The star of contemporary Western society is an important site of mediation, acting as an avatar for cultural values, a locus of public scandal, an embodiment of the latest fashions, the latest vices, the latest humanitarian causes. In light of this importance, this entry hopes to synthesize and summarize some of the main lines of thought surrounding the function and status of the modern star. The entry will begin by highlighting areas of theoretical agreement. It will then move on to consider the two opposing ways in which the star’s media function has typically been theorized, namely, as signifier and as complex structured image. The entry will conclude with a brief glance at the limitations of these current trends in star studies.
There are a number of largely agreed-upon notions as to the function and status of the star. First, it is typically conceded that the star is historically-situated in the modern, capitalistic, post-Enlightenment West. Terminologically, of course, the ‘star’ has long designated a site of reverence, both literally (as in the case of Sabaism, “star-worship”) and metaphorically (the Virgin Mary, for instance, was referred to as stella maris, ‘star of the sea’) (“Sabaism,” “Stella Maris”). The modern use of the word star however, does have a fairly short history; the concept’s emergence has been variously traced to 19th century theater companies, to 18th century bourgeois theater, and specifically to the actor David Garrick (MacArthur 5-10, Dyer 91, “Star”). So while there is debate about the details, the consensus is that the modern ‘star’ is not older than a couple of centuries. This shift from traditional to modern usage is a result of the ‘star’ shifting from designating sites of reverence to designating produced and mass consumable sites of reverence, to designating stars qua products of what Horkheimer and Adorno have called ‘the culture industry.’1 Indeed, the appearance of the modern concept of the ‘star’ coincides with the rise of modern capitalism, 2 and the mass consumable star reaches its purest form within the epitome of the American culture industry, the Classical Hollywood cinema (aprox. 1917-1960).3 Richard Dyer, in order to gain insight into modern stardom, thus traces how Hollywood’s ‘star system’ produces its products. He argues that “a star image is made out of media texts that can be grouped together as promotion, publicity, films, and criticism,” that the star is produced through advertising, news releases, and star-vehicle films, that the modern star is produced, in short, by the culture industry as it operated within Classical Hollywood (Dyer 60 [emphasis in original]).
This method of glancing to Hollywood to pin down the notion of stardom turns out to be another area of theoretical agreement; namely, theorists concur that the film star epitomizes stardom. Richard Dyer’s seminal study on stars quoted above, for instance, focuses solely on movie stars; Richard Allen has similarly argued that because “[t]he term ‘star’…has been so overused,” theoretical precision demands focus be placed on film stars alone (606). So while the question must certainly linger whether or not “figures such as pop stars, models or sports men and women [have] become more significant” than movie stars, the general consensus in star studies is that the film star can, in the very least, function as a proper entry point for thinking about stardom (McDonald 200). Stanley Cavell argues that this is so because the film actor is uniquely “in our presence while we are not in his,” that the film actor is strangely and necessarily absent from his audience (346).4 This absence of film actor, Cavell continues, added to the fact that “we know a new star, only distantly as a person,” means that a star, in her status as absent person, exists most purely in the cinema because a cinema star, by definition, also exists in absentia (347).
So then, it is widely agreed that stars are (1) historically-situated sites of mediation and (2) epitomized by the film star. Most star theorists also believe that “[a]t its most basic, the concept of stardom would seem to involve a duality between actor and character” (Allen 606). ‘Character’ here refers to the sum of the acting roles inhabited by a star while ‘actor’ refers to the star as a person in the world. Thus, if this abstract distinction was translated into a concrete example, most theorists would agree that “[t]o audiences of Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart is the character Rick, but he is also the actor Humphrey Bogart playing the character Rick” (Allen 606 [emphasis added]).5
Having thus considered the major areas of consensus surrounding the function of the star as a site of mediation, this entry will turn to areas of theoretical disagreement concerning stardom. This disagreement primarily manifests itself in the debate over whether the star functions as a signifier or as a complex structured image.
