Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Karen Sternheimer: Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

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I tend to surround myself with people "like me": down-to-earth, smart, interested in dogs, etc. Yet even these smart, worldly people always seem to know worlds more about celebrities than I do. Like, I may have hand-selected the 10 least-obsessed-with-celebrity drama people in the East Bay to hang out with, and yet they all shake their heads at me when they say "Katy Perry" and I say "who?" or talk about a show called "black and orange" or something and I say "what?" I can't help it, I just don't care. I also don't have enough brain space to keep track of what the A's are doing on the field and City Council is doing in chambers and what Rollie is doing in my house and what my #onlineschool is demanding of me this week and what I'm reading and yeah, you get it.

So I have been trying to find a book that just might help explain why everyone is so obsessed with celebrities. Every time I went through the library catalog looking for books, I looked for "Celebrity Culture and the American Dream" and now that Oakland is hooked up with Link+ (a fancy version of interlibrary loan), my year-long search was over! Maybe, finally, Dexter-like (see what I did there?- just don't ask me the actor's name...), I could learn why society produces celeb-obsessions and, armed with that information, learn how to fit in better, or at least bolster my arguments about why it just isn't that important to care.

But Sternheimer's book is missing a word or two in the title. The subtitle (obscured by the giant Link + sticker on my copy) is "Stardom and Social Mobility." Perhaps a more accurate title would be "Celebrity Culture and the Creation of the American Dream" or a flipping of the title and subtitle: "Stardom and Social Mobility: Celebrity Culture and the American Dream." The book, while fascinating, did not serve as a guidebook to explain to themacinator how to fit in better or why everyone cares so much. Rather, "Celebrity Culture" documents the rise and fall of the studio system in Hollywood and how that affected the presentation of celebrities and American understanding social mobility. It's wonderful: "fan magazines," followed by magazines like People, have helped Americans to swallow societal norms through the lens of celebrities who are either "just like us" or inspirations. One day themacinator will learn that there's more to a book than a title. (Maybe after 1 million books?)

Sternheimer documents the ever changing "American Dream." Since the 1920s it's evolved and changed through periods of collective good will, a "Leave it to Beaver" period of suburban utopia, the 80s need for extreme wealth, etc. Through it all, celebrities were portrayed as representing the Horatio Alger ideal of the ability (true or not) of Americans from all walks of life being able to rise from nothing to become super rich. Not noted by the magazines depicting this amazing ability to become Someone was the fact that only white people could become Someone and only if they behaved appropriately. For example, women had to uphold traditional standards of femininity, not earn too much, love to clean, etc. If you believed the fan magazines, blacks and other people of color simply didn't exist, and/or couldn't possibly "make it."

Celebrities are also the perfect way to demonstrate that people who fail fail on their own accord: there's nothing systemic about downward mobility, people bring crappy situations on themselves. Clearly if a star overdoses or spends all of their money, that's a case of individual failings, not the times or systemic problems. For example, female who had problems during the depression had probably had been too independent, and had "brought problems associated with the Depression on themselves." Think contemporary celebrities who "twerk": there's something wrong with those oversexed Madonna-wannabes, right?  It's not possible that it's only possible for young women to succeed in the music industry through shocking displays of sexuality.

Interestingly, the production of celebrities and what they represent changed with the end of the "studio era" in 1948. Prior to the United States v. Paramount Supreme Court decision that decided that the movie companies were violating the antitrust laws, the studios owned their actors. After this, actors became free agents: the studios didn't decide what fan magazines could print about them anymore. Fan magazines could now print negative stories and more private information. At the same time, the '50s and '60s represented large cultural shifts and representations of celebrity culture moved from idealized portraits to more complicated, if not more accurate, pictures. Sternheimer explains that according to Ellis Cashmore, "the invention of the zoom lens [was] a defining moment in the history of celebrity culture," and cites an important picture, taken in 1962, of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton kissing while still married to others. The distance (literally) between celebrities private and public lives was closed. The darkness was brought into the light (is this bad or what?) for the public.

