Stars and Audiences, or Why I Hate Tom Cruise

12 06 2010

The irony of stardom is that stars are products of mass media and attempting to draw a mass audience, but ultimately their fans feel a personal connection with their favorite star. This is what Richard Schickel calls “the illusion of intimacy” because we never really know the star, but media representations of them make us feel like we do. The tension between the mass and personal appeal is relevant to the construction of stardom. Richard Dyer says stars take hold of our cultural imagination because they represent certain “social types,” and become an idealized concept of what it means to be a (certain type) of person within that cultural moment. For example, he points to Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s as the “pin-up” type who embodies female sexual objectification and spectacle. Or James Dean from the same time as “the rebel” who embodies a certain sense of alienation and youthful rebellion. These “types” stay at the core of the stars’ public and private image, and are the key to understanding what draws audiences to them.

Marilyn Monroe as "Pin-Up"

James Dean as "The Rebel"

But this tension also suggests that for some stars, no matter how much work goes into the presentation of the self in the media, some audiences just won’t connect. The various producers of star images (producers, managers, agents, studios, stylists, gossip media…basically anyone who has any interest in promoting the star image) work hard to make stars resonant with as many audiences as possible. Yet stars that are wildly popular still have people who don’t particularly care for them based on the same media representations that make their fans devoted. It may be that their image/type simply speaks to a certain type of audience and excludes others. I’m thinking here of Disney tween stars like the cast of High School Musical or maybe even the Twilight cast, who seem to resonate more with the social world of teens than adults, thus draw their audiences from that group. But the fact that there are legions of adults who are fans of these stars, particularly the Twilight stars, shows that the star image is, ultimately, never entirely under any one group’s control. What Robert Pattinson means to a Twilight Mom is probably not the same thing he means to her daughter.

What’s my point here? I hate Tom Cruise. Even before the Oprah-couch-jumping, Katie Holmes-marrying, Matt Lauer-berating storm of negativity that clouded his image back in 2006, I was not a fan. I don’t like his movies. I think his “acting” is confined to yelling and doing the Blue Steel look. I don’t like his extratextual image (Team Nicole Kidman!). He just rubs me the wrong way in all aspects of his image. And, I’ll be honest, I took at least a small amount of pleasure in those moments when it looked like his career was in serious trouble because of his extratextual antics. I mean, who criticizes Brooke Shields for her struggle with postpartum depression? Honestly.

I’m getting into a rant here. These negative moments were particularly damaging because he previously had more of an “All-American guy” sort of star image. He was kind of a cocky jerk (hello, Maverick!) but in a way that was (for many people) read more as confident, masculine, yet also, underneath it, some level of sensitive and tender guy (hello, Jerry Maguire and that stupid “you complete me” bs). Men could like him and so could women. But, his image, and his box office drawing power with all audiences, took a hit in the aftermath of these moments.

Recently, however, Cruise’s image has been on an upswing in the media. Cruise’s appearance on the MTV Movie Awards last week as his Les Grossman character from Tropic Thunder seems to be the latest in the rehabilitation of Cruise from those past moments of crazy. What’s interesting to me is that this new Cruise is more willing to make fun of himself and/or be the butt of the joke. Old Tom Cruise took everything so seriously (“you’re being glib, Matt”) but this Tom is more laid back and willing to laugh at himself and the industry that he’s a part of. Here’s his dance at the awards. I’m still unclear about what J.Lo is doing there, and doing one of her hits rather than a new song, but I suppose her career needs some rehabilitation of its own. You can also see a better quality and full length version (if you must) from here, though you do get the added benefit of the hilarious Ken Jeong tiger dance intro.

This is an example of what I like to call a “What the What?!” moment (thanks to Liz Lemon for the phrase). The title of my blog was inspired by my reaction to these sorts of celebrity culture moments that just blow my mind for some reason. That this actually occurred at the MTV movie awards puzzles me. But what puzzles me more is that this new Cruise image is working!! The buzz on Cruise is pretty hot right now in celebrity media. We’re not seeing him framed as creepy cult member who keeps his wife locked in his Hollywood mansion anymore. His new summer movie hasn’t come out yet, so we’ll see how this new positive buzz translates to box office power (given the fairly dismal showing of his last few films). What’s worse, is there is allegedly a movie starring the Les Grossman character in the works. Yikes.

Normally, I’m quite a fan of the star who is willing to poke fun at him/herself and image. Check out the Ralph Macchio video on Funny or Die for a good example of this. But Cruise just seems so calculated…more like he’s doing it because it has to, not because he wants to or because he really “gets the joke,” It may be my pre-existing distain for him, but I’m not buying it. It lacks the appeal to “naturalness” that is so important to stardom. Though I think I’m in the minority here, I think the MTV thing just comes off as a sad attempt to connect with a younger audience.

The star image is a tricky thing that is never under anyone’s control. Though some audiences (even those who were previously alienated by Cruise’s image) might come back, I’m standing firm in my “No Tom Cruise movies” policy. You can’t make me like him, Hollywood star machinery! There. I said it.




2 responses

15 06 2010
An Admirer

Hmm, but they can make you *dis*like him, no :o)?

And actually, I thought his comments about Brooke Shields were a nice critique about the medicalization of various aspects of the pre- and post-natal experiences of many women, although I’m sure the way he talked about it won over few converts. (No doubt postpartum depression is experienced as severe, and no doubt some women benefit from psychotropic drugs; but should that be the standard treatment? Why is that considered better than “vitamins” or other more holistic approaches to health?)

Maybe it’s ’cause I’m not a straight woman, but Tom doesn’t bug me the way he seems to a lot of people I know!

15 06 2010

I definitely think it was the messenger over the message. Why should women (or anyone with mental health issues, for that matter) listen to Tom Cruise on this subject? Oh, right, he’s “studied the history of psychiatry.” Wrap that up in his strong adherence to Scientology (a religion based on the belief in space aliens, I’m just saying…who is he to judge!) and he comes off, to me, as a lady bashing jerk. I agree with the problems of medical science tending to over-medicate, but Brooke Shield’s experience and book were more about recognizing this is a problem AND it doesn’t make you a bad woman/mom to seek help. Whether that help is therapy or, perhaps, anti-depressants.

It was particularly stupid of Cruise considering a large part of his core audience are women…women who have been fans since his 80s heyday and are probably already mothers or planning to become mothers. Not really endearing your fans to you there, Tom.

It’s also a telling moment in his career because he was usually so controlled in his dealings with the press…largely because of the power of his original publicist, Pat Kingsley, who was a master at managing Cruise’s image in the press. She was well known for her strict rules for interviews etc. He fired Kingsley in favor of his sister, who did not really have any experience with this sort of thing. Thus began the couch-jumping, Shields-bashing bizarre public behavior.

So Cruise is also an excellent example of the role of the cultural intermediary or “behind the scenes” worker in the construction of the star image. He’s got a new “real” publicist now, and who backed way off of such public appearances and, somewhat successfully, reshaped Cruise as “good dad/husband” and a star who can mock his own (overblown) image.

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