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British Association for American Studies


PhD studentship: ‘Puppets and Clowns’? Celebrity and Political Activism in Historical Perspective - British Association for American Studies


PhD studentship: ‘Puppets and Clowns’? Celebrity and Political Activism in Historical Perspective


In a 1963 television interview, African American activist Malcolm X described as ‘puppets and clowns’ those Black entertainers – such as Lena Horne and Dick Gregory – who were widely touted as leading the way toward racial integration. Since that era, the relationship between celebrity and social/political activism has been the object of numerous academic studies. While Italian sociologist Francesco Alberoni would speak of stars as a ‘powerless elite’ in 1962, it is now widely accepted that media and political celebrity and are two interconnected realms. The recent ascendancy of celebrity activists has stimulated controversy for the apparent inauthenticity of their interventions, as well as their deradicalizing function. But if celebrity activism can be understood through ‘neoliberal practices’ (Jutta Weldes, 2019), it needs also to be historicised within and beyond this political economy.

According to P. David Marshall (2020), to understand how someone’s celebrity interacts with the public display of political activism, it is fundamental to interrogate how stars embody political ideas through the construction of a public and private self, and how these ‘selves’ are displayed in cultural representations, including popular culture. Such practices of self-making necessarily draw upon – and potentially reformulate – languages of gender and race, class and nationality.

Examples of celebrities who were also activists in the 20th century include Black singers/actors such as Paul Robeson and Harry Belafonte; actresses like Jane Fonda, Susan Sarandon and Jean Seberg; musicians – especially from protest-oriented traditions – such as folk singers (John Lennon, Joan Baez) and rappers (Public Enemy, Ice Cube); and sports stars, including Muhammad Ali and Tommie Smith. While most of these engaged with political activism by giving support to progressive social movements, celebrity activism has taken a range of forms and has provided support to diverse causes. Historian Emilie Raymond (2016), for instance, has demonstrated that the success of the US civil rights movement relied on support from a core group of celebrity-activists, while Maya Montañez Smukler (2019) has explored the symbiosis between grassroots feminist organizing and the rise of female directors in Hollywood through the 1970s. In the 1980s and 1990s, celebrity support to the AIDS cause was fundamental not only to increase public awareness, but also to address the stigma against the LGBTQ+ community. The long careers of Charlton Heston (Raymond, 2006) and Clint Eastwood (Street, 2018), meanwhile, illustrate that celebrity activism has also conflicted with Hollywood’s prevailing liberalism. Beyond support for protest movements, celebrity entertainers have at times become integral to party-political projects and foreign policy initiatives. This project might focus on any of these dimensions of celebrity activism.

We invite potential candidates to reflect on the relationship between celebrity and political activism through a historical perspective. Was it always possible for media celebrities to publicly display their political activism? How have these possibilities been shaped by identity, political economy, and other factors? What strategies have political celebrities used to navigate media, and how was this received? How, instead, were celebrities able to separate their public/celebrity self from their private/political self? What does this relationship tell us about the normative or subversive power of media? And what does it tell us about the way in which political and social claims can travel in popular culture?

To answer these questions, candidates are invited to submit a PhD proposal (1,500-2,000 words approx.) based on individual, comparative or collective approaches to film/sports/music celebrities that manifested their political activism in the 20th century. Preference will be given to studies focused in the North Atlantic: the United States, Europe, and the multiple lines of connection between them. We are especially interested to consider proposals that examine questions of embodiment and identity, cultural representation, and histories of activism. Proposals are welcome from different disciplinary backgrounds, but a clear historical framework is essential. We hope that this project can make a major contribution to ongoing conversations about relationships between celebrity and protest.