Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative


Mutable Masses?

It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

Notably, however, the fears associated with the masses have not been limited to one particular decade in American history:  across cultures and times, we can witness examples akin to tulip mania where unruly mobs exhibited relatively irrational behavior. Given the reoccurring nature of this phenomenon, which receives additional credence from psychological studies exploring groupthink and conformity (Janis, 1972; Asch, 1956), we might choose to examine how, if at all, the cultural critiques of the 1950s apply to contemporary society.

Recast, the criticisms of mass culture presumably resonate today in a context where popular culture holds sway over a generally uncritical public; we might convincingly argue that media saturation has served to develop a modern society in which celebrities run wild while evidencing sexual exploits like badges of honor, traditional communities have collapsed, and the proverbial apocalypse appears closer than ever. Moreover, having lost sight of our moral center while further solidifying our position as a culture of consumption since the 1950s, the masses have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to flash a credit card in response to advertising campaigns and to purchase unnecessary goods hawked by celebrity spokespeople in a process that demonstrates a marked fixation on appearance and the image in a process reminiscent of critiques drawn from A Face in the Crowd (Hoberman, 2008a; Ecksel, 2008). Primarily concerned with the melding of politics, news, and entertainment, which harkens back to Kierkegaard-inspiried critiques of mass culture, current critics charge that the public has at long last become what we most feared:  a mindless audience with sworn allegiances born out of fielty to the all-mighty image (Hoberman, 2008a).

Arguably the most striking (or memorable) recent expression of image, and subsequent comingling bewteen politics and entertainment, centered around Sarah Palin’s campaign for office in 2008. Indeed, much of the disucssion regarding Palin centered around her image and colloquisims rather than focusing solely on her abilities. [1] Throughout her run, Palin positioned herself as an everyman figure, summoning figures such as “Joe Six-Pack” and employing terms such as “hockey mom” in order to covey her relatability to her constituents.[2] In a piece on then-Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, columnist Jon Meacham questions this practice by writing:  “Do we want leaders who are everyday folks, or do we want leaders who understand everyday folks?” (2008). Palin, it seemed to Meacham, represented much more of the former than the latter; this position then  leads to the important suggestion that Palin was placed on the political bill in order to connect with voters (2008). Suddenly, a correlary between Palin and Lonesome Rhodes from A Face in the Crowd becomes almost self-evident.

At our most cynical, we could argue that Palin is a Lonesome-type figure, cleverly manipulating her image in order to connect with the disenfranchised and disenchanted. More realistically, however, we might consider how Palin could understand her strength in terms of her relatability instead of her political acumen; she swims against the current as a candidate of the people (in perhaps the truest sense of the term) and provides hope that she will represent the voice of the common man, in the process challenging the status quo in a government that has seemingly lost touch with its base. In some ways, this argument continues to hold valence in post-election actions that demonstrate increasing support of the Tea Party movement.

However, regardless of our personal political stances, the larger pertinent issue raised by A Face in the Crowd is the continued existence of an audience whose decision-making process remains heavily influenced by image—we actually need to exert effort in order to extract our opinion of Sarah Palin the politician from the overall persona of Sarah Palin. Although admittedly powerful, author Mark Rowlands argues that a focus on image—and the reliance on the underlying ethereal quality described by Daniel Boorstin as being “well known for [one’s] well-knownness” (Boorstin, 1962, p. 221)—is ultimately damning as the public’s inability to distinguish between items of quality leads them to focus on the wrong questions (and, perhaps worse, to not even realize that we are asking the wrong questions) in ways that have very real consequences. Extrapolating from Rowlands, we might argue that, as a culture that is obsessed with image and reputation, we have, in some ways, forgotten how to judge the things that really matter because we have lost a sense of what our standards should be.

Ever the Same?

So while the criticisms of critics from the Frankfurt School might appear to hold true today, we also need to realize that modern audiences exist in a world that is, in some ways, starkly different from that of the 1950s. To be sure, the mainstream media continues to exist in a slightly expanded form but new commentary on the state of American culture must account for the myriad ways in which current audiences interact with the world around them. For instance, work published after Theodor Adorno’s time has argued against the passive nature of audiences, recognizing the agency of individual actors (Mattson, 2003; Shudson, 1984).[3] Moreover, the new activity on the part of audiences has done much to comingle the once distinctly separate areas of high and low culture in a process that would have likely confounded members of the Frankfurt School. The current cultural landscape encompasses remix efforts such as Auto-Tune the News along with displays of street art in museum galleries; projects once firmly rooted in folk or pop art have transcended definitional boundaries to become more accepted—and even valued—in the lives of all citizens. While Adorno might be tempted to cite this as evidence of high culture’s debasement, we might instead argue that these new manifestations have challenged the long-held elitism surrounding the relative worth of particular forms of art.

Additionally, examples like Auto-Tune the News suggest that advances in technology have also had a large impact on the cultural landscape of America over the past half century, with exponential growth occurring after the widespread deployment of the Internet and the resulting World Wide Web. While the Internet certainly provided increased access to information, it also created the scaffolding for social media products that allowed new modes of participation for users. Viewed in the context of image, technology has helped to construct a world in which reputations are made and broken in an instant and we have more information circulating in the system than ever before; the appearance of technology, then, has not only increased the velocity of the system but has also amplified it.

Although the media often showcases deleterious qualities of the masses’ relationship with these processes (the suicide of a student at Rutgers University being a recent and poignant example), we are not often exposed to the incredible pro-social benefits of a platform like Twitter or Facebook. While we might be tempted to associate such pursuits with online predators (a valid concern, to be sure) or, at best, unproductive in regard to civic engagement (Gladwell, 2010), to do so would to ignore the powerfully positive uses of this technology (Burnett, 2010; Lehrer, 2010; Johnston, 2010). Indeed, we need only look at a newer generation of activist groups who have built upon Howard Rheingold’s concept of “smart mobs” in order to leverage online technologies to their benefit (2002)—a recent example can be found in the efforts of groups like The Harry Potter Alliance, Invisible Children, and the Kristin Brooks Hope Center to win money in the Chase Community Giving competition (Business Wire, 2010). Clearly, if the masses can self-organize and contribute to society, the critiques of mass culture as nothing more than passive receptors of media messages need to be revised.

Reconsidering the Masses

If we accept the argument that audiences can play an active part in their relationship with media, we then need to look for a framework that begin to address media’s role in individuals’ lives and to examine the motivations and intentions that underlie media consumption. Although we might still find that media is a corrosive force in society, we must also realize that, while potentially exploiting an existing flaw, it does not necessarily create the initial problem (MacGregor, 2000).

A fundamental building block in the understanding of media’s potential impact is the increased propensity for individuals (particularly youth) to focus on external indicators of self-worth, with the current cultural climate of consumerism causing individuals to focus on their inadequacies as they begin to concentrate on what they do not have (e.g., physical features, talent, clothes, etc.) as opposed to their strengths. Simultaneously both an exacerbation of this problem and an entity proffering solutions, constructs like advertising provide an easy way for youth to compensate for their feelings of anxiety by instilling brands as a substitute for value:  the right label can confer a superficial layer of prestige and esteem upon individuals, which can act as a temporary shield against criticism and self-doubt. In essence, one might argue that if people aren’t good at anything, they can still be associated with the right brands and be okay. Although we might be tempted to blame advertising for this situation, it actually merely serves to exploit our general unease about our relationship to the world, a process also reminiscent of narcissism (Lasch, 1979).

Historian Christopher Lasch goes on to argue that, once anchored by institutions such as religion, we have become generally disconnected from our traditional anchors and thus have come to substitute media messages and morality tales for actual ethical and spiritual education (1979). The overlapping role of religion and advertising is noted by James Twitchell, who contends that, “Like religion, which has little to do with the actual delivery of salvation in the next world but everything to do with the ordering of life in this one, commercial speech has little to do with material objects per se but everything to do with how we perceive them” (1996, 110). Thus, we might classify religion, advertising, entertainment, and celebrity as examples of belief systems (i.e., a certain way of seeing the world complete with their own set of values) and use these paradigms to begin to understand their respective (and ultimately somewhat similar!) effects on the masses.

