All of the essays in this issue illustrate a strikingly underemphasized aspect of celebrity, both in the present and in the past: its association with sexuality and the projection of a feminized self. My claims about celebrity's gender arise from much more than the fact that all the authors here are writing about female celebrities or those who aspired to join their ranks.1 Over its more than two-hundred-year history in Western societies, celebrity has been consistently paired with stereotypically feminine characteristics, behaviors, and areas of expertise. A particular species of more fleeting fame that emerged in Europe and Britain with the beginnings of democratization in the eighteenth century, celebrity initially referred to a phenomenon concerned more with the now and the new. To be celebrated was to curry the talk of present-day crowds rather than the posthumous representations of historians. “Born at the moment private life became a tradable, public commodity,” writes the historian Stella Tillyard, celebrity's claims to public attention were more “limited and earthbound” than fame's.2 Celebrities offered audiences seeming access to everyday aspects of their personal lives hitherto considered inconsequential and consequently “feminine.” Celebrity trucked in emotions and rumors, drawing upon what Clara Tuite calls the “ambivalent affective charge of scandal,” particularly sexual scandal, to capitalize on so-called immoral qualities in ways unimaginable under premodern conceptions of fame and renown.3 Chris Rojek's admirably concise definition—as the “attribution of glamorous or notorious status to individuals in the public sphere”—captures celebrity's shift from verb to noun and identity by the 1850s, from the experience of being thronged by the crowd to that of becoming a staged self performed through emerging genres and modes of mass communication.4 Like the “personalities” with whom they were virtually interchangeable when both words emerged in French and English in the 1840s, “celebrities” were those whom audiences deemed fascinating, fashionable, creative, magnetic, forceful, or simply stunning to gaze at.5
My claims about the feminization of modern fame are neither original nor well recognized, suggesting that its “feminine face” needs a better press agent.6 And where better to promote this understanding than in Feminist Media Histories? One of the most noteworthy aspects about the emergence of celebrity culture was its production—for the first time—of widely shared stories about “public women” (long a synonym for prostitutes, illustrating men's well-entrenched stranglehold on the stage of public life). This made it a highly visible, accessible site to contest and construct gendered norms. Yet many of the most ambitious, widely cited works on “celebrity” and “fame” ignore the subject of gender.7 Until recently, unease with contemporary celebrity culture has limited historians’ interest in its development over time. And too often film scholars’ otherwise-sophisticated analyses still follow Richard Schickel's “first basic assumption” that “there was no such thing as celebrity prior to the beginning of the twentieth century.”8 Yet celebrity's gender-bending attributes are clearest when assessed in the context of its full developmental arc. Thus a more complete history of celebrity requires not just a historical perspective that addresses questions of gender, representativeness, and change over time, but also better dialogue among scholars working on celebrity in different disciplines. So in what remains of this introduction, I aim to sketch the broad outlines of what we know about celebrity's gender in historical perspective with reference to the existing scholarship. Then I will gesture toward the queer implications that accrue from taking celebrity's gender seriously.
Celebrity's feminine, or dandified, appearance emerged first and foremost through its developmental opposition to its much older consort, fame, and their paterfamilias, renown. Leo Braudy makes this point powerfully—if implicitly, or in footnoted asides—in his magisterial history The Frenzy of Renown (1986), which examines fame as “the shifting definition of achievement in a social world” over two thousand years.9 Since the age of Ulysses, renown accrued to a very few men of noble birth destined by the fates to leave their mark on history. Classical heroes set a model for fame in Western societies that was relentlessly oriented toward achievement in the public, political realm. A hero earned fame for fulfilling the plans of the gods, not personal desires. Renown then demanded sacrifice, leadership, and courage laced with more than a dollop of savagery, marking it as emphatically masculine. “All the Entertainment and talk of History is of nothing almost but Fighting and Killing,” wrote John Locke in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), “and the Honour and Renown, that is bestowed on Conquerors (who for the most part are the great Butchers of Mankind) farther mislead growing Youth, who by this means come to think Slaughter the laudable business of Mankind, the most Heroick of Vertues.”10 Men were the only meaningful audience for these performances. “The trappings of Roman public life were tailored for men, not women,” Braudy notes, “and in the accounts of heroes like Plutarch's Lives women symbolized a private life that only corrodes the male commitment to a world of public heroism.”11 Christianity's influence on ideas about which selves to venerate barely dented the “essentially masculine” nature of “true fame” and its sole equation with “manly virtues,” as Braudy writes in one of two lengthy footnotes devoted to fame's gender.12 By definition, fame excluded anyone associated with feminine virtues or women until Joan of Arc and Elizabeth I appeared on the scene. But I would submit that the arrival of these first two women onto renown's stage—one a Virgin Queen, the other a crusading mystic burned to death for cross-dressing and thus assuming the rights of man—only emphasized in flagrantly sexual and brutal terms the masculine demands of “true fame.”
