Perfomativity and Gender in Contemporary Celebrity Magazine Readership – 6000 word Media Dissertation

Performativity and Gender in Contemporary Celebrity Magazine Readership


Main Research Question:


Do theories of performativity offer the potential to challenge normative images of femininity in contemporary celebrity magazines?


Sub Research Questions:


What is the relation between representations of celebrity and discourses of personal identity and capitalist power relations?


How, specifically, are normative images of femininity produced and maintained in celebrity magazines (semiotically and emotionally) ?


Do readers have any agency in the reading of images in celebrity magazines?


Apart from ‘reading’, what other modes of identification are at play in the consumption of text and images?


Could magazines be read in such a way as to challenge these dominant norms? What kind of theoretical work would need to be done in order to make sense of this?


What is performativity and is it relevant in this context?


How do women, actually, use these images and texts in relation to their everyday performance of gender?


What is the relation of this primary research (how the magazines work and how women use them) to my secondary research (theories of celebrity culture, gender and performativity)?



Aims and Objectives


To understand how theories of performativity could relate to the discourse of celebrity culture.


To test how this relation could provide a potential mode of challenging normative images of femininity in celebrity magazines.


To propose a framework for reading the significations of celebrity magazines in relation to everyday performance.


To critically engage with a range of secondary literature within the field of celebrity culture.


To provide effective primary research to back up my argument.




Many theorists have written about the cultural significance of representations of celebrity, Graeme Turner for example defines the celebrity as:


A key site of media attention and personal aspiration, as well as one of the key places where cultural meanings are negotiated and organized. (Turner 2004: 6)


This reading of the celebrity as a ‘site’ is important. Although of course the celebrity may be a real person, as soon as they enter the media discourse as a represented image, they come to occupy an important symbolic function, in relation to issues such as personal identity and community. One such aspect is gender, and magazine images of the gendered celebrity body, and the female body in particular, are a vital part of celebrity culture, and capitalist culture in general. Turner’s quote here is key. He proposes the celebrity on one hand as the site of organization of cultural meaning – representations of celebrity may be used for example as part of the ideology of what is a ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ body. On the other hand, he also proposes it as a site of negotiation, suggesting that, while these dominant images may be consumed, there is also potential for them to be challenged. I will examine this opposition first of all in relation to my secondary research. By drawing on various writers, I will examine how the relation between reader and celebrity has been formulated in different ways to allow for varying degrees of agency. On one hand, it could be argued that readers are passive consumers of celebrity imagery. On the other hand, perhaps they could read images in such a way as to challenge them. In order to address these questions, I will first look at how the discourse of celebrity in general has been defined by writers such as Turner, Chris Rojek and P. David Marshall. I am interested in researching what effect celebrity images have, in terms of how readers may identify (or not identify) with normative gender roles proposed by celebrity magazines. Secondly, I am interested in how they might play out, perform or challenge the identifications that these bodies offer. Drawing on the work of linguists such as J.L.Austin, as well as work by Derrida, Judith Butler has proposed theories of performativity as a way of explaining how we play out gender roles through the act of performance itself. I will research into this in order to explore my key problematic of whether readers have any active power in challenging the normativity of images in celebrity magazines, or whether they passively and unconsciously play them out with no agency or awareness. Performativity in this context can be understood as how people play out gender roles through their everyday relations and activities. I will investigate it both theoretically and in relation to analysis of evidence.


In order to explore this problem, I will focus my primary research on a range of contemporary celebrity gossip magazines such as Heat, Closer and Now. I find these magazines appropriate as they are so widely read, According to the latest available figures, Heat sold 450,644 copies last year. (Press 2009), making it far higher selling than more traditional Women’s magazines such as Cosmopolitan (388,023) or Marie Claire (269,674). This suggests that magazines focusing specifically on celebrity have a wider impact and so are important to the contemporary discourse of celebrity and production of normative images of femininity.  In terms of primary research, I will, firstly, employ strategies of detailed close reading of my chosen magazines. This will include focusing on the language of articles as well as semiotics and affective impact of images. Secondly, I will conduct research into sample groups of females. In order for my research to be practical, it makes sense to interview groups who are the most common readers of such magazines, so my research will focus on younger females from ages 17 – 25 and older females from ages 26-35 to allow for a variety of data. I will ask questions relating to their response to the magazines in relation to issues of the performance of femininity. I will then analyse and refer to this in the next stage of my research. I intend to combine qualitative methods of research such as semi-structured interviews with quantitative data collection. This will allow me to analyse larger sets of data (from the quantitative work), and also more in depth and complex responses (from the quantitative work).


