Shortly after I started the PhD program in the School of Cinema-TV at the University of Southern California in 1984, Critical Studies program chair Beverle Houston asked me to create a bibliography of the most significant work in feminist film theory for an industry event at which she was speaking on the image of women in film. Since she anticipated audience boredom or dismissal, the list could be no longer than one page—a constraint that I then found doable, but now find both amusing and touching. (Beverle died, too young, in 1988.)
My reflection is not offered as mere nostalgia, nor is it only a preemptive apology for omitting here, because of word count, worthy scholarly work. Instead, it is to acknowledge the subsequent explosion of feminist work in media studies and suggest that one step in writing a genealogy of the interaction of feminism and the subfield of “star studies” involves reflecting on the start of that critical encounter. At this moment, feminist theories of media stardom consider stars as discursive constructs (though perhaps not only as such). But, in commitment to a genealogical perspective on feminism's influence over the subfield of star studies—one that accepts the political validity of nonlinearity and pays attention to gaps, hauntings, and theoretical roads not taken—what follows is a view of mediated, contingent, and convoluted theoretical paths whose convergence manifests the complexity of this “now” of feminist star studies.
Simone de Beauvoir, in her 1959 essay “Brigitte Bardot and the Lolita Syndrome,” claims that Bardot's controversial image is of a woman who “does as she pleases.” The “she” in de Beauvoir's thesis is not the “real BB” or the characters she plays, but “an imaginary creature” seen on the screen “through a tremendous cloud of ballyhoo.”1 De Beauvoir, eschewing approaches of her predecessors (the photogenie-inspired approach of Roland Barthes in “The Face of Garbo”  and the sociological approach of Edgar Morin in Les Stars ), offered a feminist analysis of star as discursive construct.2 Thirteen years later, in “Marilyn Monroe: The Woman Who Died Too Soon,” Gloria Steinem offered a personal response to Monroe from her perspective as viewer and feminist journalist.3 At times her commentary blurs the lines between Monroe's characters and Monroe as actress, but it recognizes that what Monroe's constructed persona and “real life” shared were the pressures of patriarchal assumptions about women that rob them of authority.
While these early second wave feminist approaches were widely read, early feminist film and media theories most influential in academic scholarship, and in bibliographies like mine, were not primarily focused on stardom, even as significant points in their arguments hinged on slippages between character and actor. Consider this statement in 1974 from Molly Haskell's From Reverence to Rape: “Whatever the endings that were forced on Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn, Margaret Sullavan, or Rosalind Russell, the images we retain of them are not those of subjugation or humiliation; rather … we retain images of intelligence and personal style and forcefulness.”4 The next year, Claire Johnston claimed that Hollywood cinema constructs, in its characters and narratives, a binary of male/non-male, and that the popularity of stars such as Marlene Dietrich and Mae West is evidence that phallocentrism is a collective fantasy.5 The slippage between Dietrich as character and Dietrich as star/performer is most provocative in Laura Mulvey's 1975 “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”: while Josef von Sternberg's directorial choices created the conditions for constructing and fetishizing Dietrich's characters as images of “woman,” the spectator has access to “direct erotic rapport” with Dietrich.6
Rather than registering the influences of de Beauvoir and Steinem, academic feminist star studies in the 1970s and 1980s entered into dialogue with feminist debates within film studies, such as those on auteurs, semiotics, ideology, psychoanalysis, spectatorship, and the cinematic apparatus as aligned with masculine psychic mechanisms. Gaylyn Studlar's In the Realm of Pleasure (1988) directly confronts psychoanalytic theories to investigate Dietrich as “a signifying star image” that offers many pleasures to her diverse fan base (male, female, straight, gay).7
The title of Jackie Stacey's Star Gazing (1994) reveals a continuing need to conjoin feminist considerations of spectatorship with emerging ideas about stardom.8 Stacey's influential work expanded theoretical paradigms of feminine power and identity categories (class, race, sexuality, generation) intersecting in both stars and spectators, even as her historical approach productively limited the scope of what could be claimed about them. Stacey's study represented a turn toward Richard Dyer's work more than toward feminist theories of narrative and visual codes. Dyer questioned aspects of Mulvey's model and recuperated aspects of Haskell's, approaching stars as discursively constructed personas known via performance, film vehicles, and publicity.9 His historically informed attention to contradictions in star images grounded star personas as “structured polysemies” decipherable as models of “selfhood” in modern capitalist patriarchy, illuminating and modeling feminist and queer readings of star signs and spectator-fan pleasures.
