Exploring the body politics surrounding stars Melissa McCarthy, Gabourey Sidibe, Peter Dinklage, Danny Trejo, Betty White, and Laverne Cox, this book reveals how non-normative celebrity bodies address cultural anxieties about pressing social and political issues.
Celebrity culture today teems with stars who challenge long-held ideas about a “normal” body. Plus-size and older actresses are rebelling against the cultural obsession with slender bodies and youth. Physically disabled actors and actresses are moving beyond the stock roles and stereotypes that once constrained their opportunities. Stars of various races and ethnicities are crafting new narratives about cultural belonging, while transgender performers are challenging our culture’s assumptions about gender and identity. But do these new players in contemporary entertainment media truly signal a new acceptance of body diversity in popular culture?
Focusing on six key examples—Melissa McCarthy, Gabourey Sidibe, Peter Dinklage, Danny Trejo, Betty White, and Laverne Cox—Rebellious Bodies examines the new body politics of stardom, situating each star against a prominent cultural anxiety about bodies and inclusion, evoking issues ranging from the obesity epidemic and the rise of postracial rhetoric to disability rights, Latino/a immigration, an aging population, and transgender activism. Using a wide variety of sources featuring these celebrities—films, TV shows, entertainment journalism, and more—to analyze each one’s media persona, Russell Meeuf demonstrates that while these stars are promoted as examples of a supposedly more inclusive industry, the reality is far more complex. Revealing how their bodies have become sites for negotiating the still-contested boundaries of cultural citizenship, he uncovers the stark limitations of inclusion in a deeply unequal world.
- Introduction: Star Bodies and the Politics of Inclusion
- 1. Melissa McCarthy: Class and Corpulence in the Obesity Epidemic Era
- 2. Gabourey Sidibe: Obesity and Postracial Femininity
- 3. Peter Dinklage: Meritocracy and the World’s Sexiest Dwarf
- 4. Danny Trejo: Latino Action Stardom and the Shifting Borders of Whiteness
- 5. Betty White: Bawdy Grandmas, Aging in America, and “Prefeminist” Fantasies
- 6. Conclusion: Laverne Cox, Trans Women, and the Limits of Neoliberal Citizenship
- Selected Bibliography
Star Bodies and the Politics of Inclusion
In january 2014, the popular feminist website Jezebel offered a $10,000 reward for unretouched images from Lena Dunham’s photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz, the altered versions of which were then appearing in the current issue of Vogue. Jezebel had long crusaded against fashion magazines and their representation of unrealistic female bodies, especially the practice of “Photoshopping” models and celebrities into monstrously unreal proportions. But the website was gearing up to make the Dunham shoot and the bounty for those “real” images the main event in its campaign for realistic women’s bodies in the media, primarily because Dunham is often held up as a challenger to unrealistic body norms. According to Jezebel ’s editor, Jessica Coen, “Lena Dunham is a woman who trumpets body positivity, who’s unabashedly feminist, who has said that her naked body is ‘a realistic expression of what it’s like to be alive’ and ‘if you are not into me, that’s your problem.’”1 When someone claimed the bounty and Jezebel published the images, however, they revealed fairly limited retouching, although that did not keep the site from touting the “real” images as a victory for body type diversity.And then Dunham herself criticized the site’s antagonistic exposé—perhaps Jezebel should have applauded Vogue for putting Dunham in the magazine in the first place, she suggested.
The back-and-forth debate surrounding Jezebel ’s antics helped cement Lena Dunham’s place in the culture as a prominent example of progressive, feminist body politics in mainstream media, but one whose meanings are still up for debate. With the success of her HBO series Girls (2012–), which focuses on the personal and professional struggles of a group of twenty-something women in New York (with a frank and unromanticized emphasis on their sexual exploits), Dunham has become a celebrity as much for the show itself (which she writes, directs, and stars in) as for being an outspoken, hip feminist icon. Affirming this status, Dunham told crowds at the SXSW festival that Hollywood has to change the way it casts and represents women with only a few character types and that she plans to work tirelessly to help enact that change. She is also known for her willingness to display her naked body even though it deviates from Hollywood beauty norms, offering a prominent example for feminist body-acceptance discourses. Meanwhile, Jezebel (despite the recent tension) celebrated Dunham’s 2014 gig hosting Saturday Night Live as a “feminist extravaganza.”
Dunham’s stardom puts her squarely in the middle of cultural debates about women, feminism, and media representations, but as the Vogue incident suggests, it is her body that serves as the focal point for these debates. Is Dunham’s body an “authentic” representation of average women, free from the manipulation of patriarchal mass media? Does her body pose a radical challenge to the kinds of bodies that US entertainment has allowed in the past, or does she glorify an unhealthy disregard for appearance and health, as the late Joan Rivers suggested by saying that Dunham’s message to women is “Stay fat. Get diabetes”? Does her insistent nudity break barriers for body-type diversity in the media, or is she just a narcissistic, postfeminist hipster who, like the character she plays, makes irresponsible sexual decisions? Right-wing commentators have long despised Dunham’s openly feminist politics—she has campaigned publicly for Planned Parenthood, after all— but their critiques mostly take the form of body shaming, as was the case in May 2015 when Dunham posted a revealing picture of herself on Instagram. In response to the photo, which shows her in lingerie, the hyperconservative pundits at Breitbart had a hysterical conniption, warning that the sight of the scantily clad Dunham would cause “emotional, spiritual, or psychological damage.” More than anything else, the meanings of Lena Dunham and her status as a cultural crusader hinge on how we interpret the shapes and contours of her body.
She is not alone in this regard. Dunham is part of a wave of celebrities since the year 2000 whose bodies challenge Hollywood beauty standards and cultural body norms in one way or another. Held up as examples of a new and seemingly more diverse entertainment industry, these stars provide assurances that the US media really are adapting to a changing culture, even if the images of these stars’ bodies are still subject to intense shaming. A spate of performers seems to illustrate a shifting reality in stardom and celebrity culture in which one can become a star in spite of (or even because of ) a body that deviates from social norms of beauty and health. From larger women such as Rebel Wilson, Amy Schumer, or Aidy Bryant who have found success in Hollywood despite an obsession with thinness, to women of color such as Mindy Kaling or Viola Davis whose weight or skin tone challenges Hollywood’s fetish for thin, ambiguously ethnic women, to performers with disabilities such as Breaking Bad ’s R. J. Mitte or Glee’s Lauren Potter who are earning more nuanced roles than have ever been offered in US pop culture, the entertainment media are riddled with feel-good stories about the new opportunities for folks who would never have been stars in the past.
This book singles out six such examples that particularly exemplify the new body politics: Melissa McCarthy, the overweight comedian who starred in Bridesmaids and the CBS sitcom Mike and Molly; Gabourey Sidibe, the overweight African American actress who won rave reviews in Precious and starred in the third season of American Horror Story; Peter Dinklage, the dwarf actor who is currently a fan favorite in the HBO series Game of Thrones; Danny Trejo, who spent years playing muscled and grim-looking bad guys in action movies but has become a leading man with the immigration-themed Machete films; Betty White, a longtime TV star who has rejuvenated her career late in life with films such as The Proposal and her role on the TVLand sitcom Hot in Cleveland; and Laverne Cox, the transgender actress who is part of the ensemble cast of Orange Is the New Black. After decades of debate and discussion about diversity and inclusion in the media, the success of stars such as these hints at a new kind of body politics that makes space for a greater variety of bodies.
As the lingering tensions over the meanings of Lena Dunham’s body suggest, however, the new body politics tell a complex story about what diversity means in the contemporary United States. The entertainment industry would like to promote stars like these as examples of its inherent meritocracy and inclusivity, to advance its narrative that talented performers will rise to prominence through hard work and individual merit despite their deviation from cultural norms. But stars with non-normative bodies actually provide far more complex narratives about individualism and diversity. Far from simply affirming the importance of inclusion in the entertainment media, each of these celebrity bodies acts as a site of contestation for the most pressing social issues of our day, including obesity, race, poverty, disability, immigration, aging, and gender identity. These celebrities resonate in contemporary culture because their bodies bear the burdens of our cultural anxieties, creating often-contradictory cultural spaces where ideas about inclusion, inequality, and cultural change clash with one another. Lena Dunham’s celebrity, for example, has helped make room for progressive, feminist discourses about women and media representations, but the debates about how we interpret her body (is it a feminist challenge or a health risk; that of an “authentic” woman or an out-of-control, privileged brat?) make her body a place where the culture’s anxieties about feminism, sex, and class can be processed.
