- Spectacular Manhood and Girlhood: Celebrity Studies and Girlhood Studies Come of Age
Celebrity studies as interdisciplinary scholarship has come of age, as the books under review here indicate. Over the last half century, a vast study of celebrity, fame, stars, and entertainment industries has emerged to investigate how “the star intervenes and functions on every level of life, the imaginary level, the practical level, and especially on the level of the dialectic between the imaginary and the practical.”1 Yet scholars of celebrity culture can still find themselves on the defensive, facing charges of “zany doings” and “trendy jargon,” as did the editors of Deconstructing Brad Pitt when they tried to organize a 2005 conference panel on the “cultural logic of Brad Pitt” to explore masculinity, sexuality, whiteness, [End Page 53] celebrity, philanthropy, the American West, and national identity.2 As Su Holmes and Sean Redmond reported in the 2010 inaugural issue of Celebrity Studies, the first academic journal devoted exclusively and explicitly to this work, “in the media’s bludgeoning of the idea for the journal, we knew that the critical worth of Celebrity Studies was being proven. . . . s]tudying the impact of celebrity culture on everyday life was touching a raw nerve at the symbolic centre of celebrity production.”3 Yet the tide has turned as scholars, literature, organizations, and conferences devoted to this work proliferate: the two books under review here—Deconstructing Brad Pitt and Spectacular Girls—are part of this shift and exemplify the complex politics of gender, race, class, age, and sexuality laid bare by such work.
While the classical Hollywood studio system provided the original impetus for the study of celebrity culture, the subfield now encompasses a more nuanced and wide-ranging understanding of who is a celebrity, what it means to be celebrated, and the kinds of new and old media platforms and industries that create and sustain celebrity studies, including print culture, television, the music and recording industries, sports, and social media. As the technologies and platforms proliferate, the study of media and its celebrities grows, playing a decisive role in newer interdisciplinary areas of study—including media studies and cultural studies—as well as reshaping older disciplines like history and literature.
When literature scholars Christopher Schaberg and Robert Bennett issued a call for conference papers in 2005, using Brad Pitt as the lens through which to examine “race, class, gender, and regional or national identity” in postmodern American society, it provoked vitriolic reactions inside and outside academia (xvii). Bloggers took aim; so did the Chronicle of Higher Education. Nearly a decade later, we have Deconstructing Brad Pitt, which underscores how dramatically the scholarly terrain has shifted. This volume uses Pitt’s work—primarily his acting as well as philanthropy—and his public persona to understand celebrity culture, modern U.S. popular and political culture, American selfhood and upward mobility, and shifting constructions of American masculinity. Here is a very interesting and provocative—if uneven—collection of fourteen essays, including Nancy Bernardo’s visual essay as well as engaging front and back matter. The collection’s front matter—including a prelude, foreword, preface, and introduction—details the collection’s origins and its intended audience and goals. In their introduction, editors Schaberg and Bennett reveal their goal to keep the collection “outside an academic series”: while the volume takes “an academic and critical approach,” it is also “free of . . . jargon” (2, 3). Their goal is an admirable one: to try to reach a popular, nonacademic audience without sacrificing intellectual rigor and theoretical significance. And in many ways, it works: the essays are not overly long; the endnotes are very much abbreviated; the cover, typefaces, images, and general layout are appealing and not the norm in an academic volume—nor is the visual essay. Some of the essays, however, might be too theoretical and engaged with academic concerns for a popular reader. Alternately, for an academic audience, the paucity of endnotes and relative brevity [End Page 54] of the...