Essay

Out of the slipstream

WE WAITED IN the cold all morning. It was a Saturday in early June, only a few days before my fourteenth birthday. An early present – a full-length denim coat to match my denim flares and denim clutch bag – kept out the wind.

Roadies lugged equipment in through the stage door, jeans slung unfashionably low under beer bellies. We tried flirting with them but they had real groupies to contend with – mature women of 16 who'd come all the way from Sydney. We were nice girls and none of us had ever kissed a boy. The groupies hung out with us long enough to flash albums full of actual photos of The Band. Then the roadies spirited them inside for The Sound Check.

Late in the afternoon a coach pulled up and our heroes emerged flanked by security guards. We barely got a glimpse. By then, the alleyway was thronged with screaming fans. Nine hours for the privilege of breathing the same air. But we were used to waiting. Waiting was how you showed you were a true fan. We didn't just queue for tickets. We slept outside the box office to get front-row seats. We counted down the days before a new album was due in the stores. We paced each other's lounge rooms waiting for Countdown to begin. We sat patiently by the radio ignoring real boys at parties in the hope the DJ would play our favourite song. We had no VCRs and our tape recorders were crap. So we worked as a team to commit everything our idols did to memory – every performance, every word, every gesture, every facial expression. This waiting, this worship, was what we understood by fame.

It's not as if female rock stars were unheard of in 1975. There were precedents. Suzi Quatro enjoyed a brief sojourn on my wall next to David Cassidy the year I started high school. But I certainly never dreamed of donning a leather jumpsuit, picking up a bass guitar and watching a sea of teenagers pass out at my feet. The idea that ordinary teenage girls – girls who weren't particularly beautiful or talented – should take their own shot at fame was unthinkable. Boys formed garage bands. Girls hung out in the driveway hoping to catch a lead guitarist in the making.

Back in '70s Newcastle, when fame knocked for the average teenage girl it was usually a bloke offering a backstage pass in exchange for some backseat head. Not necessarily a bad deal for a chance to party with rock stars and taste what passed for bohemia in a country town.

 

REALITY TV, AS we are constantly told by the pundits of middle class and brow is dumbing down our culture and distracting people from higher political and aesthetic pursuits. It's a commonplace that crosses the ideological spectrum.

Here, for instance, is Germaine Greer on the first Big Brother series screened in the United Kingdom: "People who like watching torture will tune in to see a table dancer, an air steward, a hairdresser, a medical rep and a website designer struggling with the contradictions inherent in having simultaneously to bond with and betray perfect strangers." In a similar vein, conservative Sydney Morning Herald opinion columnist Miranda Devine commented of the contestants in the local Big Brother series that they: "Are not embarrassed about anything – not the mess in their dormitory bedrooms, the banality of their conversation, their late-night drunken ramblings, their indiscriminate bed-hopping, their liberal use of the f-word. They are the fully evolved embodiment of their vulgar era: people utterly without shame."

One of the best-known and highest-rating reality shows screened in Australia (and syndicated by Endemol Entertainment across the world) is Big Brother. It's a show with a strong appeal to teenage girls. Towards the end of its first Australian season, in 2001, I accompanied Channel 9 reporter Charles Wooley to the Dreamworld theme park on the Gold Coast to shoot a 60 Minutes segment on the Big Brother phenomenon. The most popular housemate was a flirty, bubbly and infamously chubby young woman named Sara-Marie Fedele. She was particularly loved by teenage girls and the studio audience was full of fans wearing her trademark bunny ears and flannelette pyjamas.

Despite years of living with the incessant public attention a television profile brings, Wooley was clearly stunned by the fascination generated by such an "ordinary" person. He couldn't understand why anyone would care about people whose only claim to fame was that they'd agreed to live in the Big Brother house and have their lives recorded daily and broadcast nightly to television viewers. "Why are they famous?" Wooley asked me. "What have any of them done?" The stir his own presence had created among the studio audience lent more than a touch of irony to his remarks. A stream of young women flocked to him wherever he moved, asking for autographs and craning their necks in the hope of getting their faces on camera.

The frequently cited notion that reality television contestants haven't "earned" their fame assumes there is a rational foundation to modern celebrity in the first place. But while there's no question that more people than ever before are famous today, the means of its production vary widely. Some fame is fleeting, arising out of an accidental starring role in a media event focused on a natural disaster, a violent crime or a sex scandal. Other celebrity is the byproduct of years of hard work and real talent. Most of it is medium-dependent.

 

THE EVOLUTION OF celebrity in the 20th century is intimately relate to the evolution of technologies for making individuals public. The advent of records, film, photography, videos, advanced printing and satellite technologies has provided a vast apparatus for manufacturing stars. Technological advances have not only allowed actors and singers to reproduce their performances on tape or film, they've helped individualise them. The invention of the close-up in cinema, for instance, focused the audience on the actor's face and gave them an unprecedented opportunity to study their favourite performer at close range. Paradoxically, the demise of live performance and the boom in recorded images and sounds paved the way for stars to establish a new kind of intimacy with their public. Charles Wooley may be a hardworking and charismatic journalist but it's unlikely he'd be stopped on the street if he had made a career in print journalism.

The production of fame, as Graeme Turner, David Marshall and Frances Bonner document in their bookFame Games (Cambridge University Press, 2000), is now an enormous industry stoked and maintained by an army of publicists, stylists, agents, managers and media producers. Celebrity is one of the central commodities produced by late global capitalism. But it doesn't follow that there is a consistency to its production or lifespan. Fame has no necessary relationship to wealth, natural ability, looks, intelligence, family, character or social charisma, although all those characteristics can be useful in acquiring it. Fame is both radically democratic and brutally random. Anybody can become famous, but there are no sure-fire ways of gaining admission to a club that now offers its members privileges (and obligations) once only bestowed on royalty.

None of which is lost on teenage girls, as Elspeth Probyn and I discovered when we embarked on a three-year Australian Research Council-funded project exploring young women and media consumption. In a typical exchange, a group of 14– and 15-year-olds from a regional co-ed state school talked frankly about the benefits of the celebrity lifestyle:

Vanessa: Money. How you look, and looking how you look, and the clothes and just ...

Anne: And boys!

Vanessa: And the thing you get to go to, say if you become a supermodel, you get to go to all these, like, get-together things. And you know people ...

Anne: And travel.

Vanessa: And people would know you.

 

A COMMON THEME of these discussions about the benefits of the celebrity lifestyle was the freedom it offered young women from the constraints imposed by parents, teachers and other "protectors", as this discussion of singer Nikki Webster by 14– and 15-year-olds from a regional co-ed state school illustrates:

Justine: I hate Nikki Webster ... but I'd love to be like her, be like 14, 15.

Paulina: Who?

Justine: Nikki Webster.

Clare: She has a career in singing but that's not the only aspect. She can do whatever she wants now.

Justine: Yeah, but being 14, 15 and famous all over the world.

Clare: Not all over the world. They cut her part out of the Olympic Ceremony in America. They couldn't be bothered explaining all this Australian background and everything.

Justine: But she's like a millionaire at 13, 14 whatever it is.

Maggie: But like all her fans are eight years old.

Justine: Yeah, but I would love to be like her, famous.

 

TEENAGE GIRLS ARE also highly aware of the downside of celebrity: an invasive scrutiny of the celebrities' bodies and their private lives. Indeed, any mention of the subject inevitably returned to the question of how such scrutiny apparently results in female celebrities developing eating disorders. Here's what a group of 12– and 13-year-olds from an inner-city single sex, state selective school had to say on the subject:

Eleni: I think a lot of them are way too ... skinny, but I don't think everyone should then assume that they're anorexic, because that's like a big assumption to make of someone. I mean Calista Flockhart ...

Susanna: My mum, whenever she goes on the TV, she's like, "Oh she's so thin".

Eleni: You've got to admit, her baby looks like it's bigger than her. She looks like a lollypop, with a big head. Really quite scary ... also like Geri Halliwell ... Madame Tussauds made a wax figure of her, and now they have to keep shaving lumps off her because practically her butt's disappeared, and she's got no chest to speak of anymore, and she used to be really big-busted, and everything.

 

TALKING WITH YOUNG women, it became increasingly clear that a core element of their enthusiasm for Big Brother's bunny-eared Sara-Marie centres on their perception that she was able to negotiate the high level of scrutiny that goes with instant fame without feeling the need to pander to her audience. And, contrary to concerns expressed in popular discourse about the show, it was precisely the young women's awareness of the contrived and performance-oriented nature of Big Brother that heightened Sara-Marie's "reality" value. Young women commented on her flagrant self-assurance despite her context – a house filled with cameras – and the stereotypes that shadowed her performance of femininity – she was fat, she was "slutty", she was sloppy, she was stroppy.