This book argues that stars with non-normative bodies create powerful challenges to the cultural centrality of white, able-bodied, heteronormative masculinity. These challenges, however, are part of a constant cycle of crisis and redemption in which the cultural center reaffirms its privileged position by magnanimously redrawing the boundaries of inclusion. The increasing presence of non-normative bodies in media content and public discourse, after all, draws both non-normative and normative bodies into debates about privilege and inclusion. At stake are not just the stigmas facing those who deviate from cultural body norms but also a crisis about the rigidity of those norms, about people with privilege refusing to change with the times. In other words, crises about inclusion often tell us much more about those with power and the accommodations they are willing to make than about those who would be included.
The crises posed by stars with non-normative bodies, then, draw everyone into a model of identity based on relentless self-transformation. In a postmodern, neoliberal era in which identity has become yoked to constant self-improvement, the inclusion of different bodies into the cultural fabric requires a public reassurance that those with such bodies are constantly working to be better citizens and consumers, if not through physical change then through disciplining attitudes, behaviors, fashions, etc. At the same time, the inclusion of non-normative bodies by mainstream media provides evidence that the cultural center can be flexible and self-transformative, rejuvenating normative identities through assurances that challenges to the center can be accommodated.
As some of the most public and visible challengers to shifting body norms, stars with non-normative bodies function as both the source of cultural crises and the solution to them, as their inclusion in the entertainment media proves how flexible and adaptable cultural privilege can be in changing times. Such gestures of inclusion signify an adapting but still dominant cultural norm: the presence of non-normative bodies is necessary to create a cultural crisis that can be resolved by the center’s own tolerance of the margin.
As this suggests, at stake for both those who are included and those who do the including is the idea of citizenship in a changing, more diverse world. As the mantra of diversity expands the number of populations that would seek not just inclusion but full, cultural citizenship, what are the values that bind together those who have held privilege and power and those whose bodies have marked them as outsiders, as deviants, and as problems for the civic order? What are the dominant narratives, images, and discourses that can turn non-normative bodies into sites of appropriate citizenship? And how does this accommodation of difference help rejuvenate the citizenship of those with cultural power?
These questions of full cultural citizenship have only become more complicated in the world of neoliberal economic policy. In contrast to the liberal nation-state that supports its citizens through social welfare programs, neoliberalism has encouraged the shifting of responsibility away from government programs and toward individuals acting on the free market. Promoting privatization over state control, neoliberalism has impacted a variety of programs and institutions central to economic mobility, from the slashing of welfare programs to the rolling back of consumer protection regulations. These changes all align with a neoliberal worldview that places the costs and responsibility for community services such as education on citizen-consumers, helping spur economic stratification.
The very concept of citizenship, then, has become fraught and controversial in a world of neoliberal policy. The transition to individual responsibility on the free market in theory should make the concept of citizenship outmoded, a relic of liberal nation-states as they systematize who is eligible for state support and benefits (rather than simply allowing individuals to participate in the free market). As the liberal nation-state slowly erodes in a world of neoliberal privatization, however, questions of citizenship and cultural belonging have intensified in the United States and abroad. If neoliberal citizenship can be practiced through consumption (or exploitation) on the free market rather than being defined by the state, then what are the new boundaries of national identity and cultural belonging? What “others” are acceptable to the fabric of a multicultural neoliberalism and what “other-others” (to use Sarah Ahmed’s terminology) must be excluded from cultural citizenship? Or, as Elizabeth Povinelli puts it, what “new justifications for belonging and abandonment” emerged in an era of neoliberalism? What bodies are marked as dangerous threats to the economy and society, and what bodies are acceptable as participants in “free” exchange?
According to Jennifer Wingard, these boundaries are policed not simply through economics and politics but through emotional rhetoric that “brands” certain kinds of bodies as “cautionary tales of what to avoid, whom to fear, and who is outside the norm of citizenship.” The images and narratives surrounding such bodies (for example, those of immigrants or gays and lesbians) function much like the branded objects of consumer capitalism as they are circulated around the culture, crystallizing the meanings of these bodies into a discrete set of emotions and affective associations that help obscure the real threats of neoliberal policy. “Part of the reason branding works,” Wingard explains, “is because it creates an object upon which the American public can focus their emotions. Branding redirects the anxieties that the material conditions of neoliberal capital produce through unemployment, economic disenfranchisement, and changing demographics.” Rather than fostering a concern for widespread inequality and economic powerlessness, these branded bodies provide an emotional outlet for any apprehension about the loss of political and economic power in a neoliberal economy.
For Wingard, immigrant and LGBT bodies are the most salient examples of branded bodies in the contemporary United States, since they are the two groups around which explicit discussions of citizenship and individual rights have taken place in recent years. Depictions of immigrant bodies crossing the border or LGBT bodies participating in marriage rites clearly function as charged, emotional images deployed to affirm traditional notions of citizenship. But a range of bodies function in similar ways, eliciting emotional responses that construct them as social and economic burdens. In the news media, obese bodies are stigmatized and dehumanized as “out of control,” making them the focal point of a moral panic around obesity rates and their burden on the US health care system. Poor, urban black bodies have a long history of signifying both out-of-control violence and a drain on the US welfare system, a perspective that continues today despite erroneous claims that Barack Obama’s presidency has ushered in a “postracial” America. Disabled bodies—especially the increasingly visible bodies of disabled veterans in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—continue to produce anxiety about how they can be accommodated within “normal” visions of labor and family life. As the nation’s demographics change, elderly bodies are increasingly a source of cultural anxiety, from worries about aging masculinity (seen in erectile dysfunction ads as well as through aging action stars in films such as R.E.D.) to concerns that elderly Americans and their Social Security benefits will bankrupt the government and leave younger Americans high and dry. And transgender bodies are increasingly sites of moral panic as various groups resist new policies designed to make the gendered world more accessible to transgender individuals.
In all these cases, the dominant images of these groups focus emotional attention on “out-of-control” bodies in order to intensify anxiety about which bodies are accepted and what distributions of government resources are appropriate for them. In the process, the real culprit behind losses of political and economic power—the highly unequal distribution of wealth and power in the United States, which is exacerbated by neoliberal policy—is ignored as the culture is drawn into heated but fruitless arguments about who belongs and who is bankrupting the system.
At the same time, the increasing cultural imperative to embrace a particular vision of diversity and tolerance as part of good cultural citizenship promotes the inclusion of such branded bodies into the cultural fabric. The projects of multiculturalism and political correctness of the 1980s and 1990s have helped normalize the values of inclusivity and tolerance to the point that bigoted actions or speech—whether racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise—are signs of irresponsible citizenship in media discourse and can carry steep repercussions. As Wendy Brown notes in her study of contemporary tolerance discourse, cultural tolerance has emerged as a foundational “telos of multicultural citizenship,” a venerated individual trait in Western political discourse.
Of course, this model of tolerant citizenship largely sees inclusivity as yet another project of individual self-improvement rather than an interrogation of social values and policies. As Brown points out, tolerance depoliticizes issues of social justice, reducing the pursuit of social equality to matters of individual prejudice or enlightenment. Exemplified by the corporate world’s embrace of diversity training and cultural competency as marketable skill sets, this perspective sees tolerance as something that individuals do in their day-to-day lives to demonstrate their ability to adapt to changing historical conditions, rather than as a means of seeking a foundational transformation in the community’s values and priorities. As a result, the public’s understanding of tolerance tends to revolve around narratives of individual success or failure. Those who have failed to master the new dictates of inclusivity are pilloried in order to make ourselves feel better, while those who champion tolerance are treated as icons in the hope that sharing their stories will demonstrate our own personal commitments. This is not to suggest that all efforts at education or self-improvement are narcissistic, or to deny the power of thoughtful media to challenge cultural privilege. Rather, as Brown argues, these meaningful projects tend to be drafted into much narrower and individualistic conceptions of the value of tolerance and social justice in neoliberal culture.
So while stars with non-normative bodies raise tense cultural questions about the boundaries of citizenship and inclusion in the United States, their presence is also a valuable cultural resource for individuals and the entertainment industry to prove a commitment to diversity and tolerance. Their stardom demonstrates how to form anxiety-producing bodies into resonant narratives of individual success, all while providing feel-good narratives of inclusion and progressive change in the entertainment media. In the process, both those on the cultural margins and those in the center are drafted into a model of citizenship as individual self-improvement, not social change. Thus lost in the recent expansion of cultural citizenship, as Toby Miller explains, are the troubling facts of real social power—how entrenched structures and institutions shore up the interests of economic and cultural elites.