So why do we care so much? Sternheimer doesn't really answer this question, and I guess I'm still looking. Partially, Sternheimer believes that, especially during economic hard times, "celebrity culture provide[s] a fantasy that enabled the public to partake, at least vicariously." We can dream that, even with a recession, we can be rich and famous (and happy?) like those celebrities, and we can condemn them when they fail- if only they hadn't been so showy, and had been more moderate, like us. Is that what it is? We just need something else to think about, and someone to look at that's "worse" than us? Is there nothing else to it? We're not all hoping for exceptionalism? Do our parents tell us we can be famous one day? And why? Isn't this whole country based on the idea of exceptionalism? "Celebrity Culture" is a start, but there's more out there, I'm sure.

Thursday, November 21, 2013


Another personal post coming up (book review soon, don't worry!).

Part of my current dissatisfaction (which I'm still happy to blame on grad school) is my adjustment to being a person who sits behind a desk. Four years ago (!) I wrote about being a blue collar worker, and though my current situation isn't just a difference in economics (I make substantially less now), it is a difference in the actual job. In that post, I discussed my inability to wrap my head around what my parents did for a living: they were very successful at their jobs- well-respected and well-liked and well-compensated. At times, they've told me they even liked their jobs (and I'm sure they'll correct me if that's wrong!) But *I never understood it: what does someone in an office do all day? It's like I learned in school about widgets and assembly lines and policemen and firemen and then my brain stopped. People in offices? That's the stuff of New Yorker cartoons! Nothing really happens there, right?

I tried office life a couple of times as a teenager and college student in internship and volunteer work and basically bombed out: I can't sit still and do that officey work too fast, which meant I was a terrible free employee. Copies weren't for me. I was a bad New Yorker cartoon. Then, as detailed throughout themacinator, I found animal welfare. This was perfect: no desk, no sitting, different stuff every day, single serving friends (see: Fight Club), and action all the time. Then I burnt out, quit and found myself with no office-free place to go. What's a girl to do?

Fast forward: after a year and a few months of vacation and being employed by a crazy lady I'm back in a familiar place in an unfamiliar job. I didn't REALLY get away from animal welfare after all. But this time, I'm behind a desk. All day, I sit at a desk. I get up, talk to coworkers that I can't hear when they yell, and move around to make those dreaded copies. Sometimes I get up and go to the bathroom. But my desk is my new spot. And at the end of the day, I'm still not sure what I did all day, much as I wasn't sure what my parents did all day. I know I worked hard and I know that I often don't finish all the things I needed to do, but somehow, like a person who lived before the Industrial Revolution (let alone the advent of desktop computers), I can't wrap my head around the fact that if my hands aren't dirty and my body isn't tired, I can't possibly have completed a day's work.

What is this? Always a fan of Durkheim, maybe it's anomie:
The developments in the division of labor associated with industrialization facilitated anomie. As work became routinized, broken down into dull, repetitive tasks, workers lose the sense of their role in production, and are less committed to the process and the organization. As a result, the norms of the workplace exert less influence on their activity. (see "Durkheim's theory of social class")
Maybe it's something in my personality: I literally need to see the results of my labor. I love a clean kennel after I scrub it, or some one's eyes lighting up when I finish processing their dog adoption. My current job, coordinating the volunteers at an animal rescue, is certainly meaningful, but it's a step removed. I recently hit a milestone- I have two hundred active volunteers- but it's an abstract number. I am happy when I staff a busy event with competent volunteers that I've trained myself and feel rewarded when volunteers fight over positions because they're so enthusiastic. But I am missing the feeling of *doing something. Just with my oath not to go to grad school because I wanted action, this is themacinator, chiming in with her #firstworldproblem of not having to work enough.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

I'm Going to Blame Grad School

I haven't been blogging. Or going anywhere or reading much (!) or shooting or gardening or doing anything.

And even though it's November 2nd and I *could be blaming the offseason, I'm going to blame grad school and further, #onlineschool.