A Higher Power

Ideologies such as those found in popular culture, religion, or advertising tell believers, in their own ways, what is (and is not) important in society, something that Twitchell refers to as “magic” (1996, 29). Each manifestation also professes a particular point of view and attempts to integrate itself into everyday life, drawing on our desire to become part of something (e.g., an idea, a concept, or a movement) that is larger than ourselves. Perhaps, most importantly, the forces of advertising, entertainment, religion, and art (as associated with high/pop/folk culture) play on this desire in order to allow humans to give their lives meaning and worth, in terms of the external:  God, works of art, and name brands all serve as tools of classification. While cynics might note that this stance bears some similarities to the carnival sideshows of P. T. Barnum—it does not matter what is behind the curtain as long as there is a line out front (Gamson, 1994; Lasch, 1979)—the terms survive because they continue to speak to a deep desire for structure; the myth of advertising works for the same reasons that we believe in high art, higher education, and higher powers. Twitchell supports this idea by mentioning that “the real force of [the culture of advertising] is felt where we least expect it:  in our nervous system, in our shared myths, in our concepts of self, and in our marking of time” (1996, 124). Constructs like advertising or entertainment, it seems, not only allow us to assemble a framework through which we understand our world, but also continually informs us about who we are (or who we should be) as a collection of narratives that serves to influence the greater perceptions of individuals in a manner reminiscent of the role of television in Cultivation Theory (Gerbner & Gross, 1976). The process of ordering and imbuing value ultimately demonstrates how overarching ideologies can not only create culture but also act to shape it, a process evidenced by the ability of the aforementioned concepts to consume and/or reference previously shared cultural knowledge while simultaneously contributing to the cultural milieu.

Given our reconsideration of mid-century cultural critiques, it follows that we should necessarily reevaluate proposed solutions to the adverse issues present within mass culture. We recall the advice of A Face in the Crowd’s Mel Miller (i.e., “We get wise to them”) and reject its elitist overtones while remaining mindful of its core belief. We recognize that priding ourselves on being smart enough to see through the illusions present in mass culture, while pitying those who have yet to understand how they are being herded like so many sheep, makes us guilty of the narcissism we once ascribed to the masses—and perhaps even more dangerous than the uneducated because we are convinced that we know better. We see that aspects of mass culture address deeply embedded desires and that our best hope for improving culture is to satisfy these needs while educating audiences so that they can better understand how and why media affects them. Our job as critics is to encourage critical thinking on the part of audiences, dissecting media and presenting it to individuals so that they can make informed choices about their consumption patterns; our challenge is to convincingly demonstrate that engagement with media is a crucial and fundamental part of the process. If we ascribe to these principles, we can preserve the masses’ autonomy and not merely replace one dominant ideology with another.

[1] Certainly being a female did not help this as American women are typically subject to a “halo effect” wherein their attractiveness (i.e., appearance) affects their perception (Kaplan, 1978)

[2] Palin has continued the trend, currently employing the term “mama grizzlies,” a call-to-arms that hopes to rally the willingness of women to fight in order to protect things that they believe in. Interestingly, a term that reaffirms the traditional role of women as nurturing matriarchs has been linked to feminist movements, a move that seems to confuse the empowerment of women with a socially conservative construct of their role in American life (Dannenfelser, 2010).

[3] We can also see much work conducted in the realm of fan studies that supports the practice of subversive readings or “textual poaching,” a term coined by Henry Jenkins (1992), in order to discuss contemporary methods of meaning making and resistance by fans.

Light Up the Sky Like a Flame

But what is reality television? Although the genre seems to defy firm definitions, we, like Justice Stewart, instinctually “know it when [we] see it.” The truth is that reality television spans a range of programming, from clip shows like America’s Funniest Home Videos, to do-it-yourself offerings on The Food Network, investigative reporting on newsmagazines like 60 Minutes, the docu-soap Cops, and many other sub-genres in between, including the reality survival competition that forms the basis for The Hunger Games. Although a complete dissection of the genre is beyond the scope of this chapter—indeed, entire books have been written on the subject—reality television and its implications will serve as a lens by which we can begin to understand how Katniss experiences the profound effects of image, celebrity, and authenticity throughout The Hunger Games.

She Hits Everyone in the Eye

For the residents of Panem, reality television is not just entertainment—it is a pervasive cultural entity that has become inseparable from citizens’ personal identity. Although fans of The Hunger Games can likely cite overt allusions to reality television throughout the series, the genre also invokes a cultural history rife with unease regarding the mediated image in the United States.

Reacting to atrocities witnessed throughout the course of World War II, Americans in the 1950s became obsessed with notions of power and control, fearing that they would be subsumed by the invisible hand of a totalitarian regime. In particular, the relatively young medium of television became suspect as it represented a major broadcast system that seemed to have a hypnotic pull on its audience, leaving viewers entranced by its images. And images, according to author and historian Daniel Boorstin, were becoming increasingly prominent throughout the 19th century as part of the Graphic Revolution replete with the power to disassociate the real from its representation. Boorstin argued that although the mass reproduction of images might provide increased levels of access for the public, the individual significance of the images declined as a result of their replication; as the number of images increased, the importance they derived from their connection to the original subject became more diffuse. And, once divorced from their original context, the images became free to take on a meaning all their own. Employing the term “pseudo-event” to describe an aspect of this relationship, Boorstin endeavored to illuminate shifting cultural norms that had increasingly come to consider the representation of an event more significant than the event itself.

Katniss unwittingly touches upon Boorstin’s point early inThe Hunger Games, noting that the Games exert their control by forcing Tributes from the various districts to kill another while the rest of Panem looks on. Katniss’ assertion hints that The Hunger Games hold power primarily because they are watched, voluntarily or otherwise; in a way, without a public to witness the slaughter, none of the events in the Arena matter. Yet, what Katniss unsurprisingly fails to remark upon given the seemingly ever-present nature of media in Panem is that the events of The Hunger Games are largely experienced through a screen; although individuals may witness the Reaping or the Tribute’s parade in person, the majority of their experiences result from watching the Capitol’s transmissions. Without the reach of a broadcast medium like television (or, in modern culture, streaming Internet video), the ability of The Hunger Games to effect subjugation would be limited in scope, for although the Games’ influence would surely be felt by those who witnessed such an event in person, the intended impact would rapidly decline as it radiated outward. Furthermore, by formulating common referents, a medium like television facilitates the development of a mass culture, which, in the most pessimistic conceptualizations, represents a passive audience ripe for manipulation. For cultural critics of the Frankfurt School (1923-1950s), who were still reeling from the aftereffects of Fascism and totalitarianism, this was a dangerous proposition indeed. Although the exact nature of modern audiences is up for debate, with scholars increasingly championing viewers’ active participation with media, Panem has seemingly realized a deep-seeded fear of the Frankfurt School. It would appear, then, that The Hunger Games function as an oppressive force precisely because of its status as a mediated spectacle of suffering.

But perhaps we should not be so hard on Katniss. Growing up in an environment that necessitated the cultivation of skills like hunting and foraging, Katniss’ initial perspective is firmly grounded in a world based on truth. Plants, for example, must be checked (and double-checked!) to ensure their genuineness, lest a false bite result in death. In order for Katniss to survive, not only must she be able to identify plants but must also trust in their authenticity; prior to her experience in the Arena, Katniss undoubtedly understands the world in rather literal terms, primarily concerned with objects’ functional or transactional value. However, as hinted by Boorstin, additional layers of meaning exist beyond an item’s utility—layers that Katniss has not yet been trained to see.

Echoing portions of Boorstin’s previous work, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard conceptualized four types of value that objects could possess in modern society: functional, transactional, symbolic, and sign. Admittedly a more complex theory than the description provided herein, we can momentarily consider how Baudrillard’s value categories of “functional” and “transactional” might align with Boorstin’s previously introduced concept of the “real,” while “symbolic” and “sign” evidence an affinity toward “representation.” Whereas the functional and transactional value of items primarily relates to their usefulness, the categories of “symbolic” and “sign” are predominantly derived as a result of the objects’ relationship to other objects (sign) or to actors (symbolic). Accordingly, being relatively weak in her comprehension of representation’s nuances, Katniss characteristically makes little comment on Madge’s gift of a mockingjay pin. However, unbeknownst to Katniss (and most likely Madge herself), Madge has introduced one of the story’s first symbols, in the process imbuing the pin with an additional layer of meaning. Not just symbolic in a literary sense, the mockingjay pin gains significance because it is attached to Katniss, an association that will later bear fruit as fans well know.

