Dissertation: Chapter 2

‘Got my flash on, it’s true / Need that picture of you’: Foucauldian Constructed Identity and the ‘Blonde Pop Icon’

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The opening line of Gaga’s 2011 single ‘Born This Way’ – ‘My Mama told me when I was young / We are all born superstars’ (Gaga, 2011b; 0.27-0.35) – is not only concerned with the listener’s self-acceptance but, more explicitly, the cultural potential for the personal self. While media discourses may attempt to portray icons are normative individuals who are merely one day ‘discovered’, a cultural narrative reflected in the portrayal of iconicity in ‘Born This Way’, critical analysis reveals the ‘blonde pop icon’ as a culturally constructed figure. It is important that any academic consideration of the pop icon not only rejects these naturalised implications but also aims to analyse the true motivations for the cultural development of iconicity.

Critical considerations of iconicity often utilise photological tropes to conceptualise and reflect the development of the ‘blonde pop icon’ persona. Through the elevation of celebrities into ‘stars’ that are ‘produced by the media industries’, (Dyer, 1987; 4) the creation of fame is portrayed as the artificial conversion of a cultural individual into a being of light, the cultural radiance of the ‘blonde pop icon’ becoming a spectacle in its own right. The transformation of women into ‘blonde pop icons’ is typically dependent on an ‘element of masquerade’, (Mulvey, 1996; 48) their iconic personas designed to signify the very light imposed on them. A key example of this process is the very ‘blondness’ of the ‘blonde pop icon’ as Marina Warner argues the hair colour shares an innate symbolic connection with ‘light’ itself. (1994; 366)

This conversion of the physical individual into an identity defined and differentiated by light is also reflected in John David Ebert’s conceptualisation of Marilyn Monroe’s media persona as an ‘electric’ identity (2010; 58) that was ‘split from the bone core of the real Marilyn by the camera eye’. (2010; 65) Here the light of the camera flash is portrayed as a culturally transformative force as the ‘blonde pop icon’ is physically separated from her body, its rejection completing her formation as a media identity of the television and movie screen. In the age of global media and mega fame the camera is reconceptualised as the defining cultural apparatus, its use of light to construct and confer cultural identities mirroring the ability of the ‘blonde pop icon’ to disseminate cultural standards, ideas and desires through media discourses. Discussing cultural resonance in the ‘medium of electric images’, Ebert argues that it is the camera ‘itself that creates the star’, (2010; 84) positioning the transformation of light into a force of cultural agency as a key ability in the construction of iconicity.

This academic utilisation of photology and the cultural centrality of the image to the development of the ‘blonde pop icon’ can also be recognised in critical considerations of the cultural motivations behind iconicity. Considering the theory of cultural icons functioning as ‘postmodern saints’ (Richards et al., 1999) (Gibbs, 1997) Therese Davis argues that ‘Images of saints are not portraits’ but instead ‘emblematic of particular and easily recognisable’ values. (1997; 93) This suggests that not only is the public communication of the individual’s image crucial to their role as cultural icon but that the personal identity of the icon is secondary to their function as ideologue. Diana Taylor’s argument that Princess Diana’s ‘physical existence’ functioned merely to ‘authenticate’ her iconic visual identity that ‘gave a “universal” face to the disembodied globalism (1999; 200) affirms this theory. [Diana’s signification of mainstream media is reflected in the many cultural monikers imposed upon her by critics, including: ‘the Princess of the MTV generation’, (Kitzinger quoting the Guardian, 1999; 68) the ‘Pop Princess’ (Burchill, 1992; 237) and the ‘Queen of low culture’. (Long, 2013)] The reduction of Diana’s public identity to the visual signification of the mass media also emphasises the post-physical nature of iconicity, summarised by Richard Woodward’s theory that ‘any icon’ is ‘as symbol as she is real’. (2002; 19)

