Celebrity Culture   /   Spring 2005   /    Book Reviews

Sporting Types

Books on Athletic Celebrities, Reviewed

Shannon Latkin Anderson

Nike Air Jordans (2005). Via Wikimedia Commons.

For any American watching television, standing in line at the grocery store, or even following political campaigns, the presence of celebrity is ubiquitous. What many people may not think about is whether or not, and how, these public figures are affected by and affect the broader social world. Are celebrities merely vapid images to be consumed for entertainment? Do they have appeal because we identify with them? Or is it because we are captivated by the “exotic” world they inhabit? Are they “really” who they appear to be in the various forms through which we apprehend them? Do celebrities function beyond their images and offer us stories that might play a role in confronting structures of racial or gender inequality? Could they provide a common ground upon which strangers might recognize shared interests and values? These are among the questions scholars examining today’s celebrity culture seek to address, along with more particular theoretical and substantive concerns.

An underlying argument of Andrews and Jackson’s Sport Stars: The Cultural Politics of Sporting Celebrity is that as a vehicle for social change, celebrity—at least sports celebrity—appears to be a non-starter. The anthology addresses the ways in which the current cult of the athlete celebrity relates to such macro structures as consumer capitalism, while simultaneously influencing how individuals interpret the social world and live their lives. Garry Whannel’s Media Sport Stars: Masculinities and Moralities takes us more deeply into the complex relationships between athletes and questions of identity, consumerism, morality, and mass media, situating these within multiple theoretical frameworks, illustrating how they play out in a series of case studies, and then linking celebrity with postmodernity and morality.

In their clear and well-thought-out introduction, the editors of Sport Stars give us a strong indication of where they come down on these matters. They link celebrity culture most unambiguously with television culture and consumer capitalism: “Within this context, diverse arenas such as politics, religion, commerce, the judiciary, sport, and virtually all other forms of entertainment, have cultivated their own celebrity economies. As a consequence, social institutions, practices, and issues are principally represented to, and understood within, the popular imagination through the actions of celebrated individuals” (4).

In other words, celebrity culture is both constituted by and constitutive of the social world of consumer capitalism. This can be seen most clearly by thinking about celebrities as products—images presented by agents, teams, media—and as process—the actual making, remaking, and marketing of the celebrities.

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