Critically evaluate the proposition that ascribed celebrity has been replaced by achieved celebrity in the west
Chris Rojek introduces the distinction between ascribed and achieved celebrity, (Rojek, 2001). I will first outline his distinction in relation to contemporary examples, considering how it is complicated by further sub-divisions such as attributed celebrity and the rise of the celetoid. I will then evaluate the proposition that ascribed celebrity has been replaced by achieved celebrity in the west by drawing on other theorists such as Marshall, Gamson and Dyer, focusing on close-readings of contemporary media representations of celebrity and their relation to broader ideological discourses of power and the self. My hypothesis is that ascribed celebrity has been subsumed under the broader category of achieved celebrity, producing further hybrid concepts necessary to understand the constantly shifting discourses surrounding mediatised celebrity culture.
According to Rojek, “celebrity status comes in three forms: ascribed, achieved and attributed” (Rojek, 2001, p.17). He defines ascribed celebrity as “predetermined” (Rojek, 2001, p.17), meaning that someone is born a celebrity without having to actually do anything. Here he gives the example of Prince William, but the definition could equally apply to any member of the royal family, Prince Harry say, as he is born into a pre-assigned celebrity status by virtue of his royal lineage. Rojek elaborates:
Individuals may add to or subtract from their ascribed status by virtue of their voluntary actions, but the foundation of their ascribed celebrity is predetermined. (Rojek, 2001, p.17)
In other words, no matter what Prince Harry or Prince William do to attempt to minimize or maximize their celebrity status, they remain an ascribed celebrity, whether they like it or not. This contrast with his next category – achieved celebrity:
Achieved celebrity derives from the perceived accomplishments of the individual in open competition…In the public realm they are recognized as individuals who possess rare talents and skills. (Rojek, 2001, p.18)
Examples here could include Wayne Rooney, Stephen Spielberg, Penelope Cruz or Tracey Emin, who are all seen to have achieved celebrity status through being outstanding in their respective fields. Rojek, however, complicates this category by suggesting that:
Achieved celebrity is not exclusively a matter of special talent or skill. In some cases it is largely the result of the concentrated representation of an individual as noteworthy or exceptional by cultural intermediaries. When this is so, it is attributed celebrity. (Rojek, 2001, p.18)
In other words, attributed celebrity is largely produced through media representation rather than necessarily through (although possibly related to) talents of the individual. Rojek goes on to introduce a further term – celetoid, to refer to “a media-generated, compressed, concentrated form of attributed celebrity” (Rojek, 2001, p.18). This would include celebrities who appear momentarily and then vanish from the public eye, “lottery winners, one-hit wonders, stalkers” (Rojek, 2001, p.18). A contemporary example could be Alfie Patten, the young, and even younger looking, father who momentarily leapt to the front of the tabloids (and the broadsheets) as a rich visually striking personification relating to discourses of teenage pregnancy, youth irresponsibility, Government failures or ‘Broken Britain’, depending which representations you focus on. The Sun chooses to quote David Cameron on how the whole episode is symptomatic of problems in Britain (Hagan, 2009). The Guardian on the other hand focuses on ways the young family could be helped (Lemos, 2009). One imagines however, that Alfie will just as quickly vanish from the public eye as the media seek new scoops and sensations. As Graeme Turner has pointed out, “celebrity has considerable explanatory power in a time of great complexity and contradiction” (Turner et al., 2000, p.166), and it is the attributed nature of Alfie’s celetoid fame that allows his image to be mobilized in relation to these broader social discourses.
