“A dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit.”—Cecil B. DeMille, playing himself in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Academic inquiry into celebrity culture has traditionally exhibited a bit of terror: the sheer power of celebrities to move and change the world, current events, political votes, and fundraising campaigns makes scholars and cultural watchdogs nervous. The technological and media changes that have occurred so quickly with such force, that have given birth to our celebrity culture in a relatively short period of time, are for many disheartening.
Yet, within the books listed here, readers will find a few of the positive outcomes of celebrity culture noted: new kinds of communities shaped around artistic participation, voices heard because of the passionate appeal and interplay between stardom and fandom, evidence that an individual can in fact effect social change and rise in social status. For some, stars provide the language and the means to understand our own selves better—our desires for fame, our views of our own (un)successful lives, our moral and social values—and create a common ground for us, while other areas of our fast-paced modern world that once composed a common ground seem to be slipping away.
Debates on the value or harm of celebrity culture occur in two kinds of work: biography and social critique. While biography is often a player in the star system itself, written within the media machine that produces the stars themselves, the social critique of celebrity has become more and more prevalent in academic literature. Starting in the 1970s, with the seminal works of film studies scholars Richard Dyer (Stars) and Laura Mulvey (“Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”) and film critic Richard Schickel (His Picture in the Papers), celebrities have become an acceptable research topic, a way to “read” contemporary culture and social change.
Within studies of celebrity culture, two main approaches dominate: the sociological and the semiotic. The sociological views stars and the mechanisms that create and promote them as the phenomenon; their work is secondary and inconsequential. The semiotic reverses this, and draws on linguistic theories to read celebrities through the meanings and significations attached to their work. In recent years, these two approaches have merged, as interdisciplinary approaches have gained in acceptance, and as more disciplines, such as psychology, have begun to accept celebrity as a topic that can produce fruitful results. However, as the books listed below reveal, the study of celebrity culture remains fairly limited: celebrity is widely written about in film and literary studies, but rarely in philosophy or the social sciences. And for scholars themselves, celebrity seems to be a topic one can “dabble” in, while few scholars or writers study the field over a career—proof perhaps that celebrity remains, as Diane Negra suggests in OffWhite Hollywood, “one of the most devalued forms of social knowledge,” despite the fact that “it is a form of knowledge that we all possess, often with a high degree of expertise” (8).