This exploration of stardom and citizenship, then, aligns with existing theories of stardom that see stars not necessarily as “real” people but as mediated constructions that help manage the ideological contradictions of the modern world. Stemming from the foundational work of Richard Dyer, this discursive approach to stardom analyzes the multitude of “texts” (films, TV shows, interviews, stories in entertainment journalism, gossip, advertisements) that constitute a particular “star text.” Taken together, this ever-changing (and sometimes contradictory) conglomeration of media texts coheres into the image of a complete individual—the star. For Dyer, the “star text” resonates in a particular historical moment because it encapsulates particular ideological contradictions about gender, race, sexuality, or personhood in general. But rather than dwelling on the contradiction, we see those complexities smoothed out behind the charm, talent, and allure of the star as an individual. We do not see a bundle of contradictions about women’s purity and sexual availability—we simply see Marilyn Monroe. For Dyer, then, stardom becomes a key mechanism through which media culture articulates ideas about individualism and personhood within modernity, affirming the idea of a coherent individual in spite of the fragmented ideologies of modern, patriarchal capitalism. A rich body of scholarship on stardom and celebrity has emerged since Dyer’s work to explore the variety of meanings and social functions of stardom in the modern world, but his discursive and semiotic approach remains influential in scholarly discourse.
Dyer’s work on Paul Robeson, for example, provides a particularly relevant precursor to the case studies I pursue here. From the 1920s through the 1940s, Robeson was arguably the most important black star in US pop culture as a singer of popular black folk songs and an actor known for not just his singing but also his athletic physicality. Like other black performers, Robeson’s popular appeal was profoundly corporeal, offering one of the most popular representations of what a black body ought to be, according to white culture: athletic, primitive, and extraordinary at musical performance. He was the epitome of black masculinity, according to his popular appeal. As Dyer argues, the white media constructed Robeson’s stardom to both exploit the spectacle of the black body and contain it within “safe” discourses of his raw talent and meritocratic success. While making room for black stardom, these discourses affirmed white stereotypes about black bodies and white narratives about how blacks ought to succeed in white culture. And yet Robeson’s body also sparked a set of black discourses about identity and success—some of which denigrated his status as a “sellout” to the white culture industries—that could never be fully contained by the dominant white discourses, despite the work of white media industries to frame the contours of his stardom. Robeson’s complex and often contradictory star text opened a myriad of possibilities to “make sense” of his body that led to competing racial discourses. Or, to put it another way, the predominant culture could imagine a form of cultural citizenship for some black men organized around an athletic, musical, and muscular black masculinity, but the limitations and contradictions of this citizenship are always seeping out around the edges, yielding a range of competing pleasures and meanings in consuming star bodies.
Star bodies, then, negotiate the shifting norms of identity and citizenship, managing historical changes concerning race, class, gender and gender identity, and sexuality by both displaying and assuaging the tensions such changes create. In the process, the popular images of stars and celebrities manage the boundaries of sexual desirability and appropriate gendered behavior, classify raced and ethnic bodies as either acceptable or dangerous according to white bourgeois norms, or navigate queer bodies into spheres acceptable to heteronormative values. Hollywood’s increasing attention to African Americans, for example, has yielded many more images of black bodies on screen, but black celebrities often occupy a contradictory space that hides continuing structural racial inequalities in the United States. Or US pop culture fixates on mixed-raced celebrities like Halle Berry or Tiger Woods whose blackness can be both exploited for exotic cachet and simultaneously denied. Likewise, gay and lesbian celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres are more visible than ever, but their queerness must be contained within certain depoliticized spheres that are the least threatening to the heteronormative social order. Star bodies, in short, help manage cultural body norms and the kinds of bodies privileged in US society. Thus Chris Holmlund shows that the “impossible” bodies of Hollywood celebrities help hide “impossible” contradictions about gender, race, and sexuality.
The case studies I examine here, however, provide a radical challenge for the cultural functions of stardom. Stars with bodies that deviate from cultural definitions of the “normal” body on the basis of disability, obesity, race and ethnicity, transgressive gender identity, or some other characteristic bring into question cultural definitions of acceptable bodies and identities, at least within the limitations provided by capitalist, patriarchal culture. Stars with non-normative bodies visibly challenge the carefully constructed norms of US entertainment media, disrupting the steady stream of impossibly “perfect” bodies in popular culture. The plethora of such stars in today’s media culture signals an important willingness on the part of media producers and consumers to transgress and potentially transform traditional body politics.
The crises evoked by such bodies, however, continue to provide the grounds upon which neoliberal culture can affirm its vision of diversity as self-improvement, creating the means through which privileged identities can use a commitment to diversity to reaffirm their place at the center of cultural norms. For the stars examined here, this process is reflected both on screen and off. In many of their most popular roles, McCarthy, Sidibe, Dinklage, Trejo, White, and Cox all find themselves in narratives where their rebellious bodies help those with normative bodies to become better, more self-actualized citizens. They often play roles as quirky sidekicks whose self-confidence or sense of individuality helps spur a process of self-improvement for those with more normative identities. Similarly, the off-screen personas of these stars demonstrate how their personal commitment to self-improvement or embrace of their individuality can provide educational lessons about self-acceptance for those at the cultural center. In this way, the rebellious possibilities of stars with non-normative bodies are most often contained by safer and less challenging narratives of self-confidence and self-acceptance that deflect substantive critiques of US body politics.
Exploring the functions of non-normative bodies within contemporary stardom, then, yields three insights, each of which will be discussed in further detail, about how stardom and diversity function in the contemporary United States:
- Within the popular discourse of diversity, stars with non-normative bodies function as heroic icons whose images and stories can be used as social-justice currency for media industries and entertainment journalists. Not surprisingly, the images and stories making up this currency tend to individualize issues of social justice, creating a melodramatic narrative of bigoted villains and body image heroes.
- The images and stories of stars with non-normative bodies can also function as currency for individual projects of self-construction thanks to social media. As such, the media circulation of body image heroes also serves a pedagogic role, illustrating how people who deviate from the cultural norm but aspire to cultural citizenship can actively manage their identity according to the dictates of neoliberal consumer citizenship. In other words, stars with non-normative bodies provide templates for self-transformation and self-actualization.
- Gender identity plays an especially important role in managing the contradictions of non-normative stardom. Transgressions in race or ethnicity, body shape, age, or ability are all primarily managed by the projection of traditional gender roles, suggesting that gender functions as a kind of master category in definitions of neoliberal citizenship.
As I explore these complexities, it is worth noting that I myself embody the privileged norm against which these stars are all measured: I am a (relatively) young, white, able-bodied, generally fit, heterosexual, cis-gendered man. As such, it is not my intention to speak on behalf of any of the populations that may find themselves represented by stars such as Melissa McCarthy, Gabourey Sidibe, Peter Dinklage, Danny Trejo, Betty White, or Laverne Cox. There is important scholarship already in circulation and more waiting to be done that brings the voices of such populations into the scholarly discussion on media and diversity, both as authors and as subjects. I hope that this project can join in that discussion without taking up too much room at the table. What I hope to contribute, then, is an interrogation of the pleasures stars with non-normative bodies offer to individuals who—like me—have historically been at the center of cultural citizenship in the United States. What kinds of negotiations or accommodations do the culture industries demand of these stars in order for people like me to feel a connection with them, to feel that they are part of a shared sense of community values about individualism, the value of diversity, and personal responsibility? And what do these accommodations tell us about the blind spots of diversity rhetoric in the United States, the conversations that many folks like me are not willing to have?
Body Image Heroes and Diverse Stardom
Stars whose rebellious bodies manage popular ideas about identity and social norms of course have a long history in US pop culture. One of the most prominent examples is silent film comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, whose robust frame became part of his successful comedic persona but would later embody the excesses of Hollywood debauchery. When actress Virginia Rappe died after becoming ill at a raucous party at Arbuckle’s house in 1921, Arbuckle was accused of rape and murder, with popular accounts offering the sensational story that he crushed the young actress with his weight while raping her with a bottle. Arbuckle was eventually acquitted of all charges, but he was ostracized within the film industry and only worked sporadically using pseudonyms following the scandal. As Sam Stoloff argues, Arbuckle’s rotund body before the scandal offered a popular vision of transgression and buffoonery, with an enormous man whose persona was effeminate and much like that of a giant baby. But while these gendered and body transgressions resonated in pop culture, the scandal quickly transformed Arbuckle into a perverted monster whose weight came to represent the excesses of Hollywood wealth and the moral decay of the film industry.