It becomes clear then that, according to Rojek’s definitions, achieved celebrity is a far broader and more complex category than ascribed celebrity. In a contemporary media-saturated context, achieved celebrity seems almost all-encompassing, allowing, with its various sub-divisions, to include not only celebrities who achieve fame purely by being good at something, but also celebrities whose image is partly or entirely media constructed. Many theorists have focused on the increase of media-generated achieved/attributed celebrity in the west, and its relation to issues such as individualism, subjectivity and power. P. David Marshall for example argues that:
Celebrity represents an intensifying and proliferating discourse over the course of the twentieth century, one that not only populates entertainment magazines, but is also an essential component of the production of newspapers, news-magazines, web based news sites and blogs, television news and entertainment channels…[and] is very much a component of contemporary politics. (Marshall, 2006, p.4)
As Marshall here suggests, the discourse of ascribed celebrity is ubiquitous across contemporary western culture. Such ubiquity can also be seen in the attitudes of people living in this society, “Most pre-school children want to be a celebrity when they are older according to a survey out today” (TES 2006, cited at www.educationpages.net). This ‘ready-availability’ of celebrity, disconnected from any notion of achievement, can be read as part of a broader discourse of ‘can-do’ ideology – i.e. the suggestion that you can do and be whatever you want, regardless of barriers such as social background or lack of talent. This is a direct contrast not only with the ‘born-into’ fame of ascribed celebrity, but also with the hard-fought fame of achieved celebrity, suggesting attributed celebrity as a dominant mode in contemporary culture. Celebrity, in this sense, is simultaneously something glamorous and distant and something normalised as a desirable career choice, “I never felt ‘normal’ until I became a celebrity” (Angelyne, cited in Gamson, 1994, p.1).
Marshall goes on to suggest that the reason for such proliferation of celebrity discourse is the relation it bears to the production and maintenance of fictions of the self as individual, “the audience continues to interpret the meaning of celebrity in a grand narrative on the dimensions of individuality and identity in contemporary culture where comparisons between the self and the celebrity are constantly made, and cultural norms are supported, altered or dismantled” (Marshall, 2006, pp.3-4). This shows the relation of celebrity to producing and policing boundaries of the self, “our [media] machinery only multiplies and enlarges the shadows of ourselves . . . We mark the boundaries of our world with a wall of mirrors” (Boorstin, 1961, p.84, p.256). Although this could apply equally to both ascribed and achieved/attributed celebrity, really it is the increased power of the media over representations of attributed celebrity that suggests a reason for their replacement of ascribed celebrity. The sense of ‘realism’ and ‘authenticity’ vital for contemporary celebrity ideology is lacking in the definitions of ascribed celebrity. As Marshall argues, the media provide a “reality-effect” which is “alluring, if not intoxicating for an audience” (Marshall, 2006, p.3). Celebrity magazines for example produce images of celebrity as ‘real’, as well as, paradoxically, exaggerated and distant, in order to allow for reader identifications. Victoria Beckham, for example, is “too anxious to eat or sleep” (Barnett, 2009, p.12), problems readers could easily identify with. Magazines are equally as quick to unmask slips in star’s ‘realism’. Describing Jordan and Peter Andre for example, Tracey Cox suggests that they are just performing for the cameras, something which readers must imagine does not happen (even though they presumably know it does) to avoid the reality effect collapsing, “Katie’s body language is so fake, it’s almost a farce. We usually close our eyes during a kiss…This is a kiss of duty for the cameras” (Cox, 2009, p.8) This highly policed form of realism combines with achieved/attributed celebrities’ ‘self-made’ fame to create the ‘it could be you’ effect vital for the celebrity industry and its relation to producing and managing consumer desire.
The category of ascribed celebrity, on the other hand, seems almost redundant today. Outside of royalty, it is hard to think of examples of celebrities who are simply born into fame. The only highly media-visible examples are the offspring of already achieved celebrities – Peaches and Pixie Geldof or Lourdes Ciccone for example, ascribed only through connection to achievement or attribution, producing an interesting hybrid category to disrupt Rojek’s distinctions. Rojek has argued that, “as modern society developed, celebrities have filled the absence created by the decay in the popular belief of the divine right of kings, and the death of God” (Rojek, 2001, p.13). Rather than the monarchical lineage suggested by definitions of ascribed celebrity, celebrity culture has become a vital part of the legitimizing ideologies of capitalism – celebrities are ‘real’, you can be a celebrity, you just have to buy into the right image, “celebrities humanize the process of commodity consumption” (Rojek, 2001, p.13). It also seems to be the case that achieved / attributed celebrities can do this a lot better, or in a more ‘realistic’ way, than ascribed celebrities.