Most feminist star studies since this have addressed questions of the authority/authorship and power of the gendered and sexed subject, whether the subject/subjectivity in question is solidified or fluid, whether it is that of star/performer/laborer or spectator/audience/fan. Andrea Weiss argues that the complex, contradictory aspects of certain female stars’ images were appropriated by women in the growing lesbian subculture of the 1930s.10 Adrienne McLean positions Rita Hayworth in the history of working women to explore image and agency via talent, aspiration, craft, and professionalism.11 Amelie Hastie argues that stars anticipated/authorized their own places in media histories in practices of collecting/recollecting/history writing.12 Ramona Curry and Pamela Robertson Wojcik explore for feminist readings not only Mae West's sexually transgressive persona and her transmutable stardom across multiple temporal and media appearances, but also her authorial control over performance material and style.13 Emily Carman complicates our histories of studio-era female stardom and creative autonomy by archiving stars’ achievements and struggles through employment contract files.14
Feminist studies that examine gendered stardom in relation to ethnicity, race, or nationality have been attentive to the power of the female star persona's assimilation or resistance to the projects of nationhood or racialized, patriarchal hegemonic politics. Mia Mask employs the category of the diva and theories of charisma to analyze the power projected by Black female stars from segregation in America to the present day.15 Patricia White and Miriam Petty highlight the margins of studio-era stardom, examining the supporting player, and making visible those socially, narratively, and industrially positioned in subordination to white patriarchy.16 Anne Anlin Cheng examines Anna May Wong and Josephine Baker to reconceive notions of racialized corporeality, arguing that their skins (in the context of performance, costume, and light) don't signify authenticity, but instead offer a “sheath” that troubles the separation between subjecthood and objecthood.17 Celine Parreñas Shimizu and Yiman Wang also reject a “racial authenticity” approach to analyzing Wong; they read her star sign against her self-presentation in publicity and performances (what Wang calls “yellow yellowface”).18
It should be apparent by now that the genealogy I offer is decidedly focused on film stars. Outside of film-specific scholarship, contemporary studies tend to be subsumed within the adjacent, larger subfield of “celebrity studies,” which responds to the ubiquity of not only “fame” and “celebrity” as globalized social values, but also converged and networked screen technologies and a proliferation of media formats through which celebrity may become constructed and consumed. When I was writing Recycled Stars (2015), I found that while scholarship on television stardom was sufficient in quantity, work from feminist and historical perspectives was surprisingly sparse.19 Scholarship (including my own) on the star persona of Lucille Ball was an exception, as was scholarship on female film stars entering American television in the 1950s.20 I addressed the media specificity of television as a historical apparatus using feminist theorist Rosi Braidotti's idea of the “social imaginary” to examine television's function in facilitating relations between interior fantasies and the social realm.21
Much recent feminist work on celebrity is focused on fame constructed through “reality” programming and social media. Given the popularity of these genres and platforms, this critical attention seems appropriate, as does framing this work within the terms of neoliberal governance and an allied postfeminist sensibility in which individual self-development displaces feminism's project of communal political empowerment. My genealogy suggests that one value of feminist star studies is in its history of resistance to theoretical models that respond to social and cultural fields as if they were monolithic. Despite the social power of the disciplinary frameworks of neoliberalism and postfeminism, continuing feminist analysis and praxis are testaments to the insufficiency of these frameworks to fully co-opt consciousness and action, or to fully account for the contradictory and historical project of the self that stardom seems to represent for us.