Marilyn Monroe, ‘sex symbol’: film performance, gender politics, and 1950s Hollywood celebrity.
Will Scheibel, Indiana University, USA
Kate Moss, icon of postfeminist disorder
Dara Persis Murray, Rutgers University, USA
‘Actually evil. Not high school evil’: Amanda Knox, sex and celebrity crime
Stevie Simkin, University of Winchester, UK
Guess who Tiger is having sex with now? Celebrity sex and the framing of the moral high ground.
Hilde Van Den Bulck* and Nathalie Claessens, University of Antwerp, Belgium
Playing with the self: celebrity autoerotic asphyxia
Darren Kerr and Donna Peberdy, Southampton Solent University, UK
From reality to fantasy: celebrity, reality TV, and pornography
Gareth Longstaff, Newcastle University, UK
The enigma of the male sex symbol
John Mercer, Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research, UK
Introduction to the special edition:
On Friday 24 August 2012, the British newspaper The Sun, rejecting the calls of Buckingham Palace to respect Prince Harry’s privacy, published nude mobile-phone images of the third in line to the throne cavorting at a party in a private hotel suite in Las Vegas. It gave the defence that the photographs were in the ‘public interest’ and expressed some indignation that images that were almost universally available on the internet were effectively embargoed in the UK. The newspaper’s actions reignited an already febrile public debate around press freedom and personal privacy in the digital age. While the presumed ‘public interest’ in this case is hard to quantify, it is impossible to deny the level of curiosity that was inevitably generated by the spectacle of such a prominent member of the Royal Family caught in a compromising situation, a curiosity that is spiced with the unmistakable flavour of sex scandal.
Putting to one side the not unimportant fact that these inflammatory images expose the potential sexual indiscretions of an important Establishment figure, they are far from unique. Indeed popular magazines such as Heat and Closer, websites such as Popbitch and the eponymous website of Perez Hilton, and the notorious US tabloid newspaper National Enquirer all position gossip, innuendo and rumour about the sexual exploits and proclivities of celebrities at the heart of their publications. It seems that the media and audiences alike have an insatiable desire to know about the sex lives of celebrities, and furthermore often link sex to the notion of celebrity itself. This is perhaps an inevitable consequence of what has become the commonplace argument that we live in an increasingly sexualised culture. However, it is probably more accurate to suggest that celebrity has always been invested with, and connected to, wider debates around sex and sexuality. Celebrities, as a focus of their audience’s aspirations, ideals and fears, often trade upon their sexuality or are the subject of sexual desire, speculation and rumour, and in some cases opprobrium. Consequently, the figure of the celebrity can expose the complicated and contradictory attitudes to sex and sexuality that exist within and across cultures.
The aim of this special edition of Celebrity Studies is to explore some of the issues that the connections between celebrity and sex bring into view, and to critically address a subject that is frequently at the forefront of popular debate whilst remaining relatively overlooked in an academic context. The scope of this edition is necessarily broad and the contributions have been chosen to reflect a diverse range of perspectives and concerns, objects of study and methodological approaches.
The first essay in the edition revisits the Hollywood star whose signification, perhaps more than any other, is associated with a particular articulation of feminine sexuality. In Marilyn Monroe, ‘sex symbol’: film performance, gender politics and 1950s Hollywood celebrity, Will Scheibel pays specific attention to the early years of Monroe’s film career, when she was an emerging contract player at Twentieth Century Fox. Scheibel explores the ways in which Monroe’s public image as a sex symbol was constructed by the promotional mechanisms of the studio and contrasts this with an assessment of the extent to which her performances reveal a degree of complexity, ambiguity and subtlety for which she is rarely credited.
Dara Persis Murray’s article Kate Moss, icon of postfeminist disorder brings us very quickly up to date by focusing discussion on a contemporary figure whose career and subsequent celebrity status as the exemplar of ‘heroin chic’ is enmeshed within debates around current ideals of femininity and sexual desirability. Through an analysis of Mark Quinn’s series of sculptures of Moss and his description of the fashion model and celebrity as a ‘knotted Venus of our age’, Murray’s essay explores the contradictory and problematic nature of the particular model of postfeminist femininity that she seems to represent.
Just as Murray draws on an analysis of a celebrity figure to interrogate a model of femininity, so Stevie Simkin summons up the firmly established popular-cultural archetype of the femme fatale in his discussion of the media coverage surrounding the trial (and subsequent acquittal) of Amanda Knox for the murder of Meredith Kercher in 2007. In ‘Actually evil. Not high school evil’: Amanda Knox, sex and celebrity crime, Simkin discusses the ways in which media coverage (often hysterical in tone) produces the figure of the ‘celebrity murderess’ and furthermore the mechanisms by which female criminality and deviant sexuality are often conflated in media and popular discourse.
Whilst Simkin’s essay focusses on media reportage in the construction of Knox’s celebrity status as a femme fatale, Hilde Van Den Bulck’s and Nathalie Claessens’ article pays specific attention to the audience reception of stories of sex scandals reported on celebrity-gossip websites. Guess who Tiger is having sex with now? Celebrity sex and the framing of the moral high ground uses a framing analysis to identify the recurrent themes that emerge in media reporting of cases of celebrity adultery and audience reactions to them, with some surprising results. Most notably, the authors observe that whilst the media tend to avoid passing judgement in such cases, audiences are very keen to do so, often making negative evaluations of the conduct of celebrities.
Moving into altogether darker territory, Darren Kerr’s and Donna Peberdy’s article deals with another form of sexual transgression and its complicated relationship to celebrity identity. Through a discussion of the circumstances and subsequent media commentary surrounding the deaths of Michael Hutchence, David Carradine and the British Conservative MP Stephen Milligan, Kerr and Peberdy explore the relationships between the public and private spheres that are central to the construction of celebrity. In Playing with the self: celebrity autoerotic asphyxia, the authors argue that this paradoxically staged and yet private form of sexual performance, and its sometimes tragic consequences, uncovers some of the dilemmas and tensions inherent in contemporary celebrity.
So-called celebrity culture has risen to prominence hand in hand with the emergence of reality TV, the internet and social-media platforms, and the incremental erosion of the distinction between the public and private that Kerr and Peberdy have noted. Gareth Longstaff’s essay makes a further connection between the dynamics and imperatives of celebrity culture, reality TV and pornography in From reality to fantasy: celebrity, reality TV, and pornography. Focusing his analysis on the case of Stephen Daigle, who made the transition from reality TV in the US version of Big Brother to a subsequent career in gay porn, Longstaff explores the relationships between reality and fantasy, the seen and the unseen, that are central to the discourses of celebrity, reality TV and porn alike.
Finally, in the preparation of this special edition the figure of the sex symbol – from Marilyn Monroe to Kate Moss, ‘Foxy Knoxy’ to Tiger Woods, Michael Hutchence to Steven Daigle, celebrities who, in one way or another, can be seen to represent collective sexual desires, fantasies and anxieties – began to emerge as a recurrent theme across several of the articles and this has provoked my own contribution to the collection, The enigma of the male sex symbol. The purpose of this essay is to bring the sex symbol as a distinct category of celebrity into critical focus and to make some initial observations about the ways in which we might begin to think about and theorise this perennial and yet significantly overlooked cultural phenomenon. My specific interest is in the figure of the male sex symbol and I am suggesting that an essentially unknowable, enigmatic quality is key to the construction and reception of those celebrities who have been ascribed this status.