Marilyn Monroe: A Case Study in Stardom

1ba2b63b0e51c55c0a488f2c206c7770Marilyn Monroe was one of America’s most well-known stars to come out of Hollywood. Though the peak of her career was in the 1950s and 1960s, Marilyn Monroe’s stardom has lasted until even today. Almost half a century later both her name and image are still easily recognizable, a sign of how well her legacy has endured. This long-lasting history makes Marilyn Monroe an excellent case study for the phenomenon of stardom. Film theorist Richard Dyer, in his essay Stars, describes various aspects of stars and stardom, and provides ways to analyze them. Marilyn Monroe’s career provides us with several examples of a real application of Dyer’s star theory. Her own status as a star is a microcosm for the stardom phenomenon as a whole.

One of the first components of Dyer’s theory is to examine the star as a construction. The star figure is not actually real, and is instead artificially produced both on and off screen by studios, directors, and actors. The platinum blonde sex symbol that appears throughout Hollywood films is not the real Marilyn Monroe, but rather a mere portrayal of her star persona. Monroe’s persona was deliberately constructed and promoted throughout her career. In fact, her real name was Norma Jeane Mortenson, which she used throughout her early career as a pin-up model. It wasn’t until her first contract with Fox that she picked the stage name Marilyn Monroe. Her star persona developed through the films she performed in, playing characters such as “the girl” and “the blonde.” These roles highlighted her beauty and established her sense of “to-be-looked-at-ness.” These qualities and appeals to the male gaze eventually became defining features of Monroe’s stardom. To complement the on-screen construction, Monroe’s appearances in off-screen settings also perpetuated her star persona. In TV and magazine interviews, she presented herself as naive and unashamed about her natural sexuality. Through the combination of both on- and off-screen construction, Monroe developed as a star, known as an American sex symbol. According to Dyer, stardom is somethign that is carefully constructed and promoted. Had this construction process not occurred, Monroe may have remained Norma Mortenson and her career gone in a completely different direction. Marilyn Monroe, as a star, is the product of construction.

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Dyer also wrote that stars can be studied as commodities. They are, according to him, commercial products that can be sold and consumed to generate studio profits. For example, Monroe appeared in advertisements for various products and helped increase their value and appeal. Additionally, many of her films were star vehicles–films written specifically for her to appear in. Audiences weren’t necessarily coming to the theater to see the film, but merely as an opportunity to see and consume the star image of Marilyn Monroe. Not only did Monroe contribute directly to a studio’s bottom line, but she also promoted consumption and consumerism in general. In her interviews, and film appearances, Monroe represented capitalism and the importance of spending money as a signifier of success. In these ways, Monroe as a star fits right in with Dyer’s theory of the star as a commodity.

Finally, Dyer has written that stardom can be studied in the context of ideology. Stars can produce and promote ideals that appear throughout the rest of culture as well. In a cyclical fashion, trends in culture contribute to the creation of stars who in turn promote and reinforce those same cultural trends. This is most apparent in Monroe’s status as a sex symbol for Americans. She was a “household name” equated with the idea of sex. Monroe’s star persona as a sex symbol developed alongside the 1950s new ideals regarding sexuality. In the 1950s, sex became much less of a taboo subject. Playboy started publishing, people were willing to talk about sex, and in general sexuality was being embraced. Sex was now considered natural, normalized, and acceptable. Monroe not only adheres to these characteristics but perpetuated them throughout society as well. Her star image–eyes half closed, mouth open, large lips, and lit face–appeared throughout media, further helping to normalize the 1950s sexual revolution. The ideological development and the appearance of Monroe as a star occurred concurrently and perpetuated each other, much as described by Dyer’s theory of stars as ideology.

Marilyn Monroe was quite possible one of the most well-known stars in the history of Hollywood. Her rise to stardom as well as her successful career are indicative of the general phenomenon of stardom as a whole. In perhaps the most tragic paradox of stardom, nearly all of American knew Marilyn Monroe, but very few people knew the “real” non-star version of her. This outcome of the stardom phenomenon is common and perhaps still ongoing. By using a single star such as Monroe as a case study, we can begin examining the entire notion of stardom in general.

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Cultural Hegemony of the University of Oregon


Consumer culture is a phrase that many people are familiar with, and associate with mass production of, and subsequent mass purchase of manufactured goods. In this culture, goods are not simply purchased and utilized, but consumed. However, consumerism does not apply only to the physical goods that can be purchased in stores; instead nearly every aspect of society has become commodified and is reformulated as something to be sold to the masses. This is the case for nearly every sector, including higher education. The University of Oregon (UO), for instance, has created a distinct school identity that plays into this culture of consumerism. The UO’s 2016 “Throw Your O” advertising campaign fits this model, and serves to create and reinforce a common identity surrounding the University. This identity is used to create a school culture consisting of students, alumni, faculty, and more and turn them all into consumers, and increase revenues for the school.

The UO culture, and the ways in which it operates, are not immediately apparent, especially for individuals who themselves are members of the culture. Cultural theorist Raymond Williams described this phenomenon in his statement that “Culture is Ordinary,” from his essay of the same name. (2009) Williams describes that members of any given culture will typically view their own culture very differently than someone outside of it, and that many aspects about the very culture in which one is a member will be invisible and unnoticeable to that person. This is equally the case for the UO and the unique culture that it has developed. No matter their specific affiliation with the school—student, alumni, faculty, or even just the surrounding Eugene community—members of the UO culture do not see every aspect of it, and might possibly not even recognize their own membership within it. For members of the UO culture, the action of “throwing your O” is an ordinary and everyday occurrence, so little attention is paid to it. However, for someone outside of the UO culture, the action of placing one’s hands in a loosely formed O to symbolize an institution of higher education might seem unusual. This is why the “Throw Your O” campaign is effective—it uses an action that members of the culture are already familiar with, and offers those outside of the culture an easy way to join it, by simply performing the action of “throwing their O.”

The two versions of the advertisement feature UO student tour guides Kiara Galicinao and Gustavo Feria leading a tour group of prospective students. Their voiceovers follow the roughly same script, stating that “Here, at Oregon, it’s about you. It’s how you change the world,” and “It’s how you make your mark on the world,” before each saying the catchphrase of the campaign, “It’s how you throw your ‘O.’” Feria and Galicinao then form the “O” symbol with their hands, to which the camera quickly moves in toward, and quickly switches to a match cut of the “O” logo painted on the side of Lillis hall, a building at the UO campus. The video then proceeds to a rapid montage of UO students doing various things, including sitting in classrooms, studying in libraries, and attending sporting events. This montage is accompanied by an fast-paced and upbeat soundtrack that evokes a sense of excitement. The video concludes with Feria and Galicinao presenting the audience with a call to action. When they directly address the viewer and ask, “So you decide. How will you throw your O?” they are directly inviting the viewer to “throw the O” themselves and become a member of the UO’s culture as well. (University of Oregon, 2016a) Because, as Williams eloquently explained, “Culture is ordinary,” many of the cultural effects of the “Throw your O” videos are not immediately apparent, especially for those who identify as members of the UO culture. However, by carefully picking apart the campaign and its elements, it becomes possible to discern its results, as well as begin probing the University’s motivations for creating this culture.

Luckily, the UO provides a starting point for deconstructing the videos and analyzing them. The Around the O section of the University website featured another video explaining the “Throw your O” advertisements, including not only their production, but the motivation behind them as well. In this video Kyle Henley, the University’s Vice President of University Communications, explains the advertising campaigns and what the action of “throwing your O” is supposed to represent. In Henley’s words, “It’s really a physical symbol—kind of a metaphor for how you make your mark in the world as a duck.” (University of Oregon, 2016b) To put it another way, the unique culture created by the university has been consolidated into a single hand gesture. The simple act of forming one’s hands into an “O” shape is now made to evoke every aspect of the UO culture. Not only are the wide reaching aspects of culture now consolidated, but they are now highly exportable and reproducible. The UO culture is no longer limited to the physical location itself; it can be performed before, during, and after everyone’s time at the school, and can be performed by anyone—students, faculty, and more. Thus Henley’s casual description of the “Throw your O” campaign is more than just a simple demonstration of the physical symbol, but also subtly portrays the wide reach that the UO culture has grown to achieve.

The wide reach of the UO culture is achieved through advertising campaigns such as the “Throw your O” videos, and it has several important implications about the homogenization of culture. All of the minute differences that comprise culture of the University are consolidated and reduced into a single action, the idea of “throw your O.” Even with a multitude of differences between individuals, they are all able to be a part of the UO culture, which in turn allows it to continue its spread and growth. The “Throw your O” campaign suggests that it is not just possible, but incredibly easy, for anyone to become part of the UO culture and be a duck. Additionally, Henley states that the “O” hand gesture symbolizes “being the person that you want to be in the future.” (University of Oregon, 2016b) By stating this, he is suggesting that the UO culture is something that can be exported worldwide, and that the hand gesture tis the method by which it can be spread. The members and participants of the UO culture are the ones who are responsible for spreading it. This is similar to the work of Marxists theorists Adorno and Horkheimer, in which they describe the culture industry. According to them, the mass media functions not to produce media content, but rather to produce and export culture. (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2012) Whenever and wherever media is consumed, culture is consumed as well. They that consumers of culture from this industry are also responsible for spreading it as well.

Even though Adorno and Horkheimer were writing about media industries, their writings can apply to the University’s “Throw your O” campaign as well. The videos are not just a way to promote the school and its culture, but to package that culture into a simple gesture and employ its members to spread it. At the 2016 Convocation ceremony, UO President Michael Schill gave a speech in which he alluded to the “Throw your O” campaign. He explained that “throwing your O, is the way you make your impact on the world as Duck,” and challenged students to “’throw [their] O’ far and wide, in ways [they] cannot yet imagine.” (Michael Schill, 2016) Though the message of making a mark on the world can be seen as purely inspirational, the addition of the qualification phrase “as a Duck,” reveals a different motivation behind Schill’s worlds, and behind the “Throw your O” campaign as a whole. It is a way for members of the UO culture to be responsible for spreading it as well. People who identify with the UO culture have become employed by the University to “work” within this factory that endlessly produces and exports the University’s culture. This process is cyclical in nature. Members of the culture contribute to its growth, which encourages more people to come to the University. These people are then exposed to products of the UO culture, such as the “Throw your O” campaign, and become members of it as well. Thanks to the simplicity of the O hand gesture, paired with campaigns such as “Throw your O,” the UO culture spreads easily and this cycle repeats endlessly.