Before moving on, let’s revisit the import of The Hunger Games in light of Baudrillard: what is the value of the Games? Although some might rightly argue that The Hunger Games perform a function for President Snow and the rest of the Capitol, this is not the same as saying the Games hold functional value in the framework outlined by Baudrillard. The deaths of the Tributes, while undeniably tragic, do not in and of themselves fully account for The Hunger Games’ locus of control. In order to supplement Boorstin’s explanation of how The Hunger Games act to repress the populace with the why, Baudrillard might point to the web of associations that stem from the event itself: in many ways, the lives and identities of Panem’s residents are defined in terms of a relationship with The Hunger Games, meaning that the Games possess an enormous amount of value as a sign. The residents of the Capitol, for example, evidence a fundamentally different association with The Hunger Games, viewing it as a form of entertainment or sport, while the denizens of the Districts perceive the event as a grim reminder of a failed rebellion. Holding a superficial understanding of The Hunger Games’ true import when we first meet her, Katniss could not possibly comprehend that her destiny is to become a symbol, for the nascent Katniss clearly does not deal in representations or images. Katniss, at this stage in her development, could not be the famed reality show starlet known as the “girl on fire” even if she wanted to.

By All Accounts, Unforgettable

Returning briefly to reality television, we see that Panem, like modern America, finds itself inundated with the genre, whose pervasive tropes, defined character (stereo)types, and ubiquitous catchphrases have indelibly affected us as we subtly react to what we see on screen. Although we might voice moral outrage at offerings like The Jersey Shore or decry the spate of shows glamorizing teen pregnancy, perhaps our most significant response to unscripted popular entertainment is a fundamental shift in our conceptualization of fame and celebrity. Advancing a premise that promotes the ravenous consumption of otherwise non-descript “real” people by a seemingly insatiable audience, reality television forwards the position that anyone—including us!—can gain renown if we merely manage to get in front of a camera. Although the hopeful might understand this change in celebrity as democratizing, the cynic might also argue that fame’s newfound accessibility also indicates its relative worthlessness in the modern age; individuals today can, as the saying goes, simply be famous for being famous.

Encapsulated by Mark Rowlands’ term “vfame,” the relative ease of an unmerited rise in reputation indicates how fame in the current cultural climate has largely divorced from its original association with distinguished achievement. Although traditional vestiges of fame have not necessarily disappeared, it would appear that vfame has become a prominent force in American culture—something Katniss surely would not agree with. Recalling, in part, Kierkegaard’s thoughts on nihilism, vfame’s appearance stems from an inability of people to distinguish quality (or perhaps lack of concern in doing so), resulting in all things being equally valuable and hence equally unimportant. This, in rather negative terms, is the price that we pay for the democratization of celebrity: fame—or, more accurately, vfame—is uniformly available to all in a manner that mirrors a function of religion and yet promises a rather empty sort of transcendence. Although alluring, vfame is rather unstable as it is tied to notions of novelty and sensation as opposed to fame, which is grounded by its association with real talent or achievement; individuals who achieve vfame typically cannot affect the longevity of their success in substantial terms as they were not instrumental in its creation to begin with. Stars in the current age, as it were, are not born so much as made. Moreover, the inability of the public to distinguish quality leads us to focus on the wrong questions (and, perhaps worse, to not even realize that we are asking the wrong questions) in ways that have very real consequences; although vfame and its associated lapse in thinking might be most obvious in the realm of celebrities, it also manifests in other institutions such as politics. As a culture that is obsessed with image and reputation, we have, in some ways, forgotten how to judge the things that really matter because we have lost a sense of what our standards should be.

Born out of an early to mid-20th century society in which the concept of the “celebrity” was being renegotiated by America, concepts like vfame built upon an engrained cultural history of the United States that was firmly steeped in a Puritan work ethic. Americans, who had honored heroes exemplifying ideals associated with a culture of production, were struggling to reconcile these notions in the presence of an environment now focused on consumption. Although Katniss, as proxy for modern audiences, might initially find this shift difficult to appreciate, one need only consider that the premium placed on production is so central to American ideology that it continues to linger today: in a culture that exhibits rampant consumerism, we still value the “self-made man” and sell the myth of America as a place where anyone can achieve success through hard work. To abandon these ideas would necessitate that we reinterpret the very meaning of “America.” Thus, we become more sympathetic to the critics of the day who lamented the loss of the greatness of man and bristled against the notion that fame or celebrity could be manufactured—such a system would only result in individuals who were lacking and unworthy of their status. To this day, our relationship with celebrities is a tenuous and complex one at best, for although we celebrate the achievements of some, we continue to flock to the spectacle created by the public meltdown of others, unable or unwilling to help; we vacillate between positions of adulation, envy, contempt, and pity, ever poised for incensement but all too willing to forgive.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that reality television puts us a little on edge, as the genre represents a fundamental blurring of fact and fiction. Celebrities, we see, are just like us—just like our neighbors, who, through the magic of reality television, can become stars! Ever-shifting classifications leave us on unstable ground. But also consider the aforementioned philosophy of Boorstin: stars are, among other things, individuals whose images are important enough to be reproduced, which causes “celebrity” to transition from a type of person to a description of how someone is represented in society. In other words, we witness a shift from a term that labels who someone is to a term that designates who someone seems to be. Celebrities, it might be argued, derive at least a portion of their power in modern culture because they embody a collection of images that has been imbued with some sort of significance. Ultimately, it seems that much of our unease with celebrity and fame centers on notions of authenticity.

All I Can Think of Are Hidden Things

Long before Katniss ever becomes a celebrity herself, she exhibits disdain for the Capitol and its residents, evidencing a particularly adverse reaction to things she considers artificial. As previously discussed, authenticity played a particular role in Katniss’ growth and her ability to survive: for Katniss, a false image literally represented an affront on the level of life or death, for a lapse in judgment could have resulted in possible electrocution or poisoning. Concordantly, Katniss dismisses the strange colors of the Capital along with the characteristic features of its citizens—stylists, in particular, are purported to be grotesque—because she is not readily able to reconcile these visuals with her established worldview. As Katniss operates on a literal level, directly associating identity with appearance, the self can only present in one way (in this case, relatively unadorned) and maintain its authenticity.

Like Katniss, we too may be tempted to summarily reject the unfamiliar; our modern anxieties might best be encapsulated by the question: What to do with a problem like Lady Gaga? Perhaps the strongest contemporary mass image that mirrors the visual impact of the stylists on Katniss (followed closely by New York socialite Jocelyn Wildenstein), Lady Gaga suffers continual criticism for her over-the-top theatrical presentations. With dresses made from meat and Hello Kitty heads, it is all too easy to write Lady Gaga as “attention-starved,” simplifying her presence to the succinct “weird.” Yet, it seems rash to write off Lady Gaga and the world of fame as nothing more than frivolity and fluff, for pop culture is only as vapid as our disinclination to engage in it.

Consider, for example, how the Capitol and its residents (of whom a prominent one would undoubtedly be Lady Gaga) embody the spirit of Decadence, a particularly prominent theme in Victorian culture. A reaction to the 19th century movement of Romanticism, Decadence championed concepts like artifice, which served to demonstrate man’s ability to rebel against, and possibly tame, the natural order. Although this inclination toward the unnatural manifested in myriad ways, French poet and philosopher Chrarles Baudelaire viewed women’s use of cosmetics as a particular site of interest, for proper application did not just enhance a woman’s beauty but acted to transform her, allowing transcendence through artifice.

With this in mind, we begin to understand the innate control wielded by figures such as Cinna and Caesar Flickman. Perceived as facile by some, these two men represent a class of individuals adept at understanding the power inherent in fame, reputation, celebrity, and appearance; in the Capitol, image mongers such as these hold sway. Although one reading of these characters plants them firmly in the realm of artifice, painting them as masters of emotional manipulation and spectacle, an alternate view might consider how these two have come to recognize a shift toward a new localized reality—one that Katniss must adapt to or perish.

