Sandy Strikes Back

3 05 2010

We interrupt this blog post for a breaking news item: My dissertation defense has officially been scheduled for June 1, 2010! Woo!

Last week, Sandra Bullock blew gossip media producers and audiences out of the water with her revelation (on the cover of People magazine) that she had adopted a baby from New Orleans BACK IN JANUARY! Apparently she and husband Jesse James started the adoption process four years ago, but were not matched with a child until this past January. That she, an A-list star who was at the center of awards season at the time, managed to keep this quiet is something of an amazing feat. They brought their son, Louis Bardo, home at a time when she was highly visible in the media because of her multiple award nominations for The Blind Side.

That’s impressive, and certainly reveals the way in which stars retain some sort of ability to keep their private lives private if they really want to (an idea which flies in the face of many celebrities’ claims that they just want to be left alone…I’m looking at you, LiLo). But let’s get to the heart of the matter. The People cover is so mind blowing because she managed to keep the fact that she was now a mother quiet not simply during awards season, but while she was at the center of a major celebrity scandal after she won her Oscar.

For anyone living under a rock or avoiding all media, the ongoing Bullock/James saga has been THE gossip story for the past several weeks. The media circus surrounding reports of James’ multiple infidelities, including an ongoing affair with Michelle “Bombshell” McGee kept the spotlight on Bullock post-Oscars, but for all the wrong reasons. Gone were the stories centered on Bullock’s rise from rom-com darling to award winning actress. They were replaced by lurid details of the various affairs, rumors of McGee’s white supremacist leanings, and even photos of McGee posing for fetish photos wearing Nazi paraphernalia. This was followed closely by a photo of James himself wearing a Nazi military hat and doing a Hitler style salute. I’m not going to post those pictures here because they’re pretty offensive (as were the “explanations” for these images as “just jokes”), but they were all over the web a couple of weeks ago. Even though Bullock stayed out of the media glare and was not directly involved in the scandal except as a victim of her husband’s cheating, this was a clear case of the private side of the celebrity eclipsing the performance/talent-side.

This story is fascinating for so many reasons. On one hand, we have the irony that at the same time the media was centered on James as a racist, Nazi-loving jerk who cheated on America’s Sweetheart, Bullock was caring for her newly adopted black baby. Cynical observers could (and did) easily read this as media manipulation on the part of Bullock, that she adopted this child to distance herself from James and the photos. However, this is simply not true. Impossible, even. The adoption process is long and complicated, even for rich and famous stars, and there’s no way that she adopted a baby in a couple weeks’ time. The racial and multicultural dimensions of this story are fascinating, Anne Petersen offers an interesting analysis of it as part of her discussion of this story.

Never underestimate the power of the celebrity baby

But what I find so interesting about this story is the disruption of the circuit of celebrity production (which Petersen also discusses in her post) and the idea of the constant struggle over who controls the celebrity image. Joshua Gamson’s important book Claims to Fame discusses how celebrity images are made through a constant negotiation between the star herself, the industry producers (her publicist, manager, stylists, anyone performing some sort of labor “behind” the star we see in public), and the celebrity media. It’s a circuit because all these forces work together, though not necessarily without tension or with the same interests, in order to present a certain celebrity image to the public. In addition to balancing the interests of the different players within the circuit, there are also a range of other players who have the potential to disrupt the more legitimate players’ control. Gossip media, particularly tabloids and gossip blogs, operate as what Joshua Gamson calls “autonomous outliers,” and are chief amongst these interlopers to the industry-controlled celebrity circuit.

These media are based on the supposedly unauthorized and unguarded information about the star, in contrast to the controlled glimpses of a star’s private life offered by more legitimate celebrity media outlets like Vanity Fair or, as Bullock clearly knows, People. The conceit is that they offer us a more “real” and “authentic” celebrity because they are not beholden to the others in the circuit (of course, they actually are, but that’s largely invisible). A quick glimpse of any supermarket magazine rack will easily demonstrate the way gossip-oriented media like tabloids are aimed at deconstructing the glamorous façade of celebrity through this appeal to the authentic private self. More importantly, they also challenge the constructed nature of celebrity or the process of creating the image by those within the circuit, showing us how stars are actually hiding a very different self underneath the façade constructed by the other players. In other words, by exposing who the star “really” is, they also (potentially) expose how it is she is made to be something different in her public image.

