unlikely champion of freedom of expression, and the court case was later (1996) made into an excellent movie (starring Woody Harrelson and Courtney Love) entitled The People v Larry Flynt.

The pioneering work of Hefner and the role of Playboy in all of this was acknowledged on March 3, 1967, when Time magazine featured him on the cover under the heading ‘The Pursuit of Hedonism’.

In Britain in 1963, the Profumo affair in London was a godsend to the media. It emerged that, during the height of the Cold War, John Profumo, the secretary of state for war, was sexually involved with a good-time girl named Christine Keeler, who was also seeing a Soviet naval attaché at the time.

The scandal that followed, fanned by the media, contributed to the subsequent collapse of the Conservative government led by Harold Macmillan. Henceforth it would be open season on the sex lives of politicians in the UK.

Strangely enough, during the same time period, a conspiracy of silence among the Washington press corps ensured that the public knew nothing of President John F. Kennedy’s many sexual liaisons in the White House.

John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy

As James N. Giglio, one of JFK’s biographers, put it: “The White House press, at the time, either knew or suspected such activity, but remained silent.”

But that had all changed long before the time William Jefferson Clinton came to occupy the Oval Office.

Ironically, it was the tragic consequences in July 1969 at Chappaquiddick of the philandering of another Kennedy — Teddy — and the public scandal caused in October 1974 by Congressman Wilbur Mills’ drunken shenanigans at the Tidal Basin in Washington DC, with a former stripper named Fanne Foxe, which changed forever the media’s treatment of politics and sex.

A cover story in Time magazine on May 18, 1987, clearly signalled beyond any doubt that a new no-holds-barred approach was being adopted by the media. The headline on the cover read: HART’S FALL.

Inside, over 12 pages, the magazine detailed how Gary Hart’s political ambitions imploded when he was forced to concede that he had spent most of a weekend with a 29-year-old part-time actress named Donna Rice. In fact, it was a stakeout by a team of Miami Herald reporters that yielded their front page exclusive that ended Mr Hart’s attempt to win the Democratic nomination for the Presidency.

Gary Hart and Donna Rice: their relationship put an end to his chances of running for president
Gary Hart and Donna Rice: their relationship put an end to his chances of running for president

“With the breakdown of sexual taboos in the 1960s, public discussion of such topics became more acceptable,” wrote Richard Zoglin of Time after Mr Hart had been asked at a press conference about his adultery, following the disclosures in the Miami Herald.

A new and more unforgiving era had begun. No longer could the media be counted on to respect the distinctions between “public” and “private” behaviour. And it could only be in the modern era, in a new climate of permissiveness, and after the shattering of a whole range of sexual taboos, that a document such as the Starr Report (published on September 9, 1998), outlining, in sexually explicit detail, the Oval Office affair between US president Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, could have appeared, officially sanctioned and financed by the US Congress.

The additional fact that serious broadsheet newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic — such as The Boston Globe in America, and The Observer in Britain (to take just two examples) — published the full unexpurgated text of the Report is significant.

In the Observer (13 September 1998) a total of 16 broadsheet pages were devoted to the Starr Report. The version published in the Boston Globe (September 12, 1998) was much longer — a total of 30 pages — because it included a detailed index and the White House response.

Those who dismiss the Page 3 feature as tabloid trash would do well to consider the broadsheet treatment of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. If Page 3 is “soft porn”, then what is The Starr Report, with its repeated references to oral sex, to what the president did with his cigar, and to the now-famous semen-stained blue dress worn by Ms Lewinsky?

Camille Paglia, author of Vamps and Tramps, has referred to “the sex-suffused Starr Report”, and to “the lurid specificity of sexual detail” it contains. And Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine, described the document in his book Sex, Lies and Politics, as “more depraved and scandalous than anything Clinton did”. Yet this didn’t deter the mainstream press — they feasted on it.