Similarly, Mae West’s curvy body came to signify her persona’s open sexuality and transgression of appropriate femininity in the late 1920s and early 1930s. West was hugely popular in the early years of the Great Depression for her sexual innuendo and performances of strong-willed, sexually liberated women that challenged traditional middle-class values. But like Arbuckle, West’s gendered transgressions would make her an icon of Hollywood’s excesses. As Ramona Curry points out, West’s unruly popular persona portrayed women’s sexual desirability as an empowering commodity and in the process “exposed contradictions in the well-established American capitalist practice of simultaneously exploiting and repressing female sexuality as a commodity under men’s control.” In the early years of the Great Depression, then, West’s popular image would become “a locus in a long-standing US controversy over ‘movie morality,’” especially as the economic crisis threatened the cultural and economic stability of the middle class. As Anne Helen Petersen describes it, West’s films “appeared at a crest of the wave of objectionable films and provided a rallying cry for those clamoring for renewed censorship efforts.”
For decades, stars with non-normative bodies like Arbuckle and West remained few and far between, but with the ascension of multiculturalism as a political and cultural project in the 1980s and 1990s, a greater variety of stars and celebrities have gained popularity, reflecting the entertainment industry’s attempts to woo more diverse audiences and appease cultural pressures to embrace the mantra of inclusivity. Like their predecessors, these new generations of stars with non-normative bodies produce images and narratives that smooth out the ideological contradictions of identity. As Dyer and other theorists of stardom attest, such stars embody the tensions of a culture that values individualism but distrusts those who stray too far from social norms.
But what has changed since the days of Arbuckle and West is the cultural context of individualism and diversity in the United States. Stars with non-normative bodies today exist in a cultural context in which the value and meanings of diversity itself are both ubiquitous and highly contested in public discourse.
After all, not that long ago, only academics (and the occasional progressive-minded film critic) really cared about how Hollywood represented women and minorities. Starting in the 1970s and building exponentially as higher education expanded throughout the 1980s and 1990s, a growing number of writers created a massive body of innovative work carefully analyzing the sexism, racism, elitism, Eurocentrism, and heteronormativity of the US entertainment media. Some scholars made polemical accusations that powerful, elite corporations use the entertainment media to maintain power and hide inequality. Others showed that everyday audiences use the media to negotiate with the cultural and social challenges of the modern world. But almost all of this research agreed that Hollywood provides images and narratives that generally affirm white, patriarchal, heterosexual, middle-class, and able-bodied values.
Not surprisingly, these perspectives on media and cultural power largely remained tucked away in university libraries, college classrooms, and academic conferences. Entertainment journalism and the news media rarely engaged with issues like casting politics or stereotypes in any serious way, especially since such media increasingly operated within the same corporate entities that produced entertainment in the first place. Topical films or television shows that referenced race relations or women’s rights might occasionally elicit discussions within the media of representational politics, but for the most part these were intellectual discussions that were assumed to be uninteresting to the general public.
But over the past few decades, our public discussions of entertainment media have increasingly become centered on issues of diversity and social inequality. Despite the fact that race/ethnicity, feminism, and political correctness became battlegrounds in the so-called culture wars of the 1990s— and remain controversial touchstones of cultural change today—the basic assumptions of these movements have entered the mainstream to a certain degree. US media culture has come to accept enough of the basic tenets of the multiculturalism movement that public accusations of racism, sexism, or homophobia have gained cultural power and can come with steep repercussions. For example, the career of actor Mel Gibson went into a tailspin after he was recorded making anti-Semitic comments in 2006 while being arrested for drunk driving. While scandal has always played an important role in the shaping and reframing of celebrity personas, more and more issues of diversity and inclusion serve as the backdrop of celebrity scandal, tearing down established stars caught uttering bigoted speech or turning regular folks into well-known public pariahs for their insensitive transgressions.36 This is not to say that issues of diversity have displaced the long-dominant themes of celebrity culture and entertainment reporting, which still focus heavily on romantic gossip, lifestyle, and intimate behind-the-scenes portraits of celebrities. But a brief overview of contemporary entertainment reporting reveals a much larger space for debates about the media, representation, and social power.
For example, across entertainment journalism, issues of stereotypes and the complexity of roles for women, including feminist critiques of media content, are becoming central talking points, as Lena Dunham’s popularity suggests. Female television protagonists are interrogated by critics (are they “strong” women with complex rationales?), and as the stars of the baby boomer generation age, entertainment news sources from Vulture to The Hollywood Reporter are commenting on the ageism of Hollywood that forces older women out of leading roles but keeps pairing older men with younger women. Even the Bechdel test, a basic measure of a film’s gender equity that asks whether at least two women are shown talking to one another about something other than a man (a surprising number of films fail the test), became so commonly discussed in entertainment reporting that both Hollywood.com and Salon ran stories wondering if it is already passé.
The changing racial demographics of the United States have also increased the media’s discourse on race and representation in entertainment industry productions, with the media not only reporting on the general lack of diversity on screen but also detailing the complex efforts to court diverse audiences by challenging assumptions about storytelling. Time even reported on a detailed social science study tracking diversity on screen through diversity among Hollywood agents, showcasing academic work on race and representation that typically does not find its way into mainstream news media reporting.
Moreover, activist organizations advocating for underrepresented groups have been able to capitalize on the entertainment industry’s interest in diversity by using Hollywood films and TV shows to draw attention to discrimination. For example, disability rights organizations effectively forced a public debate about language, media, and power by staging a protest and boycott of the 2008 comedy Tropic Thunder over the use of the term “retard.” Spearheaded by organizations such as the American Association of People with Disabilities and the Special Olympics, the protest suggested that the casual use of the “r-word” in the film and across other media contributed to the stigma and discrimination faced by people with cognitive disabilities. Several critics and industry insiders stood up for the film, including the film’s director and star, Ben Stiller, who argued that it does not affirm the use of the term but rather satirizes the shallow characters that do so. While the protest had no significant impact on the film’s box office revenues, it still succeeded in generating a discussion in entertainment journalism over Hollywood’s representation of people with disabilities. A variety of groups use similar tactics to advocate for diversity and equity in the media, including the NAACP, the National Latino Media Council, the Asian-Pacific American Media Coalition, American Indians in Film and TV, GLAAD, and others.
This increasing attention to diversity is clearly due in part to the rising importance of market segmentation. Rather than aiming for mass audiences as in the golden age of broadcast media, entertainment companies are now more likely to target particular market segments such as Latinos/Latinas, African Americans, young women, etc. Appearing to denigrate the interests of these groups can have a much more detrimental impact on ratings today than in the past, when the intended audiences were much larger and more general. In a certain sense, the commodification of minority groups into “target demographics” has somewhat democratically meant that issues of diversity have become more economically and therefore culturally powerful (even though smaller, less affluent demographics—say, Native Americans—remain woefully underrepresented and stereotyped).
Attention to diversity also increased after the year 2000 because the Internet destabilized media industries, especially traditional news media and their role as gatekeepers of public discourse. With the ensuing proliferation of news websites and blogs, a much broader array of voices reflecting a range of perspectives entered the public conversation about the media and social power. And since traditional news outlets like CNN or the major broadcast networks have scaled back on news production costs, their websites or broadcasts often rely on these new voices for content or inspiration. The popularity of feminist websites such as Jezebel, for example, allows these smaller sites to help frame media discourse for more mainstream journalism by foregrounding stories that organizations like CNN or shows like Entertainment Tonight might otherwise overlook. Sites such as Jezebel, Buzzfeed, Vulture, Upworthy, and Bustle, along with more traditional journalism sites such as the Daily Beast, the Huffington Post, and Salon, also help circulate the stories coming out of more mainstream entertainment journalism by linking to and remediating them in online form. The result is a much more diverse set of voices influencing the major topics and trends in entertainment reporting.
