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Celebrity in Modern America

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Course DatesMeeting TimesStatusInstructor(s)CRNRegistration
June 29, 2020 - July 10, 20206/29 - 7/10M-F 8:30A-11:20AOpenMatthew Guterl
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Course Description

There is no more powerful force in contemporary American culture than celebrity. Fortunes rest upon it. Hope depends upon it. But we barely understand it. What, we ask in this class, makes a celebrity? Is celebrity a kind of self-marketing? That is, can you will yourself to become one? Can you plan a route to celebrity? Or is it bestowed by an audience, given to the famous and the talented by their fans? What kind of power can a celebrity wield? And how should we feel about that?

To answer these questions, we have to take celebrity very seriously, studying and dissecting it, looking for patterns and meanings.

That is exactly what students in this class will set out to do.

The class focuses on the last twenty years of American life - the age of reality television, the internet, and social media. It considers some of the most dramatic examples of celebrity - including the rise of the Kardashian empire, the hustlers and hucksters of the Real Housewives franchise, the Fyre festival, the journalistic exposes of the "socialite scammer" Anna Sorokin, the murderous fakery of the man known as "Clark Rockefeller," and the right-wing politics of of Donald Trump.

Sifting through all of this, and reading in the surrounding critical literature, we will work in group and as a whole class to connect the secondary literature with the material we're analyzing. Students will also produce short written assignments, working in pairs on peer-review. Outside of class, students will read and view a vast array of materials (from photo archives to episodes of television shows to memoirs) with careful guidelines about close reading, the scholarly practice of repeatedly and slowly reading and watching things, looking for every detail.

In small bites, the course introduces students to critical theorists who work on performance, to histories of celebrity and fame, to the business of celebrity's manufacture, and to new work in what was once called "fan studies." More than that, the class is intentionally designed to peel back the layers, allowing students to see what goes in to the making of a celebrity, so that it is clear, at the close, that mass culture isn't merely a thing to be consumed and enjoyed - that it is also central to capitalism, and that celebrity and inequality fit hand in glove.

The instructor is an award-winning historian who has written several books about American life and culture, including a biography of Josephine Baker, the first African American celebrity.

As a result of completing this course, students will have:

1. Learned about the business and mass marketing of celebrity, and about the economic and social functions of celebrity in contemporary American life.

2. Learned something of what current philosophers, social critics, and historians think about the power of celebrity in this moment.

3. Be able to think critically about celebrity.

4. Know how to perform a close reading of a text, whether it is a piece of writing, a photograph, a performance, or a film.

5. Gained confidence in writing and speaking.

Prerequisites: Students should know something of social media, of the entertainment and media industries, be comfortable with a wide range of cultural forms, and, most importantly, be willing to take popular culture and celebrity seriously as objects of study in a college-level classroom.

Course Information

  • Course Code: CEAC0926
  • Length: 2 weeks

Program Information

Summer@Brown

Brown’s Pre-College Program in the liberal arts and sciences, offering over 200 non-credit courses, one- to four-weeks long, taught on Brown’s campus. For students completing grades 9-12 by June 2020.

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