This media-centric simplification of identity is, again, conceptualised by Ebert through the use of light as both a medium and a metaphor for media discourses as he notes that iconic identities disseminated through electronic media are ‘ultimately only two dimensional, for at the speed of light, everything collapses into two-dimensionality’. (2010; xiv) This appropriation of icons by media discourses is portrayed as consistent with their virtual simplification into images also indicates that the ‘blonde pop icon’ plays a crucial role in the semiotic system of cultural signification dictated by the mainstream media. Klaus Rieser’s analysis of iconicity in modern American society, which explicitly anchors its exploration of the icon in ‘visuality’, (2013; 5) claims that ‘In contrast to common images, thus, icons are special markers within the cultural matrix of meaning’. (2013; 3) Rieser argues that ‘to become iconic’ the pop icon’s ‘images have to pass gatekeepers (journalists, editors, academics, etc.)’, (2013; 10) suggesting that the pop icon is consciously constructed by the very media discourses that utilise her to then represent them and their agendas. Adrian Kear and Deborah Steinberg consider this process in Foucauldian terms through their assertion that ‘icons are embedded in the dominant ideological framework of a specific culture’. (1999; 7-8)

The construction and utilisation of the ‘blonde pop icon’ as a signifying concept by media discourses can be understood as inherently similar to the methods identified by Michel Foucault through which social minority identities were defined and repurposed by cultural power structures to impose and perpetuate idealised views of personal identity upon wider society. Just as Princess Diana’s life was ‘rewritten’ to conform to ‘well-established cinematic paradigms’ (Richards, 1999; 59) (Wilson, 1999; 40) in a fashion similar to the institutional construction of the homosexual as a cultural identity with its own explicit ‘personage’, ‘case history’ and ‘childhood’, (Foucault, 1976; 43) the ‘blonde pop icon’ has been manipulated by cultural power structures to represent an opulent and desirable yet destructive way of life. Through the euphoria of giddying fame and sexual mystique, the ‘blonde pop icon’ is portrayed as an enviable cultural persona before her inevitable fall through heartbreak, addiction and loneliness, outlining the social dangers risked by deviating from acceptable gender, sexual and class expectations.

Through the recurring construction, dissemination and destruction of the ‘blonde pop icon’ as a cultural ‘fantasy’, media discourses were able to lure mainstream society into internalising their cultural values as the recurring cultural narratives of the female icon continuously cycled through the popular consciousness. Just as Zoë Sofoulis argues that ‘by consuming [Diana’s] image, people perhaps felt they belonged to a larger world’ (1997; 17) so too millions of cultural consumers bought into the mystique of these iconic figures.

Once cultural power structures had successfully constructed the ‘blonde pop icon’ through the manipulation of light into a manifested ideology, it made certain never to allow her to escape the media spotlight. Both her perpetual signification of the very cultural discourses that constructed her identity and the cultural adoration felt towards her ensured that figures such as Marilyn and Diana would never be forgotten by society or the discourses that sought to manipulate them. Even the untimely deaths of Monroe and Diana have been appropriated by media discourses to perpetuate their cultural narratives. As S. Paige Baty argues, ‘Marilyn’s suicides opened up a narrative space through which her story has been continuously retold’, (1995; 24) the tragic death of the icon perpetually conflicting with the eternal youth conferred upon her by the camera as ‘The death sheds light on the life. The life illuminates the death.’ (1995; 35)

Following Foucauldian logic the ‘blonde pop icon’ can never escape her role as cultural signifier, her function as ideologue forever perpetuated by the inescapable ‘reproductions of her image’. (Hamscha, 2013; 119) While she may attempt to reject the cultural symbolism imposed upon her by media discourses her escape appears unlikely as ‘there is no outside’, (Foucault, 1979; 1496) no cultural space in which she can exist beyond the control of media discourses. Efforts by the ‘blonde pop icon’ to cast-off the cultural notions applied to them also typically result in her relinquishing even more of her self-determination to cultural power structures, fulfilling Foucault’s concept of ‘complicitious’ resistance. (Leitch et al., quoting Foucault, 2010; 1473) Ebert also considers the ‘complicitious’ resistance of the pop icon’s public identity in his analysis of Marilyn Monroe. Considering the ideologically-motivated construction of Monroe’s ‘electric double’, Ebert considers the psychological instability of Marilyn Monroe at the end of her life as a ‘plot hatched’ by her media persona, allowing her persona of light ‘free to live its life basking in the admiration of public’. (2010; 61)

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Baty, S. Paige (1995) American Monroe: The Making of a Body Politic. (Berkley: University of California Press.)