This is not to suggest that contemporary media are necessarily more progressive. There are simply more voices, many of which actively condemn the “oversensitivity” of multicultural media critiques. In fact, media discourse since the year 2000 has been countered by backlash against various forms of political correctness, which is often seen by conservatives as anti-American and a moral failure. For example, when Phil Robertson, the star of the A&E reality show Duck Dynasty, made homophobic comments in an interview with GQ that became public in late 2013, he was quickly suspended from the hugely popular show and widely condemned in the entertainment media.44 But almost as swiftly came a chorus of voices defending Robertson and condemning the supposed tyranny of political correctness. His supporters included Louisiana’s governor Bobby Jindal and the conservative icon Sarah Palin, who tweeted, “Free speech is an endangered species. Those ‘intolerants’ hatin’ and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us.”45 Robertson was quickly reinstated on the show, indicating the power of the anti-PC discourse in pop culture. But for a media industry that thrives on conflict and controversy, claims of racism, sexism, elitism, and homophobia make for juicy headlines and continue to be a staple of entertainment reporting. In this way, while more diverse voices have helped create new waves of entertainment reporting that are bringing nuanced questioning of media representation to the public, the appetite for social justice controversy also creates stories and story cycles that reduce complex issues to black-and-white moral dichotomies. Examine, for example, the brief 2015 controversy regarding comedian Amy Schumer, who had become a darling of media critics for her openly feminist comedy sketches. When The Guardian published a thoughtful essay online about Schumer’s success with feminist comedy and her failures to address issues of race in the same way, a flurry of stories followed that either defended or castigated Schumer, with most of them organized around the question of whether she is a racist. Instead of more nuanced discussions of white feminism, comedy, and race, the media coverage became an inquisition of Schumer’s status as an acceptable celebrity role model. Drafting a discussion of race into a melodramatic inquisition of Schumer’s personal character, these media discourses obscured a bevy of larger issues about television and racial diversity, such as a lack of diversity among TV executives or the historical failure to support black women comedians.
Conservative critics tried to chalk up the Amy Schumer controversy to the evils of politically correct liberals stifling the free speech of one of their own, but the real dynamics here cross party lines: popular media discourses tend to reduce social justice debates to simplistic questions about individuals: who is “bad” and who is “good”? These debates often rely on the melodrama of celebrity scandal to articulate the values of diversity, creating a world of heroic progressives and villainous bigots that makes for good click-bait but ultimately occludes the long and complex history of oppression in the United States, as well as the deeply entrenched social and institutional structures supporting that oppression. Public discourses about diversity excel at creating celebratory narratives for some, while heaping shame and scorn on others. But the nuanced middle ground where the culture might grapple with the complexities of equality and opportunity is often too messy for a catchy headline on Upworthy.
Writers like Jonathan Chait see the kinds of public shaming that are common in this melodramatic world as examples of overzealous political correctness chilling difficult but necessary debates48—a position for which he was, ironically, personally condemned. The phenomenon he describes is not the stifling of public debate, however, but rather the insistence that public debate about diversity be filtered through the lens of neoliberal individualism. From this perspective, diversity is not a commitment to rectifying large-scale social and cultural injustice, but instead an individual project of self-improvement, a chance to demonstrate one’s personal triumphs and magnanimity. Failures at this project—when people are publicly shamed for their language, action, and beliefs—become examples of the imperatives for self-discipline and self-transformation, not for social transformation. This is not to say that changing personal beliefs and practices is not an important aspect of social change, but rather that the gleeful cycles of shame and celebration tend to individualize discussions of diversity instead of asking harder questions. The increasingly prominent practice of online shaming campaigns focuses the culture’s energies on assigning individual blame by creating more and more media villains. Desperately seeking individual scapegoats, the contemporary entertainment media love to blame individuals in order to deflect issues of structural power and inequality.
For example, Indian American comedian Mindy Kaling has been widely celebrated as a powerful role model, not only for being a successful woman of color who rose from the ranks of the sitcom The Office to write and produce her own sitcom, The Mindy Project, but also because she is slightly overweight (by Hollywood standards). And yet Kaling herself was criticized because her show does not have a large, multiethnic cast and her character only dates white men. When asked about such critiques at the SXSW festival in 2014, Kaling fired back, asking why no one critiques predominantly white shows about their casting practices.49 As Kaling’s response suggests, entertainment journalists are often more comfortable assigning individual blame than examining structural inequalities. Since Kaling has become an icon of the new diverse Hollywood, it becomes easy to scrutinize her actions and place responsibility on her shoulders for creating diversity in the media. It is far more difficult to consider the larger systems and structures in Hollywood that keep producing white-centric sitcoms, so instead individuals are both celebrated and targeted for their roles within this system.
A similar tendency was at work in the 2014 “Cancel Colbert” campaign on Twitter after an uncontextualized joke by the team at The Colbert Report went viral. On the show, host Stephen Colbert, who played a satirical caricature of a conservative political pundit, was discussing the critiques leveled at the Washington Redskins for using Native Americans as mascots. Redskins owner Daniel Snyder had tried to deflect the controversy by creating a charitable organization to benefit Native Americans that, incredibly, included the racial epithet “redskins” in the name of the organization, showing how little he understood the issues at stake. After poking fun at Snyder on the air, the team at The Colbert Report tweeted a follow-up joke: “I’m willing to show the #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” The Internet was soon buzzing after Asian American activist Suey Park critiqued Colbert’s use of Asian stereotypes and called for the cancellation of the show. A chorus of voices joined in on Twitter with the hash tag “#CancelColbert,” and the controversy splashed across a range of mainstream news outlets, including an op-ed on CNN.com calling for Colbert’s ousting (even after it was revealed that Colbert himself did not write the tweet). As with the Kaling incident, what could have been a nuanced discussion of media stereotypes, their persistence in contemporary culture, and the efficacy of combating stereotypes with more stereotypes instead quickly turned into an interrogation of Colbert himself and his personal racial politics as the story became distorted through the lens of social media outrage.
As this suggests, the quick and easy outrage that social media facilitates often makes for heated but simplistic discussions of the issues at hand, leading Andrew O’Hehir to wonder if this emerging “Twitter politics” is an outlet for political disenfranchisement. In a highly unequal world in which the political power of the rich leaves so many feeling powerless and frustrated, the democratization of the media at least means that people can exercise their opinions with regard to popular culture. In lieu of exercising actual political power through a broken system of democracy, at least people can weigh in on whether Colbert crossed the line.
The rising tide of social media shaming, however, makes the heroes of a seemingly more diverse Hollywood important and complex figures in contemporary culture. Stars with non-normative bodies are the inverse of the online public shaming phenomenon, providing resonant body image heroes that counter its rampant negativity. They provide uplifting and inspirational narratives affirming individual triumph and the progressive change of the culture, but they only exist in relation to the social pariahs of public shaming campaigns. This dialectic of shame and celebration makes social justice something individuals do in their behavior and language, not an idea that must be reflected in community laws, policies, and institutions. By exploring one half of this cultural economy through an analysis of body image heroes, this book examines the values and attitudes concerning diversity that are privileged by neoliberal culture. In a world in which we are so quick to blame individuals for the problems of inequality, why do certain narratives of individual success resonate?
Stardom and Self-actualization
Given this tendency to focus on individuals as either heroes or villains in the public debates surrounding diversity, it is not surprising that celebrities have become central to the campaign to celebrate the newfound inclusiveness of the entertainment media. Celebrities, after all, have a long history of affirming the power of individual success in narratives that downplay structural inequalities. Celebrities have always helped perpetuate narratives of meritocracy, class mobility, and opportunity in US culture. As Karen Sternheimer notes in her exhaustive historical study of celebrity fan magazines, “Celebrity culture seems to provide a continual reaffirmation that upward mobility is possible in America and reinforces the belief that inequality is the result of personal failure rather than systemic social conditions.”52 And P. David Marshall tells us that the star system has always been an important cultural institution in the promotion of meritocratic ideologies; treating each star’s rise from obscurity as “unique” only affirms the narrative that anyone could one day become a star.
Historically, these narratives have revolved around issues of class, creating celebratory narratives about stars who became a new kind of nobility by rising from humble beginnings (but typically obscuring the fact that they were mostly white, young, and beautiful). In today’s slightly more diverse Hollywood, however, we are treated to narratives of upward mobility for a variety of individuals outside of cultural norms. In addition to narratives about women’s struggles against patriarchy in their rise to prominence (such as the ones about Lena Dunham, Kathryn Bigelow, and Amy Schumer) or celebrities of color overcoming racial discrimination (for example, Chris Rock, Mindy Kaling, Kerry Washington, Terrence Howard, or America Ferrera), entertainment journalism also offers its audiences a host of uplifting tales about stars with disabilities or different body types who have made it in Hollywood (including Marlee Matlin, Chris Burke, Warwick Davis, R. J. Mitte, Lauren Potter, and others). These narratives remind us of the power of individuals to craft their own destinies, even if discrimination and the statistical realities of inequality show that for many, such narratives are only fantasies.
