So there’s ideological meaning underpinning these celebrity experiences. And whether or not that’s fully legible until years later is often hard to decipher.
So like right now, it’s much easier to figure out what Tom Hanks means in the 1980s than the 1990s. It’s much harder to try to decipher how his image has evolved with the times and stayed popular in the 2000s. And similarly it’s much easier with stars from classic Hollywood. The historians have done the work in a lot of ways of thinking about “okay, what was ideologically going on?” And then you just have to think “oh! Well this is how that either matches really pretty closely with the representation of masculinity of, say, Jimmy Stewart or doesn’t.”
I find it fascinating. And it’s the way that I like to read about celebrity. Probably I don’t classically go to people.com but I will read anything that you write on the subject. And I haven’t read a Nicholas Sparks book, but I’ll read your dissertation on what that means for the culture.
Right, right, right. And I mean it’s not that I necessarily particularly find joy in reading Nicholas Sparks myself. [Laughs]. Although I do like the movies. In like a weird way.
I have seen The Notebook. I have ticked the box.
But at the same time, if so many people are finding pleasure in anything, like, any text, no matter what it is. Whether it’s Donald Trump or Nicholas Sparks or an action movie, whatever. There’s a reason for that. So if you can analyse that relationship, that attraction, there’s really fertile ground for understanding.
I actually did have a facetious question written down here. Which is what does Kim Kardashian mean?
This is actually one of my favourite ideas, and I heard this once at a conference. And since then I’ve never been able to shake it. The reason why Kim Kardashian and the Kardashians in general, the way that they first became meaningful as a cluster, has been understood by this one scholar by comparing them to the Bennet family in Pride and Prejudice.
So you have one sister who is not the oldest but is clearly the prize sister in Kim. You have the goodytwoshoes sister. You have a sister who is more aggressive and standoffish. And then you have this mother who is attempting to marry them all off. So, especially in the beginning, you have these two very young sisters in Kylie and Kendall…
Who are just watching what’s going on and being brought up in that world.
Yep. And vulnerable to it. And then you have a kind of useless dad, which is what Bruce, now Caitlyn Jenner, was, especially in the beginning. You have a Mum who is essentially trying to social climb vis à vis her daughters. So it’s a compelling narrative!
It’s brilliant narrative! And I guess that makes it ageold. I was also thinking when you were talking that locating Kim within a family is also very important because in America, family is at the heart of how you see yourselves—and how Australians see themselves as well. So locating her within that family and what that means say in comparison with the ’50s nuclear family, how it’s evolving, is powerful.
Yeah. It’s a totally untraditional family, which is increasingly the norm here in the United States. But then at the same time, at least the way that they’re depicted in the show, they are so supportive of one another. You know, they all live in this close proximity that is very rare. And they spend their time worrying about each other, going over to each other’s houses, posting about each other on social media. So it’s this intimacy that is really lost in a lot of ways. But it’s manifest in this untraditional postracial times, like you have all of these different relationships that are informing it. So it’s fascinating.
And also now having a trans person at the heart of it too. And watching how they react to it and support her is a really fascinating way for people to relate to things that they might not have in their own life. So maybe the way that I would relate to my parent coming out as trans, would I take Kim’s posture? Would I take Khloe’s posture? You can identify with these different ways of acting, ways of being.
And so you’re writing a book that talks about the “tooness” of women and the way that we perceive women. You’ve got that Amy Schumer’s too honest, Melissa McCarthy’s too fat, Hillary Clinton is too shrill. What drew you to those stories? And why is it that we can’t deal with the excesses of women?
So there’s this trope of the unruly woman, the first wave of it was really popularly identified. This woman who is my mentor, her name is Kathleen Rowe and she was a professor of mine when I was getting my Masters. She wrote about this trope of the unruly woman through antiquity! In old operas and in the carnivalesque and all this sort of thing. But specifically she really focuses on Roseanne. And the role of Roseanne in the early ‘90s and how Roseanne was this compelling figure. People could not look away from her, but she was also a figure of revulsion. And the way she talks about this understanding of unruly is that it’s deeply rooted in the abject. So something that you desire but that also you must define yourself against.
And so that idea I think is really present in the images of all of these women who are magnetic and a lot of women are either identifying with them in some way, finding their strength of voice and personality really compelling. Also there’s this idea that like “well I don’t want to be too much”, right? Women are always circumscribed to a very limited set of behaviours and place in the world, you know. Whether it’s that they shouldn’t take up too much space by getting fat, they shouldn’t take up too much noise by talking too much! All these things. And so when women transgress that there’s a way of disciplining them to keep them in line. And so even with this current cluster of ten chapters, each one of them treads a line of acceptability. Because if they’re actually too unruly then they can’t be a superstar.
They don’t get acknowledged.
Yep. Yep. You know. There are also women that could have been included in this book who actually are too queer or too fat. But they’re not allowed to be stars. So you have to do this really fine negotiation of what is pushing the boundary but not too much.
And the other thing that I gesture to throughout, and this is what happened to Roseanne, is there’s cycles of American culture where there’s a sort of unruliness that’s been embraced and then rejected. And so Roseanne was summarily rejected in the second half of the 90s. And I think right now we’re at this real kind of tension point, at least in America, of embracing it and celebrating it. But it remains to be seen. I mean Hillary wasn’t elected—which was a sort of referendum on her style of being in the world. Right? And then also just there’s been backlash against Amy Schumer recently. I actually added a chapter that wasn’t in the original table of contents about Serena Williams, and she’s someone who people love to celebrate, but then also really push back against. So I don’t have any neat answers. Just observations.