Thinking about New Media: Interactivity

19 02 2011

My TiVo is on the verge of exploding with films about stardom, but I’m going to take a brief break from that series. Spring break will be here soon (one more week of classes!) and TiVo and I have a date for a stardom film series that will hopefully result in some more posts as well. But for now, I’ve been working on a couple of more think piece oriented posts about new media and its influence not only on how we get our content, but also on what that content looks like and how audiences actually engage with/read/invest in that content.

I’ve been considering new media in a broad sense this semester, for a variety of reasons, and here I am just trying to work out some major ideas that have been floating around in my head. This is sort of like a comps exam (because weren’t those fun?) where I’m trying to get a hold of scholarly approaches to new media and relate them to my own particular interests. In short, these are some ideas informed by a lot of the reading I’ve been doing this semester as well as some questions that I’m still working through. This is the beginning of my thinking—not the end—so I would definitely appreciate feedback.

What’s so “new” about new media?
The umbrella term “new media” has been used to refer to a wide range of media platforms and technologies. But the vast array of platforms makes it somewhat confusing to really think through exactly what new media are, and, indeed, what’s so new about them. If Netflix streaming is clearly a new media platform, does that mean that Netflix home delivery system is not? Or, is an iPhone the same sort of new media as Netflix? Each technology serves a different function, but the potential spaces of overlap (using your iPhone to watch streamed movies as opposed to using it to make a phone call or send a text) makes, I think, a precise definition of “new media” pretty challenging.

But then again, part of the shifts brought about by new media come from the fact that the technologies are so varied and can be harnessed for many different purposes. Though the technologies that have reshaped everyday communication and media are vital to understanding this new category, but, as I suggest to my students based on the work of numerous scholars in this area (including Henry Jenkins, Sonia Livingstone, Nancy Baym and many others), what’s so new about new media are the ways the technologies enable users to interact with information and with each other. These interactions are tied to how the technology functions or what it makes possible (e.g. the iPhone lets you make phone calls, text, surf the web etc through its digital platform) but also to how individuals actually use that technology in their everyday lives. (

What’s so new about new media, then, is the fact that users can be both producers and consumers of content (even if that production is limited to a very small audience). New media trouble traditional media consumption models that assume users/audiences are on the receiving end of the communication and do little but absorb meaning. Instead, new media shed light on the range of (sometimes invisible) active meaning making that goes when one consumes media and/or communicates with others through these platforms. While it’s easy to see how things like iPhones or Twitter are considered new media, I think we should also consider how older media forms have transformed to meet the demands of our new media society. I think new media, for all the fancy technological advancements, also offer new sorts of ways to think about and engage with “old media.”

One example I’ve been considering recently is the case of reality television. Reality TV certainly has roots traced back to the early days of television (in the form of game shows, documentaries, etc), its explosion into our television consciousness within the past 10 years is, I think, tied to the simultaneous shifts in media platforms and consumption practices. In other words, I want to argue (and I know I’m not the first to do so) that reality TV is a form of new media. Even if you view it on regular “old” broadcast television, I think reality television embodies some important characteristics that, at the very least, strongly tie it (and its contemporary ubiquity/success as a genre) to new media.

1. Reality television assumes (varying levels of) interactivity
Some reality shows are explicitly built upon the audience as a participant in the production of the show, making new media technology and engagement central to the existence of the program. The most obvious examples here are reality shows, like American Idol or Big Brother, where audiences vote for their favorite contestants, thus securing participants a place on future episodes and, ultimately, choosing the winner of the show. Of course these votes come through a range of new media platforms, like text messages or online voting, but the key is that they enable the audience to play (or at least think they are playing) a vital role in creating content of the show.

Text message voting for American Idol

The success of Idol comes, in part, from the idea that we are the ones that are deciding who will be our next pop star or who will stay in the house for the next week. The (in)famous “Vote for the Worst” campaign that, for example, kept mediocre singer Sanjaya in the running for several weeks during the show’s sixth season, is clear evidence that audience participation shapes the show, and sometimes in ways unanticipated/unintended by the show’s producers. Nevertheless, if no one voted, there would be no show. The feeling of participation in the show is an important space for audience pleasure that hinges on interactivity.

