Haklin on Marcus (2019)


Marcus, Sharon. The Drama of Celebrity. Princeton UP, 2019, pp. vi + 318, ISBN 978-0691177595

Kathryn A. Haklin, Washington University in St. Louis

Have you ever wondered how celebrities become famous? Sharon Marcus’s latest book, The Drama of Celebrity, responds to the creation of stardom by taking fame seriously as an operative force in the popular imagination. However, it is not so much why celebrities attract attention that is of interest. Rather, it is how celebrity culture functions that drives the book’s inquiry into the allure of fame. In this concise monograph, Marcus compellingly shows that the operation of celebrity hinges on the interplay between three entities: publics, media, and celebrities themselves. No single group can generate notoriety for it is the volatile interaction among the three that produces celebrity culture. 

The book’s methodology is neither purely historical nor purely theoretical. Marrying archival materials from the nineteenth century with twenty-first century cultural products—Internet articles, blogs, tweets—Marcus reads for continuities across time and media, articulating a historically grounded theory of how celebrity works. Summoning names like Joan Crawford and Prince, Justin Bieber and J.M. Barrie, the book brings together an exceptionally diverse set of references to expose the manipulative tactics deployed by media producers, various publics, and the famous. Indeed, the “drama” of the title revolves around the unpredictable interactions among these groups struggling for control over the unwieldy factors engendering fame and its subsequent powers, a refrain that echoes throughout the study.

The Drama of Celebrity consists of eight succinct chapters whose one-word titles evoke one concept forming the apparatus of stardom. The first chapter on “Defiance” examines the paradox whereby celebrities gain popularity by defying conventions embraced by most of society, therefore implying that stars come to represent the general public’s desire to be defiant. Chapter two on “Sensation” shifts the focus to celebrities themselves, arguing that stars make emotional appeals to their audiences by inspiring impassioned reactions to their iconic on-stage personae. Central to this discussion is each star’s “exteriority effect,” one of Marcus’s key terms positing that a celebrity’s corporal presence—examples might include Michael Jackson’s moonwalk or Kim Kardashian’s Internet-breaking backside—elicits a tantalizing interest on the part of their followers. “Sensation” incites, in turn, the “Savagery” of chapter three, which argues that the media frames the behavior of ardent fans as disruptive to diminish the potential merits associated with celebrity. Rather than degrade supporters as “rampaging outlaws” (106), chapter four on “Intimacy” recasts fandom as a “placid immersion” (105) into the aura of fame by taking a closer look at scrapbooks compiled by fin-de-siècle theater fans. Bringing these neglected objects of ephemera into the limelight, Marcus explores how scrapbooks straddled the boundary between consumption and production since fans were both zealous consumers of paraphernalia depicting their favorite stars, and effective producers forging a sense of intimacy with them through their hand-crafted creations. 

Chapter five on “Multiplication” forms the focal point of the book and contends that fame is bolstered by a proliferation of images and stories about a star since “the more copies, the more celebrity” (120). Responding to Walter Benjamin’s oft-cited essay wherein reproduction deprives artworks of their aura, this chapter foregrounds what Marcus calls the “halo of the multiple,” the paradoxical notion by which the reproduction of a celebrity’s image intensifies their singularity, not diminishes it (127). This idea segues logically into chapter six on “Imitation,” which expands on the concept that celebrities present themselves as distinctive types to be copied by their fans. However, by exposing the gender and racial biases underpinning the privilege of imitation, Marcus frames the act of copying as a strategy that empowers the imitator and the imitated, or, in the case of caricature, as a tactic that has been used to demean marginalized groups. Chapter seven on “Judgement” focuses on the nineteenth-century roots of the “culture of evaluation” (185), in which fans joined reporters in casting judgement upon the famous, who, for their part, endeavored to execute memorable performances. “Merit,” the final concept examined, explores how celebrities encourage comparison, citing fin-de-siècle theater actors as those who first encouraged fans to rank their performances against those of rival performers.

Dix-neuviémistes will appreciate the ways in which Marcus’s historically anchored theories highlight the print and visual cultures of the nineteenth century. By interweaving innovative research on Sarah Bernhardt, the book’s proclaimed “godmother of celebrity culture,” with analyses of today’s public figures, Marcus conjoins past and present to devise a transhistorical framework for how fame generates and sustains itself. The extended investigation into the representative figure of Bernhardt—which adds a significant contribution to scholarship devoted to the theater megastar—serves a reciprocal purpose since readings of the actress’s active construction of her persona inform Marcus’s development of her theory on celebrity culture and, inversely, the general theory of celebrity culture informs Marcus’s analysis of portrayals of the actress.

Not to be skipped is the first paragraph of the conclusion, which ignites the argumentative fireworks toward which the book builds. This surprising rhetorical twist—referred to here only obliquely to avoid a spoiler—upends the reader’s expectations in order to drive home the argument emphasizing the nineteenth-century roots of celebrity culture. The stylistic ruse succeeds, subsequently illuminating the power of popularity as it applies to politics, one of the greatest payoffs of Marcus’s research.

By unmasking fame as a construct reliant upon interactions among three groups, Marcus effectively dismantles the facile conclusion that the media alone has the power to create a star. Accounting for the ever-evolving nature of celebrity, Marcus’s theory opens up new questions about how today’s emergent stars, such as social media influencers, can simultaneously act as members of the public, media producers, and as celebrities in their own right. The book’s fluid prose will be accessible to students and fresh insights will enrich the work of researchers throughout the academy. An overdue contribution to the field, readers and cultural critics alike will indulge in The Drama of Celebrity to better understand the seduction of stardom and its drama.