And yet, despite their commonality, these two individuals also underscore fundamentally different approaches to image: Caesar (and, perhaps, by extension, the Capitol) wields his power in order to mask or redirect while Cinna endeavors to showcase a deep-seeded quality through the management of reputation and representation. Coexisting simultaneously, these two properties of illusion mirror the complimentary natures of Peeta and Katniss with regard to image. Peeta, skilled in physical camouflage, exhibits an emotional candidness that Katniss is initially unready, or unwilling, to match; Katniss, very much the inverse of Peeta, is characterized by traits associated with hunting, finding, and sight in the “real” world all while maintaining a level of emotive subterfuge. Over the course of the 74th Hunger Games, however, Katniss quickly learns to anticipate how her actions in the Arena will affect her representation and reputation beyond the battlefield. With the help of Haymitch, Katniss begins to better understand the link between a robust virtual self and a healthy physical one as she pauses for the cameras and plays up her affection for Peeta in exchange for much-needed rewards of food and medicine. As she matures, Katniss comes into alignment with Cinna and Caesar, individuals who, despite being participatory members of a system arguably deemed inauthentic, distinguish themselves from the majority of Panem by understanding how image works; Cinna and Caesar (and later Katniss) are not just powerful, but empowered and autonomous.

Herein lies the true import of Collins’ choice to weave the trope of reality television into the fabric of The Hunger Games: throughout the trilogy, the audience is continually called upon to question the nature of authenticity as it presents in the context of a media ecology. Ultimately, the question is not whether Katniss (or anyone else) maintains a sense of authenticity by participating in the games of the Capitol—trading a true self for a performed self—but rather an askance of how we might effect multiple presentations of self without being inauthentic. How does Katniss, in her quest to survive, embody Erving Goffman’s claims that we are constantly performing, altering our presentation as we attempt to cater to different audiences? Is Katniss truly being inauthentic or does she ask us to redefine the concept of authenticity and its evaluation? Struggling with these very questions, users of social media today constantly juggle notions of authenticity and self-presentation with platforms like Facebook and Twitter forming asynchronous time streams that seamlessly coexist alongside our real-life personas. Which one of these selves, if any, is authentic? Like Katniss, we are born into the world of the “real” without a ready ability to conceptualize the power latent in the virtual, consequentially resenting what we do not understand.



Modern American culture finds itself infused with celebrities, typically thought of as Hollywood actors or reality show starlets. Increasingly, however, the moniker of “celebrity” is being applied to potentially unlikely individuals, giving rise to the “Celebrity CEO.” Beginning with a brief examination into the possible purpose and cultural function of the celebrity, this paper will then go on to focus on Oprah Winfrey as a particular type of celebrity CEO who has created, and subsequently embodied, a lifestyle brand. Throughout the course of the paper it will be argued that this strategy presents some advantages to celebrity-endorsed endeavors while presenting some additional vulnerabilities. Finally, the implications of this status as celebrity CEO will be applied to the Oprah Winfrey Network.


Oprah Winfrey, an American media figure familiar the world over, certainly fulfills modern definitions of a celebrity:  face prominently featured on streaming banners in Chicago’s O’Hare airport, Oprah is associated with events like “Oprah’s Favorite Things” along with projects like Oprah’s Book Club and the Angel Network. Although ubiquitous, if one should doubt her celebrity status, one need only remember that Oprah has also managed to obtain the true mark of the modern star in American culture—the ability to drop her last name and still be recognized. Even Daniel Boorstein, who criticized the current state of celebrity as being devoid of meaning—in the process coining a term that has become colloquially referred to as “famous for being famous” (1962)—might have to reconsider his thoughts after encountering Oprah Winfrey. Ranging from stories of sexual abuse as a child to weight management issues played out in public, Oprah is quite literally known for being well-known:  part of her allure stems from her willingness to address the darkest parts of her life with her audience and part of her power comes from fans’ ability to connect with Oprah through these stories.

Beginning with a brief background into the nature of the celebrity CEO, this paper will explore the general effects of celebrity CEOs with particular respect to narrative before examining Oprah as a particular iteration of this process. Celebrity CEOs, it will be argued, are not entirely dissimilar from other types of stars when it comes to issues of brand management, although they necessarily possess additional economic and social considerations. Once the connection between a CEO’s dual identities as executive and individual are established, Oprah’s development of her lifestyle as brand will be briefly discussed as foundational context for an evaluation of the launch of OWN (i.e., the Oprah Winfrey Network).


There’s No Business Like Show Business?

In an increasingly industrialized world filled with sprawling organizations, CEOs have become somewhat sequestered from the majority of their employees, leading to isolation and alienation (Yalom, 1998). Although undoubtedly recognizable to boards of directors, it appears as though CEOs have become largely disappeared from public view (with notable exceptions as will be discussed below).

Directly addressing this issue, the CBS reality television show Undercover Boss facilitates the connection between roles of “CEO” and “person”—although the program likely provides an opportunity to learn about the inner workings of their organization, the arguably larger benefit is the humanization of a corporate suit. Although viewers might cite schadenfreude as a prominent theme, laughing as they see an administrator stumble over a seemingly “simple” task, the net effect (realized or not) is that they most likely begin to connect emotionally with the undercover boss; they become actively invested in the outcome of this somewhat contrived scenario and an unspoken desire to see that the CEO has learned a lesson indicates that they have come to care about this person and his or her company—provided that the CEO is at all likeable.[1] In the course of an hour, audiences are not only exposed to a company that they may or may not have heard of, but also been introduced to a CEO and a handful of employees and witnessed “behind-the-scenes” or “backstage” operations (which might also serve to increase our identification with the company)—all in all, not a bad public relations move for a corporation!

Alternatively, we can consider that an appearance on a show like Undercover Boss instantly transforms a CEO into a media figure. Thrust into the public eye, one becomes a minor celebrity through the power of television:  even if we had little to no prior interest in the featured boss, social cues prevalent in a mediated society indicate that we should pay attention—a major broadcast network surely would not have chosen to feature someone who was not worthy?—and the mere ability to command copious amounts of attention (momentarily at least) affords a CEO the ability to transcend mundaneness, potentially obtaining the status of a celebrity.

Moreover, the Undercover Boss example indicates that while CEOs could potentially demand or cultivate an audience themselves—as suggested by Lois Arbogast in reference to Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn (2010)—they can also be featured or promoted by journalists (Hayward, Rindova, & Pollock, 2004). Although we might ascribe the prominence of CEOs to their role as leaders, we can also consider how humans display a tendency to oversimplify situations in order to understand complex and nebulous narratives.

Take, for example, a study conducted by Jones and Harris demonstrating that the prevalent attitudes in a writing sample were attributed to its author:  this study represented the first time that the Fundamental Attribution Error had been observed, although it was not immediately labeled as such (1967). In short, the Fundamental Attribution Error posits that observers tend to ignore situational explanations in favor of personality- or dispositional-based ones. In turn, these perceptions of us, once established, can cause us to act in particular ways as we endeavor to maintain our public image. Although the corollary between the Fundamental Attribution Error and the celebrity CEO might not seem apparent at first, we can understand how humans have learned to employ the Fundamental Attribution Error as a type of heuristic—a mental shortcut—in order to simply a intricate situation into manageable (and readily understood) explanations. In the case of the Fundamental Attribution Error, we see an eschewing of situational/environmental factors as we focus on an individual. Similarly, we focus on the actions and exploits of a celebrity CEO, channeling the output of a multidimensional process through a figurehead.

As a specific example of this process, the origin story of non-profit group Invisible Children taps into the pervasive myth of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey with its depiction of young adventurers traveling into a foreign land on a quest to find and cultivate a narrative. Lured by a sense of mystery into East Africa, an unexpected assault by the Lord’s Resistance Army alters the path of the filmmakers, acting as the impetus to enter into a world fraught with danger and uncertainty:  the realm of the unknown (Russell, 2007). Prior to this point, Kenya and Sudan had represented a relatively unfortunate, physically demanding, and sometimes boring wilderness for the team but nothing substantial. With the assistance of various guides (one of these a literal guide tasked with driving the group to a nearby refugee camp), Jason Russell, Laren Poole, and Bobby Bailey began to glimpse the conflict that underscores the region as they asked a series of questions of the locals. Wholly consumed by their newfound situation, the filmmakers discovered a little-known world of night commuters and child soldiers in Northern Uganda. This alien setting, which “disgusted and inspired,” also presented an opportunity for transformation as filmmakers shed their naïveté and were reborn as crusaders against witnessed injustice (Invisible Children, 2010). Having found their story—the ultimate prize sought at the outset of the journey—the founders of Invisible Children extricated themselves in order to return to their homeland as masters of the unknown and share their insights with their community. The documentarians themselves echo this sentiment in their first production, Invisible Children:  Rough Cut, through a voiceover that proclaims that the group came to Africa as novices but hoped to “leave as warriors” (Bailey, Poole, & Russell, 2004). While never explicitly acknowledged as a tool, it seems plausible that self-described storytellers such as Jason, Laren, and Bobby would have integrated successful elements of narrative into their production.

