Sharon Marcus’s new book, The Drama of Celebrity (Princeton UP, 2020), sets out to help us understand celebrity culture and how it has shifted and evolved since its contemporary inception in the early 1800s. Marcus highlights the celebrity concept throughout western history, indicating some of the same dynamics at work in classical Greece that we see in our current popular culture landscape. This culture has three components that are generally all present in some form: the celebrities themselves, who may achieve that role through some form of performance or other attention-generating experience or event, a media of some kind (radio, newspaper, magazines, social media) that focuses attention on individual celebrities, and the fans or citizens who engage with the celebrities. Marcus delineates this “three-legged stool” of celebrity culture and notes that while aspects of it have changed over the years—especially the form of media—the structure and foundation continues to operate as an interactive ecosystem. Marcus opens up her tracing of this culture with Sarah Bernhardt, who embodied a kind of prototype of what we see and consider modern celebrity culture. With Bernhardt as an iconic example as well as a Virgil-like guide, Marcus explores contemporary celebrity, and also the critique of celebrity, asking the question of how we should understand these phenomena in the age of Trump, both in the United States and elsewhere.
The Drama of Celebrity also dives into the racial and gender dynamics that have long been at work in the value placed on those who achieve fame and celebrity status. Without shifting the thesis to focus only on the role of gender and celebrity, Marcus teases out the dichotomous approach to male celebrity and female celebrity, and the different standards that are applied to both the individual celebrity themselves and their fans. As we move through different media and different performative formats that promote or garner an individual fame and celebrity, Marcus also compels the reader to consider the opposing ideas of American individualism and the production of mass culture, and how these antithetical dimensions are united within celebrity culture. This is a fascinating examination of the idea and the mechanics of celebrity and will be of interest to a broad array of readers.
Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).
Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI.