Performativity and Radical Re-iteration in Contemporary Celebrity Magazine Readership, 2500 word dissertation proposal


Proposed Title:


Performativity and Radical Re-iteration 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 of representations of celebrity to discourses of personal identity and capitalist power relations?


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


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.



Outline of Research:


The main areas of my research are performativity and gender.


Magazine images of the gendered celebrity body, and the female body in particular, are a vital part of celebrity culture in general. I am interested, firstly, in researching what effect these images have, in terms of how readers identify (or don’t 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.




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, and so 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.


My secondary research will focus on theories of performativity taken mainly from Judith Butler. I will put this into context by looking at theories of linguistic performativity from J.L. Austin, and Derrida’s critique of Austin. 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.



Literature Review (First two sections started here)



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. After this, I will move on to a review of writing on performativity, including the work of J.L. Austin, Jacques Derrida and Judith Butler. Here, I want to consider how this could be relevant to the broader discourse of celebrity and identification. The third part will focus more specifically on gender, looking at writers who have related celebrity discourse to issues of productions, performances and negotiations of femininity.


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. Redmond and Holmes 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 Turner points out in the above quote, celebrities function not only as modes of imposing cultural meanings but also potential sites of negotiating or challenging them.  Writers 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.


This sketched definition is 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. 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. 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. 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, in my next section, 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. How this could relate to femininity and celebrity discourse I will go on to consider in my next section.









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.


Buttler, 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.


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.


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.


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


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