There we all are, waiting in the checkout line to buy dinner. (My version of the South Beach Diet™: a can of tuna and a 2.5 liter jug of Sauvignon Blanc.) We cannot escape. We must walk through the gauntlet of magazine racks, a highly compressed and unavoidable photo gallery, their faces and bodies dominating every publication. They demand to be looked at, wondered about and envied: the celebrities of America.
On this particular evening, we are confronted by The Enquirer cover that features the “Best and Worst Beach Bodies” illustrated by overweight celebs in swimsuits and, most humiliating of all, the “Cellulite Hall of Fame.” Next to this is the recently reincarnated Star, whose fluorescent yellow headline screams “Skinny S.O.S: Stars’ Scary New Affliction – Foodophobia, And It’s Contagious!” The body-patrolling covers of these rags offer weekly tutorials for girls and women on the narrow line they must walk between being too fat and too thin. Could a week go by without at least one celeb-azine pitting Angelina Jolie against Jennifer Aniston? (Between January and September 2005, Jolie, Brad Pitt or Jennifer Aniston were on the cover of In Touch 33 times.)
In the olden days (the ’90s), one would find Glamour and Vogue, even Newsweek or Time, on the checkout aisle racks. Now, only the warring celebrity magazines pay for those up front positions: the old warhorse People, embattled now by Us Weekly, In Touch, Inside TV, the newly celebritized TV Guide, the upstart British import OK!, and, of course, Star and The National Enquirer. I imagine that most of us in line feel like a Strasbourg goose, funnel down the gullet, being force-fed an unrelenting stream of sexist commercial swill.
Gossip, celebrity obsession and celebrity worship have become the herpes of the mass media, blistering previously celebrity-free media zones like the news. In the first half of 2005 alone, US Weekly’s paid circulation increased 24 percent, to 1.7 million, the Star’s increased 21 percent to 1.4 million, while People led the pack at 3.7 million. VH1, which used to show music videos by non-headbanger bands, now packs its schedule with “Celebrity Fit Club 3,” “Celebrity Showdown 2,” and “40 Greatest Celebrity Feuds.” Celebrity-watching blogs, particularly those with an ironic stance such as Gawker and Pink is the New Blog, have a large and devoted following, especially among young women.
Those of us in the chattering classes may focus on national and international politics for our conversational and psychic grist. But we are not the target market for celebrity culture, our daughters are. And while many of them are not dupes and take pleasure in making fun of celebrities – especially the PR and spin processes by which celebrities seek to stay in the public eye – the messages about women’s proper roles remain insidious and ensnaring.
Celebrity culture, wrapped in the shiny cellophane of sex, love, scandal and conspicuous consumption, seems libertine and liberal on its surface, but it is conservative to its core, especially for women. Under the guise of female success and empowerment, celebrity culture has become a central implement in the backlash against women and the ongoing production of post-feminism. The dominant practice of celebrity culture is to police the weight, faces, hair styles and clothing choices of female celebrities, insisting that a woman, no matter how accomplished, merits only ridicule if she has not scrutinized herself obsessively and calibrated her appearance perfectly.
And the baby fixation, particularly the telephoto surveillance of celebrities’ “bumps,” real or imagined, combines the creepiness of stalking with the creepiness of government spying. (If, like Reese Witherspoon, a telephoto shot of you in a bikini shows a stomach that is not washboard flat, you must be pregnant; if not, as in Witherspoon’s case, “it’s time to hit the gym” warns Star.) Like their celebrity nebula, women are supposed to obsess about their bodies and especially about having babies, babies, babies to the exclusion of work or, really, anything else.
The relentless manufacture of celebrity culture has the earmarks of a business plan directed at young women. The gaping, gluttonous maw of 24-hour cable television, with its competing, insatiable programs, needs to be constantly crammed; celebrities are the krill. This has required more frenetic production of celebrities, which includes the plucking out of ordinary people and manufacturing them into stars. As the fantasy of rising above “the herd” becomes less implausible, the herd itself becomes even more despicable.
Of course celebrity culture is insidious because it diverts our attention from the real arenas in which decisions about people’s lives are made or, more often, neglected. Celebrity culture justifies the growing gap, in the United States, between the super rich and everyone else. And precisely because it seems so trashy, evanescent, insignificant and even fun, it is the Trojan horse in the ever-expanding arsenal of anti-feminism in the United States.
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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.