There are, of course, elimination style shows where viewers do not directly vote for contestants, such as Survivor, The Bachelor/Bachelorette, Top Chef, Project Runway etc., as well as a range of reality television shows that do not feature any sort of elimination (docu-soaps like The Real Housewives or any number of celeb-reality shows focused on the private life of a star). But even these shows encourage audience interactivity as a key part of viewing the show. There is something about the focus on back stories of contestants or narratives about what goes on outside the competition (like on Top Chef) that calls up a certain notion of interactivity to me. That audiences are given “more” than “just” the competition narrative seems to be a different sort of engagement. Not sure how to work this out yet, but something about this extended engagement strikes me as more interactive than fictional TV in its style and form.

On one hand, I think new media technologies play an important role in increasing this sort of implied interactivity. Advances in digital and handheld cameras are important to how reality television is actually produced. For the most part, we’re not talking about the participants creating their own footage for the show, though we do sometimes get some glimpses of this (an old example: Britney and Kevin: Chaotic was based in large part on the actual footage shot by Brit-Brit and K-Fed during the early days of their courtship). I’ve written elsewhere about how this emphasizes her “authenticity” as a star, and that’s related to the way the digital camera allows the audience to interact with the real person behind the pop star image. Here’s an outtake that didn’t make the show that shows the use of her personal footage. You’ll see how riviting this footage is and why this show lasted a full half season!

Even without the sense of the footage being shot by the participants, digital technologies have increased the range of the voyeuristic eye of the camera, allowing it to more easily go wherever the “reality” is happening. We are in the homes, cars, work places, etc of reality show participants. The fact that the bathroom is the only place where cameras don’t go on The Real World means that we are able to get into the lives of the housemates and, in a sense, interact with–or at least observe–them at any and every moment.

But it’s also about how audiences are encouraged to engage with these shows that highlights the centrality of interactivity to the overall style and narrative of these programs. Fictional narrative television has, of course, long inspired fan communities and people who want to take their engagement with a show and its characters beyond the boundaries of the narrative offered in the weekly broadcast. I think narrative reality television shows as well as the non-audience voted elimination shows named above are increasingly built on the assumption that audiences engage with the characters/participants and narrative outside the boundaries of the weekly broadcast.

The internet plays a key role here, with character/participant blogs giving us a way to read beyond the actual events of the show itself. In other words, to interact with the characters/participants in other platforms as a way to extend viewing pleasure. I, for one, was pretty obsessed with the RHONJ blogs as a way to get each woman’s perspective on the drama of that week’s episode as a way to see what was left out in the actual episode. Yes, I know that many fictional television shows have websites where their characters “blog” about that week’s episode. I’m wondering if those stay as closely tied to the overall narrative of the show as reality TV character blogs? I have to admit that I don’t know because I don’t follow any fictional character blogs.

However, in another connection between “old” and “new” media, the reality shows have the added extratextual site of engagement in the tabloids. Print tabloids like Us Weekly and In Touch are increasingly built upon the backs of reality television stars. The women of The Hills, Teen Mom, or Keeping Up With the Kardashians would not have the same level of fame, nor would their shows have such high ratings, without the constant coverage from these outside sources. More on the connection between celebrity and reality in my next post.

Interacting with Teen Mom in tabloids

What’s fascinating to me is the “inside information” revealed by these gossip magazines is pretty much always the plot of the next week’s episode, as opposed to any new information! So they are giving audiences some information to bring with them to their viewing of the episode, allowing them to interact with the narrative using that knowledge, as well as encouraging them to watch the show. You don’t see Michael Scott on the cover of a magazine talking about his argument with Dwight on next week’s episode of The Office because he is clearly a fictional character. The appeal to “reality” in RTV means that even though we know these shows are edited and that the action is scripted or at least prompted by producers, we are still encouraged to see the participants as “real” people. Thus, by interacting with them in these outside sources, the audience enriches their viewing experience.

Audiences do have some choice in how they interact (or not) with these shows, a topic I will return to in a later post. Additionally, reality television is certainly not the only television genre where new media technologies have had an impact in form and content. Nevertheless, I think the case of reality TV provides some clear insight into the ties between new media interactivity and the production and consumption of media in this shifting landscape.


