Class and femininity: From tween girls to white trash celebrities

Written by Kim. Posted in Featured, News

Two key themes emerged for us from the Gender, Media and Generation conference. In another post we explore how race and masculinity were absent presences throughout the day, and in a final short post reflect on working as feminist scholars in contemporary climate of academia. In this post we explore what speakers had to say about social class and femininity and how this relates to our own research.

Two papers in particular spoke to the importance of class to mediated representations of femininity in youth and popular culture. Melanie Kennedy drew on analysis of Miley Cyrus in Hannah Montanna and Demi Lovato in Camp Rock to argue that tween popular culture employs ‘celebrity’ as an allegory for growing up female. She claimed that the female tween star’s investment in becoming famous is infused by imperatives of the neoliberal self (authenticity, self-reinvention, self-empowerment via consumerism) which prepare young girls for contemporary adult women’s post-feminist media culture. Melanie showed how desires for fame/ becoming famous are integral tropes to tween popular culture. However, in the discussions, it was noted that such becoming carried a caveat in which social class was central: in tween texts, protagonists’ achievement of and desire for fame is only sanctioned when it is performed in a particular way. Integral to this was a holding together of celebrity with other forms of valued cultural capital and performances of ‘respectable’ achievement – educational success or investment in professional careers. In other words, celebrity is differently read and inscribed with meaning for different classed, raced and gendered bodies.

Elsewhere, Hannah Yelin gave a paper on celebrity memoirs. Looking at the memoirs of Paris Hilton and Jade Goody, Hannah examined the ways in which the Reality TV genre with its focus on performed personhood and ‘authenticity’ provided opportunities for classifying celebrities as ‘trash’, ‘vulgar’ and ‘unworthy’. Hannah spoke about how Jade and Paris incited judgements where the public could revel in the ‘pleasure of collective censure’ regardless of these celebrities’ very different class backgrounds. Indeed, Jade’s experience of poverty marks her class biography as distant and dissimilar from that of Paris Hilton, an heiress born into wealth and privilege.

However, despite what Pierre Bourdieu described as the ‘disappearance of economic constraints’, like Jade, Paris is unable to display the forms of cultural capital – education, merit, taste – that are central to middle-class evaluations of value. These evaluations have gendered dimensions – as Imogen Tyler and others have shown – where cultural capital and taste get read off the female body. For these female celebrities, augmentations of botox, tanning, cosmetic surgery etc are judged to be trashy and are interpreted as cheap. Like the ‘Essex Girl’ of the 1980s, described by Bev Skeggs, the ‘big’ ‘full on’ look these female celebrities invest in is read as excessive and distasteful. It’s seen as an overt desire to be looked at rather than embodying the ‘modest’ ‘restrained’ femininity of the middle classes in which the desiring gaze is ‘effortlessly’ achieved.

In our data collection, where The Only Way is Essex stars, ‘celebrity chavs’ (e.g. Katie Price and Kerry Katona) and ‘socialiates’ (e.g Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian) have been referenced as ‘unworthy celebrities’ who are ‘famous for nothing’ and provoke hostile responses of disgust and contempt at their ‘undeserved fame’ from many (though not all) of the participants. These responses sit in stark contrast to most of the feelings expressed towards Royal Kate Middleton, whose status while similarly arbitrary – attributed via marriage rather than talent – was described as ‘nice’, ‘a good role model’ and praised for her ‘lovely clothes’ and charity work.

This entanglement between judgements of celebrity and performances of classed femininity has broader consequences for how young women and men in schools regulate their own and others’ performances of ‘respectable’ aspirations. As Imogen Tyler and Bruce Bennett argued in their work on celebrity chavs, ‘the forms of celebrity available to women are, like the concomitant forms of femininity, regulated and relentlessly disciplined’.

 

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