Although the real-life nature of Invisible Children’s origin precludes an exact overlay with the steps of Campbell’s monomyth, it is easy to imagine that the retelling of the tale draws some of its power (consciously or unconsciously) from this established structure. For some, the intertwining of narrative and Invisible Children might have seemed inevitable for an organization created by filmmakers/storytellers, born out of a documentary, and focused on recounting a tale of adversity in Uganda. Nevertheless, through the mythic nature of Invisible Children’s origin story, the organization’s founders are made into celebrity CEOs, performing a similar function as those individuals featured on Undercover Boss as the surrounding narrative is rewritten to feature a chosen few as its stars. Celebrity CEOs, then, can be understood to act as a focal point for the narratives that surround and pervade a company, locking the perceptions of the organization and individual into a symbiotic (or mutually destructive) relationship as sentiments accrued in one role migrate to another. In the case of Invisible Children, the organization’s founders were able to leverage the mystique associated with their experience into a full-fledged movement with their stories at its origin.



The Medium Is the Message

Structuring the message as a narrative helps to convey complex ideas in a relatable format, making sense out of a potentially overwhelming wave of information. Personal narratives, however, provide a relatively simple path that cuts through the chaos and allows audiences to focus. Preachers, for example, might utilize a parable to illustrate a point, giving audiences something familiar to relate to while simultaneously introducing a new idea. In a larger sense, we can also consider how the first iterations of narrative, myths and legends, informed the populace about the rules of a world (e.g., why the sun rose or how humans had come to be) in a process that mirrors functions of advertising or identity construction via celebrity culture; although many have now come to accept scientific explanations in lieu of (or possibly in conjunction with) these tales, the fact remains that stories can serve to develop cognitive scaffolding as we evaluate foreign concepts. This educational element, similar to the one existent in the concept of play, allows individuals to learn intricate lessons without any overt effort. Narrative structure provides a guide for people to follow as they absorb additional information, easing the progression of learning. However, when considering this process, it is important to realize that narrative, in choosing which facts to highlight, also chooses which facts to exclude from a story, which might be just as significant.

For some, the process of inclusion and exclusion might seem oddly similar to the creation (or recording) of history; certain facts become relevant and serve to shape our perception of an event while others fade into obscurity. If we were to take a second, however, and think about this notion, we would realize that narratives often served as the first oral histories for a given population. Individuals entrusted with this position in these societies were the “keepers of information,” whose ability to recount narrative shaped their community’s collective memory, and, thus, a key part of the community’s combined sense of identity (Eyerman, 2004; Williams, 2001). Performing a similar role as the oral historians of the past, modern society’s sense of shared knowledge can be understood to be influenced by the commercial storytelling that is branding (Twitchell, 2004)—this concept gains additional importance as we think about modern celebrities who are, along with handlers and public relations agents, in charge of their brand and understand celebrity CEO’s as an extension of this. The ramifications of branding’s ability to affect American culture in this manner is profound:  with its capacity to color perceptions, branding can influence the communal pool that forms the basis for social norms and cultural capital.

Stories, it seems, not only allow us to construct a framework through which we understand our world, but also afford us the ability to share our interpretations with others (Short, et al., 1994). Indeed, author Stephen Greenblatt mentions that a sort of compulsiveness exists that is intrinsic to storytelling (1991). The function, then, of narrative is not only to shape a community, but also to create (or at least maintain) it. The process of sharing not only relays information—an important function, to be sure—but also serves to cultivate the bonds between source and receiver. Sharing represents an important component of storytelling as it facilitates a sense of community with a successful story anchoring an individual’s commitment to a community, strengthening the overall cause.

Oprah as Celebrity CEO

As previously discussed, Oprah has managed to use the power of storytelling, often recounting stories of a deeply personal nature, in order to develop her brand and her audience (a form of community). For example, Oprah’s rather public weight battles offer one point of connection with her viewers:  due to the show’s longevity, audiences have been able to readily document Oprah’s weight gains and losses. Although the same sort of scrutiny has plagued female celebrities for years—Calista Flockhart, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Ricki Lake, Carnie Wilson, and Jessica Simpson come to mind—Oprah managed to benefit from the potentially negative discussion by addressing it directly. In addition to deflating the issue, Oprah’s weight struggles allowed her audience to sympathize with her, strengthening their connection to both Oprah and her brand as trainer Bob Greene was featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show and in books. Consistent with her overall message, Oprah did not advocate for a diet but instead argued for a fundamental change in lifestyle. Further strengthening the bonds between her brand and her personal life, Oprah also publically trained for a marathon in 1994—in this scenario, the brand espoused by The Oprah Winfrey Show is literally embodied by Oprah herself. With this act, we see the synergy between goodwill accrued by Oprah as a media figure and the struggle of a real person to obtain a goal—cheering for Oprah in one capacity naturally led viewers to support her in her other endeavor.[2]

Given Oprah’s strong presence as a personality and as a media mogul, the talk show host seems ripe for consideration as a celebrity CEO. Even ignoring the connection between business and self latent in the name of Oprah’s production company, Harpo (i.e., Oprah spelled backward), Oprah appears to have carved out a niche for herself as a lifestyle brand that promotes self-transformation. Fitting neatly into the ongoing lives of its supporters, Oprah promotes a brand that is anchored to her public perception that, despite presentation in multiple media channels (e.g., television talk show, online website and message boards, magazine, and self-help books), retains consistent messaging, which allows each experience to compliment, but not compete with, the others.

As further evidence of the connection between Oprah’s personal lifestyle, we can reference the much ballyhooed “Favorite Things” episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show. Although possibly driven simply by a desire to share her favorite things, the episode has become a production unto itself, rooted in emotionality and vividness while circumventing logical and rational thinking. The spectacle of the “Favorite Things” episode uses vividness and sensationalism to indicate that the featured products are emotionally interesting, image provoking, and proximate (Sherer & Rogers, 1984; Nesbit & Ross, 1980)—cues that seem salient when discussing media-saturated audiences notorious for variable attention spans and interest. Over the years, in-studio audiences have been groomed into a carefully controlled state of histrionics as they gush about whatever objects are placed in front of them while lauding Oprah’s charity.[3] Although participants of these parties most likely do not stop to consider the processes at work, the creation and careful cultivation of affective ties helps to bind them to Oprah and her lifestyle. Ultimately, although the audience is given free gifts (ignoring the taxes that must be paid), one might argue that individuals do in fact pay a price for these goods:  in exchange for material gain, the audience offers up its ability as a consumer bloc to dictate trends and value.

Adding support to this idea, we can consider the successful implementation of Oprah’s Book Club as another way in which Oprah was able to largely influence American culture through her lifestyle as brand. Using The Oprah Winfrey Show as a platform, Oprah was able to express her approval of a wide range of books (and reading in general). Although Oprah’s Book Club likely sparked a number of book clubs around the country, one might question how many of these were simply waiting, with baited breath, for Oprah to announce her next selection—instead of seeking out books that were personally meaningful, viewers may have abdicated this power to Oprah as she assumed the role of cultural dictator.

Oprah’s Book Club also demonstrated one of the potential pitfalls of connecting one’s personal life to one’s professional presence:  in 2005, Oprah’s support of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces caused her personal integrity to be questioned as the selection of the Book Club became suspect (Koehn, Helms, Miller, Wilcox, & Rachel, 2009). Although Oprah most likely could not have known that Frey’s work was a fabrication, her pick, and subsequent support on Larry King Live, caused minor damage to reputation due to her personal involvement in the matter.[4]


Coming into Her OWN

Continuing the deployment of her lifestyle brand, Oprah plans to debut the Oprah Winfrey Network in 2011. Described by Winfrey as “A channel where people will see themselves…see who they are through the lives of others—in a way real way that enriches them,” one can sense the immediate connection to her existing brand (ABC News, 2010). Building off of her phrase “Live your best life” (a sentiment remarkably similar to, but also strikingly different in tone from, the Army’s “Be all you can be”), the message is clear:  the Oprah Winfrey Network, like all of Oprah’s other media ventures is about the power and process of self-transformation.

