Masculinity and race as absent presences

Written by Kim. Posted in News

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

With the exception of Hannah Yelin reference to ‘white trash’, celebrity memoirs, race and masculinity were absent from the papers presented. Tori Cann’s introduction to the seminar pointed to the heavy focus on femininities, highlighting the necessity of work on all genders. The seminar felt almost exclusively white and female, and while both the classed and gendered positions of the seminar participants were often referred to during papers and discussions, whiteness appeared as an absent presence during most of the day. In the final workshop some of the methodological discussion touched briefly on the politics of representation and reflexivity in research, focussing on issues such as the authority of researchers to speak from their social locations.

In our project work we are engaging with all genders as celebrities and as ‘consumers’ of celebrity. We are also ensuring that our participants are ethnically diverse and enable us to explore how race, ethnicity and nation intersect with class, gender and sexuality in celebrity representations and readings.  As is often the case in work on gender, it was noteworthy that the ‘gender’ dimensions of the day was manifest in an almost exclusive focus on femininity. This included attention to both representations of women and the practices of women and girls as consumers/audience – from the abject or invisible older women in presentations by Claire Mortimer on older women in British comedy and Jane Traies on the lives of older lesbians in the 1990s documentary Women like Us through to the fetishishation of ‘girlhood’ in popular culture. The women focused on – from Margaret Rutherford to Paris Hilton and today’s tween stars were all white. It is possible that Jane’s study included some lesbians of colour, but she omitted to mention this. Hannah Yelin’s paper on the production and public discussion of celebrity memoirs highlighted the intersections of class and race in the construction of ‘white trash’ celebrity subjects. In our own research we are interested in exploring how race and class are mobilised in discussions of ‘trashy’ celebrities, such as the gendered and racialised discourses surrounding Kim Kardashian and Nikki Minaj both in our group interviews and case study analysis.

While questions of masculinity – in mediated representation and in relation to boys’/ mens’ engagement with media and popular culture – were absent, some interesting questions emerged for us from the presentations. For example, Melanie Kennedy’s paper on tween girlhood prompted us to question how her analysis might be extended to look at the representation of masculinity in tween culture. How might we understand the representation of ‘boy-becoming man’ – a ‘trying on of manhood’ – in tween/Disney stars like Zac Efron, The Jonas Brothers or even younger pop stars like Justin Bieber and One Direction?

In the data we’ve collected so far, we have found that young people hold mixed but strong views about celebrities from the tween and Disney stables – both female and male – where the tween label appears a dangerous one to occupy and a tricky one to leave. In the case of Beiber and Miley Cyrus for example, participants struggled to disentangle the ‘private’ and ‘star’ image of the performer. Their personal ‘maturing’ (manifest in more ‘adult’ appearances or behaviours like embarking on sexual relationships) appeared to complicate their original tween image as ‘squeaky clean’. Although there were a few fans, most young people saw both stars as inauthentic, pretentious and – in the case of Bieber – ambiguous in relation to sexuality and gender (with some participants labelling him as  ‘a girl’ or ‘gay’). While we are yet to fully analyse this data, we are interested in how the tween star – male and female – might function in how young people make sense of their own movement from child to adult and regulate ‘appropriate’ gender identity and moral and sexual conduct. We have noticed an interest in these and other stars (like Tom Daley, Emma Watson and Will Smith) who young people have seen growing up.

We are also interested in how a (tween or otherwise) celebrity’s ethnicity plays out in how they are represented and read. For example we were struck by how in a rural school in South West England, two of the most loved celebrities were Tom Daley and Emma Watson who carry Whiteness and Englishness through their Olympic and film careers respectively. In a more urban and ethnically diverse school, Barak Obama was listed as an inspiring celebrity for being the first Black President of the US. In a further rural school, white participants discussed Michael Jackson’s song ‘black and white’ in relation to racism in society. This contrast between rural and urban and between the urban spaces of Manchester and London shows how important local context is both to who people value and how they talk about them. Studies that look at celebrity representations independent of this cannot attend to this and how celebrity stories are lived.

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