My secondary research, as I have mentioned, will focus on theories of performativity as well as research into celebrity theory. I will relate this research closely to my primary research on the interviews and magazines, looking at points where they might help to explain my data, or points where the data conflicts and challenges the theories. Finally, I will relate all of my research to the broader contexts of celebrity culture, considering how the performance of gender is a vital part of celebrity discourse, and drawing any possible conclusions. I have an academic interest in the subject as I have read much on celebrity and found it an interesting way to start making sense of complex relationships at play in seemingly everyday processes of magazine readership, and the increasing saturation of celebrity culture. Personally however, my interest is also in searching for a potential way to take research in a new direction, and this is what I hope to achieve with a focus on elements of performativity.



Literature Review


I will focus the first part of this literature review on how the area of celebrity culture and the notion of celebrity have been defined generally. This will include looking at the work of writers such as Chris Rojek, P.David Marshall and Graeme Turner. Within this work, I will look specifically at how celebrity has become a key site for productions and negotiations of individual identity in capitalism, and how much agency an audience or reader has in relation to this. Moving on from this, I will focus more specifically on gender, looking at writers who have related celebrity discourse to issues of productions, performances and negotiations of femininity. I include here the work of Jackie Stacey, Harriet Bradley and Christine Geraghty. I want to combine this by proposing that certain distinctions such as Rojek’s between attributed and achieved celebrity can be understood in relation to gender. After this, I will move on to a review of writing on performativity, including the work of Judith Butler. Here, I want to consider how this could be relevant to the broader discourse of celebrity, gender and identification.


According to Chris Rojek, “celebrity status comes in three forms: ascribed, achieved and attributed” (Rojek 2001: 17). He defines ascribed celebrity as “predetermined”  (17) meaning that someone is born a celebrity without having to actually do anything. 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. (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. (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” (18). This would include celebrities who appear momentarily and then vanish from the public eye, “lottery winners, one-hit wonders, stalkers” (18). A recent example could be Alfie Patten, the young father who momentarily leapt to the front of the newspapers 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). Alfie, however, 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: 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. This example shows how celebrity becomes a way for the media to utilize certain images in order to achieve their own agendas. This is my first approach to representations of the female celebrity body, as attributed celebrity with ‘explanatory power’, they become images in the media open to concentrated representations in social discourses, which, in this case, have particular effects in relation to concepts and identifications of gender. I will go on to examine this in more detail.


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: 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 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” (Gamson 1994: 1). How this ‘can-do ideology’ may relate to images of femininity is something I want to go on to explore in my research.


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: 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: 84). Both Rojek’s and Marshall’s analysis are useful in starting to analyse the discourse of celebrity in relation to broader cultural processes. Neither specifically mention gender though and this seems a vital element of the fictions of the individual self that Marshall describes. Marshall’s description of the comparison between self and celebrity, and the way that cultural norms are ‘supported, altered or dismantled’ could be more productively explored, I would argue, through an increased focus on the dominant imagery in celebrity magazines – that of the female celebrity body. The politics of celebrity that Marshall suggests through the analysis of how people interpret celebrity could be given more concrete focus through a focus on gender specifically, as a form of ‘fiction of the self’ actively played out through reading magazines. The ready availability of celebrity and the can-do culture I have outlined above has a specific relation to representations of femininity and the belief that anyone can achieve the ‘perfect’ body. The connection between attributed celebrity and femininity is not discussed by Rojek. Harriet Bradley, however, suggests that male celebrities tend to be famous firstly for achieving something, acting or directing say, while female celebrities are more often represented primarily as objects (Bradley 2007: 162). Christine Geraghty (2007) separates definitions of ‘celebrity’ from those of ‘film star’ in terms of how the meaning of the celebrity is produced through representations in the private sphere to a far greater extent than the film star. She then links this to representations of female celebrities in particular, “women function effectively as spectacle in the press and on television as well as in the cinema”  (Geraghty 2007: 106), leading them to be more likely categorized as ‘celebrity’ in her definition. Such work suggests that there may be a gendered link between achieved and attributed celebrity, celebrity and star, or celebrity and non-celebrity that Rojek does not fully explore.


