Making a Marc(us): Unveiling Celebrity Culture!

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Author. Professor. Literary critic. Cultural historian and feminist theorist. Sharon Marcus wears many hats with finesse and prowess. She is Orlando Harriman Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University as well as the co-founder and co-editor in chief of Public Books, a bimonthly review of books, arts, and ideas. In this truly engaging dialogue with BrandKnew(published by ISD Global), Sharon holds fort on her passion for researching and understanding celebrities(among other things) and offers a sneak peek into what we believe could be a seminal book- her latest: The Drama of Celebrity.

BK: Could you please tell us a bit about your growing up years?

SM: I grew up in Queens, a borough of New York City. The real city felt both very near and very far. We could take the subway and be on Fifth Avenue in less than an hour, but where we lived looked and felt worlds away from Manhattan: quieter, smaller, more homogeneous, less exciting. My parents were very interested in opera, ballet, movies, and theater, and that’s often what we went to Manhattan to see. My local Queens library also showed old movies every Saturday, so I grew up immersed in the performing arts.

BK: What/who were your childhood aspirations & inspirations?

SM: Growing up in the 1970s, I benefited from the ways that feminism was becoming more mainstream. From a very young age I was exposed to children’s books about accomplished working women, such as Florence Nightingale. It’s not surprising that I went on to write a book about a renowned actress, because my childhood inspirations included famous dancers, singers, and actors. The ability of skilled, talented performers to use their bodies to create meaning and beauty moved me from a very young age. But most of all, I was inspired by my mother, a nurse who worked incredibly hard caring for others. Both my parents emphasized the importance, especially to women, of education and financial independence. At a very young age I became interested in research: after my parents bought a multi-volume encyclopedia, I tried to persuade my mother to pay me to write reports for her on specific topics covered in our new reference works. (Tellingly, I wrote a report for her on “sweat” even after she refused to pay my very reasonable 25-cent fee.) My early dreams of being a researcher and a librarian eventually morphed into becoming a professor.

BK: What drew you towards 19th Century French and British Literature?

SM: When I was growing up, my parents had lots of 19th-century French novels in the house. Their covers had an aura of scandal and cynicism that intrigued me. We had fewer 19th-century English novels in the house, but the ones I peeked at, such as Jane Eyre and David Copperfield, featured children as central characters, which appealed to me. A child myself, I was intrigued to see children taken so seriously by grown-ups.

My first year in college, in 1982, I took a course on the female protagonist in the 19th-century novel,
which also introduced me to literary theory. From the first week of class, I was hooked: these books
explained many of the values and myths that had shaped me and other young women I knew. It felt as though if we could understand those books, we could understand and change ourselves, and figure out what needed to change in the world we’d inherited from the century preceding ours.

BK: Performance Studies, Theatre and the Novel: how do you stay on top of all these not so
conventional spaces and how are they received in the present-day zeitgeist? Is there a consumer pull for these areas?

SM: The novel is a surprisingly resilient form: I’m always amazed at how many people continue to read and write novels, and how many films and television shows continue to be based on novels — to take two recent examples, THE HANDMAID’S TALE and HIS DARK MATERIALS. While it’s difficult to predict which novels will sell in large numbers, making publishing a very risky business, each year we see at least a few novels sell in the millions, both in their original languages and in translation. Not just commercial genre fiction, such as mysteries by Tana French or action thrillers by Lee Childs or horror tales by Stephen King, but literary fiction as well, such as Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. While theater has become a relatively esoteric art form, and often a very expensive or highly subsidized one, performance is everywhere. We are all performers now, whether on Facebook or Instagram or in TikTok videos. As such, we are also critical connoisseurs of other people’s performances.

BK: Considering that educational institutions shape mindsets, do you think there is too much focus
on STEM Subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) at the cost of History, Culture, Literature, Languages, Anthropology, Liberal and Performing Arts, Gender, Social Sciences etc that is making the gap wider between what people want and what is being delivered?