Whereas the establishment press (represented by the broadsheets, broadly speaking, though these days format is less and less a clue to seriousness of intent or content-choice) display disdain towards the Page 3 feature, tabloid editors would be entitled to retort that the broadsheet treatment of the Starr Report demonstrated that they were beginning to wake up to the fact that “sex sells”.

If the sexual revolution has transformed popular culture (could a film like Basic Instinct have been made before the 1960s?), popular culture has transformed the media.

Typical of this was the front page of the Daily Telegraph on September 22, 2009. It was dominated by a photograph that filled over one-third of the page.

The caption over the photograph read: “A French president and a romantic tale about ‘Princess of Cardiff’.” The photograph showed Valery Giscard d’Estaing and Diana, Princess of Wales, in Paris in 1994. He was indeed President of France at the time, and Diana looked enchanting.

Diana, Princess of Wales
Diana, Princess of Wales

The opening two paragraphs of the story under the photograph were as follows: “It is a syrupy tale of a coy young princess’s love for a dashing French president.

“But what will make this novel stand out from the others on the airport stands is that the author is Valery Giscard d’Estaing and his heroine bears a striking similarity to a certain member of the royal family.”

This was followed on November 2, 2009, by a Daily Telegraph front page dominated by a huge photograph of Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren, and on November 6, 2009, by main front-page photographs in the Irish Examiner, the Irish Times, and the Guardian of Bono and U2 during a concert at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin to help the city celebrate 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Fast-forward to December 28, 2016, and you’ll find the front page of the Guardian (along with many other papers) dominated by a photograph of Carrie Fisher, a key member of the cast of Star Wars, after her death in Los Angeles at the age of 60.

None of these examples are especially dramatic. The extensive coverage given by all newspapers to the deaths in 2009 of the “King of Pop” Michael Jackson (June 25 in Los Angeles) and Stephen Gately of Boyzone (October 11 in Majorca), and of George Michael in 2016 (December 27 at his home in Oxfordshire at the age of 53) might also be cited.

What they point to unmistakably, along with many other examples, is the impact of popular culture, not just on the tabloid press, but on broadsheet papers long regarded as pillars of the Establishment.

Even in the “swinging” 60s, none of the broadsheets would have permitted a pop star or a film star or a supermodel to dominate their front pages. The death of a pope, yes; the death of a president, yes, and the death of a taoiseach, maybe — depending on whether he was in or out of office at the time.

And the death of a princess? If her name happened to be Diana Spencer, then you have a global media story, unmatched perhaps in its reach, appeal and pathos since the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

When Andrew Morton’s book, Diana: Her True Story, was published, Camille Paglia reviewed it for The New Republic on 3 August 1992. Her review contained this assessment: “With this latest burst of press attention, Diana may have become the most powerful image in world popular culture today, a case study in the modern cult of celebrity and the way it stimulates atavistic religious emotions.”

Prof Paglia’s description of the 20th century as the “Age of Hollywood” serves as a handy way of illustrating the pervasiveness of popular culture, a pervasiveness that has even intensified since she penned that description in her book Sex, Art, and American Culture in 1992.

Today, celebrity is at the core of popular culture; it is the cult that drives and energises it, and showbiz, politics (as, in part, an extension of showbiz) and the mass media are all two-way vehicles for that energy. The problem for the media — and the law insofar as it relates to and covers the media — is that celebrity has a dangerously distorting effect.

It is the source both of opportunities and problems. Some of these are commercial, some are technical or technological, but some others go much deeper, and raise questions about the kind of society we are becoming. As the popular imagination relies more and more on celebrity culture for stimulus, excitement and satisfaction, the pressure on the mass media to respond is proving irresistible. The disturbing and challenging end-result is that the frontiers of the acceptable — in terms both of media ethics and legal doctrine — are expanding so fast that we find ourselves in the territory of ersatz solutions and artificial justifications.

We’re not sure what’s “right” anymore, and the preoccupation with money is both a distraction and a balm, both of which we too readily welcome.


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