Tomorrow I start work at the London International Summer School at the University of Westminster, teaching a course on Celebrity Culture.
I’ve been doing this since 2008 – though I didn’t do it last year because Child no.3 was just a tiny squiggle and far too young to leave.
I absolutely love teaching this course and am delighted to be invited back to teach it. The students are young Americans and a joy to teach. It’s a dream job.
I’ve been looking back at the materials I prepared for the previous years and we’ll be covering similar ground. We look at Celebrity Death – Diana, Jade Goody (and I guess now Amy):
Celebrity Sex Tapes – yes, I did once make a programme called ‘Celebrity Sex Tapes Unwound – Celebrities and advertising; Reality TV; Celebrities and Politics – and so it goes.
When I first taught the course 4 years ago I was still very much in recovery from my job as a producer of celebrity based ‘list shows’. The formula was simple – get some minor celebs and get them to witter over a load of pre-selected clips. You might do a viewers’ vote to rank the clips into some sort of order – or you might not. Then you would pay a ‘celebrity’ to do a few pieces to camera to break up the clips/talking head soup. We got Joan Collins
to do one on ‘Bitchy Moments’ (I think) or was it Julian Clary?
I certainly filmed with both of them back in 2004 and thought they were both rather wonderful – although Joan Collins’ love of UKIP is a bit of a sticking point.
Gosh that is rather a long time ago; I was heavily pregnant with child no 1 at the time, which may explain the slight brain fog over the exact roles of our ‘celebrity presenters’.
Anyway, I digress. When I first started teaching on the Celebrity Culture Summer School I was still very much wearing my telly head. I’d been working with celebrities since my time at GMTV in the mid 90s and was totally immersed in the culture of ‘celebrity’. I saw the whole concept as harmless, a bit of fun, a game. Celebrity is something that brings us together, that gives us something to talk to our neighbours about. Who wants to talk about politics or religion (boring at best, contentious at worst) when you can talk about who ate the biggest plate of maggots on I’m A Celebrity? Or the fat one on The Only Way Is Essex?
Or Jordan’s latest boyfriend or poor tragic Chanelle or Chantelle or anyone else unfortunate enough to have stepped into the Big Brother House.
For me Celebrity Culture was about a common glue that bound us all together – a bit like football, or drinking tea or Top of the Pops in the 70s.
Now I’m not too sure. Maybe it’s because I’m a little bit more political these days. Maybe it’s from reading a few more clever books. Maybe because I find watching telly a bit more of a pain than a pleasure these days.
57 channels and nothing on (to quote Bruce Springsteen).
I still love popular culture as much as I love politics, Kentish Town, sitting on buses or my own children. But maybe I’ve become a little bit more critical about the function of celebrity culture.
I remember watching Chris Atkins’s wonderful film Starsuckers
and being a little bit cynical about it. Atkins’s thesis is that celebrity culture is manufactured by big media owners like News Corp or Viacom or Time Warner to keep us stupid and stop us from concentrating on real news that actually matters. The real opiate of the people. We are so distracted by what’s going on in the Big Brother House or the losers on The Apprentice or which Karsdashian to keep up with that we ignore the things that really matter.
Like what politicians are doing. Or Rupert Murdoch. Or Goldman Sachs. Or the IMF.
Although I might once have doubted Atkins, I’m pretty much with him these days. Celebrity Culture is a circus to entertain us and stop us from scrutinising the behaviour of our rulers. It is white noise that stops us from looking at what’s really going on – whether it’s the fact that more and more of us are struggling to make ends meet or the fact that our governments are more interested in bailing out banks than they are in educating their citizens.
Pardon me if I sound like a scary old Trot here.
I also take issue with celebrity culture because it is all about individualism.
It worships – even sanctifies – individuals, divorcing them from any social or historical context. It refuses to give credit to the group, preferring to fetishize a few random characters, that for whatever reason are this week’s hot ticket.
I will freely admit that the creed of individualism has always spoken to me – we all like to think we’re special and I’m no exception. The very fact that I have called this blog reesesrants suggests a tendency towards self aggrandisement and rampaging egotism. But my more rational self tells me that the biggest gains are made through collective actions – the fact that we all have the vote is down to a Victorian terror of the mob and a few suffragettes chaining themselves to railings in the early years of the 20th century.
Props to you, Mrs Pankhurst.
But celebrity culture has no time for the collective; it’s all about how much you as an individual can grab for yourself. In this respect it is a reflection of the way our society has been organized.
The scariest thing of all is how much our politicians are in thrall to the values of celebrity. If you don’t believe me, look at President Obama on the Jimmy Fallon show
I suppose it could be worse. It could be David Cameron.
Night night x