SM: The real problem is a mindset that tells students they have to choose between science or the liberal arts when both are so important. Everyone should be numerate, understand fundamental scientific concepts that shape the world we live in, and have a grasp of how the scientific method produces knowledge. Everyone should also be literate and articulate, able to analyze how language works and use it effectively, and able to appreciate the beauty, complexity, and meaning of artworks past and present.

BK: What stimulated the writing bug in you and how did your first book Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England come about?

SM: BETWEEN WOMEN was actually my second book. My first book was APARTMENT STORIES:
CITY AND HOME IN 19TH-CENTURY PARIS AND LONDON (University of California Press, 1999). Apartment Stories was inspired by growing up in New York City, where large apartment buildings were the norm, and then moving to other parts of the U.S. where single-family houses prevailed. I wondered why some locations embraced apartment-house living and others rejected it. It turned out that the best way to explore that problem was to compare 19th-century Paris, a city filled with apartment houses, and 19th-century London, which despite its 19 th -century population explosion stubbornly adhered to single-family dwellings. I was interested in the different attitudes to city life that those two choices represented. I was also interested in the different kinds of stories you could tell about different housing types. French novels were filled with stories of strangers forming closing connections. British fiction was filled with tales of single-family houses haunted by disruptive intruders. One type of housing valued publicness, but was always converting it into intimacy. The other treasured privacy, but saw that privacy as always under threat.

BETWEEN WOMEN: FRIENDSHIP, DESIRE, AND MARRIAGE IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND (Princeton University Press, 2007), my second book, stemmed from my interest in women’s history and lesbian history and a desire to put the two in conversation. Scholars had often assumed that lesbians were in utter rebellion against what it conventionally meant to be a woman. Implicit in that assumption was another: that conventional women are defined only by their relationships to men. Yet we know that women, married and unmarried, heterosexual or not, have many kinds of relationships with other women throughout their lives. Between Women excavated the history of relationships between women broadly defined — not just women who were lovers and life partners of other women, but women who cherished their female friendships, or who took an intense interest in femininity – by playing with dolls, following fashion, or obsessing over female celebrities. It turns out that it is conventionally feminine to take an interest in women — so much so that in the nineteenth century, many lesbians found a fair degree of social acceptance because caring deeply about other women was not seen as deviant.

BK: Could you tell us a bit about your work at Columbia on English & Comparative Literature? 

SM: As a professor in the department of English and Comparative Literature, I teach undergraduate and graduate students, conduct research, and, like all professors, participate in the work of running the university. I’ve been at Columbia since 2003; before that I taught at the University of California, Berkeley. At Columbia, I teach in the Core Curriculum, which introduces undergraduates to the liberal arts through a sequence of courses that includes a year-long course on literature and another year-long course on the history of religion and philosophy. The other courses I teach focus on 19th-century literature, literary theory, and gender and sexuality studies. 

In Fall 2019, I taught an undergraduate seminar called “Odd Women in Victorian England”; in Spring 2020, I’ll teach another undergraduate seminar on 19th-century cities and literature, and a graduate seminar on critical methods in the humanities. I spend a lot of time advising students, especially graduate students, whom I guide through coursework, qualifying examinations, the dissertation-writing process, and job searches. The work I do as part of faculty governance involves helping to hire new professors and evaluate whether they merit tenure; helping to set policy for the department and university; reviewing curriculum and new course offerings; and attending to how our scholarship reaches people outside academia. 

In 2012, with Professor Caitlin Zaloom of New York University, I cofounded an online magazine called PUBLIC BOOKS, which makes cutting-edge academic ideas and insights accessible to a broad public (more about that below). Being editor in chief of PUBLIC BOOKS also takes up a lot of my time.

