The “Ordinary” Celebrity and Postfeminist Media Culture
Erin Meyers / Oakland University

private as public in Us Weekly

Focus on the private as public in Us Weekly

My previous two columns considered the increasing focus on “ordinariness” within reality television and the stars produced within this realm as major shifts within celebrity culture. This ordinariness stems from the generic conventions of reality television that highlight the “real” individual who is “just like us,” producing a category of celebrity who is essentially famous for “being herself” in public. This form of “ordinary” celebrity is further intensified by tabloid coverage of their private and “everyday” lives, thus broadening the definition of “celebrity” from an individual with a discernable talent to the private side discourses of those who are “famous for being famous.” Christine Geraghty argues that this shift to the private as a primary locus of fame is gendered, as female stars are “particularly likely to be seen as celebrities whose working life is of less interest and worth than their personal life.” (( Geraghty, C. (2000), Re-examining stardom: questions of texts, bodies and performance. In Reinventing Film Studies. London: Arnold, 187. )) Though women have long played a central role in celebrity culture, I suggest this particular shift towards the private and the “ordinary” person within celebrity culture points to the broader influence of postfeminism within contemporary popular culture. More specifically, I argue that tabloids, such as Us Weekly, Star, In Touch and OK, later aided by online sources of celebrity gossip like Perez Hilton and TMZ, (( Though online sources of gossip, particularly gossip blogs, are important and popular sources of celebrity gossip, and ones that are tied in many ways to the form and narrative of tabloid magazines, I here will restrict my analysis to tabloids as an early progenitor of these postfeminist discourses. I have published elsewhere (Meyers, E.A. [2013]. Dishing dirt in the digital age: Celebrity gossip blogs and participatory media culture. New York: Peter Lang) on the social and industrial roles of gossip blogs. )) offer a postfeminist view of celebrity culture that foregrounds the promises and perils of femininity as a discourse on the nature of fame. These extra-textual engagements with celebrity culture foreground the private-side star as a means to valorize choice and consumption as forms of social power while at the same time reinforcing a narrow view of what sorts of choices can be made. Tabloids offer inherently contradictory narratives that at once hold up female celebrities as sites of identification or role models whose lifestyles women should emulate while at the same time constantly scrutinizing and judging those women for falling short of the very ideals we want them to embody. That is, through the focus on the private lifestyles of stars as their claim to fame, tabloids frame “ordinariness” itself as an idealized yet impossible position for all women.

Rosalind Gill argues postfeminism is a key concept within feminist analysis, yet one that is notoriously difficult to precisely define. Rather than arrive at a singular definition, Gill suggests postfeminism is best viewed as a “sensibility” shaping a range of media texts around multiple “themes or features” that help articulate specific views of gender within contemporary culture. (( Gill, R. (2007). Postfeminist media culture: Elements of a sensibility. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 10(2), 148. )) This broad definition necessarily recognizes the “contradictory nature of postfeminist discourses and the entanglement of both feminist and anti-feminist themes within them.” (( Ibid., 149. )) Similarly, Anne Helen Petersen points out that, “[L]ike all ideologies, postfeminism is at its core contradictory,” offering women the rhetoric of choice and empowerment that define feminism while simultaneously insisting that the feminist movement is no longer necessary. (( Petersen, A.H. (2012). That teenage feeling: Twilight, fantasy, and feminist readers. Feminist Media Studies, 12(1), 53. )) As such, postfeminism promotes a dystopic view on femininity within contemporary media culture in which women’s choices are constantly scrutinized, judged and found to be wanting. Women can never really “get it right” in postfeminist culture, yet postfeminist media, like tabloids, continually promote the idea that intensified self-surveillance and conspicuous consumption offer women paths to empowerment, pleasure and, most crucially, a “normal” or “ordinary” feminine lifestyle. Celebrity culture, in its emphasis on the contradictions between the private and public selves, between talent and personality, between ordinary and extraordinary combined with its increased attention to narratives of femininity through its focus on female stars is, I argue, a central space for the circulation of the contradictory ideologies that shape postfeminist culture.