Comedy and Celebrity Critique: Kathy Griffin

21 11 2010

As my incredible lack of updates demonstrates, my first semester in a new teaching position has been a busy one. My attention has not just been diverted from this blog, but from blogs in general. Compared to the dissertation-writing-me of last year, I am woefully behind in my celebrity gossip. Considering I used to spend my days immersed in it and constantly checking the various blogs in my sample, it’s pretty amusing how far behind I am. Case in point: I found out about Jessica Simpson’s recent engagement from a gossip headline in the Boston Metro, the ridiculous free newspaper they give out at subway stations. The Metro, people!

Sure, I’m getting “things accomplished” and “being productive,” but for someone who is still interested in studying celebrity culture and gossip media, I’ve got to figure out a way to stay a bit more current. The answer is probably Twitter, which has essentially been my news feed for a variety of media and media studies related topics in these past few weeks. I’m actually enjoying Twitter much more than I thought I would. It’s an easy place to lurk as, I think, it lacks Facebook’s constant update imperative (yeah, yeah, I know I’m not on FB, but this is how I see it used by others, including those who constantly hassle me to join). Don’t get me wrong, I love the people who tweet frequently, but it’s easy to just follow and not have to post yourself.

Someone who has no problems staying current, and in fact makes her living doing so, is Ms. Kathy Griffin. I had the pleasure of catching her live show in Worcester last night, and it was hilarious. I love when she mocks celebrities, but she’s also got a critical and political edge to her comedy that I think is often overlooked. If you haven’t seen the episode of My Life on the D-List where she judges and then participates in a toddler beauty pageant, I highly suggest you seek it out (and a big BOO on Bravo for not putting episodes of their shows on their website). It’s an episode full of feminist critique of the child pageant industry and our cultural obsession with youth and beauty.

Kathy Griffin takes on beauty pageants

At last night’s show, Kathy cast her insider/outsider eye on various aspects of celebrity culture. What was most interesting to me was the way that her own mocking reminded me of the type of gossip talk I saw across the blogs during my dissertation research. It’s complex and often contradictory. For example, though she made fun of celebrities (and herself) for “visiting the dentist” aka getting plastic surgery as a way to challenge ridiculous beauty norms, she also, fairly viciously, body snarked on Bristol Palin for “being the only contestant on Dancing with the Stars to gain 40 pounds during the show. Look, I’m not fan of any of the Palins, but this moment of contradiction really stood out to me. She talked explicitly about feminism and the idea that young women don’t relate to it in today’s culture even though it is still desperately needed, yet she mocked a young woman’s body size as a way to discredit her. If there was some deeper critique in that, I missed it.

Nevertheless, overall the show was fantastic and I continue to love me some Mrs. Kathy. I generally love her over the top performances because they show that female comics can be just as political, raunchy and hilarious as the guys. She uses her femininity in a way that makes people uncomfortable, particularly in the sense that she acts and talks like women “shouldn’t.” Furthermore, I think because so much of her work centers on celebrity culture that she is often dismissed in ways that reinforce “women’s talk” as something outside of the political sphere. She’s officially added to my ever expanding list of topics for further research.

The 62nd Annual Emmy Awards: Show Time!

29 08 2010

New post for the show itself!

8:03 I’m loving the star power in the opening. And the Springsteen!

8:11 Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy…my toughest category to pick! Oh, and Eric Stonestreet wins! He’s my favorite on that show, but I didn’t see this coming.

8:13 Love that John Hodgman is doing the intros again!

8:14 The acceptance speech, in general, is interesting because it does reveal the other forces behind the star as playing a role in creating the star. Thanking writers, producers, other creative professionals or even the star’s publicity team is a quick glimpse behind the controlled facade that says stars are natural phenomena. But that hardly ever gets play from the media after the speech. It’s just who won.

8:25 As if anyone but Jane Lynch could wind this one!

8:26 Thanks Jane Lynch. Now I see that actors and academics have a lot in common…we do this because we have no other marketable skills. 😉

8:28 Oh man…the last season of Oprah is upon us. This ad is already getting me choked up with its emotional manipulation. This farewell season will be bonkers.

