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!?