Some argue that the star functions by mediating a specifiable concept to a certain group. It would be helpful to think about this type of star-function as akin to the signifier of Saussurian semiotics. According to Saussure, “[t]hought [the signified] is [like] one side of the sheet [of paper] and sound [the signifier] the reverse side”; signifier and signified are explicitly linked for Saussure (Saussure 111). When the star functions as signifier then, he mediates a single, specifiable (though not necessarily simple…) signified/meaning through his explicit linkage to that meaning. This seems to be the common understanding of the star. A belief in the star qua signifier is in operation, for instance, when Arnold Schwarzenegger is read as communicating ‘tough-guy masculinity’ through his explicit linkage to that concept. Marshall McLuhan aligns himself with such an understanding of the star’s function. He argues that stars embody “‘hot’ media values,” that stars are always in “the state of being filled with data,” that stars mediate fully elaborated and decodable bytes of information to largely passive receivers (320, 22). Richard Griffith also construes the star-function as being one of signification; he argues that a star is ultimately made “in the depths of the collective unconscious,” that stars each embody and signify some unconscious societal characteristic or desire (Griffith 23).
The star’s function, however, is often understood in a radically different way. Indeed, since the publication of Dyer’s study Stars in 1980, many scholars have argued that the star functions not as a signifier, but rather as a complex structured image. For Dyer, stars are “images existing in films and other media texts” that are ultimately “structured polysem[ies]” (3). The star-image functions as a polysemy in that it contains a “multiplicity of meanings and affects,” and is structured in “that some meanings and affects are foregrounded and others are masked or displaced” (Dyer 3). Dyer’s star-image thus functions in the manner Marx’s commodity-form.6 For Marx, the commodity-form exists in capitalism as “a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character” (446). The commodity-form in other words, patches the holes and shortcomings of capitalist society (i.e., the exploitation of labor) through its apparent objective giveness. Dyer’s star functions similarly; through its seeming giveness, the star-image patches various societal holes and contradictions by ‘masking’ and ‘displacing’ them. While this particular formulation of the star is undeniably Marxian, “[o]ne does not have to share Dyer’s Marxism to see his formulation of the star…as a useful starting point for the historical analysis of stardom” (Allen 606). Indeed, Dyer’s view of the star as ‘structured polysemy’ offers a way for considering how stars function as “complex images containing multiple [and often contradictory] meanings” (Allen 607). Consider, for instance, the contradictory American principles that ‘anyone can become great’ and ‘the great are on a higher plane than the rest of us.’ Emanuel Levy, Paul McDonald, and Dyer himself all point out that the star functions to ‘mask’ this contradiction by embodying both of its terms (Levy 49; McDonald 196; Dyer 43). More concretely, consider Arnold Schwarzenegger’s stardom when read as a complex structured image. Schwarzenegger embodies many seemingly contradictory societal terms: the barbaric human (a la Conan); the post-human cyborg (a la Terminator); the quasi-refined American politician (a la governor of California). In Schwarzenegger, these terms come together and through this coming together in the star-image, their contradictions are ‘masked.’
So stars qua sites of mediation are typically construed either as signifiers tied to certain specifiable meanings or as complex structured images that mask societal contradictions. Paul McDonald and others however, have pointed to an important limitation of such a dichotomous approach to the star. Namely, McDonald notes that both sides of this dichotomy are ultimately semiological that thinking about the star as either signifier or complex structured image leads to “stardom becoming trapped in a realm of textuality which leaves out many practical actions which stardom motivates in society” (McDonald 200). Both sides of the above dichotomy, in other words, consider only what stars mean, what and how stars mediate messages; both approaches thus ignore what stars do, how stars as media actually affect people. In response to this theoretical inadequacy, Jackie Stacey has conducted a study based on interviews in which star fans were asked about the effects of stars on their lives.7 Such inquiry into the practical effects of stars, however, is still much in need of further elaboration. Another potential limitation of star studies as it exists today, a limitation that may or may not become necessary to address in the coming years, is its ability to meet the questions posed by the newest generation of stars. Will the dominant currents of star studies be able to help theorists understand the figures emerging from reality TV, YouTube, and American Idol? Or will star studies soon need to undergo radical revision in the face of these cultural changes?
Joseph M. Vukov