Plagued by delays, the Oprah Winfrey Network has also run afoul of controversy prior to its launch. In the run up to its opening, rumors swirled about the possible rigging of votes in the “Search for the Next TV Star” contest (Walker, 2010). Given Oprah’s very obvious connection to the new network, we can conjecture that the same negative publicity that applied to the James Frey incident would likely pertain to this example—even if executives were completely innocent of the allegations, charges of cheating or misconduct had to be addressed in order to avoid damage to the unborn network and Oprah.

Having chosen to create a brand that centers around herself, Oprah has inextricably tied herself to the fortunes of the new network; in exchange for using her name to lend the new channel credence, Oprah runs the risk of personal devaluation should the venture fail. Although Oprah might have accrued enough goodwill to survive even the most devastating blow, any sort of scandal will undoubtedly reflect poorly upon Oprah and any future ventures.

[1] In a somewhat less flattering light, the MTV show Punk’d also performed a similar function for celebrities. Similar to the candid camera shows of generations prior, the Ashton Kutcher vehicle exposed the “true” face of stars in a process that could endear them to the public. More often, however, viewers were able to have a laugh at the celebrities’ expense (with Justin Timberlake being a memorable example) and often exposing them, in Frankie Muniz’s case, as insufferable human beings.

[2] I would also add that Oprah’s choice to relay her story of success despite her trials growing up also affects culture in a couple of important ways. On the surface level, we can see how Oprah’s story can be considered inspirational for those who would wish to follow in her footsteps. Yet, at the same time, Oprah’s background also serves to raise the bar for suffering as audiences question their right to complain as they compare their personal stories to Oprah’s. Although Oprah’s personality lends itself to the aspiration/inspirational interpretation, a larger trend of celebrity/mediated suffering might be that individuals are less inclined to realize the significance of their own situation since it is “not as bad” as what they see on television.

[3] Oprah’s creation of the Angel Network, involvement with Oprah’s Big Give and the creation of the Leadership Academy also work to support this image of Oprah.

[4] Interestingly, Oprah was able to avert a major crisis by responding to the situation through public statements and a follow-up interview with author James Frey. Again possibly working as a spokesperson for larger sentiments, Oprah seemed to win back her audience by conveying her outrage and being duped—a stance likely held by many of the people who had picked up the book at the recommendation of Oprah. In some ways, Oprah became the champion of the people as she confronted the author and the publisher; audience members could rally around Oprah and her power as a media personality allowed her to deliver results that individual viewers could not have hoped to achieve on their own. It might also be noted that Oprah’s Leadership Academy (see previous footnote) also suffered from allegations of misconduct that also served to cast similar doubt on Oprah’s credibility.

Believing One’s Own Press

In their article, “Believing One’s Own Press:  The Causes and Consequences of CEO Celebrity,” Hayward et al. discuss the conflation of companies and their celebrity leaders by journalists.[1] Although it should be noted that the authors focus primarily on journalists, we can understand the tendency to oversimplify situations in order to understand complex and nebulous narratives.

Take, for example, a study conducted by Jones and Harris in 1967 demonstrating that the prevalent attitudes in a writing sample were attributed to its author:  this study represented the first time that the Fundamental Attribution Error had been observed (although it was not immediately labeled as such). In short, the Fundamental Attribution Error posits that observers tend to ignore situational explanations in favor of personality- or dispositional-based ones. In turn, these perceptions of us, once established, can cause us to act in particular ways as we endeavor to maintain our public image. Although the corollary between the Fundamental Attribution Error and the celebrity CEO might not seem apparent at first, we can understand how humans have learned to employ the Fundamental Attribution Error as a type of heuristic—a mental shortcut—in order to simply a intricate situation into manageable (and readily understood) explanations. In the case of the Fundamental Attribution Error, we see an eschewing of situational/environmental factors as we focus on an individual. Similarly, we focus on the actions and exploits of a celebrity CEO, channeling the output of a multidimensional process through a figurehead. Moreover, we can also use the lens provided by the Fundamental Attribution error to better understand the Hayward’s connections between hubristic actions of celebrity CEOs, image maintenance, and ego.

[1] Hayward, M. L., Rindova, V. P., & Pollock, T. G. (2204). Believing One’s Own Press: The Causes and Consequences of CEO Celebrity. Strategic Management Journal , 637-653.


The Beckham Experiment

Although Grant Wahl’s book The Beckham Experiment[i] reads more like an extended magazine biography (Wahl notes that he wrote for Sports Illustrated, so perhaps this is not unexpected), his work on David Beckham raises some interesting points of consideration. In the early pages of his work, Wahl notes the contrasting elements of Beckham as public figure (i.e., celebrity) and private person, a theme that will see continued resonance throughout Wahl’s treatment of the soccer star. According to Wahl, part of Beckham’s success stems from his ability to appeal to a wide range of people; managing to avoid a strongly defined personality (which is not to say that Beckham’s presence was not felt, but merely that it curiously managed to remain ubiquitous and polymorphic), Beckham’s image could be reworked by fans in order to suit their individual needs.

One aspect of Beckham’s persona—arguably the main one—revolved around his identity as a soccer player. While we can apply the criticisms of past readings to Beckham’s celebrity, Wahl speaks instead to the ways in which soccer talent and celebrity work in synergy (referred to as the “sweet spot”) to produce a multiplier effect. Together, celebrity and talent provide multiple entry points into the narrative of Beckham, allowing potentially disparate fans to identify with the star. Perhaps more importantly, however, the convergence of multiple narratives in the figure of Beckham allows for a type of cross pollination as people interested in one aspect of Beckham have the opportunity to be exposed to another aspect of fan culture (e.g., followers of the Becks/Posh saga could grow to appreciate Beckham’s soccer prowess). In some ways, according to Wahl, Beckham hoped to tap into this very process in order to popularize soccer:  an infatuation with Beckham as a celebrity in Los Angeles would necessitate an awareness of his exploits on the soccer pitch.

Finally, through Wahl, readers glimpse the complex nature of the star-making machine:  although attention might fixate on Beckham, Wahl demonstrates that Beckham is not solely responsible for obtaining his post (or keeping himself there). Again we see resonance with the popular culture critiques of the 1930s and the 1950s wherein fame (and its trappings) are manufactured by a handful and then distributed to the masses. Although we might conjecture that some celebrities-as-brands control the processes described in The Beckham Experiment to differing degrees, we can probably assume that the majority of modern fame is supported by a team that must also be understood in order to contextualize the role and presence of stars in culture.


[i] Wahl, G. (2009). The Beckham Experiment. New York, NY: Random House.


Trendsetting and Product Placement in Bollywood Film

For anyone who has thoughtfully considered the role of art in society, Coonoor Kripalani’s position is not necessarily novel:  film, like many forms of art, holds the capacity to comment on its cultural context and to proffer new insights (often accomplishing both feats simultaneously. Focusing specifically on Bollywood film, Kripalani recounts a history of the genre, listing off various stars who served to influence fashion or vernacular (2006). Although Kripalani mentions offer a quick retrospective of Bollywood cinema, the larger cultural issue resides in films’ reflections of an upwardly mobile and aspirational culture. From stories enmeshed in the caste system to romances that defied arranged marriages, the stories told through these films spoke to viewers because they offered a glimpse of the world as it might be. Although not explored in the course of the paper, we might also consider how cult films like Jai Santoshi Maa also become popular because they speak (perhaps indirectly) to a previously unarticulated desire or sentiment.[1]

Shifting to focus on the power of the image, Kripalani then mentions Indian brides being idealized through wedding video and segues to the normalizing influence of product placement in Bollywood films. Lampooned by films such as The Truman Show, the phenomenon noted by Kripalani is not unique to Bollywood:  in a fashion similar to American advertising, Kripalani notes cinematic experiences that are achieved through the use of consumer goods.[2]

I would also argue that American youth can be understood to exist in an aspirational culture that highlights the benefits of consumption, with the most readily salient effect of this consumerist culture mixed with the cult of celebrity—and, if recent documentaries like Race to Nowhere are to believed, an overemphasis on achievement—being that children start to focus on their inadequacies as they begin to concentrate on what they don’t have (e.g., physical features, talent, clothes, etc.) rather than on their strengths. Brands, however, provide an easy way for youth to compensate for their feelings of anxiety by acting as a substitute for value:  the right label can confer a superficial layer of prestige and esteem upon teens, which can act as a temporary shield against criticism and self-doubt. In essence, one might argue that if teens aren’t good at anything, they can still be rich and be okay. For some, this reliance on branding might explain a relative lack of substance amongst the teenage population, but the ramifications of a culture dominated by consumerism extend much further.

