Can Monkeys Be Celebrities?

30 06 2011

My writing energies have definitely been directed elsewhere this summer, but hopefully for good reason. I’m also gearing up for a move halfway across the country, preparing for my new job and trying to find some time to actually enjoy my last summer in New England. But if anything can bring me out of blog hiding for a brief post, it’s the convergence of two of my favorite things: celebrities and monkeys. I fully admit up front that this “analysis” is simplistic and silly and may or may not just be an excuse to post some awesome pictures of monkeys. But when I first heard about this on Tuesday’s Colbert Report, I was way too amused to let this pass me by and couldn’t contain my silliness in Twitter’s 140 characters (you should follow me!)

Monkeys, like celebrities, hate it when they are caught by paparazzi

Okay, so we know that monkeys are no stranger to celebrity culture. Elvis had Scatter. Michael Jackson had Bubbles. Even Paris Hilton had a monkey named Baby Luv, but she was confiscated back in 2005.

Elvis and Scatter

Paris and Baby Luv

Michael and Bubbles

But a new study being conducted at the Yale University Comparative Cognition Lab on the effects of advertising on primates (you heard me) is, I think, tapping into some sort of monkey celebrity culture that may tell us something about our own human celebrity culture.

Researchers are trying to find out if monkeys will prefer one “brand” of jello if they are exposed to a billboard “advertising” that brand. And what will be on this billboard? According to one of the researchers:

“One billboard shows a graphic shot of a female monkey with her genitals exposed, alongside the brand A logo. The other shows the alpha male of the Capuchin troop associated with brand A.”

Let’s consider our own celebrity culture for a moment. Celebrities are used to sell products. That we know. Advertisers take famous faces— images that are well-known to the public not just as actors/actress, but as representations of social norms—and connect them to products so that we will think that by buying this watch, we’ll be just like Brad Pitt!

But why use Brad Pitt? On one hand, Brad Pitt stands in for some of our social norms about masculinity that are then transferred to the watch. Celebrity really needs media attention to have this sort of cultural reach. And not just reach in a “hey, we know who they are” kind of way, but as markers for what it means to be a man or a woman in contemporary society. This is why we think of celebrities as “images.” We know there exists a person called Brad Pitt, but when we talk about him as a celebrity, we are talking about his image or how he is represented across media forms, not the actual person. This makes media crucial to celebrity culture because it is how we know what we know about these images.

Which is the same idea of using the alpha male (a monkey already at the top of monkey social hierarchy, and a monkey known to all the monkeys in that culture/community) to make other monkeys want to “buy” the Brand A jello. The alpha male monkey is already a public figure, so to speak, in the monkey community. But now, with media attention, he becomes a monkey celebrity whose very embodiment of all the right kind of “monkey-ness” defines his celebrity image. And that “monkey-ness,” researchers think, will be transferred to the product and make other monkeys prefer Brand A jello. The other monkeys (I’m guessing only the males? There’s a reason I’m not in the hard sciences, people) want to be like him because he is the most “monkey” of all monkeys, and the billboard helps reinforce him as that top monkey.

I believe there is already some precedence for monkeys wanting to be like someone who they perceive to be top of the heap:

What we’re seeing in this study, I think, is the mediation of those aspirational identities in the form of monkey celebrities on billboards!

But what really cracks me up about this whole thing is that the Brand A jello is also being “sold” to the monkeys with the “graphic shot of a female monkey with her genitals exposed.” Once I stopped snickering at that—because I am a 10-year-old boy—I was struck again by the human celebrity parallel. I could go on and on about the objectification and sexualization of women (in general) and female celebrities (more specifically) in media, but that connection should be pretty obvious. In fact, the idea that “sex sells” is the basis of the whole monkey study anyway.

But what I love about this is that monkey celebrity culture goes straight to the crotch shot or “upskirt” photo that really became a thing in gossip media just a couple of years ago. You couldn’t visit a blog without seeing a photo of Paris or Lindsay or Britney flashing their junk to the world. I’ll spare you the pictures. (Sidebar: who “forgets” to put on underwear? Isn’t that really step one of getting dressed? Or am I just old?). So if we’re thinking about monkeys as celebrities, we’ve bypassed the glamorous side of stardom and jumped (evolved?) directly to the high level of discourse of available on TMZ and Perez Hilton.