A further analysis of contemporary celebrity magazines suggest two interesting points in relation to the decline of ascribed celebrity. One is the shift in definitions of posh. While posh used to refer to the upper-class values and attitudes, which would shape ascribed celebrities, it now refers to the aspirational nouveau-riche lifestyle of contemporary attributed celebrities eptiomised by Posh (formerly Posh Spice), “Posh is said to be drinking lemon tea…Posh may have had injectible fillers to plump up her face. No-one likes the gaunt look” (Barnett, 2009, p.13). The other point is the treatment of the few remaining celebrities who could still be described as ascribed. Princes Harry and William are described with a kind of awe, which contrasts with the constant critical bringing down to Earth of other celebrities:
Meeting the Princes was amazing. We were in a private room full of celebrities like Tom Jones and Joss Stone. I met Joss years ago…I said hello. [But when I met the princes], I didn’t have time to work out whether to bow or curtsey.
(Lumsden, 2009, p.47)
Here, an achieved celebrity (Connie Fisher) is underwhelmed by other achieved celebrities (Tom Jones and Joss Stone) yet completely overwhelmed by meeting some ascribed celebrities (the Princes). This suggests that while celebrity culture is almost entirely subsumed under the paradoxical authenticity and distance of its achieved/attributed celebrity, there still exists a hierarchical respect for ascribed celebrity, who are dealt with differently in the media.
To conclude, notions of celebrity are constantly shifting in relation to broader discourses of individuality, subjectivity, politics, consumerism and power. I would argue that achieved celebrity, and in particular its sub-category of attributed celebrity is the dominant mode in the West and has almost completely replaced notions of ascribed celebrity. This can be seen as part of the way celebrity culture has been used to legitimate concepts of self-improvement, regardless of social barriers, and the way it is mobilized to increase and direct consumer desire. Marshall argues:
Celebrities articulate individuality and identity. Individuality marks one of the key components in the structure of consumer culture as well as the aspirational qualities of democratic culture. Celebrities are hyper versions that express the potentials and possibilities of the individual under the rubrics of capitalist democracy
(Marshall 2006, p. 4)
Counter to this, Dyer proposes the potential subversive role of stars:
Certain stars, far from managing contradictions, either expose them or embody an alternative or oppositional ideological position to dominant ideology (often contradictory itself). The ‘subversiveness’ of these stars can be seen in terms of ‘radical intervention’ (not necessarily conscious) on the part of themselves or others who have used the potential meaning of their image. (Dyer, 2006, p.153)
The ascribed celebrity fits neither into the aspirational model, nor into the subversive model and so is left behind, replaced by a model of the achieved/attributed celebrity. The category remains however in a nostalgised form, mobilized as an untouchable image, which is drawn on in definitions of the more complex and paradoxical touchable/untouchable celebrity image dominant in the West today.
Barnett, L. (2009) ‘Skeletal Posh survives on one meal a day’, Closer, 28th Feb – 6th March 2009
Boorstin, D. (1961) The Image. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson
Cox, T. (2009) ‘They’re faking it!’, Closer, 28th Feb – 6th March
Dyer, R. (2006) ‘Stars as Images’ in P.D. Marshall Ed. The Celebrity Culture Reader. New York and London: Routledge
Gamson, J. (1994) Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hagan, L. (2009) ‘Baby-faced boy Alfie Patten is father at 13’
http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/article2233878.ece, accessed 28th Feb. 2009
Lemos, G. (2009) ‘How to help young parents’ http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/joepublic/2009/feb/18/teenage-parents, accessed 28th Feb. 2009
Lumsden, L. (2009) ‘I’ve got a crush on Prince Harry’, Closer, 28th Feb – 6th March
Marshall, P.D. (2006) ‘Introduction’, in P.D. Marshall Ed. The Celebrity Culture Reader. New York and London: Routledge
Rojek, C. (2001) Celebrity. London: Reaktion Books
TES (2006), Times Educational Supplement, 2nd Nov 2006, cited at http://www.educationpages.net/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=36411&mode=thread&order=0&thold=0, accessed 28th Feb 2009
Turner, G., Bonner F.J and Marshall P.D. (2000) Fame Games. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press
Turner, G. (2004) Understanding Celebrity London: Sage