Further complicating the relationship, branding culture also exerts an influence on youth through lifestyle. Although the basis of this connection can be seen in the relationship between consumer culture and branding, brands can affect the process in more indirect ways. A number of factors, for example, from the emphasis on teen culture to increased pressure surrounding college admission, might be forcing adolescents to classify themselves earlier than ever. Emphasis placed on entrance to selective universities provides an excellent demonstration of the drastic changes that young people have had to undergo in the early part of their lives; for many students aspiring to elite schools, college acceptance (and attendance) confers a particular type of status and failure to achieve this goal by the age of 18 represents an extremely large disappointment.  In order to secure this dream, young people might begin to package themselves—a “successful applicant” is no longer a student who did his best, but rather one who meets a specific set of criteria—turning their lives into a product, which they hope to sell to colleges and universities.

Branding associated with college admission showcases how marketing has developed into the promotion of a particular lifestyle, as opposed to a means of distinguishing products (or, perhaps more cynically, as an extension of this process). In many areas, the mystique of the brand has become the important factor for consideration; the actual quality of an item does not seem to be as important as its perceived value.

[1] Although I have not done extensive work in this area, my anecdotal exposure to cult films in America suggests that these productions often attract fringe or minority individuals who feel, in some way, disenfranchised. The sense of community that develops in this shared media experiences helps such people to feel like they belong (i.e., there are literally “other people like me”). This is not to suggest that the popularity of cult films can be solely defined in terms of this process, but I would suggest that this theme again reflects an underlying aspiration:  the desire to become, to be, or to belong.

[2] A book coauthored by Annenberg professor Michael Cody spoke to a similar affective tie in a McDonald’s advertisement, essentially arguing that family happiness could be had through consumption of a food item. Although Cody’s argument was more about nostalgia and family values, we can see how a product is depicted as the conduit for, or conveyer of, emotional responses or attachments and thus crucial to the process.

Just More of That “He Said, She Said”

“We live in a land that you can choose one or the other, same-sex marriage or opposite marriage…and you know what, in my country, and in my family, I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody out there, but that’s how I was raised…”


-Carrie Prejean, Former Miss California 2009


These words, spoken in response to a question posed by blogger (and then acting judge) Perez Hilton, reignited simmering tensions as the issue of gay marriage was again thrust into the national spotlight during the 2009 Miss USA pageant. Although he had hoped for an answer from Miss Utah (Denizet-Lewis, 2009), Hilton nevertheless took advantage of his opportunity, forcing national attention toward the subject of gay marriage legislation; outspoken, media savvy, and an unapologetic gay man, Hilton had capitalized on his moment, engaging mass audiences in what had become an embroiled topic of conversation. Particularly poignant was the fact that Perez Hilton resided in California, which had just narrowly defeated Proposition 8 (otherwise known as the California Marriage Protection Act) and was, at the time, in the thralls of a back-and-forth battle of escalating appeals. Although questionably worded—the choice of the term “opposite marriage” with its non-normative connotations would come to haunt her in the coming months—Carrie Prejean’s response represented a fairly standard beauty pageant answer to a relevant and noteworthy current issue. Hilton, however, did not seem content with Prejean’s reply and expressed his displeasure in a video blog, calling her a “dumb bitch” (Vasquezama, 2009),[1] a catalytic move that helped vault the incident to the status of a media event.

Based in part on the work of sociologist Simon Cottle, this paper will present a background of mediatized rituals and, as a subset, media events in order to contextualize the Carrie Prejean/Perez Hilton controversy. Concerned more with the unfolding of this particular story, and less with value judgments of “right” and “wrong,” I will also draw upon French philosopher Jean Baudrillard and media theorist John Fiske in order to argue toward a position that seeks to understand how and why discussion of gay marriage came to involve the figures of Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton; I will also strive to demonstrate that although much discussion centered around these two figures for a period of time in 2009, the much ballyhooed incident was in fact indicative of a much larger set of concerns.

Figuring It Out

In some ways, the controversy stemming from the 2009 Miss USA pageant seems somewhat surprising as both Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton appear incredibly unqualified to spearhead discussion of gay marriage; prior to this incident, neither seemed to be respected as a particular expert on the issue of gay rights or identified as a pundit with any sort of political acumen. Yet, despite an arguable lack of obvious credentials, Prejean and Hilton had managed to meet one important criterion:  they were on national television. Although the viewership of the 2009 Miss USA pageant hit a record low (Keveney, 2010), the simple fact that the controversy occurred on a mediated large-scale platform indicated two noteworthy (and interrelated) factors:  (1) the reach of television as a broadcast medium is widespread and singular in its presentation; (2) the only way to experience the event for most people was through media.

The first factor—which is more readily apparent but ultimately less important—came about as a result of developments in communication technologies that allowed for a global system of satellites and near-instantaneous transmission of news and information (Friedman, 1999). Building upon a model that had its roots in the radio and television culture of the early 20th century, mass communication throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries allowed an increasingly large proportion of people to simultaneously experience an occurrence; this idea is significant because it develops a common reference point that then serves as the seed for the germination of a mediatized ritual or a media event. Although recent developments in online culture have increasingly proven to support divergent points of view, broadcast media, by its nature, continues to provide a central communal narrative. Additionally, the scale of exposure is also an important factor to bear in mind as broadcast media can make the difference between niche market and national scope.

More important, however, was the notion that, for most people, the incident only existed in its mediated form. According to media scholar John Fiske, this fact meant that audiences could only operate on and conceptualize what Baudrillard terms “hyperreality,” as opposed to the “real” (Fiske, 1994; Baudrillard, 1994). For people living in a post-modern world, the representation of the exchange mixed with its reality, causing the two levels to become effectively indistinguishable from one another—for viewers, everything about this particular media event was, in short, hyperreal. Moreover, for the majority of the audience, both Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton did not exist as actual people per se, but instead as media personalities; our entire construction of these individuals’ identities stemmed from their portrayals in and though the media.

And, in some ways, the “real” Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton are somewhat immaterial for our purposes as most people involved in the ensuing discussion will never come to know either of these individuals directly—for most of us, the representation is much more powerful and salient; who we perceive these two to be is more important than who they actually are. Speaking to this concept, Fiske introduces the concept of the “figure” as an embodiment of deeply-seeded conflicts, emotions, and/or feelings within a society (1994).[2] Although Fiske uses individuals like O.J. Simpson and Clarence Thomas to make a series of points about figures and racial tensions, we can perhaps employ his thought process to draw similar analogies with Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton regarding the issue of gay marriage.

The Voice of the People

In line with Fiske’s description of figures as manifestations of underlying contestations, the response from Americans (to both Prejean and Hilton) was swift and vocal; having been provided with a tangible focal point for their perhaps previously unarticulated and unfocused sentiment, individuals on both sides of the debate began to write letters to newspaper editors in order to express their opinions (Rubin, 2009; Morris, 2009). Combing through opinion pieces from the time of the incident, one notices a stark trend:  authors seem less concerned with debating the relative merits of the situation at hand and instead tend to express outrage that others do not see the world as they do.

Eventually, as the months continued, the narrative surrounding Carrie Prejean would grow as Prejean and her supporters began to cite the contentious answer as the reason—notably, not one reason of many possible factors, but the reason—she had placed second in the Miss USA pageant (The Chicago Tribune, 2009); individual citizens like Judith Martin would go a step further and attempt to contextualize the negative response to Prejean’s answer as part of a larger disruptive pro-gay marriage movement (2009). Prejean, it seems, was the victim in all of this, being vilified by a left-leaning minority public who was hypocritically intolerant.

It is at this point that we begin to see the breakdown in communication between opposing perspectives in conjunction with a general unwillingness to understand the other side of the issue:  those supporting Prejean felt justified in their counter-critique of gay marriage supporters, but were in effect calling for advocates of gay marriage to tolerate an ideology that perceived to violated civil rights. From their vantage points, both sides had a valid argument and were not going to back down.

