Written in the Stars: Image, Power, and the History of Stardom

Course Description and Goals
Our collective task this semester is to gain a critical perspective on the history, politics, and economics of U.S. media through an investigation of stardom and celebrity. To examine U.S. media from a critical perspective is to question why things are the way they are and how they came and continue to be as such. In this class we will look specifically at the critical issues raised be the phenomenon of stardom. We’ll learn a lot about the historical development and contemporary workings of U.S. media by turning a critical eye towards one of its most valuable commodities: celebrity. Along the way, we’ll wrestle with critical theories and concepts important to the field of media studies. Together, we’ll try to answer questions such as:

  • Why are representations of stars and celebrities so prominent in our contemporary media culture?
  • Who benefits from our “celebrity culture”?
  • Why do stars and celebrities matter?  How do they come to mean to audiences and consumers in the context of everyday life?
  • How powerful are stars and celebrities?  Where does their power come from?
  • What are the changing economic, cultural, social, and political functions of media celebrity?

While we may already know much about the “whats” of our “celebrity culture,” getting a handle on the “hows” and “whys” will prove a more formidable task. We’ll discover that the endless streams of media stories about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are much more than mere entertainment. Our critical approach will require students to question much of what we might normally take for granted about the media, our culture, our democracy and, ultimately, ourselves. Our collective probe into media celebrity will be a pleasurable, challenging, and, sometimes, uncomfortable investigation into the meaning and politics of our everyday lives.

Course Schedule (subject to change)

5/27 Course Overview, Introductions
Cultural Myths about Stardom: Democracy, Liberalism, and Consumer Culture

The Star Image

6/1 The Invention of Stardom
DeCordova, “The Star” and “Star Scandals”

6/3 How Stars Mean
Dyer, “Stars as Images” (entire section)

6/8 Producing Stars
Gamson, “Industrial Strength Celebrity” and “The Negotiated Celebration”

6/10 Consuming Stars
Stacey, “Female Fascinations”
Hermes, “Reading Gossip Magazines”

6/15 Who Controls the Star Image?
McLeod, “The Private Ownership of People”
Coombe, “Author(iz)ing the Celebrity Engendering Alternative Identities”

Exam 1

Star Power

6/17 Female Stars and Consumer Culture
Murray, “For the Love of Lucy: Packaging the Sitcom Star”
Leppert and Wilson, “Living The Hills Life: Lauren Conrad as Reality Star, Soap Heroine, and Brand”

6/22 Stars and Cultural Power I
Rodman, “Elvis Culture”

6/24 Stars and Cultural Power II
Peck, “Transcending Race: The Racial Politics of Oprah Winfrey and New Liberalism”

6/29 Celebrity and the Self
Turner, “The Cultural Function of Celebrity”
Hearn, “John, a 20-year-old Boston native with a great sense of humor’: On the spectacularization of the ‘self’ and the incorporation of identity in the age of reality television”

7/1 Celebrity Politics
West and Orman, “The Celebrity Presidency” and “Activist Celebrities”
Cooper, “Beyond One Image Fits All”
Littler, “’I Feel Your Pain”: Cosmopolitan Charity and the Public Fashioning of the Celebrity Soul”

7/6 Star Studies
7/8 Star Studies

Exam 2 Due

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