BK: Gender Equality: what are the impediments you see and when do you envisage this truly going from merely lip service to actually gaining serious torque? And while on that you may share a bit about your landmark article on feminist theory “Fighting Bodies, Fighting Words: Towards a Theory and Practice of Rape Prevention”

SM: On the one hand, it sometimes seems to me that we have made very little progress towards gender equality in the places I know best (the U.S., England, and France) because there are still so many obstacles to true equality: the disparity between male and female rates of employment and promotion, the gender gap in pay equity, and the persistence of violence against women, whether sexual assault or intimate partner violence or the kinds of internet harassment that recently led four female M.P.s to decide not to run for re-election in the U.K. In the U.S., if the Republican party has its way, we may soon see women losing the freedom to decide whether or not to bear a child. All of these problems are compounded by racial and class inequality. 

On the other hand, it sometimes seems to me miraculous how much progress has been made in a relatively short period. In the 1840s, less than two hundred years ago, even the wealthiest, most privileged women had almost no access to higher education, could not enter the professions, could not vote, had no legal rights to their children, had almost no right to divorce, and if married, did not legally own any wages they earned.

The impediments to progress are multiple. Many men do not want to give up their power or privilege. Legal equality remains imperfect. Ideas about women’s lesser intelligence or physical capabilities remain rife; messages that women matter most as sexual objects for men are everywhere. Women are very difficult to organize as a political interest group because we are divided by religion, ethnicity, class, even age — and because we are trained not to put our own interests first, but to value ourselves in terms of what we do for others. That was one of the points I made when writing about rape prevention in “Fighting Bodies, Fighting Words”: that women are not encouraged to value themselves enough to defend themselves against assault.

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BK: What was the big motivation for you to write ‘ The Drama of Celebrity ‘ ? How different was the experience compared to your first two books? What would your next book be about?

SM: As someone who grew up in the 1970s fascinated with the great Hollywood film stars of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, and then lived through the transformations that social media wrought on celebrity culture, I wanted to understand better why we care about celebrities at all.  I had so many questions: who decides who gets to be a star? Do stars have special qualities, or are they simply manufactured by the media? When did modern celebrity begin? Have celebrity and fandom always been as associated with women as they are today? 

As with all my previous books, I sought answers to these questions by doing extensive historical research to try to understand how people in the past experienced celebrity culture, and compare that to the present. When writing Apartment Stories, I consulted architectural manuals and guides to city life. For Between Women, I delved into diaries and letters and memoirs. For The Drama of Celebrity, I began by tracing the most famous star of the 19th century, Sarah Bernhardt. I found archives devoted to her in libraries around the world that documented her life, her career, and the spell she exerted on fans around the world. Reading about her showed me that in the nineteenth century, before radio, before film, before television, live performance was central to people’s lives. In London alone, around 12 million people attended the theater annually. Many very small towns had theaters, kept lively by traveling performers who reached these locations by railway. Even poor people went to the theater or music hall regularly.

The biggest challenge in researching The Drama of Celebrity  was to recreate the experiences of audiences and fans who lived over a century ago. The breakthrough came when I was doing research on Sarah Bernhardt and came across a scrapbook that included images of her alongside those of several other actresses. I asked the librarian if the collection include other scrapbooks and she said that she had over a hundred of them, and that no-one had ever consulted them before. I spent a month poring over these albums. They provided me with a crash course in theater history and illuminated how ordinary people felt about the performers they flocked to see.  

Another breakthrough came when I found fan mail that people in Paris had written to opera star Pauline Viardot and that people in the US and England wrote to the actor Edwin Booth. I learned that fans were just as outrageous, obsessive, and importunate 150 years ago as they can be today, but also that they were careful observers and stringent critics, especially of the performers they most admired. 

BK: Do you see a significant change in the celebrity culture of yesteryears compared to what prevails today with the omnipresence of social media, the virality potential and the plethora of user generated content? 

SM: The key difference between fans in the past and fans in the age of social media is that fans can now easily observe one another and communicate with one another, and what fans now say to the stars can be instantly made public. That increased visibility may account for what feels to many like an exponential surge in interest in celebrity culture since the advent of the Internet. In many ways, fans have always craved recognition — from the stars they admire, from other fans, and from the general public. Social media offers that recognition in small but powerfully visible doses.