When a celebrity is at the center of a private life scandal, the scrutiny is arguably more intense than when the media focuses on her work as an actress. As an award nominee/winner during awards season, the media focused on her professional work and the way her private/”real” self upheld her image as America’s Sweetheart. She was certainly asked questions about her private life, particularly her seemingly incongruous marriage to “bad boy” James, but not in any sort of scandal mongering way. Furthermore, what little we do know of her private life (prior to this moment of scandal) largely worked to uphold this “girl next door” genuineness that is central to her professional image. And, frankly, Sandra Bullock routinely kills it in interviews. She is personable, funny, and generally upholding the idea that underneath it all, stars really are “just like us!” Check out this excerpt from her interview with Barbra Walters’ on the pre-Oscar special. The professional framing (such as the starting clips/discussion of her film work) dominates the interview, but uses her private life to reinforce her professional star image.

Bullock’s ability to keep her son under wraps during the intense scrutiny of a private life scandal, albeit one where she was the victim rather than the perpetrator, speaks to some important elements of the circuit of celebrity production. First, it demonstrates that the autonomous outliers do not have the monopoly on authentic celebrity that they claim to have. We know that tabloids don’t always tell the truth, but I argue they are premised on the fact that they are offering unguarded and therefore authentic views of the “real” celebrity, not the one constructed by the more legitimate players. In fact, Bullock’s announcement this week specifically shows the tabloids ( People is not a tabloid but a legitimate place for stars to reveal their personal selves. Most notably, it is the place where gay celebrities typically come out of the closet. In fact, that’s about to happen again in this week’s issue) as unable to reliably give audiences the “truth” about a star.

What this story really reveals is that not only are stars able to keep parts of themselves private, despite the constant surveillance of the paparazzi camera, they can also control when they reveal parts of themselves. In other words, Bullock’s control over the story was a way to strike back against this so-called authenticity, reclaiming control from the tabloids. Bullock’s adoption of Louis had the potential to disrupt so many of the narratives surrounding her both during awards season and during the James scandal. On one hand, during the awards season coverage, she was nominated for The Blind Side , a film about a white family who adopts a black teenager. Bullock says her decision to not bring Louis into the media circus of awards season was to protect him and his privacy. Sure, reasonable explanation. But it also would have looked extremely calculated on her part to have a private life that so closely mirrored the life of the woman she portrayed in the film. Furthermore, given the criticism of the film for, at best, its problematic treatment of race relations and assuaging of white guilt, such a move (whether calculated or not) would have probably been too much for Oscar voters to handle. Though Bullock, for her part, seems to recognize this, though perhaps not the negative connotations. She says in her interview that she had to “smile at the parallels” between her story and the story of The Blind Side .

But her ability to keep it quiet during the scandal, when, arguably, even MORE attention was focused on her gave her an amazing amount of control over the “truth” when she did the People cover. In the article, she frequently mentions that they told very few people. This included not telling “people that I had worked with for years.” She specifically mentions stylists and make-up artists, but one could assume this silence extended to other producers. Certainly we know she was keeping it from legitimate media outlets as she made the rounds as an Oscar nominee. Even Barbra Walters didn’t get a hint of the story! To me, this is an interesting moment where the celebrity herself has a large amount of control over the presentation of her image within the circuit of production. Bullock manages not only to keep the autonomous outlier/tabloids from finding out, but also blows them out of the water by releasing the story on her own terms in a more established forum. One can only imagine the freakout over at when the news of the cover broke. Interestingly, TMZ now has posts with photos that they already had to show how we (or really, they) missed clues about the baby. Hindsight really is 20/20, guys.