The “Throw your O” campaign is a method used by the University to spread its culture, but it is not solely responsible for creating it. Though there are many small factors that contribute to the UO culture, it is all encapsulated in a single symbol, the “O.” This single symbol represents the entirety of the UO culture and is responsible for the hegemonic power of the culture. The “O” appears on various forms of University communications, advertisements, and is even embedded within the very architecture of the campus. Because it represents the UO culture itself, it has high value for the University. For this reason, the use of the “O” is highly regulated. The University’s brand guidelines dictate the specific proportions of the O, and very minute detail of how it is allowed to be used. The guide outlines specific rules such as its sizing, color, and where the “O” symbol is allowed to be used. (University of Oregon Marketing and Creative Services, n.d.) Control over this trademarked symbol is so strict that the University does not allow it to appear on any clothing that is not Nike branded. This specific aspect of the UO brand could be discussed in depth, but the key takeaway is the same—by limiting its ability to be reproduced, the value of the “O” symbol, and by extension its culture, is preserved.

The value of the Oregon “O” and its relation to reproducibility can be explained through the work of theorists like Walter Benjamin. His theory of the aura can explain why a symbol like the Oregon “O” can have so much power, and why the University uses it to promote its specific culture. Benjamin wrote about the nature of artistic work, especially in the context technology such as photography and cinema that makes its replication very simple. He argued that among original works of art, there is an “aura,” or indescribable property that makes them seem more valuable. (Benjamin, 2012) This is why even those familiar with images of a famous work of art, such as the Mona Lisa, will also find value in the original piece as well. The iconic Oregon “O” has an aura of its own, which is why it is a powerful way to contain the UO culture.

However, the “O” will only have an aura if its ability to be reproduced must be limited. Unfortunately, though limiting the ability to use and spread the symbol preserves its aura, it severely limits its utility for spreading culture. In order to use a symbol to spread culture, it is necessary to replicate it repeatedly. The University found a way to confront this paradox by using two separate forms of the “O” to grow and spread the UO culture. There are two forms of the “O,” each with the same meaning, but intended to be used in two different ways. The first is the official trademarked “O.” It is tightly controlled and only allowed to be used in specific situations. Because of this high degree of control, it has an aura, and therefore high value as well. The second form is the one featured in the “Throw your O” campaign, the simple hand gesture that anyone can perform. It evokes the same ideas of culture as the other form of the “O,” but without threatening its aura. The first form, the trademarked “O” brand, has monetary value and the second form, the hand gesture, has cultural value. This duality of symbols allows the University to maintain the high value of the symbol, but while also utilizing it to advance its goal of spreading the UO culture.

Though the University has many methods by which it develops and spreads culture, its reasons for doing so are quite simple. The University uses campaigns such as “Throw your O” in order to create a unique culture and portray it in a manner than can be easily spread. However, its motives for doing so are not necessarily just a message of positivity and inclusion. Instead, it can be attributed to a method for the University maintain its power and increase revenues. Spreading the UO culture enables more people to become members of the culture as well. Each new member identifying with the culture represents increased profit for the school. Students that attend the university will pay high tuition and fees. Alumni of the university can be solicited for donations. Community members outside of these groups can still contribute to the University’s profits by purchasing branded merchandise. The University’s culture is wide-reaching, and represents an important source of revenue for the administration.

However, the fact that people still choose to willingly be a part of this culture, in which they provide profits for the school and receiving few benefits, suggests that the UO culture is more than just a small set of ideals, but a hegemony in and of itself. As outlined by theorist Antonio Gramsci, cultural hegemonies are an idea central to many Marxist theories, and describe a manner in which a ruling class can maintain its power without resorting to force or violence by maintaining power over ideas instead. (Marx & Engels, 2012) By presenting the ideas of the ruling class in a manner that they appear as being the ideas of the people as a whole, they are accepted and left unchallenged. (Gramsci, 2012) This is exactly what the University has achieved with its symbolic use of the “O” and the “Throw your O” campaign as a whole. Ultimately, it serves the monetary ends of the University, but is presented in such a way that the audience receiving it will accept it without question. Just as Gramsci wrote, the ideas the ruling class become the ideas of everyone. The UO Style Guide website’s description of the “Throw your O” campaign explicitly states that the brand “is not something that marketers or communicators made. It’s something the university itself made—the students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community—over the course of its entire history.” (University of Oregon Marketing and Creative Services, n.d.) Of course, this is blatantly untrue, as the entire campaign was developed and produced in-house by the University’s marketing department. However, by presenting in this manner, the ideas of the ruling class—the University—are accepted as the ideas of everyone. In this way, the University is able to maintain its tight control over the unique culture that it created, and utilize it for its own monetary gain.

The University of Oregon’s creation of a distinct school culture is an invisible process, something that is meant to happen without anyone noticing. However, even if the process is invisible, its effects and outcomes are not. The creation of a distinct culture serves the University’s monetary interests. The UO culture spreads easily to all groups—students, alumni, faculty, community members, and more—and interpellates them into a culture of consuming the University’s products. It is unimportant whether this is in the form of tuition from attending the school, donations from alumni, or simply buying UO branded products—these are all means to the same end, increasing revenue for the school.