8:38 Rewarding a new face! Nice. Haven’t really seen this show, but Jim Parsons’ clip earlier made me laugh.

8:40 I think the acceptance speech plays an important role in the emphasis on the private celeb in the moment of rewarding their public performances. Seeing a genuinely flustered actor/actress win is pretty endearing.

8:45 I haven’t seen Nurse Jackie at all. Worth watching? But I do love Edie Falco…reward for successful cross over from drama to comedy?

8:47 I’ve only gotten one category right so far (Jane Lynch)! And I didn’t do any reality picks!

8:49 Promo moment! Will Arnet and Keri Russell are in a new show on Fox this fall. But since this in on NBC, they didn’t mention that in the intro. I’m sure we’ll hear when new NBC stars are on!

8:52 Damn it Oprah! You are killing me. How much did they spend to get these spots on? It doesn’t even run on NBC (at least my Oprah doesn’t, its CBS).

8:57 Drama! Okay, time to redeem myself and get some picks right this time!

9:02 Mad Men wins writing…but I’m sticking with Lost for best series even though I personally enjoy MM more.

9:04 I’m wrong again! But happy to be wrong to see more awards for Breaking Bad. Congrats to Aaron Paul who plays Jesse on BB.

9:11 I am wrong again…but An Admirer’s dreams of a hotness qualification for an Emmy comes true! Archie Punjabi wins for The Good Wife

9:13 My head was right, Bryan Cranston wins for Outstanding Actor for playing Walter White Breaking Bad. Love him, love the show, but would not have kicked a John Hamm acceptance speech out of bed.

9:18 I’ve only gotten 2 picks out of 6 correct so far. Not a good record!

9:19 Another promo moment…Undercovers ad followed immediately by the (unknown) stars presenting an award.

9:32 Outstanding Actress in a Drama. Kyra Sedgwick with the upset. I don’t watch The Closer either.

9:53 Thought it would be Conan’s big moment. The Daily Show has been pretty hilarious lately, especially the Glenn Beck stuff.

10:04 George Clooney, the biggest star in the room, just made the distinction between star vs. celebrity. Should have used him as a source in my dissertation.

10:26 Maura Tierney looks great with the pixie haircut. Glad she is well and coming back to TV. Note that the NBC shows got mentioned in their intro. Industry promotional moment.

10:31 Definitely hitting the wall and ready for the big awards of the night, comedy and drama series. I’m also amused by the irony that I am not watching the new episode of Mad Men in order to see if Mad Men wins outstanding drama series.

10:51 Finally! Outstanding Drama Series!

10:51 Yay for Mad Men even though it means another category I lose! Last season was really spectacular.

10:54 With one award to go, will this telecast actually end on time? Miracles are possible!

10:56 Outstanding Comedy….my chance to get 3 out of 10 for my picks! C’mon Modern Family

10:57 Woo! I get 3 out of 10! My reward is I get to go to bed!

11:00 Thanks for reading along with my live blog experiment! Good night!

The 62nd Emmy Awards: Red Carpet Live Blog

29 08 2010

Welcome to my experiment in live blogging! I’m gonna start with some red carpet coverage to kind of get the feel of the live blog before the main event. NBC’s red carpet starts at 7pm, so I’ll be watching E! until then. Show starts at 8pm EST.

By way of context, I’ll just say that the red carpet is a major moment for the construction of the celebrity image. Given the context of the event (which I discussed here), the emphasis is on the extraordinary and glamorous side of stardom. As much as contemporary audiences love seeing stars stripped down and caught off-guard in paparazzi shots, the awards show is where we want to see them LOOK like stars. The fact that celebrity media devotes so much attention to the fashion/glamor of the awards shows demonstrates, I think, the importance of the extraordinary star endures in contemporary celebrity culture.

The celebrity media obviously have a big stake in this, as best/worst dressed issues are generally big sellers. It’s also a big deal for the stars (and their cultural producers). Ending up on a best dressed list is a big plus for (especially female) stars because it gets them positive press coverage…even in the tabloids! That said, even ending up on the worst dressed list still gets you some coverage, so it can be a momentary image buster, but at least still gets name out there. I think some folks deliberately go crazy just for that sort of thing.