During the scandal, she already had the sympathy of the public on her side. Imagine what suddenly bringing a baby into the equation would have garnered! I also think it’s relevant that even when various outlets were calling for her to comment on the allegations of James’ racism (as in, how could she not have known or does this mean she is a racist too?), she maintained her media blackout. How easy it would have been to gain control over the story with the revelation of her adoption of a black baby. But it could have as easily backfired, as revealing the news at that moment would also look extremely calculated in a way that would make her version of the “truth” more suspect and make her lose control over the story.

When so much of the star image is wrapped up in production by others, I find it interesting to be reminded that the star can be an active part of this production, not simply the site of it. Stars are always simultaneously constructed images and real people, and it is the contrast between the two that fascinates audiences. I don’t think I’m being naïve to think that Bullock’s silence about her adoption of Louis was her own choice, NOT something calculated by her publicist or agent for her image. She didn’t do it alone, but Sandra Bullock is extremely savvy and aware of how the system works. That’s evident even in her professional-side interviews (go back and look at the Walters’ clip again if you don’t believe me). She went to great lengths to keep her private life private while still playing the game of media exposure during awards season. She then used the legitimate celebrity media (People) to her own advantage to shield herself against the scandal narratives imposed on her by autonomous outliers and frame her own “truth.” Well played, lady, well played.




4 responses

3 05 2010
a dark ally

Thanks for shedding light on the circuit of celebrity production for this under-the-rock dweller! I’m intrigued by the play between stars and their outliers, as well as the battle between tabloids and ‘legitimate’ news outlets.

And gee, come on! Of course I like Sandra Bullock. 😉 Nice to know she’s been successful framing her own truth for public consumption.

3 05 2010
An Admirer

Very interesting analysis. And I *just* read about the Chela Wright story at AfterEllen!

Speaking of gay celebrities: would you be willing at some point to write about Jodie Foster? I’ve long been fascinated at how she managed (and basically *all* the media tacitly – or not so tacitly? – agreed) to not reveal her relationship to Cydney Barnard. Okay, apparently they recently broke up, but before that, they were together for over a decade; and nary a “Jodie’s Lesbian Lover!” splashed across the Enquirer that I know of!

Are you sick of the fact that all my comments (all two of them) ask you to write on something else :o)?

4 05 2010

I always like suggestions for other posts!

The Jodie Foster case is an interesting one, and certainly not the only example of the media staying away from a story. I wonder if Foster’s status as a “serious” actress has something to do with it? Also when Foster was really at the height of her career (late 80s-early 90s), the tabloid frenzy was not nearly as high as it is today. Perez Hilton is well known for trying to out people, and I think that is related, in some ways, to the constant need for new material in the 24/7 gossip news cycle. I’m gonna go check out that After Ellen post too because now you’ve got me thinking about this!

5 05 2010
An Admirer

You’re probably right that Jodie’s status as a respected actress has helped protect her; but even so, the mill still needed feeding! In the late 90s, I remember finding some obscure website where someone had posted photos of Jodie and Cydney walking together in some non-U.S. country (Australia, or Europe somewhere), taken from a local rag. But I never saw anything of the sort in U.S. entertainment/gossip print publications at the time.

As you may know, many lesbians are angry/disappointed when people like Jodie willingly let reporters characterize them as “single moms” when Jodie – and I bet that reporter – knows very well that she is living with a partner who helps takes care of her children (and who has given them her surname as middle name! But such collective dissatisfaction with Jodie did not, as far as I know, result in any high-profile outings of JF (by which I mean, no respectable gay or general entertainment magazine “exposed” her), even though, of course, it’s been a topic of discussion/comment on various message boards etc,.

Anyway, to at least make a gesture of linking back to your original post: initially, it does seem rather striking that Sandra Bullock was able to keep the adoption under wraps during a time of concentrated media attention. But I wonder if part of that has to do with a gradual dilution of the Big Reveal’s power to a media-saturated and jaded audience, and hence the celebrity media’s slight easing up of dirt-digging? Or have there been recent high-damages cases awarded to celebrities for invasion of privacy that may have curtailed the most egregious actions? (Or are we still haunted by Lady Di’s death? Seems unlikely …)

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