What Braudy calls the “democratization of fame” during the eighteenth century gave rise to what we call celebrity culture today, which severed public recognition's sole association with a “manly” elite. It was in Britain and France, but foremost in London, that celebrity culture first developed, primarily in opposition to the well-established habits of masculine fame.13 There, cracks in religious and monarchical authority, combined with the growth of a virtually unregulated popular press, created new room for the celebration of a more varied, motley crew drawn from both sexes and all walks of life. “As the court shrank in importance, all kinds of spaces for entertainment proliferated alongside it. It was from the performers and the audiences of these new centres of power—Parliament included—that the stars of celebrity culture” first emerged, Tillyard argues.14 Different approaches to life writing (though still obviously entirely scripted) purported to offer readers information about public figures’ “real” private lives; these stories, in turn, became as integral to their appeal as any public achievement.15 Casually referred to in the press by nicknames or initials, celebrated folks were more ephemeral and infinitely more familiar than the distant, solitary heroes of fame's past.16 London's libelous press, packed playhouses, and popular portrait painters and printmakers swirled an ever-larger cast of characters before the public's eye: aristocrats, soldiers, sea captains, writers, criminals, painters, courtesans, “savages” from the South Seas.17 But leading artists such as Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough learned that their much larger audience particularly liked portraits of thespians, and above all of actresses such as the “Tragic Muse,” Sarah Siddons, who moved comfortably in patrician company and disrupted the previous assumption that all actresses were prostitutes.18 Female celebrities like Siddons were better equipped to perform the emotional intimacy that crowds craved, and also provided an inherent erotic charge when on display. But it is crucial to recall that women also emerged as the critical audience for, and purchasers of, the “pleasures of the imagination” produced by Britain's developing consumer revolution, which was of course worriedly characterized as a feminizing process itself.19 Women's curiosity about the novelty of seeing members of their sex take on new public roles helped to account for female celebrities’ greater prevalence. At the theater and through print culture, celebrity's first two crucibles, they participated in a fashionable sociability that threatened the heretofore-hegemonic influence of all-male clubs.20 Such developments explained the greater interest in glamorous or notorious women until British society took a moralistic turn that initially dampened and then reconfigured celebrity's development between the American Revolution and the end of the Napoleonic Wars.21
This cultural swerve, which acquired the name “Victorianism” by Anglo-Americans much later, helped to account for why Paris—with its increasingly loose censorship regulations—became the new capital of celebrity during the nineteenth century.22 Paris's newly designed wide boulevards housed the first department stores, haute-couture design houses, bohemians, and “racy” theatrical fare that set the fashions others followed.23 A Romantic spirit that prized the expression of a “natural,” true self as well as the dramatic expansion of newspaper and magazine publishing and the invention of photography at midcentury all propelled celebrity from an action to an individual identity whose power depended upon constantly blurring the difference between publicity and intimacy.24 Celebrities were those anointed on Parisian stages, boulevards, and magazine covers to create and freely express the forceful, inner feelings now understood as constituting the self, but which so much of modern culture counseled the respectable to hide.25 As had been the case in London, females were more numerous, and more passionately attended to, than males in French celebrity culture. Most often aimed at the bourgeois classes, as Lenard Berlanstein first demonstrated, celebrity's historical development in both cities had a broad, cross-class appeal from the start.26
These fans supported the success of the century's most famous woman next to Queen Victoria: the actress Sarah Bernhardt, who staged her theatrical performances and scandalous “private” life with equal success.27 Mary Louise Roberts speculates that Bernhardt's career likely dragged the English usage of “star,” first defined as an actress who could single-handedly fill a playhouse in 1824, into the French language (étoile) during the 1870s.28 Roberts argues that French female celebrities adopted the newish identity of “eccentric”—Bernhardt lived with an alligator, slept in a coffin, and conducted numerous high-profile love affairs—as a strategy to evade established gender norms even as their behavior reinforced them for “normal” women. But by the 1870s, the publicity-savvy Bernhardt would have also been well aware of celebrity culture's interest not just in scandal, but also in narratives about the exploits of Romantic artists who demolished the boundaries of respectability established by the bourgeoisie. Jerrold Seigel's argument about the social significance of bohemia's celebrated residents—who emerged on the scene at the same moment of celebrity's proliferation as an identity—partially applies here. According to Seigel, the bohemian Latin Quarter, which quickly became the city's most notorious and publicized place, arose as a space to express frustration over the failed promise of capitalist democracies to create a society based on fraternity, equality, and individual freedom rather than social atomization, egotism, and class divisions. “People were or were not bohemian,” Seigel asserts, “to the degree that their lives dramatized these tensions and conflicts for themselves, making them visible, demanding they be faced.”29 Bohemia housed the archetypical modern celebrity artist—freed or bereft of patrons, depending on one's view, and forced to the market—whose success represented the triumph of talent over circumstance that bourgeois society valorized. Independent-minded women such as Bernhardt and the painter Rosa Bonheur, both scandalous cross-dressers, would clearly have felt these limitations and tensions even more acutely. They also likely imagined that to seize the title of “artist” would help to stage their unconventionality like men.
In the new century, the full potential of the visual to exploit and expose what Christine Gledhill calls the “mystery of personhood” at the heart of celebrity drove its next capital to the United States, where the production of celebrity accelerated at an astonishing pace.30 By World War I, the international dominance of the American economy in general—and its film industry in particular—decisively shifted the hub of celebrity's exportation to the New World for the first time. Many of the most influential scholarly and popular historical works about this process emphasize celebrity's role in fostering views of the self that legitimated the dominance of consumer culture, or the “culture of abundance,” to use Warren Susman's more lyrical, and seemingly more neutral, phrase. Susman characterized the nineteenth century as a producer-oriented society in which the condition of scarcity created a “culture of character” that most valued individuals associated with (presumably) hard “work,” good “morals,” and “above all, manhood.”31 The twentieth century's condition of material abundance instead created a “culture of personality” that prized “fascinating,” “attractive,” and “creative” individuals who resembled “performers” capable of simultaneously distinguishing themselves from, and appealing to, mass society's crowds, thus encouraging them to consume its products.32 And he (quite erroneously, as should be clear by now) argued that the invention of “a new profession”—that of celebrity, rather than simply actor—by the twentieth century's dominant cultural medium of film evidenced his claim. “Henceforth,” Susman wrote, quoting the film historian Richard Schickel on the emergence of the star system during the 1910s, “a screen player was to be marketed for her admirers as a personality, an image and, to an increasingly sinister extent, an object.”33 And, indeed, much like the first celebrated folk in eighteenth-century London, it is now widely recognized that most of the first film stars were young women known simply by their first names. Yet while a female pronoun represented the incipiently objectified movie star, Susman followed Schickel's lead in treating the actor Douglas Fairbanks Sr. as the preeminent “symbol” and “agent” in the film industry's new celebrity culture.34
Susman and Schickel should have taken their female pronoun more seriously, for while celebrity was not new, the degree to which the movie industry incorporated and advertised women's unusual work roles was entirely original. Since the new film industry drew heavily on former thespians, to some extent the theatrical tradition of “doubling in the brass” helped to explain women's access to work that offered them unconventional types of public authority, as Karen Ward Mahar explored.35 A practice that dated to the all-male minstrel shows of the antebellum era, doubling in the brass signaled the expectation that all members of a stock company perform roles that cross conventional gender boundaries, including playing both sexes onstage and performing tasks typically reserved for the opposite sex off of it. The film industry's rigorous opposition to unions (which also rigorously excluded women) also facilitated this development, as well as promotions of new studios in Los Angeles such as Universal—where eleven women directed more than 170 films between 1912 and 1919—as spaces that encouraged gender play.36 “Linking work and play,” writes Mark Garrett Cooper, “the corporate mythos of Universal City valued women who publicly played authoritative parts.”37 Such women spoke to the fantasies of the increasingly female audience of “movie-struck girls” whose interest fueled the development of the star system, as Shelley Stamp has most fully explored.38 In short, it is necessary to take seriously how the rise of the so-called culture of consumption spoke to women's hunger to see themselves and their stories represented to the world. “Pictures come not with slavery and oppression but with liberty, fair play, leisure and refinement,” wrote the great African American feminist abolitionist activist Frederick Douglass after seeing the portrait of the first black senator, Hiram Rhodes Revels.39
All of which explains why Mary Pickford—the actress, producer, and writer whom Fairbanks married in 1920—would have been a better choice to explore the symbolic attraction of the new film industry's celebrities.40 While Fairbanks fails to warrant an entry in the index of Richard deCordova's seminal and still widely cited history of the creation of the movies’ star system, Pickford earns its longest one; deCordova also makes a passing reference to her “uncontested” status as “the most popular motion picture star in the world,” male or female.41 Moreover, he implicitly demonstrates that Pickford's sex made her a more representative choice when noting that the press coverage that turned motion pictures’ anonymous performers into named players initially singled out actresses for attention. Actresses also provide most of the examples when he argues that the celebrity discourse that created the first movie stars quickly figured “secret” information about their “private lives” as its “primary focus” and “the site of knowledge and truth.”42 While this press coverage mostly centered on their domestic lives—their fabulous homes, how they played, and with whom—he notes that “frequent comments by the stars on the [women's] suffrage movement” were far and away the most “explicitly political” aspect of their identities.43 Yet he considers the implications of this statement only in a footnote on the “Popular Player Contests” that proliferated in movie fan magazines, where he “wonders what the relation was between voting in these contests and the suffrage movement that was underway at this time.”44 Indeed, one could argue that the real secret hidden in deCordorva's history was the early star system's obsessive interest in female celebrities who dramatized their era's turbulent sexual politics.
A generation of feminist analysis on the silent film industry has spoiled the secret. Following the path first laid down by Anthony Slide, major studies as well as a comprehensive online database have established women's pioneering roles not just in American silent film, but in film industries around the world.45 My own book built upon much of this work to argue that, like no other industry of its day, the fan culture surrounding the early American film industry advertised the exploits of its women workers in ways that contributed to Los Angeles's settlement and the era's feminist discourse by depicting it as a bohemian frontier in which the girls were equal players with the boys.46 This process created the female celebrities who provided the spark that helped to ignite the industry's transformation into “Hollywood” after World War I while contributing to many of the censorship problems it faced at this same moment. Yet, as Stamp has recently argued, much of this research exists on a “parallel track,” since “major surveys of U.S. film history omit or marginalize the contributions of women at all levels of the early industry and recent anthologies on silent cinema devote scant attention to women engaged in any capacity with early film culture.”47
A similar dynamic exists in much of the historiography on modern fame, as I have indicated, as well in the history of modern feminism. Resistance remains to incorporating the mounting pile of scholarship demonstrating how female celebrities and fans in general, and “the assertive self-spectacle” of actresses in particular, made them into “agents and metaphors of changing gender relations” by slipping a proto-feminist sensibility into mainstream cultural discourse, as Susan Glenn argues.48 Some of this can be explained by the understandable desire on the part of the first generation of feminist historians to emphasize the actions of women whose accomplishments in the political realm lived up to traditional standards of achievement. Meanwhile, as Jane Gaines recently argued, early feminist film historians’ equally pertinent interest in critiquing the patriarchal structures of the contemporary film industry helped to blind them to the many real women who worked in the early American film industry.49 But the argument for feminism's relationship to celebrity still sports an illustrious source: Simone de Beauvoir's ex-post-facto feminist manifesto, The Second Sex (1949), whose concluding chapter, “The Independent Woman,” declared the actress to be the “one category” of woman who pointed the way “toward liberation” of the sex. According to Beauvoir, several factors accounted for the singular role of actresses, including religious censure, relative financial independence, “a taste for adventure” that equaled men's, and a unique status derived from working with men on equal footing while still enjoying recognition for their attractiveness as women. Together these forces explained the actress's identity as “the virile woman” whose independence supported other pleasures: “Their professional success—like those of men—contribute to their sexual valuation,” but by “making their own living and finding the meaning of their lives in their work, [actresses] escape the yoke of men,” allowing them “to transcend their given characteristics” as the second sex.50
Celebrity culture's interest in the scandalous, the “immoral,” the personal, and in depicting an individual self as possessing what the theater historian Joseph Roach calls the “unresolved copresence of mutually exclusive attributes—strength and vulnerability, innocence and experience, singularity and typicality,” and, we must add, masculinity and femininity—has encouraged the public to consume not just things, but images and stories that have helped to erode once-stable gender norms.51 The challenge of representing “public women” as more than simply agents of moral corruption likely drove this split. Promoting public women demanded different, more complicated representational strategies than those used to publicize great men. New rituals of celebrity that offered audiences access to these female figures’ private, hidden selves stressed how often “great” women's natures accommodated qualities and characteristics of both sexes. And, again, Mary Pickford's persona provides the best example from the early American film industry. Pickford was “America's Sweetheart,” a romantic, spirited ingenue who politely called for women's rights, and “Bank of America's Sweetheart,” a skilled businessperson who became the highest-paid woman in the world. Thus her persona projected two images: one a perennial youth involved in a perpetual process of self-definition, the other a trailblazing professional engaged with achieving a stature still mostly reserved for the “daddy of the family,” in the words of her early publicity.52 This tendency has meant that over more than two centuries, celebrity culture has served to destroy “woman” and “man” as unitary, universal signs and to provide the most continuous and accessible discussion of women's entrance into, and relationship with, the public sphere.
A question remains: Why has it been so difficult to recognize and to foreground gender's centrality to the creation of celebrity and vice versa? There are several answers to this question, including its ingrained association with a consumerist mindset long equated with the degradation of the public sphere and the related tendency to focus only on the undeniably negative and objectifying aspects of this process. But here I would like to conclude by emphasizing a very different explanation: discomfort over celebrity's gender-bending qualities, which risk making even the most “manly”-seeming public figure's behavior (or intellectual interests) appear, well, queer. “Men effeminized like women; and women assuming the masculine deportment of the other sex; all eagerly pursuing the popular phantom NOTORIETY!” was how the eighteenth-century actress Mary Robinson described the dynamic involved in celebrity's creation.53 Celebrity culture coincided with the rise of not just new kinds of public women, but also of novel, nonnormative male public figures, from Lord Byron to Oscar Wilde to Charlie Chaplin to Rudolph Valentino to Cab Calloway. “A man should control his life. Mine is controlling me. I don't like it,” was Valentino's lament over how his celebrity forced him into a conventionally feminine role.54 It is easy to sympathize with Valentino's discomfort over the chasm that celebrities experience between their internal selves and the external selves that others imagine for them. Yet it is also possible to understand, I hope, how uniquely liberating celebrity's queering of public achievement would have been for all those individuals whose sex, race, or sexual proclivities had long prevented them from embodying the stable, “manly,” male identity demanded by both classical models of fame and Susman's culture of character. Queer celebrity has also no doubt resulted in the ability of audiences to connect to, and possibly even empathize with, a much wider circle of individuals, since its logic encourages fans’ attraction to difference as much as sameness, as Jackie Stacey has shown.55 It has resulted in the promotion of a different set of values—which include the privileging of emotional intimacy over distance, play over work, leisure over violent conquest, eccentricity over normality—that have served to disrupt as much as to support the logic and discipline of corporate capitalism in a manner that resembles what Jack Halberstam calls the “queer art of failure.”56 So, rather than bemoan the rise of celebrity, I say let's have a party and invite all our favorite oddballs to attend.