Either way, it’s a really important space for celebs to get their names/faces out there. Which also makes it a space that kind of gets away from the talent focus of the event (we’ll save that for the actual awards show). This also allows the industry to sneak in new faces (like Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who will star in the new NBC show from J.J. Abrams Undercovers premiering this fall. She’s there as a presenter, but it’s obviously a move by NBC to promote the show since she’s an unknown) and people whose talent is not their claim to fame or, really, the reason they are at the show (I’m looking at you, Kim Kardashian). So the overall event is not all talent-based fame, but it still holds on to the stars-as-extraordinary focus no matter who is on the carpet.

I’m turning on E! now, so let’s get this red carpet live blog started!

6:02pm Love that Ryan is keeping up the facade that this is a totally uncontrolled and unscripted glimpse of the stars. “You never know what will happen!” Also, Jane Lynch looks amazing in that plum dress.

6:14 I’m renaming the Glam Cam 360 to Scary Cam 360. This is almost as weird as the reporter hologram from the presidential election coverage.

6:17 Ty Burrell, my pick for outstanding comedy actor, wins points for not going for standard black tuxedo.

6:32 I love Kathy Griffin at these events because the celebrities are afraid of her.

6:35 Kim Kardashian may be on television, but, let’s face it, she’s there because she’s gorgeous and makes good red carpet fodder. Sort of a celebrity seat filler…can be in pictures and help the celeb media sell some magazines.

6:43 Except for that moment of awkwardness when Ryan asked Mark Salling about the rumor that his Glee castmate and rumored girlfriend, Naya Rivera, keyed his car, Ryan is keeping all the chatter at the level of star-as-worker (talking about show) or positive personal info (like the fascinating insight into the home life of Eva Longria Parker and Tony Parker). Keep the drama out of it, Ryan, this is the Emmys! Industry gossip only!

6:47 Sofia Vegaras is just crazy gorgeous. I love her!

6:48 John Hamm! Swoon! Love his gf, Jennifer Westfeldt, but also love to pretend that he sits at home pining away for me.

6:53 Kate Gosslin! No! That’s just wrong.

7:00 January Jones is wise to go very modern with her red carpet looks since she does the vintage in her character. Way to separate your “self” from your character!

7:02 Christina Hendricks. Like the purple color. Do not like the feathers or the sleeves. But she’s sure working the girls.

7:05 Switched to NBC just in time for Betty White! But now a repeat of Claire Danes. But I think I’ll stick here for Nate Berkus’ handsome scruff.

7:09 Now Nate Berkus is ruining the illusion by talking about the supportive undergarments that go into making these dresses possible.

7:38 Matthew Morrison has the innate inner talent necessary for fame! Thanks, mentor guy.

7:42 One benefit for changing to NBC…get to see John Hamm again.

7:57 I’m gonna start a new post for the show itself, so I’m calling this red carpet finished. Big winners: ladies: Lea Michele, Sofia Vegara men: Ty Burell and (duh) John Hamm.

Celebrity Culture and the Awards Show

27 08 2010

Awards shows play an unusual role in celebrity culture. On one hand, they (allegedly) reward the famous for their talent—for actually doing something to deserve our adulation and, in turn, their fame. We are asked, if only momentarily, to put aside any extratextual details of the star’s life and focus only on her performances. The awards show privileges the extraordinariness of stars…these are exceptional individuals who do exceptional things, wear amazing and glamorous gowns and tuxedos, and generally are gorgeous and fabulous at all times.

But, as is always the case with stardom, the private or “real” person never goes away. Thus, the awards show is also a key, albeit tightly controlled, moment for the audience to see the “real” and private person appear in public as her extraordinary self. We logically know we are looking at Katherine Heigl as she accepts her award, not at her Grey’s Anatomy character. But we are always brought back to her talent in portraying that character as the key to her image (despite any extratextual reports we may have read about her). We are also asked to equate the “real” Katherine Heigl with the fabulous extraordinary person we see on stage, without bothering to think about all the effort that went into producing the self we see on stage (hair, makeup, dress fittings, endless campaigning for the award etc). In other words, her private “real” self is the effortlessly extraordinary vessel of glamor and talent!

Aren't I Fabulous? Now give me an award!

Thank You! I REALLY mean it!