Our research suggests that Sara-Marie is a refreshing reality check for young women who, rather like the Big Brother housemates, feel under constant surveillance from a variety of sources – their peer group, men, the popular media, parents, teachers and "experts". They see Sara-Marie as someone who has the sass and the wit to return those gazes and to do it without conforming to other people's expectations. Sara-Marie knows people will be talking about the fact that she has a big bum and rather than skulking around and trying to hide it, she invents a "bum-dance". Guys like her because she's warm, down-to-earth and open. Her opposite, according to many of the same teenage girls, is Gemma, another Big Brother housemate, as this exchange between 12– and 13-year-olds from a co-ed rural state school illustrates:

Ashley: It was interesting to see who actually won and who actually stayed there the longest because the majority of viewers were teenage girls. It's interesting to see that they kept Sara-Marie in because she wasn't really skinny or like a model or anything – she was just very, very honest and nice.

Holly: I think Sara-Marie liked being herself ...

Ashley: Gemma was really nice but she was always putting on her make-up. She wasn't really going anywhere, just inside the house but she was always putting lip gloss on. Really frustrating.

Gabrielle: Sara-Marie, she made you laugh – she was just funny to watch.

Kate: I think Gemma was trying to act like she thought that everyone in the outside world would want her to be like.

 

IT'S CRITICAL TO see that teenage girls aren't saying appearances don't matter or that you can pretend that the size or shape of your body is irrelevant to other people. What they like about Sara-Marie is that she had found a way of turning this fascination with appearances to her advantage. Gemma emerges, in their eyes, as someone who is hampered by her role as the pretty skinny girl. She's afraid to move a muscle in case she changes the drape of her T-shirt. Sara-Marie, on the other hand, is a performer who takes up a variety of social roles with gusto and who understands that "being yourself" also involves being many things to other people. The role the girls cited included a confidante, a "mum", a mate to the boys and a vixen. Sara-Marie knows people like to look and she gives them something to look at. To borrow a phrase from a reality-television producer, she improvises on the theme of being herself.

The contemporary experience of fame, from this perspective, is an extension for young women of life in an image-focused world. It's a world whose new economy they understand and whose pitfalls they are hyper-aware of. As Susan Hopkins writes in her book Girl Heroes (Pluto Press, 2002), there is far more to the story of girls, pop culture and celebrity today than some feminists want to know. She writes: "If we are moving toward a society of image logic, then girls and women may be positively advantaged in this new media age. After all, it seems the most powerful icons of contemporary culture built their careers not on any 'true' 'authentic' talented self, but on their successful management of media images and illusions." It's an argument that runs counter to some conventional and increasingly contested feminist arguments that are premised on the juxtaposition of "real" women and appearances, on the notion that the truth about ourselves lies in an essential inner core.

 

"POPSTARS OR PUPPETS?", the Who Weekly cover line that accompanied a photo of the winners of Channel 7's reality hit Popstars raises a conventional objection to the notion that women can ever be empowered in the marketplace of images. All those girls kicking ass in tight jumpsuits on television might look cool, but behind the scenes there's always a male pulling the strings, shortening the skirts and reaping the bucks.

It's a notion that is increasingly rebutted in real terms by the spectacle of women taking charge of their own image production and promotion. As Elle Macpherson once put it: "This is not about lending our image for a fee. We've got shares." Since the early '90s, female models, singers and actors have increasingly marketed themselves not only as an image but as a brand. From merely endorsing products, they've moved into producing their own product lines. Lingerie, clothing, perfume, jewellery, cosmetics – the core business of celebrity is no longer singing, acting or smiling, it's the reproduction of image and the range of media expands exponentially.

At an amateur level, research shows that an increasing numbers of young girls are embarking on DIY fame ventures using newly domesticated media technologies to produce and distribute their own images online. The growing phenomenon of camgirl sites, where female-image entrepreneurs set up cameras in their bedrooms and invite virtual voyeurs to visit them online via a website is a case in point. While much media commentary on teenage girls and the internet is focused on protecting them from predatory males, there are plenty of young women setting up their own webcams and offering their images in exchange for cash gifts, fan mail and a shot at various kinds of fame, pornographic and other.

One response is to suggest that girls have no idea of the dangers they're courting and that they need protection from themselves. But another is to argue that camgirls are adopting a pragmatic position in respect to their role as "teenage girls". As the author of Yes Means Yes, Kath Albury (Allen & Unwin, 2002) puts it: "They're extending the idea of the personal website into a commercial enterprise. They're asking men to be their 'fans', and to pay for the privilege of objectifying them, or forming fantasy relationships."

It's a view that jars with the common claim that teenage girls were much better off before the age of girl-power pop celebrity and amateur internet porn. I'm trying hard to romanticise those long fruitless vigils outside the stage door. Perhaps I'd feel more nostalgic if we'd managed to score a real sexual experience out of it. Right now, all I can remember is the boredom and the cold.

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