And the statistical realities of inequality in the United States do remain grim. In addition to well-documented inequalities in income and wealth (with the richest 1 percent of Americans bringing home 20 percent of the income),54 the likelihood of overcoming these inequalities and moving up the socioeconomic ladder continues to be slim, especially for those who come from underprivileged backgrounds. Rather than demonstrating that the United States realizes its ideal of being a “land of opportunity,” the rate at which Americans rise into the middle or upper classes is lower than in other industrialized countries, including even Great Britain with its long history of class stratification. Thanks to economic changes ranging from the decline in manufacturing jobs that helped expand the middle class after World War II to the exponentially rising costs of higher education to the systematic gutting of its welfare system, the United States has come to lead industrialized countries in socioeconomic immobility.55 While economists debate whether mobility is still decreasing or simply holding steady at low levels,56 the widening gap between the rich and the poor has increased public scrutiny of economic inequality in the United States, with politicians on both the left and the right highlighting the low mobility rate in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The feminization of poverty, the high correlations between economic class and race, and the high rates of poverty among the disabled mean that women, people of color, and the disabled bear the burden of this immobility more than other groups.
The stagnation of upward mobility in the United States (and elsewhere) is a direct result of neoliberal economics and its emphasis on individual consumers assuming responsibility for a variety of community services. Not surprisingly, then, the solutions to inequality within a neoliberal worldview are tied to individual consumption and self-transformation. The rise of neoliberalism affects not just economic policy but also the culture of individualism and consumerism in an increasingly privatized world. Neoliberalism promotes not only a model of citizenship as consumerism (privileging the “choices” of individuals on the private market over the ability of the state to provide support) but also a model of individualism based on adaptability and self-transformation. It is now the individual’s responsibility to adapt to changing market conditions by constantly remaking one’s skills, habits, and even identity to meet the shifting demands of the economy.
Beyond the economy, in fact, individual identity in the age of neoliberalism increasingly revolves around projects of self-improvement, self-promotion, and the constant disciplining of one’s identity. Thus, as Jayne Raisborough explains, “lifestyle media,” or media organized around individual transformation and “self-improvement” such as self-help books or makeover TV shows, have ballooned in the era of neoliberalism. Referencing Michel Foucault’s later work on governance as central to this phenomenon, Raisborough argues that “an ethos of transformation and re-creation . . . permeates most, if not all, aspects of our daily life and organization.” But far from a neutral vision of “betterment,” these transformations tend to police the boundaries of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability, often providing explicit lessons on how to “design out” exterior markers of inequality, whether through fashion, behavior, or the appearance of one’s home.
Brenda Weber also offers a detailed and compelling outline of this ethos of transformation in her examination of makeover TV shows, the glut of reality TV programs organized around the makeover of individual appearance, living spaces, cars, and other extensions of one’s identity. These shows promote a model of identity based on the constant disciplining and transforming of one’s external appearance, and the need for some to submit themselves to regimes of experts that can guide them to their “true” and “better” selves. These notions of identity, though, are deeply linked to the social norms of white upper-middle-class culture. As Weber explains, “On these shows, selfhood links to social locations and practices marked as normative, frequently designated through images that connote upward mobility, heteronormativity, consumer-orientation, conventional attractiveness, ethnic anonymity, and confidence.” Moreover, the logic of self-actualization that is pervasive across the genre suggests that individuals incapable of self-improvement might lack any real sense of identity in modern culture: “Those who are sloppy, cluttery, overwrought, overdrawn, and overweight can lay no legitimate claim to selfhood within the makeover’s constitution of identity.” Such programs suggest that it is only through the mantras of self-transformation and self-improvement that a stable identity can be achieved in a chaotic world.
At stake in this pursuit of selfhood, Weber insists, are the boundaries of citizenship in a world of neoliberal governance. The imperatives to maintain, transform, and claim a viable sense of self in makeover TV reflect the cultural borders of belonging (as articulated by mainstream media) and the necessity for that self to navigate the competitive world of neoliberal economics. As Weber explains:
In its emphasis on progress, its desire to provide access to restricted privileges, and its insistence on free-market meritocracy, the project of citizenship imagined across the makeover genre comes deeply saturated with Americanness and this, in turn, imports neoliberal ideologies, which position the subject as an entrepreneur of the self, who does and, indeed, must engage in care of the body and its symbolic referents in order to be competitive within a larger global marketplace.
The pathways to cultural citizenship imagined in makeover TV privilege self-maintenance and self-promotion as the requirements for cultural participation, reflecting a deeply American vision of competition and meritocracy.
Stars and celebrities play an increasingly important and pedagogical function in the cultural necessities of self-transformation and self-promotion. Of course, as P. David Marshall illustrates, stars have always been an important pedagogical tool for selfhood in the modern world, teaching individuals how to “engage and use consumer culture to ‘make’ oneself,” typically through fashion and hairstyle but also through stylized models of social class, manhood, and femininity. Stars with non-normative bodies continue this long history by teaching appropriate pathways to self-transformation for those with rebellious bodies not so easily brought into line with white, patriarchal, ablest culture. As Raisborough’s and Weber’s writings suggest, one of the main focuses of neoliberal individualism is the active reworking of the body to fit cultural norms through exercise, surgery, and other means, but stars with bodies that dramatically deviate from cultural norms suggest other forms of self-making and self-promotion when physically reshaping one’s body is just not an option. For example, as I discuss in chapter 2, Gabourey Sidibe has far fewer options than, say, Halle Berry when it comes to crafting a marketable image and narrative of African American femininity. Berry’s stardom clearly relies on the traditional tropes of race and female sexuality to resonate as an exotic (but not too exotic) representation of black desirability, supported by her mixed-race background and typically sensual body. Sidibe, on the other hand, must craft a far different narrative of black femininity as an overweight and darker-skinned woman. Instead, her narrative taps into the rise of a “postracial” discourse after 2008 and media discourses of self-confidence, suggesting that her embrace of personal confidence and “girly” femininity can teach other women how to locate and claim their selfhood. In fact, Sidibe makes for a much more compelling model of neoliberal self-making than Berry, offering an uplifting narrative of merit and self-actualization that validates the possibilities of upward mobility for those who will never look like movie stars.
The stars analyzed in this book all demonstrate the pedagogical nature of stardom, illustrating a variety of pathways to self-actualization as the key to cultural citizenship. An explicitly normative star like Brad Pitt, whose physical beauty, whiteness, and masculinity cohere into a picture of cultural privilege, might offer aspirational lessons in manhood and glamour. But for the vast majority of the population who will never achieve those normative standards, stars with non-normative bodies reveal other avenues of self-making and other narratives of individual success. In fact, across the case studies, a web of discourses and narratives connect the various lessons of self-construction that stars with non-normative bodies rely on. For Melissa McCarthy, Gabourey Sidibe, and Peter Dinklage, the popular discourses of self-confidence are central to their public personas, while for Sidibe, Betty White, and Laverne Cox, postfeminist affirmations of girly femininity characterize their pursuit of cultural relevance. For White and Danny Trejo, nostalgia for a time when gender roles were supposedly simpler marks their popular appeal, while for Trejo and Peter Dinklage, the foisting of hard, hypersexual manhood on their public images has helped make them fan favorites. For all the stars, moreover, their construction as pioneers or challengers to Hollywood’s “old” exclusivity marks them as popular icons of social justice. All these narratives serve as pedagogical tools, celebrity guides on the most relevant avenues to acceptable cultural citizenship—outside of actual body transformation—for those with the kinds of bodies that usually serve as sources of cultural anxiety.
The necessity to bring a broader range of people and bodies into the discourses of celebrity and self-promotion also aligns with the transformations of celebrity culture in the twenty-first century. For example, reality TV competitions and the “celetoids,” or “those who command media attention one day and are forgotten the next,” that such shows spawn provide a model for individual success in a world in which economic mobility is increasingly stunted. Conflating individual merit with successful self-promotion, celebrity culture in the world of reality TV affirms a superficial sense of meritocracy lost through neoliberal economics, according to Jo Littler.66 In the face of vast inequality, Littler argues, the media have dramatically increased the production of reality TV competitions promoting the idea that fame and success can be achieved by “ordinary” folks if they work hard, are clever at reality show competitions, and show their skills at the “game” of self-promotion. Recognizing that the transition to celebrity offers a form of “symbolic validation” in a media-saturated culture, Littler suggests that celebrity itself—not just the financial rewards of economic mobility—has become a central goal of neoliberal individualism. Instead of questioning the structural distribution of wealth and power, people strive for celebrity status to save themselves from being designated as “ordinary.”