This method of creating cultures is certainly not unique to the University of Oregon, and is ubiquitous throughout nearly all institutions in the age of consumerism. Though the invisible creation of culture seems like an inherently malicious process, it is important to note that this is not necessarily always the case. Though the process itself is not evil, being able to identify it and question it is the first step to determining its moral standing, and to begin to push back against it and change it.

 


Works Cited

Adorno, T., & Horkheimer, M. (2012). The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. In D. Kellner & M. G. Durham (Eds.), Media and Cultural Studies: KeyWorks (Second Edition, pp. 53 – 74).

Benjamin, W. (2012). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In M. G. Durham & D. Kellner (Eds.), Media and Cultural Studies: KeyWorks (Second Edition, pp. 37 – 53). Wiley-Blackwell.

Gramsci, A. (2012). Three Selections – (i) History of the Subaltern Classes; (ii) The Concept of “Ideology”; (iii) Cultural Themes: Ideological Material. In M. G. Durham & D. Kellner (Eds.), Media And Cultural Studies: KeyWorks (Second Edition, pp. 34–37). Wiley-Blackwell.

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (2012). The Ruling Class and Ruling Ideas. In M. G. Durham & D. Kellner (Eds.), Media And Cultural Studies: KeyWorks (Second Edition, pp. 31–33). Wiley-Blackwell.

Michael Schill. (2016, September 2). Convocation: Throw Your O. Retrieved November 6, 2016, from https://president.uoregon.edu/convocation-throw-your-o

University of Oregon. (2016a). #ThrowYourO. Retrieved November 6, 2016, from https://around.uoregon.edu/ThrowYourO

University of Oregon. (2016b). #ThrowYourO | What It Means. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4WzU0SjQVo

University of Oregon Marketing and Creative Services. (n.d.). Style Guide | University of Oregon. Retrieved November 6, 2016, from http://brand.uoregon.edu/

Williams, R. (2009). Culture is Ordinary. In J. Turow & M. McAllister (Eds.), Advertising and Consumer Culture Reader (pp. 91–100). New York: Routledge.

Stephen Colbert: New Character, But Unchanged Ideology

truthinessIn contemporary society, the phenomenon of stardom plays a large and always-present role. It might be considered unusual to run into someone who does not have a favorite movie star, music performer, or television personality. Our society is saturated by countless forms of media, and we have become obsessed with the individuals that appear within them. Of course, it is no surprise to most people that the people we see on the screen are different than the real people who they represent. Instead, stars are merely an artificial construction created through the culmination of the effort by studios, the actors themselves, and society at large. Film theorist Richard Dyer was one of the first to analyze aspects of stardom and the effect they have on society. These artificial constructions, the star personas, represent the public image of the star and how they are generally viewed. For instance, Marilyn Monroe is associated with sexuality, Rock Hudson with masculinity, and Donald Trump with over-the-top business antics. These stars are almost inseparable with their personas, and might even be unrecognizable if they were presented differently. However, it is interesting to consider what might happen if a star were to try to redefine themselves and reconstruct their persona. Stars are defined almost exclusively by their persona, so any attempt to adopt an entirely new persona calls into question the very nature of stardom as a whole.

Regardless of if a star can successfully change their persona, the fact remains that the phenomenon of stardom is closely related to culture that they exist within. Simply put, stars are cultural products and are the embodiment of ideologies. (Dyer 2) When discussing the general notion of stardom, Dyer continually uses the example of capitalism—production and consumption—as ideologies that stars embody. The neo-Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci described these types of ideologies even further, calling them cultural hegemonies. (Gramsci) For him, a hegemony is a dominant ideology that permeates so widely throughout culture that it exists largely unnoticed, and are accepts simply as “just the way things are.” Gramsci argues that hegemonies stay in power if they go unnoticed. Contemporary examples of hegemonies could include U.S. politics, including the two-party system, and the deeply-held nature of political beliefs. Stars are an ideal vehicle for perpetuating hegemonies such as these because they occupy several different areas of culture, and are seen by many members of the public at large. Even if a star is able to successfully change their persona, such a change is ultimately insignificant because the underlying ideologies that the star embodies remain unchanged.

There are many stars that could serve as examples of this phenomenon, and much academic work has been done examining the relation of stars and various ideologies. However, this paper aims to examine a star’s attempt to change his or her own persona, and the effect that it might have on their underlying ideologies. Stephen Colbert, who is a star from his television appearances, makes for an ideal case study especially in terms of his transition from hosting The Colbert Report on Comedy Central to hosting The Late Show on CBS. He hosted his final episode of The Colbert Report on December 18, 2014, and premiered on The Late Show on September 8, 2015. During this interim, there was significant speculation as to how Colbert’s star persona would be portrayed on the new show, to the point that Stephen Colbert specifically announced that he would not appear “in character” in the new CBS show. (Zuckerman) Despite the uncertainty over what version of the Colbert star would appear, it was always a given that Colbert would still be involved in the propagation of certain ideologies. Cultural theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno describe this concept in their essay The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. They argue that the primary export of the entertainment industry and of mass media is no the movies, music, and TV shows that they produce but instead the hegemonies that they promote. (Adorno and Horkheimer) By extension, stars are yet another product that the Culture Industry produces. Stars are important not because of the people they represent or the characters they play, but for the ideologies they carry. In her book on Lady Gaga, Amber Davisson reaffirms that “stars themselves do now lack ideological significance,” which indicates that the decades-old theories of Dyer, Gramsci, Horkheimer, Adorno and others still applies to contemporary notions of stardom. (Davisson 4) Stephen Colbert is the epitome of this relationship between stardom and ideology; on both of his shows, he embodies the same ideologies, which means that no matter what outwardly changes he makes in appearance, his star persona is unchanged from one show to another.