Burchill, Julie (1992) ‘Di Hard: The Pop Princess’ in Sex & Sensibility by Julie Burchill, 1992, Pages 233-244. Essay originally published in Modern Review, 1992. (London: Grafton.)

Davis, Therese (1997) ‘The Face of a Saint’ in Planet Diana: Cultural Studies and Global Mourning, edited by ‘Re:Public’ (Ien Ang, Ruth Barcan, et al.), 1997, Pages 93-96. (Kingswood: University of Western Sydney.)

Dyer, Richard (1987) Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society. (Basingstoke: Macmillan.)

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Foucault, Michel (1978) The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. Published in the original French in 1976, translated by Robert Hurley. (London: Allen Lane)

Gaga, Lady (2008) ‘Paparazzi’, Track 3 from the album The Fame. Written by Stefani Germanotta and Rob Fusari. Produced by Rob Fusari, co-produced by Stefani Germanotta. (California: Interscope Records.)

Gaga, Lady (2011b) ‘Born This Way’, Track 2 from the album Born This Way. Written by Stefani Germanotta and Jeppe Laursen. Produced by Stefani Germanotta, Jeppe Laursen, Fernando Garibay and Paul Blair. (California: Interscope Records.)

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Hamscha, Susanne (2013) ‘Thirty Are Better Than One: Marilyn Monroe and the Performance of Americanness’ in ConFiguring America: Iconic Figures, Visuality, and the American Identity, edited by Klaus Reiser, Michael Fuchs and Michael Phillips, 2013, Pages 115-131. (Bristol & Chicago: intellect.)

Kear & Steinberg, Adrian and Deborah Lynn (1999b) ‘Ghost Writing’ in Mourning Diana: Nation, Culture and the Performance of Grief, edited by Adrian Kerr and Deborah Lynn Steinberg, 1999, Pages 1-14. (London & New York: Routledge.)

Kitzinger, Jenny (1999) ‘The Moving Power of Moving Images: Television constructions of Princess Diana’ in The Mourning for Diana, edited by Tony Walter, 1999, Pages 65-76. (Oxford & New York: Berg.) (This chapter was adapted from an earlier article by Jenny Kitzinger, ‘Image’, published in Screen, Vol. 39, 1998, No. 1, Pages 73-79. (Oxford: Oxford University Press.))

Leitch, Vincent B. et al. (editors) (2010) The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Second Edition. (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co.)

Long, Camilla (2013) ‘@Cellism Ha. She is the queen of low culture – and our hearts’, tweeted by @camillalong, 30.09.13 at 10:51pm GMT. Electronic version cited: bit.ly/19RHBbK. (Accessed 30.09.13)

Richards, Jeffrey (1999) ‘The Hollywoodisation of Diana’ in Diana: The Making of a Media Saint, edited by Jeffrey Richards, Scott Wilson and Linda Woodhead, 1999, Pages 59-73. (I.B. Tauris: London and New York.)

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Sofoulis, Zoë (1997) ‘Icon, Referent, Trajectory, World’ in Planet Diana: Cultural Studies and Global Mourning, edited by ‘Re:Public’ (Ien Ang, Ruth Barcan et al.,), 1997, Pages 13-18. (Kingswood: University of Western Sydney.)

Taylor, Diana (1999) ‘Downloading grief: minority populations mourn Diana’ in Mourning Diana: Nation, Culture and the Performance of Grief, edited by Adrian Kerr and Deborah Lynn Steinberg, 1999, Pages 187-210. (London & New York: Routledge.)

Wilson, Scott (1999) ‘The Misfortunes of Virtue: Diana, the Press and the Politics of Emotion’ in Diana: The Making of a Media Saint, edited by Jeffrey Richards, Scott Wilson and Linda Woodhead, 1999, Pages 40-58. (I.B. Tauris: London and New York.)

Woodward, Richard B. (2002) ‘Iconmania: Sex, Death, Photography and the Myth of Marilyn Monroe’ in All the Available Light: A Marilyn Monroe Reader, edited by Yona Zeldis McDonough, 2002, Pages 10-34. (New York: Simon & Schuster.)

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