Similarly, the expansion of what Marshall calls “presentational media,” or the burgeoning social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) organized around the construction and circulation of an online self, has elevated the pedagogical importance of stardom and celebrity. The rise of social media in the last fifteen years has created a new sphere within which individuals can carefully craft their own visions of selfhood. Posting images on Facebook, tweeting, “pinning” on Pinterest, and the myriad other ways that people manage their online individuality have provided a new frontier in self-making and self-promotion. The increasingly visible cultural work of stars and celebrities to maintain and reshape their public images via social media provides a model for everyone to navigate the world of mediated self-construction. As Marshall explains, the self-production modeled by celebrities “now serves as a rubric and template for the organization and production of the on-line self, which has become at the very least an important component of our presentation of ourselves to the world.”68 In short, users of social media get to practice on a smaller scale the kinds of image management essential to contemporary stardom and celebrity. Like celebrities, people can build networks of friends and followers within which they can promote images of themselves and their lifestyle to construct their own media-based personas.
Because stars with non-normative bodies provide such powerful narratives of individual achievement, they also function as a key currency in the everyday self-making projects of ordinary people, especially in an era of social media. Along with other narratives of the new diversity in entertainment media, stars with non-normative bodies can be deployed within these practices of self-promotion to help manage online identity. Linking to stories or videos about those stars (or other stories about media diversity) is a way to shape one’s online persona, to use one’s taste in popular culture to manage a sense of identity. Narratives of media diversity, then, can function as a kind of currency within social media networks, shared and exchanged in order to purchase certain values and tastes in the game of online self-construction. A link to a story about the most feminist new TV shows becomes part of a complex representation of beliefs and ideals for a Facebook user, contributing to their sense of online self and actual vision of individuality. This is not to suggest that people cynically deploy certain images or share different stories on social media solely as a kind of disingenuous self-promotion, but rather that the very act of social networking interpolates us all into a system of mediated self-construction.
Stars with non-normative bodies, then, are put to use by entertainment industries and the audiences who consume their stories as icons of tolerance and diversity. While managing the place of non-normative bodies within the cultural fabric, they also provide highly visible examples of the flexibility and capacity for self-reflection of those with privilege, helping to rejuvenate the cultural center as they are brought into the fold of contemporary citizenship.
Gender and Diversity Within Neoliberal Citizenship
I focus on these particular case studies—Melissa McCarthy, Peter Dinklage, Gabourey Sidibe, Danny Trejo, Betty White, and Laverne Cox—because they represent the most popular examples of celebrities who reflect the most pressing social issues regarding bodies and inclusion: obesity, urban blackness, disability, Latino/a immigration, aging, and transgender identity. These celebrities have also (more or less) followed similar career trajectories, indicating a kind of standard pattern for celebrities with non-normative bodies. With the exception of Laverne Cox, they all emerged as icons of inclusivity with popular film roles in which they were heralded for challenging stereotypes: Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids, Peter Dinklage in The Station Agent, Gabourey Sidibe in Precious, Danny Trejo in Machete, and Betty White in The Proposal (although she was clearly well known for the 1980s TV show The Golden Girls, I will be focusing on White’s late-career resurgence). While continuing their work in film, most then found their way into critically acclaimed TV shows that helped cement their celebrity personas beyond these initial roles: McCarthy on Mike and Molly, Dinklage on Game of Thrones, Sidibe on American Horror Story, Trejo on Sons of Anarchy, and White on her prank show Off Their Rockers as well as the comedy Hot in Cleveland. Although Cox’s celebrity is still emerging, she found her star-making role in the Netflix-produced TV show Orange Is the New Black and is quickly becoming the most prominent celebrity face for transgender issues.
Across these career trajectories, these stars emerge as a coherent set because they all demonstrate the intersectional nature of managing identity and inequality. An intersectional approach to identity and social power recognizes that the categories typically used to organize power and privilege—for example, race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, etc.—are not singular, mutually exclusive categories. Rather, they overlap, reinforce, and intersect with each other in complex and multivalent ways. Moreover, these categories might work in tandem to help contain social and cultural transgressions. Certain forms of LGBTQ identity, for example, are more culturally acceptable when reinforced by gender and class identity; thus one of the most dominant images of homosexuality in the mainstream media is affluent and effeminate men who assist straights in fashion or décor. So while all the stars analyzed here deviate in one way or another from cultural norms of beauty and a “normal” body, in each instance the fears produced by such a deviation are displaced into other categories of identity in order to manage their persona.
As this suggests, the negotiations at the heart of cultural citizenship are not organized around assimilation into the dominant culture, but rather the fetishizing and consumption of (some) kinds of cultural difference. Deviations from cultural body norms produce cultural anxieties about excess and social decay, but those deviations can also become a source of popular appeal when managed by their intersections with other discourses or categories of oppression. These dynamics are by no means new. As Dyer’s work argues, the intersections of race and masculinity helped manage Paul Robeson into an image of blackness that could be popular among white audiences. In the same way, the intersection of black masculinity with high social class was imperative to the popularity of Sidney Poitier, offering a seemingly safe vision of respectable black masculinity in the midst of the civil rights movement’s challenge to white privileges.
For stars with non-normative bodies, however, the intersectional dynamics of their star personas are informed by the ascension of the “post-” discourses of contemporary culture: postfeminist, postracial, and the burgeoning hint of a postdisability worldview that I examine in chapter 3. Each discourse posits an end to the social justice activism of the 1960s through the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, culminating in a supposedly egalitarian world where cultural difference can be playful, fun, and an object of consumption.
As I explore in detail in chapter 5 (and reference in chapter 2 and the conclusion), postfeminism is a worldview that tries to move beyond the victories of second-wave feminism, the feminist movement that ascended in the 1960s and 1970s and was organized around workplace discrimination, reproductive rights, legal/policy inequalities, and other issues. Postfeminism sees the politicized perspective of second-wave feminists as joyless, antisex, and dismissive of the pleasures of femininity. Seeing the work of second-wave feminism as anachronistic for young women who have grown up in a more egalitarian world, the postfeminist worldview celebrates the consumerist pleasures of femininity (makeup and fashion), affirms the importance of traditional notions of heterosexual romance, and sees female sexuality as always empowering. The highly popular TV program Sex and the City exemplifies this worldview, defining women’s identities and empowerment around shopping, sex, and the pursuit of marriage. Of course, as critics of postfeminism point out, this perspective fails to address the continuing inequalities faced by women, such as the persistent gender wage gap.
Similarly, as I discuss in more detail in chapter 2 (and reference in chapter 4), postracial discourse in the United States refers to the belief that racial and ethnic equality has been achieved to such a degree that US culture and society has moved beyond the debates and discussions of stereotypes, bigotry, and media representations, especially after the election of Barack Obama as the first African American president. Often tied to a color-blind worldview suggesting that the discussion of racial inequality itself contributes to racial tensions, postracial discourse valorizes only a superficial diversity—having friends of different races, or consuming media with diverse casts and crew— that ignores the kinds of cultural or structural inequalities that continue to limit economic opportunity for many nonwhites. The television melodramas of Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal ) showcase this postracial world-view, offering exceptionally diverse casts, but casting them as affluent professionals tending to their love lives divorced from the stark racial inequalities of the contemporary United States.
Finally, in chapter 3, I explore the emerging possibilities of a postdisability worldview in US media culture, especially around the increasing presence of little people in the media. Like postfeminism or postracial discourse, a post-disability perspective deploys the disabled body as a marker of progressive inclusivity, but either removes that body from the stigmas and discrimination faced by people with disabilities or else creates all-too-common “overcoming narratives” in which responsibility is placed on individuals with disabilities to overcome their impairments and prove their place in the community. In Glee the character of Artie, a wheelchair user who is part of the school’s show choir, illustrates this trend. Artie in the wheelchair is simply one of many diverse bodies used to show how quirky the choir kids are—to affirm their status as underdogs—all while reaping the benefits for the show’s “progressive” casting (although the casting of an able-bodied actor for the role did raise some protests from disability rights groups). While Artie’s impairment and the challenges he faces are sometimes addressed by the show, the narrative as a whole conflates disability with a general view of cultural outcasts in high school who can overcome the odds.
Stars with non-normative bodies often affirm the power of the “post-” narrative as part of their inclusion in cultural citizenship. Indeed, their very existence adds weight to the argument that the “old” forms of cultural exclusion are giving way to new models of inclusion, even if their fame clearly exists alongside the same stereotypes of race, gender, disability, age, and trans-gender identity that have persisted for decades. The fact that people like McCarthy, Sidibe, Dinklage, Trejo, White, and Cox can be stars today bolsters the perception of the “post-” narrative. In turn, the stars’ personas draw from a “post-” discourse to help frame their cultural differences as simply something fun and unique about their identities, interesting bodily differences that make them a marketable spectacle, but not something that should produce anxiety or force discussions of social justice.
