Celebrity, Cultural Production, and the Nation

Reviewed by Nadine Fladd

Celebrity Cultures in Canada, part of the Cultural Studies series published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press, offers insightful, wide-ranging analyses of the workings of “celebrity” or “persona” as a concept. These combined analyses result in a book that will be of interest to scholars of celebrity studies, Canadian literature, film studies, and cultural studies generally. The foreword by P. David Marshall elegantly justifies the need for a book like Celebrity Cultures in Canada, while also offering readers who are new to either field an introduction to both celebrity studies and the Canadian context considered by the chapters that follow.

Marshall points out his “predilection” for identifying Canadian stars on film or television, and claims that this “affliction” is a “feature of Canadianness, a way in which Canadians work to self-identify.” He uses this example to make clear that “[r]eading celebrity in the Canadian context is complex,” especially in light of what he identifies as Canadian celebrity’s “appeal to validation from cultural industries external to Canada” (i.e., primarily American ones). These complex patterns of Canadian celebrity are what each of the eleven single-authored chapters teases out by taking up a different Canadian text, genre, author, actor, artist, comedian, politician, or other public figure.

In their introduction, editors Katja Lee and Lorraine York make clear the two main tenets underpinning these chapters: that Canada has developed cultures of celebrity that merit sustained scholarly attention, and that these analyses should not “automatically assume” that “celebrity” represents “false, unearned cultural value” (although the introduction does offer a useful overview of how the concept of celebrity has been theorized since the nineteenth century). The chapters that follow offer nuanced analyses of how celebrity functions in specific cases, often in relation to concepts of nation.

Celebrity Cultures includes several chapters that focus on film stars. Chapters by Lee and Amy Shore both explore the “political, cultural, and affective” implications of the fluid, transnational personas of film stars such as Mary Pickford and Nell Shipman. In addition, Liz Czach uses the bilingual film Bon Cop, Bad Cop as a case study to illustrate the differences between the Quebec film industry’s well-established “star system” and the way that English Canadian audiences respond to well-known Canadian actors. The most interesting chapters in the book, however, are those that use the lens of celebrity to explore how well-known Canadian figures who are not actors have deployed their celebrity power, or even how others have deployed it posthumously.

Valerie J. Millar’s compelling “Terry Fox and Disabled Celebrity” theorizes the confluence of Fox’s 1980 Marathon of Hope with that year’s “threat to Canadian confederation by the forces for sovereignty,” and points out the influence of Fox’s run on the fundraising tactics of other activists, such as Rick Hansen. Throughout her chapter, she “explore[s] how the annual Terry Fox Run works to collectivize people . . . while simultaneously reaffirming able-bodied hegemony and reproducing the ideological Canadian nation-state.” In her chapter on the polarizing Hockey Night in Canada host Don Cherry, Julie Rak dissects the former coach’s ironically “campy” sartorial choices. Like Millar, Rak connects this individual celebrity’s performance to a nationalist project, arguing that “Cherry’s image does two things: it works to disguise the central role semi-public television has played in the creation of hockey as a national mythos for Canada, and it elides the existence of NHL hockey as an American-controlled business.”

While Cherry performs what Rak describes a “melancholic nationalist narrative”—a lament for what Canadian hockey culture once was—in “Celebrity and the Cultivation of Indigenous Publics in Canada,” York identifies ways in which Indigenous celebrities deploy the various media cultures available to them in “reworkings of mainstream culture” and in fostering “alternative Indigenous publics.” She cites A Tribe Called Red’s “celebrity use of social media” to engage in “counter-pedagogy” as just one of several examples of the ways that “Indigenous production in Canada offers the possibility of reimagining celebrity as collective achievement” rather than as individualistic. York has made substantial contributions to the field of literary celebrity and celebrity culture in Canada, including Literary Celebrity in Canada (2007) and Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity (2013). In addition to entering into conversation with other relevant chapters in Celebrity Cultures, several of the authors in this book draw on York’s previous work. Marshall does not overstate the case in his introduction when he claims that “[t]he editors and authors have developed a very nuanced reading of how celebrity operates in Canada.”

This review “Celebrity, Cultural Production, and the Nation” originally appeared in Literary History. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 233 (Summer 2017): 156-157.

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