During his time hosting The Colbert Report, Colbert’s star persona and performance portrayed him as a parody of traditional cable news political pundits. The show was designed in such a way as to mimic the hegemony of typical cable news shows. For instance, Colbert’s set featured him sitting at a desk, with a stack of papers in front of him. The set was decorated with red and blue, with graphics appearing over his shoulder as he presented various topics. (Colbert, Truthines) These However, his actual performance was different than traditional political pundits and was unique to Colbert. His way of speaking was loud, abrasive, and aggressive. He frequently used the word “nation” to refer to his audience—both within the studio and on TV, which characterized him as talking at the audience and not necessarily with them.

On his first episode, Colbert introduced the term “truthiness,” which came to define not just his show, but his star performance as well. He specifically stated that Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news. At you.” (Colbert, Truthines) Because this appeared in his first episode, it essentially serves as an assertion of what his entire show would be about—namely distilling politics down to a simple form and telling the audience what to think, or in this case, feel. Though it appeared more than 50 years later, Colbert’s performance echoes what Horkheimer and Adorno wrote about the Culture Industry—that “The spectator must need no thoughts of his own: the product prescribes each reaction…through signals. Any logical connection presupposing mental capacity is scrupulously avoided.” (61) In this segment, Colbert specifically tells his viewers that he will tell them exactly what to think throughout his show, which is a clear confession of the ideological purposes that his stardom serves. Namely, Colbert’s stardom reasserts the hegemony of U.S. politics and the two-party system. His performance erases any nuance between conservatives and liberals and forces the audience to identify with one of those two categories. Colbert encourages the audience to view their political views in a similar manner as religion—not something to be thought about rationally, but as a deeply held personal belief that cannot be challenged. This ideology is encapsulated within the star construction of Stephen Colbert and presented to the audience.

trumpinessColbert’s embodiment and performance of these political ideologies is especially effective because it is effective at reaching a wide array of audiences. Viewers of The Colbert Report saw in it what they wanted to see; Liberals saw it as over the top satire, and conservatives often read it as genuine political commentary. (LaMarre, Landreville, and Beam) This universality of Colbert’s performance on The Colbert Report is indicative of stardom in general. (Dyer) Stars are for everyone and the ideologies that they embody serve to strengthen the hegemonies that exist within society at large. The ideologies that Colbert, the star, portrays remain in power because they are presented in a manner that they can be accepted by anyone.

Luis Althusser, another cultural theorist, describes this process in his essay on Ideological State Apparatuses. He argues that an ideology can retain its dominance if it can be presented as and accepted as something that everyone accepts. (Althusser, Balibar, and Bidet) Ideologies are presented to a subject, who is then “interpellated” and hailed to join it, which is exactly what Colbert’s stardom does to his viewers and their political beliefs. His loud and abrasive performance are merely the surface-level of Stephen Colbert the star; the true effect of his stardom is the political ideologies he promotes.

Therefore, it is effectively irrelevant if Colbert appears differently in his performance on CBS’ The Late Show. Though it may seem that he has adopted a new star persona, if the underlying ideologies that he propagates are unchanged, then Colbert is effectively the same star as before. On the final episode of The Colbert Report, Colbert acted out the end of Stephen Colbert, and supposedly the end of his previous star persona as well. He claims to have “won” television and leaves the show by flying away with Santa Claus, Abraham Lincoln, and Alex Trebek. (Colbert, Season 11, Ep. 40) Following this supposed end of his previous persona and that fact that he seems to be different, Colbert is presented on The Late Show as being an entirely new star persona. One example of this is a difference in his performance on the show. Rather than using the phrase “nation” to talk at the audience, he begins each show talking with the audience and asking “how’s everybody doing?” The Late Show Additionally, on his first episode he included a segment in which he asked “Who Am Me?” and took a personality test to reveal the “real” Stephen Colbert. (Colbert, Who Is Stephen Colbert?) Of course, this very notion of a “real” Stephen Colbert even existing is inaccurate, as stars by definition are illusions; it impossible for a real Colbert to appear on his show. (Dyer) And even though his outward appearance on his new show are different, Colbert’s star persona is effectively the same as the one that appeared on The Colbert Report because the underlying ideologies that he embodies are the same.

On The Late Show, Colbert embodies ideologies that reinforce the hegemony of U.S. politics. Specifically, his performance perpetuates the polarization of political ideals and that those politics are akin to religious beliefs in how tightly they should be held. When discussing the Republican primaries in the 2016 presidential election, The Late Show featured a segment about the word “Trumpiness.” (Colbert, Trumpiness) In this, he directly referenced The Colbert Report from 11 years earlier and presented again the same ideologies. In the segment, he directly compared Donald Trump’s supporters with supporters of Bernie Sanders by asserting that each candidates’ followers didn’t just agree with their messages, but deeply believed them as well. This representation has two effects: first, it posits that there are only two potential political parties—democrats or republicans. Second, it underscores that political beliefs should be deeply held by an individual, much like a religion. In other words, conservatives and liberals are not actually that different, at least in terms of how their members choose to follow them. Or as Horkheimer and Adorno describe it, “even the aesthetic manifestation of political opposites proclaim the same inflexible rhythm.” (41) Colbert has only been hosting The Late Show for a few years now, so it is unclear whether or not his performance will evolve to look completely different from that of The Colbert Report. However, because the ideologies that he perpetuates are unchanged, his outward appearance is irrelevant in determining a change in star persona. Because these ideologies are identical, his star persona did not change.