Bradley goes on to make a number of points in relation to discourses of celebrity and gender. She points out how images of celebrity women in magazines are used to create “an obsession with size and weight [which] legitimizes the massive commercial apparatus of the slimming and exercise industry” (Bradley 2007: 161). This point makes a link between the representation of femininity and discourses of capitalism. One of the reasons that female celebrity ‘perfect’ body images are mass-circulated as objects of desire is precisely so that readers will desire them and spend millions of pounds on products which then play on this desire to sell the image of the perfect body back to them. Something I must consider in my research is the close link between images of celebrity and other elements of capitalist society such as advertising for beauty products. It is not possible to take the images in isolation without awareness of how they operate in relation to these other discourses. Bradley here also suggests that readers are influenced by magazine representations to the point of becoming ‘obsessed’. She goes on to nuance this effect relation by suggesting that the ideal of the perfect body is not just forced upon society by magazines and the beauty industry, but is also carefully maintained and self-policed by female readers themselves:


Ironically, it has been noted that it is women themselves who police the cult of slenderness; women criticizing other women’s figures and clothing…and the catty commentators in Heat and Hello who take delight in pictures of female stars wearing unbecoming clothes, having ‘bad hair days’, or showing glimpses of cellulite. (Bradley 2007: 161)


I will return to this argument in my primary research, both through analysis of the magazines and how they present images of celebrity, and through my interviews and questionnaires. If dominant representations are indeed so self-policed then the question of how they could be challenged becomes difficult. Bradley’s analysis is useful for pointing out the ideological functions of celebrity in relation specifically to gender.  The notion of self-policing has been proposed by Michel Foucault:


I would say now that I am interested, in fact, in the way in which the subject constitutes himself, in an active fashion, by the practices of the self. These practices are nevertheless not something that the individual invents by himself. They are patterns that he finds in his culture, and are proposed, suggested and imposed on him by his culture.

(Foucault 1987, cited in Strozier 2002: 141)


This quote from Foucault is interesting as it shifts the question of agency. Speaking generally, people may well actively constitute their own subjectivity. However, this active construction is still restrained by cultural factors.  Specifically, women may feel they are speaking freely and expressing individuality in criticizing, say body image, while they are actually speaking as part of the same network of subjectification they set out to challenge. Foucault’s model of the Panopticon prison (Foucault 1975), where the prisoners cells can all be observed from a central tower provided him with a model of internalised discipline. While the prisoners may not be being watched, it is possible that they are, so, according to this model, they regulate their behaviour accordingly in relation to the dominant norms of the institution.  How this model could play out in relation to the regulatory norms of gender is something I must explore. Another issue is the relation between the ‘perfect’ body and discourses of realism, which I will go on to explore next.


Marshall describes the sense of ‘realism’ and ‘authenticity’ vital for contemporary celebrity ideology. He argues that the media provide a “reality-effect” which is “alluring, if not intoxicating for an audience” (Marshall 2006: 3). 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. Bradley also describes the realistic function of celebrity to give the impression to people than anyone can be a celebrity, regardless of talent, ability or social background, as Bradley phrases it, “the lure of consumerist celebrity – Live The Dream!” (Bradley 2007: 162). 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: 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” (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, and I propose to research whether this dream operates specifically in relation to feminine desire.


Someone who has done work in this area is Jackie Stacey. She focuses specifically on consumption practices of female spectators of Hollywood films. While Stacey’s work is primarily on cinematic modes of spectatorship, a different history and set of theoretical requirements from analysis of magazine readership, her work on gendered consumption is useful to transfer to theories of celebrity. Stacey argues that the combination of realism and exoticism is a vital element in the star (or celebrity) image. On one hand, she focuses on the signification of fantasy and escape of female stars, “[film consumption] offers an escape from what is perceived as the drudgery of domesticity and motherhood” (Stacey 1994: 238). On the other hand, she argues that such fantasies of escape are made more realistic by the ready availability of items such as the clothes worn by the stars:


The widespread presence of such goods in British shops and thus the imagine possibility of purchase transforms the symbolic meaning of Hollywood stars from distant objects of desire from another world to more familiar and everyday signs of femininity replicable through consumption. (Stacey 1994: 240)


