This past May, I paid someone to let me touch them and take pictures with them while my family watched.
Now before you freak out, I should clarify that my family and I traveled to the Motor City Comic Con in mid-May. I’ll be honest; I am a late comer to the comic convention world. It’s a subculture that I am only beginning to understand. While I’m there, I feel like I am looking through glass, observing the behaviors, expectations, and ideals that hang in the air as fans, writers, retailers, and celebrities converge in a generic space converted into a place of worship, commerce, and fun. As a historian and feminist, I find myself asking questions and thinking about how comic conventions sit in a larger historical context of sex, gender, class, race, and culture. Yet, at the same time, the fan in me screams, “Screw that, I’m about to take a picture with Matt Smith and Karen Gillan!” My scholarly training and fan excitement have blended into a persona that has accepted that I will geek over the site of the 11th Doctor, but even so, I cannot help wonder why I am handing over my credit card to have a few brief moments with a designated VIP, or better yet, what am I expecting in this transaction?
Many individuals have discussed the pros and cons of the prices that celebrities expect for their autograph and picture, and they make valid arguments. Some argue that it is preposterous that celebrities charge exorbitant prices for a mere minutes with them, while others worry about fans and their expectations, which I want to examine in more detail. What are the expectations that shape these paid encounters with “very important persons?” There are numerous books on celebrities that explore why we emulate or vilify them. Various arguments exist about why celebrities capture a large percentage of our attention. Many historians usually ignore topics that examine popular culture, yet the term does have a history, one that, according to Fred Ingles, only emerged in the last two centuries with the beginning of modernity, technology, and urbanism. Sociologists have several theories, including that celebrity culture raises hopes that the American Dream still exists, provides a foundation in which to judge behavior, and most cynically, that the fanatic activity around celebrities blinds us to the crappy lives we live. All history and reason aside, the commercialization of touching and ogling has got to play a role in our fervent desire to access this celebrity sphere.
There is price to enter the sphere of stardom, even if it is only for a few minutes (or seconds in some cases). In that moment, when money is exchanged for a signature and a smile in a photograph, the celebrity becomes a paid worker. Moreover, that payment includes a cultural expectation that the transaction is not really just for the photograph or a name in ink, but acknowledgment, exchange of words, and the possibility to touch a person whose physical presence is far removed from our ordinary world, which makes the interaction more than just commercial. In that brief moment, we envision a multitude of scenarios from romance to bromance, and we want the experience to be perfect because, well, we paid for it. And when it’s not, we lodge complaints, as customers do when the service does not meet expectations. But what if the celebrity agrees to a signature and picture, but does not have the same expectations? What then?
Take Avril Lavigne as an example. A few weeks ago, pictures emerged of her and some fans that highlight the expectations we have when we pay for access and interaction. Now, the scenario in which the pictures were taken was slightly different than what conventions provide, but Brazilian fans paid approximately $360 in U.S. dollars for the opportunity to cross the velvet rope. The fee granted access to Lavigne’s sphere, but the money they paid did not give them the interaction they were expecting. Fans were told there was no touching, and it is clear that, in most cases, Lavigne even kept a distance between herself and the person in the picture. The criticism was swift because Lavigne had broken a unspoken “contract” that these men and women had paid for her attention, her interaction, and, in some sense, her body. Critics labeled her behavior as snotty and disrespectful to her fans who put her in the limelight. She did not give the customers what they wanted.
But did she break an unspoken contract? Was she supposed to submit her body to fans to touch because they paid $360 for a meet and greet? Feminists tell women that no one has the right to touch them without consent and that they have the right to protect their bodies. Labor activists tell workers that they have every right to agency in the workplace and to fight for their rights; if we view Lavigne as a female laborer, a performer, is it really fair to vilify her attempt to control her working environment? Now, could she have engaged a little more in pictures? Maybe, but the criticism that ensued afterward raises questions as to how these interactions border on sex work. Do I see these celebrities as prostitutes and fans as johns? No. However, the minute we hand over a fistful of dollars, we are customers who expect something for the cash we shelled out. In that moment, celebrities become sex workers to a degree, where the higher the fee, the better the experience, right? Actually the opposite is usually true, because the experiences are in direct inverse proportion to the fees charged. Higher fees usually brings a less than satisfying experience, whereas more affordable prices, well, as you can see below, the experience can often be more personable and pleasurable.
Ingles, Fred. A Short History of Celebrity. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010)
Sternheimer, Karen. Celebrity Culture and the American Dream: Stardom and Social Mobility. (New York: Routledge, 2011)