BK: In your vast body of research, which are some of the celebrities whose work and life have truly surprised and moved you?

SM: I find Sarah Bernhardt, who provides the through line for The Drama of Celebrity, truly impressive. She tackled classical and modern roles, male and female parts, and succeeded in almost everything she did. For most of her career, she ran her own theater – selecting and directing fellow actors, supervising costumes, lighting, and set design, making decisions about repertory and finances. She was a savvy early adopter of new technologies such as photography, sound recordings, posters, and film. And most of all, she knew how to deal with the public and the media. She became a star because of her acting talent and skill, but she remained one because of her canny understanding of celebrity culture itself. Similar figures include Charlie Chaplin, Barbara Streisand, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and Taylor Swift. 

BK: Do tell us a bit about your initiative Public Books.

SM: Public Books <www.publicbooks.org> is an online magazine, founded in 2012, that unites the best of the university with the openness of the internet. Our aim is to make the life of the mind a public good by publishing writing that is erudite without being esoteric and brings scholarly depth to discussions of contemporary art, ideas, and politics. We publish one essay or interview a day, five times a week. Academia teaches scholars how to write for other scholars, but not how to make their specialized knowledge clear and compelling to the many people outside their specialization and outside academia who might be interested in their ideas. Public Books creates a space where those who are no longer in school can experience what it’s like to hear a great teacher talk about ideas. Our readership numbers suggest there is a great thirst for this: we currently have anywhere between 14,000 and 22,000 readers a week.

Public Books also gives scholars who work on the past an opportunity to reflect on the present. Before the 2016 US Presidential election, for example, we published a syllabus to help people understand the historical roots of Donald Trump’s appeal to many voters. We publish a lot of work by scholars of literature and television, as well as essays by social scientists, especially those who study cities, finance, race, and technology. We just started new sections on sports, poetry, digital humanities, and television, and we have a regular series called “B-Sides” that highlights great but little-known books. Under the auspices of a Columbia University Press book series, we have begun to publish anthologies of our best writing: the first entries in that series have been Think in Public and Antidemocracy in America

BK: Not putting you in a spot here: What do you like doing more of- Teaching, Consulting, Speaking or Writing?

SM: I like them all! Except consulting, which I don’t do. I find that each of these activities informs the others, which makes it easy to enjoy all of them.

BK: Could you tell us about the books and people who have inspired your life and career? 

SM: My parents and teachers have inspired me, and I owe everything I’m able to do to the women who came before me and were the first to obtain doctorates, to teach at the university level, to be openly lesbian in the academy, and to make women’s lives legitimate subjects of inquiry. I’m most inspired by books that maintain a sense of humor or irony in the face of tumult, tragedy, and injustice: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the work of Joan Didion and Fran Lebowitz, or more recently the novels of Ottessa Moshfegh and Sally Rooney.

BK: What makes Sharon Marcus go ‘ Wow, another day at work ‘ ?

SM: I wake up every day grateful to have realized my childhood dream of making a living by reading and writing. Teaching makes the experience of reading and writing communal – I love introducing students to great books, teaching them skills that will allow them to spend the rest of their lives learning, and having my own mind expanded by their responses and insights. 

BK: What do you do in your spare time? Your leisure time pursuits?

SM: Well, even when I’m not working, I enjoy books, movies, theater, music, and dance. I love to swim, and recently I started jogging and taking dance classes. I might take up boxing in 2020. I spend the rest of my spare time cooking, relaxing with friends and family, and admiring my cat. I’m also an avid (but middling) bridge player.

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About Author

Suresh Dinakaran

Suresh Dinakaran is the Chief Storyteller at ISD Global, a brand strategy & creative ideations entity based out of Dubai and Managing Editor, BrandKnew. With over two decades of insights, expertise and experience in building and growing brands across multiple geographies and media platforms. Passionate about innovation, disruptive ideations, creative leadership and imaging the future apart from writing, movies, music and sports. He can be reached on suresh@groupisd.com

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