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Spectacle Versus Narrative: Modern Day Celebrity

Studies of the cultural ramifications related to “The Cult of Celebrity[1]” have consistently been trying to catch up to the ever changing landscape of audience-performer relationships. What makes a Celebrity today has blurred the previous contextual model of fame from: “window-shopping-stardom[2]” to “everyone-can & should-be-a-stardom.[3]” Judy Garland used letters to communicate support to the LGBTQ community[i], while today anyone with a cell phone can instantly live-stream straight to countless audience members. Today’s social media tools eliminate any detachment between audience and celebrity[ii]. Merit and mystique defined celebrity at a distance, while today a sex tape can rocket you to a seat at the table next to a litany of objectively more talented celebrities. Textual, moral, and emotional structures defining the modern celebrity have warped the boundaries between fiction and reality.[iii]

Judy Garland in a rare photo op as she struts her legend across the stage.

Technical breakthroughs in hardware and software have fostered a new audience-centric approach towards stardom. Increased access to video/audio/editing software along with steadily decreasing costs of production gear, has led to a democratization of media creation. A painful truth behind the overtly positive technical progress lies in the torrent of content that is then created. Current rates of media creation and dissemination have left the celebrity market increasingly volatile, invasive, and most importantly over-saturated. The consequences of over-saturation have already splintered the idea of stardom into a wide variety of culturally specific, hierarchical structures. With an ever-growing surplus of media, the general median will naturally drop in quality theoretically creating less celebrities. The increase in content, instead, has splintered the traditional audience into more diverse, small scale, and niche focused realms of celebrity[iv]. As the standard for celebrity continues to drop, it reinforces the idea that everyone has a greater chance at living the life of a celebrity.[v] Stardom and reality mesh to a point where the lines between realistic expectations and curation for fame result in mental dissonance; consistently pursuing a perfectly idealistic, yet unrealistic life[vi].

To restore a sense of legitimacy to merit based celebrity, the broken context that currently defines stardom needs remodeling. Erecting a distinct separation in contextual elements of fame creates the first steps towards understanding the new culture of celebrity. While the argument between spectacle and narrative traditionally fall apart as diametrically opposed when applied to cinema, extrapolating and re-mixing these origins of critical assessment can break down and help categorize new archetypes of celebrity. Tom Gunn’s study of early cinema is a good baseline to begin re-contextualizing the nature of celebrity.

“A film like The Great Train Robbery (1903) does point in both directions, toward a direct assault on the spectator (the spectacularly enlarged outlaw unloading his pistol in our faces), and towards a linear narrative continuity. This is early film's ambiguous heritage.[vii]”

If we look towards the underlying principles of spectacle and narrative’s impact on film there is a constant fluctuation between authentic, intimate “narrative” and flashy, special effects heavy, explosion heavy “spectacle.” Tom Gunning’s work on The Cinema Of Attraction, accepts the intertwined nature of spectacle and narrative in cinema, but their opposition is more pronounced in the culture of celebrity. Building off Gunning’s method of critical analysis differences simplify into: celebrities using spectacle and celebrities using narrative.

Gambino frequently shared his fears over the internet - recently finding more leverage through television show like FX's ATLANTA
  1. Spectacle –unexpected, controversial, indirect authorship content is praised – can be unplanned. Focused on the absurdist sides of reality, relating to an audience through voyeuristic materialism[4]. (E.g. Kardashian’s, Jake & Logan Paul, Fine Bros. Entertainment (2012 – present)

  2. Narrative – using the existing modes of social media to portray a more honest conversation between performer and audience. Used to ingratiate a sense of authentic empathy and honesty towards the audience within the story being told. (E.g. Donald Glover, Lady Gaga (2008 – Present)

The two generalizations breaking down celebrity into spectacle and narrative are just that, generalizations. Building off the general though, this method of comparison could provide audiences a more robust system of evaluating celebrity. Separating celebrities into the two distinct value categories of authenticity versus spectacle for the sake of shock provides a clean entry point to further develop critical studies of celebrity culture. In its current state, the psychological and sociological impacts will continue to exponentially grow as more and more users engage in social media. A current performer and celebrity in many ways, Bo Burnham’s most recent Netflix special concludes with a summation that demands a moment of self-reflection and awareness.

“They say it’s the ‘me’ generation. It’s not. The arrogance is taught, or it was cultivated… The Market said ‘here perform everything to each other all the time for no reason…What do we want more than to lie in our bed at the end of the day and just watch our life as a satisfied audience member? (Bo Burnham, 2016, Make Happy Netflix Special).


[1] Cult Of Celebrity - the tendency of people to care too much about famous people - Webster’s Dictionary

[2] Window-shopping-stardom: The way that audiences had a clear and traditionally physical or geographical barrier against intimate and/or direct relationships with the performer.

[3] Everyone-can-and-should-be-a-stardom: When the medium is democratized and saturated to a point where it is more normal to try and transition from audience to performer- a low barrier for entrance and a flooding of mediocre content as a result.

[4] Voyeuristic Materialism – A manner of connecting through an audiences desires, wants, and dreams rather than authentic empathetic relationships.


[i] Martin Barker, Su Holmes & Sarah Ralph (2015) Audiences for stardom and celebrity, Celebrity Studies, 6:1, 1-5, DOI: 10.1080/19392397.2015.995894

[ii] IBID

[iii] Alexander Fedorov, LEVELS OF MEDIA COMPETENCE: RUSSIAN APPROACH, ADN,Volume 4, Number 2-3, 2011, Acta Didactica Napocensia, ISSN 2065-1430

[iv] Daniel G. McDonald,Melanie A. Sarge, Shu-Fang Lin, James G. Collier, and Bridget Potocki, A Role for the Self: Media Content as Triggers for Involuntary Autobiographical Memories, Communication Research2015, Vol. 42(1) 3 –29 © The Author(s) 2012

[v] Barzilay, Orit Hazzan, and Amiram Yehudai. 2011. Using social media to study the diversity of example usage among professional developers. In Proceedings of the 19th ACM SIGSOFT symposium and the 13th European conference on Foundations of software engineering (ESEC/FSE '11). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 472-475. DOI=

[vi] Lin L yi, Sidani JE, Shensa A, et al. Association between Social Media Use and Depression among U.S. Young Adults. Depression and anxiety. 2016;33(4):323-331. doi:10.1002/da.22466.

[vii] Gunning, Tom, "The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde", Wide Angle, Vol. 8, nos. 3 & 4 Fall, 1986.

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