Star Studies and the Mass Culture Debates Since the dawn of time, society has always had its own stars that multitudes of people look up to as idols. Today, most of the stars that people flock to are famous people within the entertainment business, most notably actors and actresses. Movie stars have been consumed by the public’s eye ever since the film industry took off in the early 1900s. There are certain movie stars that transcend time, and lately, people do whatever they can to find out as much as they can of these stars to reveal who they truly are outside of being in front of a camera.
However, some critics of the Mass Culture Debates do find holes in the star system we have today. The critics feel as if the culture of these stars are becoming very standardized, which is greatly affecting the culture of people watching them. To demonstrate my point, I will be discussing how Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer oppose the arguments made about star figures in Richard Dyer’s essay, “Living Stars. ” I will also explain how Dwight MacDonald takes a very similar stance against Jackie Stacy’s “Feminine Fascinations: Forms of Identification in Star-Audience Relations. Finally, I will finish off by explain how critic David Riseman seeks to mediate the Mass Culture critics’ arguments and take the side of Dyer and Stacy. If Adorno and Horkheimer were to read Richard Dyer’s “Living Stars” and dissect it, they would feel that movie stars today aren’t original in that they use a very scripted formula to attract themselves to the masses, which is why they become popular in the first place. Throughout his essay, Dyer explains that star figures are representations, like myths, who serve to resolve many of society’s vital binary oppositions.
He goes on to explain this point by saying, “The private self is further represented through a set of oppositions that stem from the division of the world into private and public spaces, a way of organizing space that in turn relates to the idea of the separability of the individual and society. ” (FSR 130) His primary opposition for which he discusses stars and their relationship to the public eye is stars portraying their private selves versus their public serves. Public stars control themselves on screen, and maintain great poise and try not to display their emotions to readily, because they want to keep a ophisticated image of themselves; whereas private stars are much more intense and introverted, they aren’t afraid to express their emotions and show who they truly are behind close doors. Martin Scorsese’s film The Aviator serves to depict the private and public image of real life filmmaker and aviation pioneer Howard Hughes. To the public, Hughes became a larger than life star in directing Hell’s Angels and purchasing a major airline of the time. However, his mental health soon began to crumble when his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder began affecting both private and public facets of his life.
Eventually, Hughes comes a point where he locks himself in his house and slips into a deep depression. As a result of Hughes manic behavior, Adorno and Horkheimer would believe that if Hughes’ private behavior were to ever leak out into the public spectrum, his image would be forever tarnished because the Howard Hughes behind closed doors is not the same man who became a superstar director. One of the primary arguments Adorno and Horkheimer have with mass culture is that they feel that culture itself is becoming too standardized based upon formulas to streamline mass reproduction.
When profitable, these formulas can become reproducible, like the star system of today. “Not only are the hit songs, stars, and soap operas cyclically recurrent and rigidly invariable types, but the specific content of the entertainment itself is derived from them and only appears in change. ” (FSR 9) It is as if they feel like nothing is original anymore and that everything is scripted and painted with this formula that works for the system to get the masses interested in a particular artist, song, show, movie, or in Dyer’s case, a movie star.
Take for example Bette Davis, who in her films displays a very mannered style and grace under pressure. She usually plays very strong, independent, manipulative characters who have a solid surface disguised by an internal inferno. So when someone may want to see the latest Bette Davis movie, they may not like it if she plays in the style of a goodie goodie housewife just like all the typical housewives seen in such 1950s sitcoms as Father Knows Best and Leave It To Beaver.
People are going to want to have her display some internal conflict she is constantly struggling with but in the end, over powers it because of her strong will and female empowerment. This same principle goes for Howard Hughes and his image. People want to see the Howard Hughes that is a public sensation, a brilliant filmmaker, a man with a taste for beautiful women. Nobody wants to see him in a depressed state locking himself in his house, because that will deter people’s images of him and less people will go out to see his movies.
This plays into Adorno and Horkheimer’s idea of these formulas becoming reproducible and how this type of consumerism the individual plays can create the illusion of individual identity and authentic community. They feel like stars like David and Hughes have become statistics based on their genres they play best rather than recognized as individuals with creative freedom over their work. Just as Adorno and Horkheimer would have a problem with Richard Dyer’s essay, Dwight MacDonald has many of the same qualms with Jackie Stacey’s views of seeing movie stars as idols we should strive to be someday.
In her essay, “Feminine Fascinations: Forms of Identification in Star-Audience Relations,” Stacey analyzes the relationship between the female spectator and the Hollywood stars she discusses. In her discussion of imitating and copying the female stars, the female spectators often try to emulate either the stars looks or personas to try and be just like them, and in turn want others to think they are just like the star. Stacey explains that, “Stars are thus identified with particular commodities which are part of the reproduction of feminine identities.
The female spectators in these examples produce particular images of femininity which remind them of their favorite stars. In so doing they produce a new feminine identity, one which combines an aspect of the star with their own appearance. ” (FSR 153) It seems that Stacey is pointing out that these particular stars are consumable feminine images which female spectators then reproduce through other forms of consumption. Not only do these stars try to solve the binary oppositions of private self and public self as Dyer mentions, they are meant to be consumed by an audience as role models.