From his final episode of The Colbert Report in 2014 to his first episode of The Late Show in 2015, Colbert seems to have attempted to take on a new role and new performance. Ultimately, his appearance in his new role may look slightly different from his earlier role, but the effects that he has on his audience are generally the same. Colbert embodies and promotes the same ideologies in both roles. As a product of the Culture Industry, Colbert has the same role in the reinforcement of dominant hegemonies. His shows promote U.S. politics, the two-party system, and the personal nature of political beliefs. Though stars may not be real people, the effects that they have on the world certainly are.

 

 

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor, and Max Horkheimer. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Media and Cultural Studies: KeyWorks. Ed. Douglas Kellner and Meenakshi Gigi Durham. Second Edition. N.p., 1944. 53–74. Print.

Althusser, Louis, Etienne Balibar, and Jacques Bidet. On The Reproduction Of Capitalism: Ideology And Ideological State Apparatuses. Trans. G. M. Goshgarian. London ; New York: Verso, 2014. Print.

Colbert, Stephen. The Colbert Report – Season 11, Ep. 40 – Grimmy – Full Episode. N.p., 2014. Film. The Colbert Report.

—. The Word – Truthiness-The Colbert Report – Video Clip. N.p., 2005. Film. The Colbert Report.

—. The Word: Trumpiness. N.p., 2016. Film. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

—. Who Is Stephen Colbert? N.p., 2015. Film. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Davisson, Amber L. Lady Gaga and the Remaking of Celebrity Culture. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2013. Print.

Dyer, Richard. Stars. New Edition. London: British Film Institute, 1998. Print.

Gramsci, Antonio. “The Concept of ‘Ideology.’” Media And Cultural Studies: KeyWorks. Ed. Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas Kellner. Second Edition. Wiley-Blackwell, 1971. 34–37. Print.

LaMarre, Heather L., Kristen D. Landreville, and Michael A. Beam. “The Irony of Satire: Political Ideology and the Motivation to See What You Want to See in The Colbert Report.” The International Journal of Press/Politics 14.2 (2009): 212–231. SAGE Journals. Web.

Zuckerman, Esther. “Stephen Colbert Will Take Over for David Letterman.” The Atlantic 10 Apr. 2014. The Atlantic. Web. 19 Mar. 2017.

 

Lady Gaga and Super Bowl 51

Written for my CINE 410 Stars and Performance course. This was part of a larger group “panel” presentation. The panel examined Lady Gaga’s stardom in specific topics: her star persona, her fashion, her music/performance, and finally a case study on her Super Bowl performance.

I worked with another group member on the Super Bowl section, and this was our short report on our findings.


Lady Gaga was the headline performer for the 2017 Super Bowl 51 Halftime show, and her show represents a case study of how her star persona manifests itself within her performances. As a whole, our panel wanted to analyze the notion of authenticity in regards to Lady Gaga’s stardom. Her performance in the Super Bowl raises questions of whether or not her star persona is actually authentic. In his book Stars, Richard Dyer continually mentions that stars are not real people, but are constructed through their performances and through the work of producers and studios. By analyzing the Super Bowl 51 halftime show, we determined that as a star, Lady Gaga exists somewhat outside of this norm. Her star persona is still different than the real person, but Lady Gaga is unique in that she exercises much fuller ownership over her own persona.

This ownership of her own stardom is demonstrated through the fact that Lady Gaga was the only headline performer during the halftime show. (National Football League, “Halftime Show Starring Lady Gaga”) The previous Super Bowl’s halftime show, in 2016, featured three different stars—Beyoncé, Bruno Mars, and Coldplay. (National Football League, “NFL Events – 2016 Super Bowl 50 Halftime Show”) Because that show featured three different stars, they had to share the stage, forcing them to blend their star images together. It is possible that this blending results in each individual star persona becoming less authentic, because it becomes clear to the audience that it is being influenced by the other personas. Lady Gaga in 2017, however, did not have this problem because she was the show’s only performer. Gaga had complete ownership and creative freedom, and was able to have a performance uninhibited by others. Her stardom as presented in Super Bowl 51 was more authentic.

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Swarm Intelligence: Order from Disorder

Written for my Honors College science colloquium course: Bio Breakthroughs. Based largely on this really cool TED talk, as well as the RadioLab episode “Emergence.”


Taking a few minutes to watch a population of ants might lead one to conclude that they are a very unintelligent species. They move around seemingly at random, appear to have no goal in mind, and sometimes even push one another around. Even though as individuals ants may seem really unintelligent, looking at the colony as a whole reveals just what they are capable of. Ant colonies can efficiently find and transport food, build expansive underground nests, protect those nests from flooding conditions, and more. The intelligence of the group appears to be greater than the sum of its part, a phenomenon known as swarm intelligence.