Contemporary awards shows are a throwback to the glamor and control of the Golden Age of Hollywood, when stars were created to support the interests of the studio and then tightly policed by the studio to uphold that image. Make no mistake, the awards show is work for the star, and they know how to put on the proper kind of private self in this public moment. A successful appearance at an awards show (whether nominated or not, and whether or not the star actually takes home a trophy) is key to continued work in the industry and audience devotion. Even if they end up on the worst dressed list, their still wearing designer dresses and hanging out with other celebs and you aren’t.

On the hallowed ground of the awards show, the stars are nothing but special. Even Joan Rivers saved her snarking for the next day. Awards shows are full of ridiculous, self-aggrandizing, and ass-kissing behavior, so obviously they are perfect vehicles for celebrity culture! Where else do you get a bunch of beautiful people congratulating each other for being so beautiful and fabulous? I kid, celebrities, I kid. I do (much to my partner’s chagrin) love the major award shows precisely because of the stylized glitz and glamor that, I think, perfectly encapsulates stardom.

Which, of course, means I am quite excited about this weekend’s Emmy Awards. At the request of frequent (dare I say favorite?) commenter, An Admirer, I’ll be live blogging the event on Sunday. I’ll probably start with some pre-show red carpet ridiculousness on E! around 6pm EST, but will definitely be on board for the entire awards show proper.

I’ll even venture some picks for the major categories, based mostly on my personal preference over what industry buzz I might have read. I’m gonna stick to just the acting categories (and “big” award of best comedy and best drama series), since that’s most relevant to my focus on stardom here. Though I will say Lost’s final episode is probably the one to beat in the Drama Writing category. I invite you to share your own picks or tell me why mine are wrong in the comments section. You can find a full list of nominees here

Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series
I’m gonna go with Alec Baldwin for his continued excellence on 30 Rock. Though the fact that Steve Carell is leaving The Office after this season may make him a dark horse. Sorry Mr. Shue.

Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series
Tina Fey’s my favorite here, but I think Julia Louis-Dreyfuss has a shot since her show, The New Adventures of Old Christine, was canceled and there’s nothing like sticking it to the man by rewarding a show that did not make it (see: Arrested Development)

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series
Will the Modern Family men cancel each other out? Will NPH finally get his due? How much do I love Chris Kofler as Kurt on Glee? I don’t know, so let’s say Ty Burrell as doofus Dad Phil Dunfey on Modern Family. One part of me loves to see so many gay characters (and actors) nominated, but sort of sad (though not entirely surprised) that it is in the supporting category.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series
Jane Lynch as Sue Sylvester on Glee. The end.

Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series
My heart says John Hamm, but my head says Bryan Cranston. Who completely deserves another win for his portrayal of Walter White on Breaking Bad. Dark horse is Matthew Fox from Lost. He did a great job this season, and the voters love to reward a show in its final season.

Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series
This is a tough one for me, because I only watch one of the nominated actress’s shows. Which probably makes me a bad feminist spectator, what with the strong characters and actresses nominated here. So I’ll say Julianna Margulies for The Good Wife because I know some other people like her. 😉 And because as much as I enjoy January Jones’ portrayal of ice queen Betty Draper, I somehow think her performance is related more to the luck of finding the perfect role for her than her acting chops. Though no one furrows her brow quite like Jones.

Outstanding Supporting Actor Drama Series
Gah, this one is so hard! I really want John Slattery to win for Mad Men’s Roger Sterling, who always gets the best lines. But I think it will be either Terry O’Quinn or Michael Emerson for Lost, both of whom were fantastic in the final season. Edge to O’Quinn for so convincingly turning Locke into FLocke.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series
I am still a bit miffed that Anna Gunn was not nominated for her tense and nuanced performance as Skylar White Breaking Bad. She really was outstanding this past season. Nevertheless, Christina Hendrick’s Joan on Mad Men keeps getting more complex and fascinating. Her scenes with her no-good husband last season were brilliantly subtle. Go Joan!

And the really big ones:

Outstanding Comedy Series
Though 30 Rock continues to be one of my favorite shows ever, I think they’ve probably won it enough times. Torn between Glee and Modern Family, I’m gonna go with Modern Family because the sneaky punchlines and deadpan delivery make me laugh out loud and rewind my DVR to see it again.