A male monkey celebrity is defined by power, authority and monkey-masculinity. Female monkey celebrities are sexual and defined by their junk. This is maybe hitting too close to the truth. Thanks, monkeys, for once again pointing out that humans are ridiculous.

Okay, one more cute monkey photo

Why don't I have a baby monkey!?


Even Better Than the Real Thing?: My Encounter with Big Elvis

9 07 2010

I recently returned from a trip to Las Vegas, a place dedicated to the strange reproduction of reality for entertainment purposes. Where else can you visit cartoonish and surreal versions of New York City, Venice, Paris, and ancient Rome all within the same (gigantic) city block? It’s not for everyone, but I find the hyperbolic reproduction of other places crammed into one space at once weird, interesting and uniquely American. Would I rather see the real Venice or Paris? Of course. But I don’t go to Vegas expecting authenticity. I go for spectacle and over-the-top ridiculousness. And Vegas always delivers.

Ostensibly, I was in Vegas for my cousin’s wedding (congrats again to Scott and Natalie!). But as soon as I made the decision to go, I started seeking out something I felt had been missing from my experiences as a scholar and a fan of celebrity culture: the Elvis impersonator. Surprisingly, my trip to Memphis last summer yielded no Elvis impersonators, though certainly we saw some guys that looked like Elvis. Though I didn’t really seek them out, being more interested in seeing the actual Elvis artifacts, and I’m sure they are there. But Vegas just seemed like a much more appropriate place to see an Elvis impersonator since the whole Vegas Strip is one big impersonation of sorts. So you can just imagine my delight when I found Pete Valle as Big Elvis, whose free show on the Strip has run for more than 8 years.

The very idea that a celebrity would even have an impersonator is, I think, a mark of a high level of fame. It also speaks to the idea that the star image presented to the public is one that is highly constructed to the degree that it can be imitated. It’s not simply that the impersonator looks like the star, but actually works to embody all aspects of the star’s persona, including the performance-side and the general public image. To me, a successful impersonator is not necessarily trying to make you think you are seeing the real thing, but is hitting on all the markers of the star’s “authentic” persona as it has been presented to audiences.

Though the attempt to fool audiences does happen…there was a Toni Braxton impersonator in South America arrested last summer for trying to pass as the real thing in order to charge more for concert tickets (she was later acquitted). The crowd recognized she was not the real thing when she was unable to hit the high notes, demonstrating that simply looking the part is not enough. In fact, I suspect that if the audience had known she was an impersonator from the start, the lack of a complete illusion would not have resulted in them throwing things at the stage. I suppose that means there is still something about the “real” star that is unique and cannot be reproduced. At the same time, just being able to sing like Toni Braxton (or lip-sync, maybe) would not be enough either. Any drag queen would tell you that attitude and embodiment of persona are more central than absolutely faithful reproduction of looks or talent.

But what I loved most about Big Elvis was that his performance combined the embodiment of Elvis with the performance of fandom. That is, he was certainly dressed the part…down to the studded jumpsuit and the reproductions of the Lowell Hayes designed gold necklaces that Elvis always wore. He also had a wonderful voice that did sound quite a bit like the King’s. And, well, it has to be said that he reproduced a certain stereotype about the later “Vegas” Elvis as Fat Elvis. I mean, his show is called “Big Elvis,” after all.

So while he does embody this performance and public image side of Elvis for the audience, Vallee combines that with an amazing performance of Elvis fandom. He clearly knows a great deal about Elvis. He took requests from the audience (including my request for my favorite Elvis tune, If I Can Dream…watch the real Elvis perform it on his 68 comeback special in an awesome white suit here ). Not only did he know every single song, many of which were more obscure songs, he also introduced each one with some information about how that song fit into Elvis’ career (which album it was on, why he started performing it, etc).

His performance told us a story about Elvis’ stardom through the songs, through his embodiment of Elvis, and through his fan knowledge. Like Vegas itself, it’s not supposed to be exactly the real thing, but a reproduction of it that combines the markers of reality with the spectacle of fun and entertainment. Even more interesting, he had video screens of actual Elvis performances running behind him the entire time, always reminding us of the “real” Elvis, but also providing evidence for the authenticity of his own performance.

All and all, Big Elvis was probably the highlight of my trip. Even without thinking too deeply on the performance, the show was just fun and gave us an excellent excuse to get out of the hot desert sun. Those non-believers who accompanied me even admitted to having a good time. Plus, I got a post-show photo opportunity!

Elvis and Me