Sunday, 18 May 2008

Celebrity and the Public Sphere.

An article in the BBC magazine highlights that female celebrities are more hated than male celebrities, and often for no apparent reason (that is, why women would be hated more than their male counterparts that behave similarly- not that we don’t have reasons for our hate). Now, women-hating, in any of its varieties, is hardly news to feminists. Women who do not conform to strict models of femininity, which are constantly changing, are always open to censure. Female celebrities walk the same fine line that all women do but in front of a wider audience. They are constantly critiqued it they are too fat or too thin, bad examples to womankind both; if they are too sexy or too prudish, bad examples to womankind both; if they are too ambitious or not ambitious enough, bad examples to womankind both; if they drink too much, or too little (any drinking while female bad). The female celebrity, unlike the male, is always set as example to womankind. Male celebrities can undergo censure if they break particular taboos, such as drug-taking as athletes or beating their wives/ paparazzi (and then it depends on the individual- what with all those lying bitches), but when their weight fluctuates, or they get drunk, or their mini-skirt is too short, they do not get held up as having failed men everywhere.

Why are all women in the public sphere set on a pedestal where they can but fall (ideally drunkenly coming out of a nightclub without knickers) , while men are just men, allowed all the foibles of humanity. As the academic the BBC quote for this article notes, ‘There is incredible ambivalence in a post-feminist culture towards women in the public sphere’. Yet, there has always been incredible ambivalence, if not downright hostility, to women in the public sphere. Until the nineteenth century, women who published in the public sphere, who held professional jobs, such as painter or even mid-wife, who performed in plays, who held public civic roles, all risked being tainted with the scarlet letter of promiscuity and prostitution (a taint significantly more damaging to a women’s reputation in a bygone age than today- not that it’s insignificant now).

The right to play a role in public life was fought by feminists of the eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and yet, while significant gains have been made, we still have not come to terms with women as public figures. The only way we can conceive of women in public is as idols on pedestals, examples of ideal femininity. When female celebrities, who are only human after all, fail to meet these standards we condemn them, without ever questioning why. It’s kind of frightening to realise that, despite the right for women to be in public being counted as a feminist victory, we haven’t yet come to terms with women as public figures; that we have no framework for understanding what a female public figure should look like or how she should behave, without falling back on the narrow, prescriptive models of ideal femininity; that our only response when we see such women is too condemn them for not being ‘good enough’.

In a funny way, this reminds me of the Brilliant Women exhibition I visited a few weeks ago. One of the striking things about how eighteenth century society viewed the ‘bluestockings’ was their association with the Muses, female goddesses who inspired the arts. The only way society could deal with women as public figures was to imagine them as women on a pedestal meant to inspire, rather than to be active participants in the real world. In twenty-first century society, we have more women in the public sphere, but we still haven’t moved past this model for interpreting women’s behaviour in the public sphere. And ultimately, this has been a failure by us to recognise women as human beings; human beings who are flawed, make mistakes and are are doing the best we can. If we want to reconceptualise women in the public sphere, we need to grant the rights of humanity to women; so we are more than models or ideals, but individuals.


This is a bit off-topic, but in the above article, the journalist uses abstracts submitted for an academic conference as the basis of their academic research. I am not sure what I think about this. First, how many academics would write an abstract thinking it would be used by journalists as the basis of their argument- I mean 250 words can never fully portray the nuance of an article, or even the paper given at a conference. Second, many papers given at conferences are based on new research, before findings are fully consolidated, and it may not have been anticipated by the authors that people would use them as ‘fact’. Just thought this was a bit weird.

1 comment:

butterflywings said...

Hello. I discovered your blog through the f-word and am enjoying.

I do agree that men get to have foibles, be human etc. - not so sure any drinking while female is bad. Not drinking can be seen as being Sandra D - ish. Some people can't handle those who sit in the pub and drink something non-alcoholic, they have to try and make them justify why they are not drinking.

A minor quibble though - I like your style and will be back!