Anne Helen Petersen on Celebrities, Pop Culture, and "Trash"

Wednesday April 9 2014
by Serena

SC: Morning Anne! So glad to have you with us. I really enjoyed your talk at Webstock and had a great time chatting to you afterwards.

First of all -- could you give us a short spiel about yourself; who you are, what you do, and why you’re interested in the celebrity aspects of pop culture, etc?

AHP: I’m currently working as a professor of media studies at Whitman College, a small liberal arts college in Washington State. I teach Intro to Television, Hollywood Stardom, Gender/Sexuality/Media, and an entire course on Mad Men. I also write a blog, Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style, which is basically just about what it sounds like, and regularly write for lots of places on the internet (The Hairpin, Slate, Los Angeles Review of Books, etc.) on issues pertaining to celebrity, media, and feminism. It’s pretty awesome.  But there’s not really a place in academia for me (as I found out on the job market this year) so I recently accepted a job as a features writer at BuzzFeed, which means that I’ll be writing longform, rigorously researched pieces (much like this one on Jennifer Lawrence) every two to three weeks.

SC: Yes -- congrats on getting a Real Job! What were some of the most surprising responses you got when you announced that you’d be moving to BuzzFeed?

AHP: I’ve received so much support -- my inbox is filled with dozens of emails from people in and outside of academia, and just the general virality of the announcement made it clear that the issues I faced during my job search / ultimate decision are by no means unique. I think some people are still skeptical as concerns whether or not I can successfully wed my academic background and BuzzFeed, but I can only write and prove those concerns wrong.

SC: What are your thoughts on how celebrities, gossip, and other tabloid-esque things are viewed by the public eye? Why is it important?

AHP: I think it’s just generally difficult for people to take “trash” seriously -- whether that “trash” is on television or pulpy novels or celebrity gossip. And if those items are devalued, then it follows that the study of those items is devalued. For various reasons, the study of celebrity is taken more seriously in the UK and Australia, but it’s still feminized and continuously delegitimized here in the US, even within otherwise progressive institutions.  These items might not be high art, but millions upon millions of people consume them every day -- the fact that they’re “popular” should be more, not less, of a reason to study them.  The cultural studies movement (originating in the UK in the 1970s) made that case, which is why we even study something like television today -- another traditionally feminized medium. But television has been “legitimated” through discourses of quality (it’s like film! it’s not TV, it’s HBO! it’s like a novel!) which is really just another way of saying that smart, educated, and usually white/bourgeois people consume it. But people make meaning out of all sorts of cultural objects, high and low, and it’s crucial to think about how, and why.

SC: We musn’t forget that Shakespeare was one of those that pandered to the (ugh I hate this term) ‘lowest denominator’! I personally wholly believe that in the future, the Fast & Furious franchise will be seen for the cinematic masterpiece it is.

AHP: “Lowest common denominator” is really just “the masses” -- which, again, have always been feminized, infantilized, etc. But the masses aren’t stupid -- sure, they find something like Fast & Furious pleasurable, but they also have specialized areas of knowledge and taste. We all contain multitudes: I love the American show Nashville, which is beautifully soapy and ridiculous, but I also love foreign art cinema and poetry.

SC: Feminised activities such as gossip, makeup, fashion etc are usually downgraded in the general public eye as mindless garbage. What are some self-defense tips you can share with us for defending yourself and what you love to do when others may judge so quickly?

AHP: When it’s a dude, I generally try to see what hobbies he has: is he obsessed with sports? Video games? Politics? Star Trek? Training for triathlons? Then I just try to show how those activities are incredibly culturally similar to the denigrated activities of women.  Celebrity gossip is the same as sports gossip -- the exact same. There’s a reason why we call The Academy Awards “The Super Bowl of Celebrity Gossip.”  And engaged celebrity gossip -- the kind that I propagate in my work, and that thousands replicate in discussions with me, online and off -- is dealing with the same ideological concerns as politics. Intense sports training is the same sort of self-fashioning/vanity as make-up -- and it makes you feel good and doesn’t hurt others!  Ultimately, having a real conversation is the best defense -- and that conversation can be one-sided (through a blog post or a Facebook post) or an actual conversation you have with a random guy arguing with you at the bar.