Stacey’s writing about female consumption of Hollywood films in the 1950s seems relevant to import into understanding of celebrity readership and representation today. The celebrity is represented as simultaneously untouchable or Godlike, and achievable or ‘real’. This double image becomes vital for reader identification, could-be-you ideology, and increased consumption of consumer goods. Indeed, Turner makes reference to Stacey in his own analysis of contemporary modes of celebrity consumption, suggesting that, “It is not hard to recognize [Stacey’s argument] in the current trend in women’s magazines to provide guides on where to buy either the exact garment worn by the pictured celebrity or its cheaper substitute” (Turner 2004: 122).  I will examine in more detail how this double image is constructed in my primary research. Stacey’s work also raises methodological issues. She is careful to locate it historically in order to examine “the complexities of the multiple meanings of female spectatorship” (Stacey 1994: 239). This suggests the possibility of being open to responses and using qualitative research to address questions raised in secondary research. Stacey uses her research to define a historical shift from escape to identification on behalf of female spectators. I propose that in the contemporary consumption of celebrity, both escape and identification have to be simultaneously at play in order for the celebrity industry to function.


Redmond and Holmes also focus on the relation between the star and the fan:


Stars and celebrities are consumed and appropriated by fans in ways which have a profound effect on their identity, self-image, and sense of belonging. (Redmond and Holmes  2007: 4)


These ‘ways which have a profound effect’, or the nature of the relation between star and fan, celebrity and reader, has been the subject of much debate. As I have discussed, celebrities function not only as modes of imposing cultural meanings but also potential sites of negotiating or challenging them. Dyer introduced the concept of ‘structured polysemy’ in relation to film stars. This is his way of explaining how the star image can operate across a range of media, and can have multiple and contradictory meanings, but is still ‘structured’ in the sense of not having the freedom to mean absolutely anything. (Dyer 1979: 3). Others have challenged this. Judith Mayne for example, argues that “inconsistency, change and fluctuation” (Mayne 1993: 128) are important elements of celebrity image. She criticizes Dyer by emphasizing the fluidity and openness of the celebrity sign more than he does, focusing instead on “constant reinvention, the dissolution of contraries, the embracing of radically opposing terms” (138). Others such as Turner or P.David Marshall have emphasized the importance of social context in representations of, definitions of and productions of celebrity. As Marshall argues, “the term [celebrity] is linked to past power structures (i.e. the church), and now has connotations that link it to modern power structures (i.e. capitalism)” (Marshall 1997: 7).  Chris Rojek’s definition also emphasizes the importance of such structures, “I treat celebrity as the attribution of glamorous or notorious status to an individual within the public sphere…The media determine this idiom, although the content remains a matter of political and ideological exchange” (Rojek 2001: 10). What these approaches have in common then is the conceptualization of celebrity as the product of broader media discourses. Beyond reflecting the lives of famous people, the media are involved in active constructions of celebrity discourse and celebrity figures in relation to structures of politics and power.


These debates are important for my argument in two main senses. Firstly, celebrity discourse can be read, through this relation to power, as an embodiment of specific dominant ideologies, in this case gender. Secondly, as it is part of a process of open exchange, celebrity discourse is also an important site of negotiating the dominance of specific ideologies.  The first point has been made strongly by Frankfurt School critiques of consumer culture. Marcuse for example describes the “the surrender of thought, hope and fear to the powers that be” (Marcuse 1964: 12), Adorno and Horkheimer describe “enthusiastic obedience to the rhythm of the iron system” (Adorno & Horkheimer 1944: 2). Both define mass culture as part of the determining force of ideological power, against which the consumer has no agency. The second point has been made by, for example, Richard Dyer in his analysis of stars. Marshall summarises Dyer’s three main points:


  1. The celebrity is the epitome of the individual for identification and idealization in society
  2. The celebrity is not wholly determined by the culture industries and is therefore somewhat created and constructed by the audience’s reading of dominant cultural representations. Gramsci’s conception of hegemony best expresses this reworking of the dominant ideological images into social categories of class, age, gender and so on.
  3. The celebrity is a commodity, and therefore expresses a form of valorization of the individual and personality that is coherent with capitalism and the associated consumer culture. (Marshall 1997:19)


In contrast with some of the Frankfurt School approach, Dyer’s work proposes the film star or celebrity as a more complex site of identification, negotiation and potential resistance:


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: 153)


While, on one hand, the celebrity does act as a point of identification for the individual, he is critical of reading celebrity as something entirely subsumed by the culture industry, and so leaves open the possibility of active ‘reading’ of celebrity discourses on behalf of the audience. Fans, for example, may take a star image from a given network of signification and re-signify it in relation to an alternative set of discourses. Recent examples of this could include ironic re-appropriations of celebrities such as David Hasselhoff, or more politically motivated gay appropriations of stars such as Kylie Minogue. More extreme examples could include home made mash-up videos on the internet, using images of stars to act out fantasies as a challenge to their control of their own image. Turner focuses on this aspect of the celebrity industry in his writing on ‘celebrity flesh’ (Turner 2004: 123). I would argue that the “media-savvy hyperbole” and “comic irony” (123) that he locates within more pornographic celebrity representations are also important in more mainstream representations such as Heat magazine. Dyer’s final point here is also important. Even though the audience or reader may actively read the celebrity image, the discourse of the individual vital for capitalism is still valorized. It is questionable how much opposition to dominant capitalist ideologies is actually achieved through the supposedly ‘subversive’ readings I proposed above. Rojek also discusses the relation of celebrity to capitalism:


The logic of capitalist accumulation requires consumers to constantly exchange their wants. The restlessness and friction in industrial culture partly derives from the capitalist requirement to initiate perpetual commodity and brand innovation. (Rojek 2001: 14)


Such appropriations in this context can still be seen as part of the capitalist production and multiplication of desires. The Frankfurt School theorists effectively located celebrity culture in the network of capitalist ideology but provided a deterministic framework granting no agency to audiences or readers. Theories of active engagement such as Dyer’s are useful for complicating the relation of reader to text and allowing the potential of alternative engagements.  Work such as Rojek’s and Marshall’s however suggests that these alternative readings are still part of networks of capitalist desire. 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: 4)


I am interested not only in modes of ‘reading’ celebrity in relation to dominant discourses such as particular gender roles, but also other processes in which identification, negotiation and subversion may take place. For this, I want to focus on theories of ‘performativity’ in order to consider how they could relate to debates over celebrity discourse. The philosopher of language J.L. Austin introduced the notion of performativity in linguistics to describe a word or phrase that does something through the act of being spoken. ‘I do’ in a marriage ceremony for example, can not be reduced purely to structuralist semantics but is important in terms of the effect it has. Through the act of pronouncing the words, the marriage ritual takes place. As Austin describes:


To utter the [performative] sentence is not to describe my doing ..or to state that I am doing it: It is to do it. (Austin 1975: 6)


The importance of the perfomative utterance then, is that through the act of utterance, something happens. The relevance of this outside of a linguistic context is in how it has been taken up to describe how identity is played out and produced in a performative way. As Parker and Sedgwick argue:


Performativity has enabled a powerful appreciation of the way that identities are constructed iteratively through complex citational processes. (Parker and Sedgwick 1995: 2)


In other words, identities, including gender identities, are played out through repetitions and the act of quoting. Femininity for example, according to theories of performativity, is not a pre-given category which we can either accept, question or challenge, but instead it only exists through the act of, say, getting up, putting on a dress and going out to buy make-up. Celebrity then, as a point of reference for networks of identity, becomes a vital element in the way these performative identities are constructed. Derrida criticized the way that Austin was selective in his definitions of the performative. According to Austin, the performative had a “normal use” and anything “parasitical” or deviant from this would be “excluded from consideration” (Austin 1975: 22). Derrida, on the other hand, argues, “is not what Austin excludes as anomalous…that is citation, the determined modification of a general citationality – or rather a general iterability – without which there would not be a ‘succesful’ performative” (Derrida 1982: 325). In other words, the performative can operate far more generally, in relation to everyday speech, to theatrical performance, and to the repetition of images, say in celebrity magazines, as vital to performance of identity. Judith Butler has written a lot on performativity in relation to gender. She describes on one hand how the subject is formed and constituted in language (Butler 1997: 3-4). On the other hand however, she describes the “threat [which] emerges precisely through the act that the body performs in speaking the act” (Butler 1997: 9). For Butler, gender identity is iterated, or repeated ritually, through language. However, this very iteration also contains the potential to be a threat, or a radical re-iteration, as it is played out. I plan to test in my research whether this ‘threat’ to dominant representations of femininity can exist outside of a theoretical context.