Generally, “swarm intelligence” is used to refer to the collective behavior of any large system. The term was originally coined by Gerdo Beni and Jing Wang to describe artificial intelligence in robotic systems. However, they note that it can occur in both natural and artificial systems, and modeled many of their ideas off of what has been observed in the natural world. (705) Swarm intelligence arises from de-centralized groups of individuals. That there is no one specific leader giving instructions to the whole and instead, order arises from the decisions and interactions of individual members. Swarm intelligence occurs in a wide array of species including the flocking patterns of birds, schools of fish, and even in bacterial growth patterns.

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Trump’s Wiretap Tweets

President Trump recently accused former President Obama of wiretapping phones in Trump Tower:


These tweets are really bad. For Trump.

Firstly as this article details, the tweets can’t be literally true in any sense. The president does not have the authority to arbitrarily tap the phones/computers of American citizens. Trump is the president now which means that these tweets show he doesn’t understand the powers and limits of his own office.

Next lets say the tweets are true in the sense that their was in fact a federal investigation that involved wire taps on Trump. This would mean that there was sufficient evidence of criminal activity that a court issued a warrant for those wire taps. Again this would then be a terrible admission by Trump.

The final scenario, that I would assume Trump is angling for people to believe, is that there was no good evidence of criminal wrongdoing and the wire taps were authorized anyway. This means that the whole intelligence apparatus is corrupt and violating the constitutional rights of Americans. But the Trump administration has recently advocated for the intelligence community to retain its extremely broad powers! This is Trump’s federal government now. He has to be saying that it is completely broken but he will do nothing to reform it.

All in all there’s just no way that these tweets are not broadly self defeating. Not even considering the usual stuff about the childish unpresidential tone or the connotation that he gets his intelligence from Brietbart. It’s just generally unbelievably embarrassing.

Tonight’s Iron Chef Secret Ingredient: the Popular Press

Written for one of my media studies classes, How to Watch TV – about the ongoing conflict between scholarly work and the popular press.

I’m posting this here because I’ll inevitably lose my original files and copies at some point, and it doesn’t hurt to get the work I’ve done “out there,” even if nobody reads it. Also, there’s always a chance that my publishing it online here will trip up the automatic plagiarism detectors.


The popular press—newspaper journalism, magazine articles, online blogs, and the such—have traditionally been looked down upon and considered inferior to academic work. Scholarly work is elitist and exclusive, limited to professors, researchers, and anyone else who never bothered to ever leave school. Fortunately, this trend of academic work’s superiority over the popular press has been changing. Recently Maria Bustillos wrote an article that clashed with a previous one by Amanda Ann Klein and Kristen Warner; the discourse between them highlights the contentious debate between the work of academics and that of journalists in the popular press. The evolving relationship between the popular press and scholarly work is especially complicated in fields such as television studies, in which aspects of popular culture are analyzed in an academic manner. Publications within this field that address a similar subject underscore the complicated relationship between scholars and journalists. An academic essay by Mark Gallagher and an online TV review by Dana Stevens both focus on the show Iron Chef, and the differences between their styles of writing serves to demonstrate this rapidly changing relationship.

In general, scholarly work has traditionally been characterized by certain features. These features can be found within Mark Gallagher’s essay “What’s So Funny About Iron Chef?” Though this essay was written about a popular media product, it was written in a scholarly style and published within the peer-reviewed Journal of Popular Film and Television. One of these scholarly characteristics is the depth of analysis in the writing. Because Gallagher is not limited to a certain word count or page count, his essay is able to address complex media and cultural theories. Gallagher uses one specific media product, Iron Chef, to begin his discussion of broader issues, such as the flow of cultural products from a subculture to a dominant culture—which is counter to the traditional flow of culture from dominant culture to subculture. (183) To put it another way, a scholarly analysis of the media enables the author to go beyond the text itself. Gallagher uses Iron Chef as background context and a starting point before continuing to his analysis of culture. Another feature of scholarly work is related to the very structure that it exists and operates within. This fact may seem evident, but cademic papers are published in peer-reviewed journals and contain references to the related work of previous scholars. The effect of this is twofold. First, it provides a method for the verification of the paper’s validity. Second, it situates the essay within a related body of work, and offers suggestions of further reading for the audience if they so choose. The last page of Gallagher’s essay contains 16 citations to other sources, which point the audience to further information about Iron Chef and the cultural theories discussed therein as well. (184) However, one potential downside to this scholarly style of work is its overall lack of accessibility. The highly technical and field-specific language notwithstanding, academic essays such as Gallagher’s are not widely available for reading by a general audience in the first place. It was published within the Journal of Popular Film and Television, meaning that someone without a journal subscription would be unable to simply “stumble upon” the essay; it will remain unknown to those who do not specifically seek it out. These features—both positive and negative—are unique to scholarly work and distinguish it from the popular press.