With supporters of Perez Hilton losing much of their moral high ground thanks to the blogger’s aforementioned “dumb bitch” comment, both sides of this issue were rapidly enmeshed in emotional mudslinging as they attempted to shout down the other side. In retrospect, the rapid escalation of the argument (and perhaps our personal investments in the outcome), caused us to forgo a rational discussion of the real issues alluded to by the incident; as academics and professionals, we have learned that we live and die by our ability to argue a point—rhetoric and intelligent discourse are our hallmarks—and we have also come to understand that criticizing ideas is acceptable and appropriate but assailing character is uncouth. Yet, by responding to Prejean’s answer with a personal attack (and simultaneously showcasing the danger of “lay journalism”), Hilton instantaneously altered the course of the conversation and changed the focus of the gay marriage debate as it pertained to this particular case.

Placed on the defensive, Carrie Prejean positioned herself on the side of truth, stating that she had given her honest opinion in response to Perez Hilton’s question and simultaneously invoked faith, becoming, in essence, a martyr figure (The Staff at wowOwow, 2009; Foreign Mail Service, 2009). As a result of this development, popular readings of the First Amendment were also invoked as Prejean’s supporters questioned the preservation of free speech, not seeming to understand that Prejean’s rights were never threatened (Sullivan, 2009). Here again we see that Prejean fulfilled the definition of a figure, serving as a focal point for discontent in America; although the incident itself had little to do with Constitutional rights, the perception that Prejean’s speech was being impinged upon allowed a certain subset of Americans to adopt the event as their own banner moment. Writing a response to the incident later that year, one author noted that Prejean “all too quickly became a heroine for those who are sick and tired of Hollywood and the thought police” (Hagelin, 2009)—clearly, then, Prejean was thought to stand in as champion for all Americans who had grown disenchanted with the (arguably) corrosive factors represented by celebrity culture and the stifling adherence to political correctness. Regardless of our own stance on the issue of gay marriage, the dissent characterized by Prejean indicates that we have, as a country, failed to promote an environment that fosters rational discourse; those on the right feel as though they are unable to adequately express their opinions and this frustration has developed into outright anger as we near the mid-term elections of 2010.

Additionally, casting her experience as a test from God further entrenched Prejean and her supporters as she became infallible—when framed as a choice between lying to win a beauty competition or pleasing God, how could Christians not support Prejean’s choice (offensive as it might or might not be)? Elevating the discussion to the next level, Prejean also sued the operators of Miss California USA for alleged religious discrimination (Business Insurance, 2009). Suddenly, a personal religious trial had become an assault on Christianity; Prejean, no longer a mere defender of personal integrity, became a crusader for Christianity and all it represented (Homan, 2009). Seemingly all too happy to embrace this new direction, the public began to more closely identify Carrie Prejean with traditional Christian values and morals as she became affiliated with conservative groups (Family Research Council Action, 2009).

The repercussions of Carrie Prejean’s new stance were swift and graphic:  within a few weeks, a variety of scandals surfaced—ranging from rumors of breast enhancement surgery to semi-nude photos, bad behavior, and a sex tape—possibly in order to discredit Prejean’s position as a blameless and righteous victim (Coutts, 2009; Abrahamson, 2009; Gensler, 2009). Again raising the notion of Prejean as a figure in the Fiskian sense, we might argue that while it is doubtful that many cared about Prejean’s sex tape per se (i.e., the backlash did not censure Prejean for having/producing a sex tape but rather for being duplicitous), the revelation of the artifact’s existence mattered immensely in regard to the public perception of Prejean’s character. Whether he had intended it or not, by attacking Prejean personally, Perez Hilton had opened the doorway to a moral absolutism that ran counter to his originally stated goal of gay marriage as a legal issue (vasquezama, 2009); instead of being productive, the discussion had become focused on media figures and again fragmented into the prevalent left/right talking points that have propagated throughout the nation in recent years.

Although the memory of Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton has somewhat faded in the present, we have continued to see a surge in the disconnect between left- and rightwing politics as the mid-term elections approach:  the rise of the Tea Party (admittedly a diverse group of individuals who are interested in a range of issues) demonstrates the growing separation between competing ideologies in America. While figures like Christine O’Donnell have replaced Prejean in the national spotlight, we continue to see similar themes of God, country, and Constitution reflected in the talking points of the Republican Party. As the issues raised by the figures of Prejean and Hilton in 2009 have not been adequately addressed or resolved, they continue to manifest in the public sphere as points of contention. Having firmly established that Prejean and Hilton reflected the Fiskian conceptualization of the figure, we now turn to work by Simon Cottle in order to further understand how such representations function at the intersection of media and life.

Mediatized Rituals as Disruption

Although some might consider the controversy embodied by Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton to only be suitable for display on infotainment outlets like Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood, we have seen that the back-and-forth pop-culture-based battle evidences very real political issues; although mainstream media might become caught up in discussion of Prejean and Hilton as representations, we can also conceptualize the emergent discourse as an example of a mediatized ritual. Despite a historical resistance to its study (Scannell, 2001), scholars have recently reintroduced the importance of spectacle in everyday political processes, arguing that to delegitimize spectacle is to discount the possible role it plays in people’s lives (Duncombe, 2006; Cottle, 2006).

Employing sociologist Simon Cottle’s argument that mediatized rituals “open up productive spaces for social reflexivity and critique,” we can gain a theoretical perspective on the Prejean/Hilton incident as we see Americans contemplate the discrepancy between how society is and how society should be (2006, p. 411). Although Cottle describes six different classes of mediatized rituals, the most valuable framework comes from the notion of mediatized public crises.[3]

In contrast to a media scandal, which represents a fairly isolated transgression, the story of Carrie Prejean and Perez Hilton morphed throughout its deployment to encompass a range of issues as previously demonstrated. Reflective of deeply personal issues (and highly contestable ones!), the Prejean/Hilton controversy embodied a mediated public crisis as the event “exhibit[ed] narrative progression, unfolded over an extended period of time, and [was] theorized in relation to discernible phases” (Cottle, 2006, p. 424). Once conceptualized as a mediated public crisis, we can plot the milestones of the Prejean/Hilton saga in a trajectory that showcases a struggle for validation, legitimacy, acceptance, and ultimately power. Moreover, understanding the incident in the context of an ongoing, and constant, debate over gay marriage and gay rights, we see that the issue was never really about Prejean or Hilton—sooner or later two opposing figures would have said similar things that would have sparked the tinderbox of controversy. Correlation, as they say, is not the same as causation.

[1] The clip of Hilton’s response to Prejean appears on YouTube and was uploaded by user vasquezama, which accounts for the use of lower case in the citation. Attempts to find the original video blog by Hilton referencing the event were unsuccessful.

[2] Although off-topic for this particular paper, I am much more familiar with this same idea in regard to the genre of Horror and the conceptualization of monsters. A particular fan of American Gothic, I see the continued resonance of vampires, zombies, and werewolves as indicative of the fact that we, as Americans, have not yet come to terms with what these figures represent (e.g., death, paranoia, etc.). It is my position that we create monsters in order to grapple with the underlying issues as we are generally less likely to confront concepts like our mortality head on due to their associated cognitive duress. I would also add that a similar function is performed by Science Fiction and its creatures as we attempt to reconcile our feelings toward the integration of technology and scientific advances into our society. For me, Horror touches on our desire to explore these sorts of fears along with other states of liminality, pushing the boundaries as we attempt to expand the extent of the known. We find fascination in Gothic figures of vampires and zombies for they represent a transgression of the norm and find exhilaration in Horror’s potent blend of sex and violence as a means of experiencing violations of the cultural standard without suffering the real life repercussions. Underneath the morality pleas of many horror films lies a valid method of exploration for audiences. Even scenes of torture, which most definitely assume a different meaning in a post-9/11 world, can be understood as a method of exploring what humanity is like at its extremes; both assailant and victim are at limits (albeit very different ones) of the human condition and Horror provides us with a voyeuristic window that allows us to vicariously experience these scenes.

[3] There is admittedly some overlap between categories as noted in Cottle’s paper, with the Prejean/Hilton incident reflecting elements of media scandal and moral panics at various points in the chronology of the controversy. I have focused here on mediatized public crises due to the narrative/unfolding elements of the case study.