SC: How do you think we can change the way feminised activities are perceived?

AHP: I always force my students to articulate their pleasures/fandoms, even when they don’t fit neatly into the boxes of what it means to be “feminist” or “progressive.” I did this a few months back with my history as a cheerleader: I had to acknowledge exactly what’s problematic about cheerleading in general, but also self-interrogate as to why I did it and how it gave me pleasure. We are all super effing complicated, and no one can be 100% feminist or progressive all the time, but we can absolutely be mindful about why we do the things we do….instead of just doing things because, subconsciously, we’re fitting into a mold of what culture tells us to do.  So if you love high heels, why? If you obsess over Pinterest, why? What’s dangerous about these practices and what’s liberating?

SC: I think acknowledging the problematic aspects of things we enjoy, while at the same time still enjoying them, is probably one of the most important skills I’ve learned to date.

I dunno -- what’s something fun to talk about now that we have the serious Real Questions out of the way. BEYONCE?

AHP: Beyonce is a fount of questions. I’ve written a lot about my ambivalence/fandom here, but that was before the latest album, which I think is renegotiating some of the claims I made concerning feminism, power, etc.  I’m mostly just thankful for a figure like Beyonce for the conversations she inspires.

SC: That latest album broke a lot of internet threads. I swear I was fangirling for months. She does such a great job at curating her public image -- I could almost believe that she was some kind of goddess just from her concert photos.

AHP: Oh man, she is doing some seriously compelling image production. Scholars will study nothing but her when they look to the late 2010s in fifty years.

SC: Here’s a question -- what does authenticity mean anymore in a world where we can so carefully curate our own public images? I feel that there’s this rising need for authenticity nowadays (re: your Justin Bieber post).

AHP: That piece is so funny to look back on -- it must be four years old? -- and Bieber’s image has changed so profoundly in the time between. Back then, there was something authentically precocious about him; now, that all seems performative in hindsight. We’ve always been obsessed with our celebrities being who they say they are, but I think the obsession with that self being an extension of something authentic is relatively recent and and somewhat linked to digital culture, when everything can be manipulated.

I was listening to the latest NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour, and they did a great job of breaking down the ways in which authenticity can function as a currency -- specifically in the case of Barack Obama appearing on “Between Two Ferns” -- but that ultimately, it’s just as performative as any other trait. Celebrities “perform” authenticity just as much as they perform masculinity or straightness.  It’s definitely worth a listen.

SC: Oooh, I’ll definitely grab it later today. It’s quite interesting when we look at the advent of social media -- it’s almost like each person becomes a little mini-celebrity themselves. Some are very good at this (see: YouTube vloggers). I just wonder what separates authentic human interactions to the performance of authenticity now (if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to Vine it, did it really happen?)

AHP: Hmmm, this is a really interesting question. One of the things that Linda Holmes brings up in the podcast above is just how much of life is performative -- what, after all, is an “authentic” human interaction? Don’t we all think about the way that we’re interacting with others? Sometimes more consciously than others, yes, but especially when we’re meeting new people: I perform my personality. Is it “more” authentic than the way I perform my personality on Twitter simply because I’m standing there in front of the other person? I don’t necessarily think so.

That’s different, however, than planning your “real” life in terms of its potential mediation (via Instagram, Vine, Twitter statuses, whatever). If you’re too busy constantly thinking about how you’ll package yourself, you’ll most likely lose sight of what that “self” is in the first place.  WOW. SUDDENLY WE ARE SUPER EXISTENTIAL!

SC: Existential crises are what I do best! And finally, what are some of your own favourite posts that you’ve done, so our readers can go through them obsessively?

AHP: Oh wow, I’ve never had to do this! I did twin pieces on “Why You Love The Goz” and “Why You Love The Fassbender” several years ago that hold up pretty well. “The Making of Lorde” will resonate with your readers, I think, and all of the Scandals of Classic Hollywood over at The Hairpin are always a good place to get lost/spend an entire afternoon.

And I’m super excited for my new piece on the banality of the celebrity profile, which is coming out in The Believer next month.

SC: Thank you so much for your time, I always love all the insightful things you have to say about media and pop culture. You’re welcome back for chats anytime.

AHP: Totally my pleasure. Let’s go to Webstock again soon!▼

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