Sarah Salih outlines in detail some of Butler’s work on performativity and gender. She describes how Butler’s theory is “anti-essentialist” (Salih 2004: 90) meaning that it is critical of the idea that gender is a given and universal form, and instead proposes it as open to change. For Butler, “gender is an open-ended process, a sequence of acts or events, which does not originate and which is never finally or fully ‘realised’” (90). This seems a direct contradiction with the idea, based on ideological models, that women passively consume images of celebrities in magazines, which force them to aspire to specific images through the illusion that it could be them and through the consumption of marketed goods. If Butler’s theory of open-ended deferred identity can be put to use in celebrity magazine readership then I will have to show that the process of negotiating gender in magazines can be, somehow, open-ended, rather than one-way. On the other hand however, Butler’s theories, such as, “interrogating the terms in which our identities are described, constituted and circumscribed” (90), can be useful in understanding how images in magazines are able to have such powerful effect in shaping identity. Importantly from her theories comes the idea that it is through the act of, say, reading celebrity magazines, that gender is created, rather than existing before:


There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; identity is discursively constituted…there is no actor who performs the sequence of gender acts that constitute its identity…the doing itself is everything (91).


How important this element of performance is to celebrity discourse, and whether it can indeed add anything at all is what I set out to test. To do this requires analyzing Butler further:


In the first instance, the performativity of gender revolves around the way in which the anticipation of a gendered essence produces that which it posits as outside of itself. Secondly, performativity is not a singular act, but a repetition and a ritual, which achieves its effects through its naturalization in the context of a body, understood, in part as a culturally sustained temporal duration. (Butler 1990, cited in Littolessiti and Sunderland 2002: 25)


In other words then, the act of playing out gender precedes gender identity. Gender is produced through this act and proposed, in an illusory fashion, as something that pre-existed. Secondly, this act is ritually repeated and becomes ‘natural’ in the way a body comes to be disciplined. Reading celebrity magazines then can be read as such a ritualistic act, a scene where femininity is played out I a relation between readers and images. The performative process outlined by Litolessiti and Sunderland, “a ritualized process which allows the participants to construct and project desirable versions of their identities in a succession of performances targeted at specific audiences” (Littolessiti and Sunderland 2002: 26) could relate both to the construction of the magazine itself, and to the act of reading it. In relation to this then, my main questions here become to identify how gender is contructed performatively through magazines, and to consider whether the act of readership can become a performative ‘threat’ to normative gender identity, or whether it acts as another empty repetition plugged into the circuits of capitalist desire. As Yates has argued (Yates 2003: 7), this must include not only analysis of the texts but also a focus on how readers ‘use’ and ‘transform’ magazine representations in their everyday lives.



Outline of how I will carry out the next stage of research


For the next stage of my research, I will concentrate on primary data collection. This will consist of two parts. For the first part I will examine the range of celebrity magazines on offer and analyse a selection in order to compare the kinds of languages and imagery employed in relation to target audience and representations of gender and celebrity. I mentioned already Heat magazine so this can be a focus, but I will examine other magazines along with data on their readership and circulation figures. When analyzing the magazines semiotically, I will look at what dominant codes are employed to signify some of the elements I have described above – the doubleness of ‘realism’ and ‘untouchable’ in celebrity image for example. I will focus on images and text. The other part will involve acquiring data from readers. I plan to use mainly quantitative methods in order to achieve a broad range of data. In terms of qualitative methodology I will employ the semi-structured interview with arranged focus-groups of people. This is a mode that will allow interviewees freedom to speak outside of fixed parameters, but I will also have to organize the conversation around key themes (Silverman 2004 140; Jensen 2002: 156). These will include readership habits, patterns of consumption, identification with celebrities, attitude toward celebrity, issues of gender etc.. I may also employ qualitative methods I the form of a questionnaire, which will allow me to test some of my hypotheses from the first section of my research. I will get a research sample of interviewees from people I know in order to make sure they are comfortable with the process, and to ensure reliability and availability. I will be aware of research ethics throughout, for example making sure people are happy with their view being recorded, or changing the names of interviewees. I plan to make two in-depth semi-structured interview groups, in order to be able to make a comparison between woman readers of different age groups. This is a relatively small sample size but is enough to test my project hypotheses.