Outstanding Drama Series
As much as I love Mad Men, no other show makes me say “holy crap!” more consistently than Breaking Bad, which just keeps getting better. That said, Lost is totally winning this category.

See you back here on Sunday night!

Link-o-rama: What I Did on My Summer Vacation

19 08 2010

I know. It’s been quite a while since I posted anything to the blog. But the move has been made, the kinks in the new internet connection have (mostly) been worked out, and I’m falling into end of summer procrastination mode on all other work that should be done. Here’s a quick run down of some of the celebrity-related things that have been occupying my mind of late.

Kanye (and Erin) Joins Twitter
I’m honestly amazed that it took so long for Mr. West to join Twitter. His blog is already a thing of celebrity overshare legend. And Twitter’s stream of consciousness format seems tailor made for Kanye. But he has certainly made up for lost time, most notably starting a public love fest with Justin Beiber. I told you Bieber Fever knows no bounds. Inoculate yourself now, people! His tweets are just what you would expect…grandiose, egotistic, and (unintentionally?) hilarious.

Speaking of late arrivals to Twitter, I also recently joined. You can see my feed (which is nowhere near as exciting as Kanye’s, let’s be honest) on the right or you can follow me @erin_meyers. I’ll admit, I kind of like it. There’s something about the 140 character limit and the fact that following in no way implies any reciprocal commitment (unlike *coughcoughFacebookcoughcough*) that I’m getting into. Mostly just following celebrities at this point for something I’m working on, and it’s a pretty interesting window into how celeb’s attempt to control their images. More on that to come.

Celebrity Weddings
Celebrity weddings have dominated the gossip landscape this summer. Hilary Duff and Mike Comrie, John Krasinski and Emily Blunt, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, Carrie Underwood and Mike Fisher, to name just a few. The coverage of these, of course, paled in comparison to the big one, Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky’s wedding in Rhinebeck, NY on July 31.

Celebrity Wedding of the Season

Chelsea’s wedding was fascinating to me for the massive amount of coverage it received from gossip media (natch) as well as the mainstream press. She never courted the spotlight and it is really her parents’ (political) star power that was the draw for the media. So suddenly all these media outlets who eschew celebrity-oriented stories as not news are falling all over themselves to find out how much she spent on port-a-potties for her guests and interviewing every resident of Rhinebeck twice to find out some tiny detail. Look, I know that celebrity content constantly bleeds into “real” news, but there is really no difference between covering Carrie Underwood’s wedding and covering Chelsea Clinton’s. It seems in this case that the fact they are political celebrities is just a gloss that somehow makes it more acceptable for mainstream media to cover it without sneering. Nevertheless, she looked amazing and did a relatively good job of keeping the celebration private. Mazel Tov!

Real Housewives of New Jersey
I really need to dedicate a post just to this show and my addiction to it. Chuck Klosterman has already written an excellent piece debunking the term “guilty pleasure,” rejecting the idea that we need to be embarrassed about any media consumption. But I think guilt is a major part of my personal pleasure in this show, because there is really so much wrong with it, and that is crucial to my weird love for it. I know it’s wrong, and that’s part of why I like it. It’s complicated. Stop judging me.

Real Housewives of New Jersey

In an interesting twist on the reality of reality TV, it seems resident villain, Danielle Staub, has been fired the show and will not appear in season three. One rumor has it the reason she will not return to the show is because she failed to bring the reality to her blog about the show. Instead of addressing all the drama going down on the show that ostensibly documents her real life (and, if you don’t watch, there has been plenty this season) and giving viewers more insight, her blog posts mostly just thank people for standing by her and gloss over any of insanity. The key to this show is the gossipy nature, the idea that you get different parts of the story from the various housewives and, yay new media, get even more insight if you read their blogs. By not keeping up her end of the bargain by delivering more “reality,” she was, allegedly, canned.

I kind of want that to be the reason. More likely, however, the firing was the result of her sex tape scandals or her too-volatile-for-reality-tv relationship with the other housewives. (quite a feat in itself!) But the actual reason seems to be that she’s getting a Bethany Frankel style spin off. Which simultaneously horrifies and delights me.

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.