On one hand, female celebrities are admired for their rich and successful lifestyles, evidenced by their consumption of the “right” sort of fashion and beauty products. This offers female audiences a seductive message that women really can “have it all,” but in ways that tie success and empowerment to constant self-maintenance and conspicuous consumption. Here, female audiences are drawn to celebrities and gossip as a mode of fantasy and aspiration, of how to “do it right” in contemporary culture. This is evident throughout the pages of tabloid magazines, as the emphasis on fashion and makeup is central way in which audiences are encouraged to follow the public and private lives of their favorite stars. For example, the regular style and beauty features in Us Weekly offer readers the opportunity to emulate the success of their favorite stars through the purchase of the right sort of fashion and beauty products.. The self-surveillance of postfeminism is central to these features that foreground the ordinary “problems” all women—even the stars!—must overcome (e.g. “beat blackheads,” “zap redness”) and the products the stars purportedly use themselves to “fix” these problems in order to emerge as idols of proper femininity. Here, the ordinary self can be made extraordinary through proper consumption and self-surveillance. The postfeminist narrative here suggests the success of these stars in the public sphere (e.g. the fact that they stand as enviable images of beauty) stems from their self-policing of the public presentation of the private/ordinary self. For tabloid coverage of reality stars who came from “ordinariness” into this glamorous celebrity world, the promise that anyone could enter this world through proper consumption is particularly potent.

proper feminine consumption

“Getting it right” in celebrity culture through proper feminine consumption

On the other hand, the intense scrutiny of stars’ private lives also presents a narrative that, despite their enviable lifestyles, these female celebrities—as is typical of postfeminism’s contradictory discourses—cannot actually have it all. Within gossip media, female celebrities, according to Susan Douglas, “have what we wish we had, will never had, and yet even they—the most beautiful, admired, deferred-to women in the world—are also subject to the vicissitudes of living in a man’s world.” (( Douglas, S.J. (2010). Enlightened sexism: The seductive message that feminism’s work is done. New York: Times Books, 243. )) This is the dystopia of postfeminist culture in which women’s feminine selves are constantly policed and found wanting. Furthermore, within postfeminism’s rhetoric of empowerment, such failings are chalked up to bad personal choices rather than the systemic influence of patriarchy, thus blaming women for their own inability to live up to impossible ideals. As with the spaces of “getting it right,” feminine failure within celebrity tabloids is read through the celebrity body. Gill points to a “preoccupation with the body” as a central facet of postfeminist media culture, in which “femininity is defined as a bodily property rather than a social, structural or psychological one.” (( Gill, R. (2007). Postfeminist media culture: Elements of a sensibility. European Journal of
Cultural Studies
, 10(2), 149. )) In the divide between private and public that shapes tabloid coverage of celebrities, the body becomes a key space where the merit of the public existence of these figures is policed.

policing the pregnant body

Policing Kim Kardashian’s pregnant body in Us Weekly

This is particularly evident in the policing of pregnant and post-pregnancy bodies within tabloid media. In 2013, Us Weekly devoted eight cover stories specifically to Kim Kardashian’s pregnancy, (( Kim Kardashian, as well as her mother, Kris Jenner and/or sisters, Khloe and Kourtney, appeared on other non-pregnancy related covers during this year as well, demonstrating the intensified coverage of reality stars in tabloid magazines. )) with most focusing on the “struggle” of her weight during and after her pregnancy. As a reality star, Kim’s claim to fame already centered on the presentation of her private self in public. This, as Gill would suggest, positioned her body “simultaneously as [her] source of power and as always unruly, requiring constant monitoring, surveillance, discipline and remodelling (and consumer spending) in order to conform to ever-narrower judgments of female attractiveness.” (( Gill, R. (2007). Postfeminist media culture: Elements of a sensibility. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 10(2), 149. )) Thus, the space through which we “know” Kim’s “real” self—the body—is always already the space through which we judge the self she presents not just for its adherence to “judgments of female attractiveness” but as evidence of her mental health and, not coincidentally, of her fitness as a mother. This sort of hyper-scrutiny of the celebrity body reinforces the contradictory discourses of postfeminism, as despite the glamorous and enviable lifestyles of the stars, they also serve as evidence of how women can never “have it all.” Within celebrity media, Douglas says:

there are ample lessons about physical self-scrutiny and behavioral self-regulation because it is always and only the most attractive, most perfectly slim (but not too thin), ‘nicest,’ most caring and nurturing and best-dressed who will get preferential treatment and the love and approval of others. (( Douglas, S.J. (2010). Enlightened sexism: The seductive message that feminism’s work is done. New York: Times Books, 264. ))

This presents celebrity culture as a postfeminist dystopia, one in which female celebrities are presented as enviable and powerful individuals in contemporary culture yet are constantly scrutinized and policed for proper (traditional) femininity as evidence of “deserving” such fame and public attention. That even these women cannot ever “have it all” and are also judged harshly for even attempting to do so positions tabloids as central texts in which the discourses of postfeminism are consumed and negotiated by female audiences.

Image Credits:

1. Focus on the private as public in Us Weekly.
2. “Getting it right” in celebrity culture through proper feminine consumption. Image source: Us Weekly, February 24, 2014, p. 70.
3. Policing Kim Kardashian’s pregnant body in Us Weekly (top left, top right, bottom left, bottom right).

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