In order to secure the status of their bodily difference as safe and appealing, the star personas I analyze all gravitate toward the power of traditional, middle-class gender roles as an intersectional category capable of assuaging the fears of race, ethnicity, obesity, disability, and transgender identity. For all the case studies, the anxieties raised by the non-normative bodies of the stars are countered with the insistence that they conform to bourgeois gender identity. McCarthy’s transgressive flouting of “good taste” and patriarchal norms in her over-the-top comedy is situated within a discourse insisting that she is, in real life, a nice, polite, middle-class mom. As a dark-skinned, overweight black woman, Sidibe’s stardom draws out the culture’s prejudices surrounding black poverty, but her fame declares the power of fashion-loving, girly, self-confident femininity as the cure for economic disenfranchisement. Dinklage’s rise to fame as a Hollywood leading man raises important questions about stereotyping and bigotry against little people (and people with disabilities more generally), but the discourses around his fame rationalize his success through an appeal to his rugged sexiness and appealing manhood. Likewise, Trejo’s tattooed and muscled frame has long made him the go-to actor for roles about hyperviolent Latino villains, but his recent turn as an action hero suggests that Latino, macho paternalism and family life can rejuvenate multiethnic urban enclaves and reform the excesses of white culture. White’s signature bawdy comedy, meanwhile, assures aging baby boomer women that continued youth and vitality come with a commitment to postfeminist attitudes about sex and romance. And while Laverne Cox is helping to publicize and humanize the stigmas facing transgender people in the United States, her stardom must balance the complex realities of transgender identity with a dominant media discourse that uses gender essentialism and the postfeminist pleasures of femininity to make sense of transgender women.
While the many categories of oppression policing the boundaries of belonging and citizenship in the modern world are significant, these case studies suggest that traditional, middle-class gender norms are a kind of master category within a neoliberal model of diversity, the category most sacred to the possibilities of cultural citizenship in a consumer culture. The assurances of traditional gender behavior and attitudes can help reframe bodily difference as a safe commodity, a bodily attribute that can signify a superficial commitment to diversity, but with the knowledge that it still affirms the centrality of gender and family roles to capitalist, consumer culture.
The Case Studies
For each case study, I examine a variety of media that compose the “star text” of each performer, a central feature of which are the films and television programs at the core of their public identity. Looking at the kinds of narratives that tend to be crafted around each star—along with the images and iconography used to represent them—this book explores the common set of meanings and ideas about each star’s identity and body. How, in other words, has the entertainment industry deployed stars with non-normative bodies in certain kinds of roles, and why might those roles resonate within the cultural negotiations of diversity and identity?
I also analyze the discourses of entertainment journalism in magazine articles, film reviews, interviews, and other sources that refine and reframe the contours of each star’s public persona. This kind of critical discourse analysis reveals the ways social power relations are inflected in the discursive practices of the media, seeing “texts not as truths but as discourses that act in the world in ways that both define and distribute power.” My analysis examines how discursive practices explain, rationalize, or construct the social world in accordance with dominant power relationships.
The discourses about these stars found in entertainment journalism most often express the dominant narratives concerning stardom as managed by a variety of institutional forces, from the star’s publicist to Hollywood studio marketing departments, which actively work to maintain a certain public image for celebrities. Entertainment journalism, then, functions as a space within which the core narratives and discourses that define a star’s partly managed and partly spontaneous public persona are constructed and reconstructed as that persona changes over time. The range of discourses describing and framing a celebrity in entertainment journalism manage the central narratives that define their cultural meanings, providing a site upon which dominant narratives can be affirmed (or deconstructed, in the case of celebrity scandals).
Chapter 1, on Melissa McCarthy, explores the complex intersections of obesity, femininity, and social class in the age of the so-called obesity epidemic. This chapter asks how Melissa McCarthy, the comedian who has become the most prominent figure of overweight femininity in US culture, has become one of America’s sweethearts in an age in which a medical rationale has been constructed for shaming and degrading obesity. Focusing on her negotiation of gender and social class to provide a middle-class model of feminist fat acceptance while performing excessively “trashy” characters on screen, this chapter demonstrates how assurances of middle-class femininity can obscure the contradictions of inclusion and shaming in the new body politics. In short, I explore how shoring up middle-class identity and disavowing “white trash” stereotypes can alleviate anxieties about obesity.
Chapter 2 then uses Gabourey Sidibe to explore the intersections of race, poverty, and obesity within a media context in which the election of Barack Obama serves as an example of a “postracial” society. Rising to fame after her 2009 film Precious, Sidibe is frequently used in the new body politics to demonstrate progressive inroads: she is an overweight black woman with dark skin in a culture that still privileges light-skinned African Americans. Her rise to fame also coincided with the debates concerning African Americans, racism, and the election of the first black president. Using the debates surrounding a “postracial” America as the backdrop for Sidibe’s popularity, this chapter explores how her stardom articulates a model of postracial success based on the neoliberal mantra of self-confidence, which posits feminine self-assurance and the pleasures of girly femininity as the most appropriate models of self-making for those struggling with urban poverty.
Chapter 3 examines how masculinity and disability intersect in the rise of Peter Dinklage to construct a narrative of meritocratic success. Dinklage has accomplished an unlikely rise to fame in an industry in which little people are most often used as surrealistic props or fantasy creatures. This chapter analyzes Dinklage’s ability to move beyond this history of representation, considering how the construction of his persona as a pioneer and a sex symbol crafts a narrative of meritocracy within neoliberal individualism. Of course, the spectacle of Dinklage’s sexualized body also borrows from the cultural tradition of the “freak show.” Thus media discourses conflate Dinklage’s talent with his good looks to insist on the meritocratic nature of his fame while still indulging in the exploitation of little people’s bodies as a source of voyeuristic pleasure.
In chapter 4, the rise of Danny Trejo is firmly situated in representations of Latino immigrants. For much of his acting career as a bit player in action movies, Trejo’s large, muscled body and pock-marked face functioned as a source of cultural anxiety: he embodied cultural fears about Latino labor and violence spilling into the United States. So how are these fears managed when Trejo became a leading action hero in Robert Rodriguez’s action-parody films Machete (2010) and Machete Kills (2013), which explicitly lampoon US immigration policies? Analyzing the tendency for Trejo’s heroic characters to violently take down caricatures of white elitism as a kind of “hyperwhiteness,” this chapter shows how Trejo’s machismo helps reform and rejuvenate whiteness in a new multicultural era, making way for new racial definitions and hierarchies. In the process, Trejo’s stardom also posits the centrality of multi-ethnic families with tough patriarchs like Trejo to the norms of middle-class life in this new racial order.
The other bodies providing anxiety about the future of the United States, of course, are the aging bodies of the baby boomers as they pressure the US health care system and start to draw their Social Security benefits. This backdrop helps explain the late-career popularity of comedian Betty White. The recent resurgence of White, who starred in two TV series and several hit films in the 1980s and 1990s, revolves around her over-the-top antics and sexual humor as she debunks media stereotypes of the elderly as polite, passive, and insignificant. While White herself is no baby boomer, her fame coincides with an increasing cultural anxiety about the aging demographics of the boomers, especially baby boomer women, whose cultural worth has long been tied to beauty norms threatened by their aging. White’s brand of bawdy humor, then, outlines how aging boomer women (and even nostalgic millennials) can claim cultural relevance by embracing postfeminist mantras of sexual pleasure and the power of romance. Acting as what I call a “prefeminist” icon, White provides a historical narrative suggesting that women did not really need second-wave feminism in order to reap the benefits of postfeminist culture.
As a means of conclusion, the last chapter examines transgender actress Laverne Cox as a test study in the limits of the new, neoliberal body politics. Time recently featured Cox on its cover, using her rising fame to indicate a “transgender tipping point” in US culture. But while the other case studies in the book are generally accepted as uplifting icons of the new inclusiveness, Cox’s fame and the acceptance of transgender celebrity are still hotly contested and debated. Comparing Cox’s fame to the public coming out of former Olympic champion and reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner as transgender, my discussion explores how and why neoliberal culture might embrace trans-gender identity within its vision of cultural citizenship, as well as the limits of that embrace.
“I believe this book is going to become a model for stardom studies organized around a cultural theory. Its focus on supposedly diverse star bodies is a wonderful and original idea, especially in its development of the cultural narratives developed to make these bodies palatable. Also original is the linking together of stars whose back stories and celebrity are very different, but who are actually similar in their cultural configurations and meanings.”
Linda Mizejewski, Ohio State University, author of Pretty/Funny: Women Comedians and Body Politics