Pretty much from the day I started college I swore I wouldn't go back to school which I'm pretty sure disappointed my parents and I know disappointed my now 95 year old grandfather who were all sure I was destined for greatness, which included some fancy letters after my name.* As I had from entering preschool, I excelled at school. I think I pulled a B+ once in college, probably in one of my 3 required science/math classes. I didn't make the dean's list, or whatever it was called, but that's because I was no longer an overachiever: I focussed on being happy, not on grades, and I still did well.

But I knew right away that I wanted to do stuff, not to talk about stuff, and a liberal arts school is all about talking about stuff. I knew that if I heard the word "problematic" one more time after waling out of that place that I was going to vomit. I wrote an entire thesis about "intersectionality" which Word will never recognize as a word but which my entire four years of higher education was based on. I graduated with honors and a double major in Religious Studies and Women's Studies, which my sister rightly told me was basically the most useless degree ever. I was done.

And for about 8 years I did stuff. Then I burnt out. I straight up quit animal welfare and did nothing for about 6 months. It was amazing. But then it was time to get a job and I had no other skills. I mean, I had skills, but no one really wanted to hire a sector switcher who had been to college then gone into animal welfare and was an excellent poop scooper. It didn't work. I tried publishing, worked for a crazy lady and ended up not working again. Guess where I am now? Back in animal welfare.

And in grad school. Further, in #onlineschool as I like to call it in my twitter rants.

My reasons for not wanting to go to graduate school were more complicated than not wanting to talk about stuff, though that was the main one. I'm a huge autodidact. When I'm not in school, I read a lot (as you know if you ever read this blog). I read everything- I was one of those kids who proverbially memorized the cereal box at the breakfast table, except actually me and my dad fought over the newspaper. I read books, I read my dad's stale New Yorkers, I read twitter, I read longreads, I read stuff and synthesize it on Oaklandwiki.org, etc. I didn't feel like I needed to go to school and be assigned reading. I hate sitting. I don't sit still well, and I get kind of annoying when I'm doing mandatory sitting. Some might even say "disruptive." Not a good skill in a classroom.

But I thought about it and talked to some people and figured library school might be a good thing. There are two ALA (American Library Association) programs in California. One's at UCLA and one is online at San Jose State. You don't have to take any grad school tests to do the SJSU one, and it's online, so you don't have to move to LA. I signed up in the middle of last year- I'm in the middle of my third semester. It is all of the things I hate. Mandatory reading that is REALLY dumb and lots of sitting. But it's worse: none of the good things that came with school. You don't meet and like your peers. You don't have great professors, or you might, but there's no interaction with them, so who knows? One class I took, the one I was super excited about last semester, my "lectures" were one page typed outlines. There are terrible assignments: write a five page, double spaced paper about ALL the problems facing public libraries today. Use ten academic journals. I feel like I'm in 5th grade. There are group assignments where we sit in silence in virtual conference rooms. The situation that caused this rant today? A professor who assigns youtube videos this week that don't show up. I went to email her, but her only email address is a) hard to find (it's only on the syllabus which I had printed out because I still can't read mass quantities online) and b) when I went to look on the syllabus didn't show up because it's a link to an online form.

#onlineschool is terrible and it is sucking my will to live. I don't write anything because by the time I get home from work and decompress for an hour, I have to do homework (which is actually schoolwork) for a couple hours, then decompress for another hour. I don't garden because I feel pressured to do work. And now there is no baseball.

I realized today that I have no concept of whether other grad students feel like this, because I don't have peers to talk to, which at least #reallifeschool students have.

And with that happy post, welcome back to themacinator.com, and I'm off to more homework!

*Note: I in no way, shape or form mean to suggest that my parents or grandfather are disappointed in me or are not supportive of me. I have basically the best family a macinator could ask for. I mean, you don't get to be THIS awesome without an awesome family behind you. But one way to strut your stuff is with fancy letters, and that was one thing I couldn't do. Did it hold my family back from their awesome and supportive ways? Of course not! Was there a chance for my grandfather to ask me every time he saw me when I was going back to school? Why yes, yes there was. But that's his way of showing his faith in me. I know this, but it doesn't make for nearly as interesting of a blog, does it?