Celebrities face new degree of scrutiny

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Female celebrities have long been the subject of public fascination. Now they have become a subject of fascination to academics. Sociologists have turned their collective grey matter towards fathoming the behaviour of Britney Spears, Amy Winehouse and other women in the limelight.

And next week the findings will be discussed when the School of Film and Television Studies at the University of East Anglia hosts a conference with the title "Going Cheap – Female Celebrity in the Tabloid, Reality and Scandal Genres".

At more than 30 sessions of cutting-edge sociology, dozens of academics will discuss the effects of an age of celebrity on the feminist struggle for equality.

The level of debate is not for the faint-hearted. Session titles include "Britney's Tears: the Abject Female Celebrity in Postemotional (sic) Society", "Mia Farrow Goes Bananas: Accusations of Obsessive Mothering in the Woody and Mia Scandal", and "Bodies, Gender, Reception, and Readings: Differing Responses to Celebrity and Spectacle."

Another is "Janis Joplin's Erect Left Nipple, or the Barometric Hard-On", which looks at "the general biographical discourse that eroticises Joplin's death and 'agony' as pure feminine need, a need that always smuggles a phallus into the story somehow". One session is even called "From Yummy Mummy to Spin Doctor: the case of Kate McCann. Examining the tragic circumstances in which Madeleine McCann's mother acquired fame". The paper promises to discuss how "McCann has become a contemporary measure of what is meant by 'femininity' ".

Professor Diane Negra, who is organising the event, said: "A lot of people talk about the cult of celebrity, but not many people have given it serious attention. It's time sociologists and anthropologists really got into what it is about celebrities that captures our imagination. This conference is not just about the state of feminism. We'll be looking at many issues, including the way men are increasingly portrayed as consumers of femininity."

From glossy to academic paper

*From Queen of the Jungle to Tabloid Folk Devil: Kerry Katona as 'White Trash Mother'. Sarah Godfrey, University of East Anglia (Edited abstract)

Katona is derided for her "chaviness" and her gauche nouveau riche lifestyle. This paper will suggest that Katona's construction by the popular UK press and celebrity magazines is indicative of the particular systems of regulation and surveillance through which young female celebrities are mediated, especially as this is refracted through discourses of motherhood.

*There is a Balm in Hollywood that cures the Sin-Sick Soul: Troubled Starlettes and the Curative Power of the Image Brenda Weber, Indiana University (Edited abstract):

This paper discusses various tabloid representations of Britney Spears' crying in relation to the gendered discourses of emotional authenticity, motherhood, personal responsibility and abjection in an attempt to understand what Britney's tears signify to various individuals and groups, including journalists, bloggers and mental health campaigners.

*Heather McCartney Mills: A woman with an Agenda Louise Smith, University of East Anglia (Edited abstract):

I pay attention to the ambivalence of the UK press toward Mills' accusations of domestic violence, reflecting disturbingly common beliefs that women lie about violence [by] husbands. Such rhetoric disavows the prevalence of domestic violence, renders silent the female voice, and dismisses feminist challenges to a society more concerned with the victimisation of post-feminist masculinity.

*The blurring of Fame and Talent: Representations of Female Celebrity in Heat magazine Rebecca Feasey, Bath Spa University (Edited abstract)

Although such publications are keen to reveal the troubled romances, tawdry secrets and trivial stories of the rich and famous, the fact that they rarely distinguish between an award-winning actress, a popular singer, a wealthy socialite or a reality television contestant tends to reduce female celebrity to a personality contest and relegate contemporary stardom to a debate over appearance and attractiveness.