Both seem to agree on the fact that stars fill some voids in people’s lives. We try to see ourselves as these very public figures and emulate every facet of their lives to try and improve our lives as a whole. Dyer’s and Stacey’s arguments also share many direct correlations with David Buxton’s article, “Rock Music, The Star System, And The Rise Of Consumerism. ” In it, Buxton talks about how rock stars are being consumed by youth culture everywhere in that the youth are trying to replicate the stars’ styles and attitudes.
He explains that, “The presentation of the life-style of the stars as the ideal of sophisticated modern living grew as part of the American Dream. ” (OR 432) This proves that the idolization of stars is not a new concept that was originally thought up of by any of these three writers. Dwight MacDonald, however, does have a problem with the standardization of this process and how our culture is heading in the wrong direction as a result of this.
Dwight MacDonald wrote an essay entitled, “A Theory of Mass Culture,” in which he explains that elements of mass culture and high culture are starting to merge and become standardized. MacDonald uses the merging of Broadway and the movies as an example of this by saying, “The theatre was High Culture, mostly of the Academic variety… The movies were definitely Mass Culture, mostly very bad… With the sound film, Broadway and Hollywood drew closer together. Plays are now produced mainly to sell the movie rights, with many being directly financed by the film companies. (FSR 15) One specific example of this can be found in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Though the themes of Shakespeare’s story are still in the movie version, Luhrmann blends high art and folk art to make a midcult style movie by placing the setting in present day South Central Los Angeles. MacDonald fears this type of media renders people passive by the end, and is one of the greatest threats to high culture. In MacDonald’s opinion, as our lives become inundated with midcult such as Romeo and Juliet, the reality of consumerism becomes naturalized.
In essence, the heroes and heroines of masscult and midcult that MacDonald speaks of become idols of consumption, mainly movie stars. Stacey explains how female stars such as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford are meant to be consumed by the public because those are the actresses that women most frequently hear about, and want to live just like them because they are classy ladies who are real role models of how one woman should act in society. Based on MacDonald’s argument, the branding and consuming of stars oday represents a demise in our society’s high culture in that these shouldn’t be the people we should be idolizing. The real people that should be getting the praise are the people who changed our country to make life better for everyone in the end, like Thomas Edison and Benjamin Franklin. Using stars to fill the voids in our lives to solve key oppositions to MacDonald are detrimental to our high culture, which is what we really need to be praising instead all of the new media and stars that’ve become mainstream, like Jersey Shore and Teen Mom.
Even though the left wing critics could have many potential problems with the star system of the past and of today, liberal sociologist David Riseman does present some points that could easily counter Adorno, Horkheimer, and MacDonald’s arguments. Riseman insists that mass culture consists of multiple forms of response by audiences. He believes everyone reacts differently to different forms of media and that no one is the same. The formulas that the left wing critics think is ultimately destroying high culture do not exist in Riseman’s opinion.
Even though some people may want certain stars to stick to their formula, some may like to see those artists branch out and explore new fields. The stars that people ultimately consume and strive to become are all different for each individual. Buxton, Dyer, and Stacey don’t say that people only idolize the stars that they talk about. Riseman also argues that audiences of high art want to find their own kitsch in what they consider high culture, just like mass culture audiences want to see their own kitsch in their forms of entertainment. OR 7) He seems to think that Adorno, Horkheimer, and MacDonald have their own ideas of what high culture needs to be, which in the end, becomes something that is copied and will soon generate the same response. For anything negative that the left wing critics might say towards Dyer and Stacey’s arguments, Riseman is there to back up there arguments to prove that their theories are valid after all. It is very apparent that the issue of the Mass Culture Debates has been around for quite some time.
So much so, that you can readily apply them to many different aspects of life, including the star system in Hollywood. There always have been and always will be movie stars or musicians that we enjoy and like to go see because they are good at their craft. Dyer, Stacey, and Buxton are just like every other person out there who ca truly see the effect that stars can have on society and the crazy things that people will do to try and copy their methods.
Whether or not the Star System is good or detrimental to mass culture like Adorno, Horkheimer, and MacDonald seem to believe, as long as stars continue to make the industry interesting, critics will continue to discuss their methods and an on-going will last for many generations to come. Bibliography Hollows, Joanne, Peter Hutchings, and Mark Jancovich. “Section One: Political Economy and Mass Culture Theory. ” The Film Studies Reader. London: Arnold, 2000. 9. Print. Hollows, Joanne, Peter Hutchings, and Mark Jancovich. “Section One: Political Economy and Mass Culture Theory. ” The Film Studies Reader.
London: Arnold, 2000. 15. Print. Hollows, Joanne, Peter Hutchings, and Mark Jancovich. “Section Four: Star Studies. ” The Film Studies Reader. London: Arnold, 2000. 130. Print. Hollows, Joanne, Peter Hutchings, and Mark Jancovich. “Section Four: Star Studies. ” The Film Studies Reader. London: Arnold, 2000. 153. Print. Frith, Simon, and Andrew Goodwin. “Part One: Groundworks. ” On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word. New York: Pantheon, 1990. 7. Print. Frith, Simon, and Andrew Goodwin. “Part Seven: Reading The Stars. ” On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word. New York: Pantheon, 1990. 432. Print.
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