Similarly, writing for the popular press also has unique characteristics, the most prominent of which is its overwhelming accessibility to a wide-reaching audience. Though the Slate article about Iron Chef America was written by a staff critic, it is realistically possible for virtually anyone to publish popular articles. (Stevens) Internet communication and web publishing technologies have nearly eliminated the barriers of entry to publication. No longer is discussion of the media limited to academics writing scholarly papers. Slate’s film critic Dana Stevens alluded to the cultural implications of Iron Chef and Iron Chef America, but it could have just as easily written by someone with no journalistic experience at all. The writing quality may differ, but the discourse of ideas would remain the same. Klein and Warner argue against this openness to authorship, stating that “decades of scholarship are erased by a single, viral essay that is presumed to be the first observation of some ‘new’ phenomenon.” (Klein and Warner) This mistaken crediting of original authorship of ideas within popular discourse is a real effect, but arguably an acceptable tradeoff in exchange for increased access to these ideas. For instance, Klein and Warner admit that academic work is typically “hidden behind pay walls and university libraries,” where few people have access. Especially because media and culture affect everyone—not just academics—accessibility to the relevant cultural and media theories within the popular press is an important endeavor.

The ideal solution, therefore, is one that incorporates features of both scholarly work and the popular press. The two fields are not necessarily as separated as they might seem, and technology such as the Internet makes it possible to erase the barrier between the two. (Bustillos) Online publishing platforms make it simple for anyone with an Internet connection and a keyboard to offer their thoughts to the world, and similarly makes accessible millions of other users’ ideas. Bustillos suggests that the future is in the inclusive, as made possible by the Internet. However, this wide accessibility—a feature of the popular press—can be supplemented by a feature of scholarly work—the use of citations and references. Once again, Internet technology and online publishing platforms make this a trivial task, simple as hyperlinking to related articles and other stories. Finally, the perfect marriage of scholarly work and popular writing will ideally have multiple conclusions that appeal to a wide range of audiences. For instance, an article about Iron Chef could include an academic conclusion such as Gallagher’s reference to theories of cultural imperialism. Yet it could also reference things that are more relevant to a general audience, such as Stevens’ review of Iron Chef America not stacking up to Iron Chef. This is just one possible example, but one aspect remains clear. Scholarly work and the popular press is not as separated as once thought, and it is possible to include the best features of both.

The relation between academic and journalistic work has been contentious and complicated, especially in the field of television studies. Even articles that address the same media text can approach it in vastly different ways, reach vastly different audiences, and make vastly different conclusions. However the advent of new technology such as the Internet has helped bridge the gap between the two. Because culture and media permeate all aspects of life, it is unreasonable to limit discourse to the academics. Scholarly work, the popular press, and a combination of the two all have a unique angle to offer and are worthy of consideration.

 

Works Cited:

Bustillos, Maria. “Profsplaining, Or, The Internet Is a Classroom, Whinypants!” BLARB. N.p., 12 Aug. 2016. Web. 9 Feb. 2017.
Gallagher, Mark. “What’s So Funny About Iron Chef?” Journal of Popular Film and Television 31.4 (2004): 176–84. alliance-primo.com. Web.
Klein, Amanda, and Kristin Warner. “Erasing the Pop-Culture Scholar, One Click at a Time.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. N.p., 6 July 2016. Web. 9 Feb. 2017.
Stevens, Dana. “Asian Fusion.” Slate 23 Apr. 2004. Slate. Web. 9 Feb. 2017.

Wolves in the House

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

The wolves are in the house. And we must get them out. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

There is something happening. Something that people really don’t want to face up to. An ugly truth that we must confront.

The fact is that the United States has elected someone who truly does not care about the rule of law. This is something about Trump that became clear during the primary season, and it is the one thing that really sets him apart from other Republicans. Trump doesn’t even pretend to care about civic virtues. He has never extolled the values of democracy, freedom, law, and the Constitution in general. He has never said anything good about these important American principles because he does not care about them.

And that’s incredibly unusual in American politics. Even the politicians whose ideas I strongly disagree with—such as Ted Cruz or Rand Paul—genuinely care about law and the Constitution. They are fundamental American ideals to refer to. Sure, they can be used as the basis for controversial policies and political strategies, but the simple fact remains that they were present. Think back to Mitt Romney, who was mocked for his pastoral homilies to the virtues of American goodness, and about the blessing that was our law and Constitution. It was funny, but it underscored the fact that Romney at least cared about the rule of law as an idea. Even George Bush cared about it—the White House Counsel’s office would write memos describing that torture was legal. Even though many Americans saw this as appalling, the Bush administration at least acknowledge the importance of the law. If they wanted to do something immoral or controversial, they had to at least justify it in the context of the law. Because the law, the Constitution, and our civic norms are foundational American principles.

Trump is a complete aberration here, and an incredibly dangerous one.

He has waged a war on the free press and media, accusing any unfavorable reporting as “fake news.” He has refused to resolve his countless conflicts of interest. He has issued wide-reaching executive orders that undermine American values. He has brought along with him the neo-nazi Steve Bannon to infiltrate the White House as well. And both have no respect for the office, this nation, or any of its principles.

Law is not something that just happens; It cannot simply run on its own. A legal system can only exist if the people in charge of it actually care about it. Historically, Democracy has successfully fostered a process wherein the people in charge of its institutions have respect for the rule of law. They are bound by it at both an institutional level, but morally as well. However, this doesn’t work if you elect people who simply don’t care. If the people in charge of the police, the military, or the other organs of state power simply do not care about the rule of law, then the rule of law no longer matters. There is nothing a judge or a legislature can do. Many Americans don’t seem to recognize the magnitude of the extraordinary danger that now stares them in the face.

The wolves are in the house. We have had a process set up for centuries that aimed to keep the wolves out. But we let them in. And now we must get them out.