Sample Questions


Which magazines do you read?

When do you read them?

Why do you read celebrity magazines?

Why do you read these ones in particular?

Which celebrities are you interested in / not interested in?

How do you think male/female celebrities are represented differently?

What elements of their lives do you find interesting?

Do you identify with these celebrities?

Do you think they are good role models?

Would you like to be more like them? How would you do this?

Would you make purchases based on celebrity representations?

Describe your chosen celebrity’s appearance and lifestyle.


What do you think are the cultural expectations involved in being a woman (in terms of lifestyle and appearance)?

Do you feel pressure to live up to these expectations?

What would happen if you failed to live up to them?

Would you be critical of them?

How do you think these are represented in celebrity magazines? What are examples of positive and negative representations?

How do these magazine representations relate to your everyday life?

Are celebrities ‘normal’?

What is the ‘normal woman’?

How do you relate your life to celebrity magazines?



Organising discussions around such questions will give me data to analyse and relate to my research so far.




Adorno, T. and Horkheimer, M. (1944) ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’.


Austin, J.L. (1975) How to Do Things with Words. New York: Harvard University Press.


Boorstin, D. (1961) The Image. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson


Bradley, H. (2007) Gender. Cambridge: Polity Press


Bruhn Jensen, K. (2002) A Handbook of Media and Communication Research. London: Routledge.


Butler, J. (2007) Gender Troubles. New York: Routledge.


–  (1997) Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. London: Routledge.


Cashmore, E. (2006) Celebrity/Culture. NewYork: Routledge.


Davis, F. (1992) Fashion, Culture, Identity. London: University of Chicago Press.


Derrida, J (1988) Limited Inc. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.


–        (1982) Margins of Philosophy. University of Chicago Press.


Dyer, R. (1979) Stars London: BFI.


–        (2007) ‘Heavenly Bodies’ in Redmond, S and Holmes, S. (Eds)

Stardom and Celebrity. Sage, 85-90.


–        (2006) ‘Stars as Images’ in P.D. Marshall Ed. The Celebrity Culture

Reader. New York and London: Routledge


Foucault, M. (1975) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of The Prison. London: Vintage.


Gamson, J. (1994) Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Geraghty, (2007) ‘Re-examining Stardom. Questions of Texts, Bodies and Performance’ in Redmond, S and Holmes, S. (Eds) Stardom and Celebrity. Sage, 98-111.


Hagan, L. (2009) ‘Baby-faced boy Alfie Patten is father at 13’, accessed 28th Feb. 2009


Howson, A. (2004) The Body in Society, An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.


Hammill, F. (2008) Women, Celebrity and Literacy Culture Between Wars. University of Texas Press.


Lemos, G. (2009) ‘How to help young parents’, accessed 28th Feb. 2009


Litosseliti, L and Sunderland, J. (2002) Gender Identity and Discourse Analysis , Amsterdam: John Benjamins Press


Marshall, P.D. (2006) ‘Introduction’, in P.D. Marshall Ed. The Celebrity Culture Reader. New York and London: Routledge


Mayne, J. (1993) Cinema and Spectatorship. London: Routledge.




Marcuse, H. (1964) One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society.


Marshall, P.D.  (1997) Celebrity and Power: Fame in Contemporary Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


Nicholson, S. L. (1990) Feminism/ Postmodernism. London: Routledge.


Parker, A & Sedgwick, E.K. (1995) Performativity and Performance. London: Routledge.


Redmond, S and Holmes, S. (2007) Stardom and Celebrity. Sage.


Rojek, C. (2001) Celebrity. London: Reaktion.


Salih. S. (Ed) (2004) The Judith Butler Reader. Oxford: Blackwell.


Silverman, D. (2004) Qualitative Research: Theory, Method and Practice. Sage.


Stacey, J. (1994) Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship. London: Routledge.


Strozier, R.M. (2002) Foucault, Subjectivity and Identity. Wayne State University Press.


Turner, G. (2004) Understanding Celebrity. London: Sage Publications.


TES (2006), Times Educational Supplement, 2nd Nov 2006, cited at, accessed 28th May 2009


Turner, G., Bonner F.J and Marshall P.D. (2000) Fame Games. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press


Yates, A.G. (2003) Understanding Women’s Magazines: Publishing, Markets and Readerships. London: Routledge.