Understanding media: The celebrity in the text
Understanding media: The celebrity in the text

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Understanding media: The celebrity in the text

1 Introduction and overview

This course is concerned with the very things that we, as ordinary people, talk about as a consequence of listening to radio, watching television or reading newspapers and magazines: the programmes and articles that constitute media output. We do not (except on rare occasions) experience celebrities face-to-face, as their celebrity is conditional on having their image disseminated far and wide. This course examines the everyday evidence of celebrity activity – what academic media analysts call ‘texts’. The French literary theorist Roland Barthes (1915–1980) chose the term ‘texts’ to reject the idea that the author's intentions are central to our understanding of a work (the old literary studies approach) and to emphasise that the reader is also important in the meaning-making process (1977, p. 148). The social situation within which the reader is making the meaning is also significant. Texts are socially constructed assemblages of items such as spoken or written words, or pictures. Within media and cultural studies, the term ‘text’ is now the standard way to refer to an item (such as a newspaper or magazine article, photograph or television programme), and to examine its cultural meanings. Producers make products that consumers take pleasure from. But a thoroughgoing understanding of the operation of the media requires us to consider not just production and reception, but the texts that connect them. Texts are the (usually) material form connecting these two activities, and as such deserve and repay separate consideration. Section 2 looks at the ways in which those who study the media analyse texts. Section 3 considers how texts can be grouped together by ‘type’ and categorised. Section 4 presents a sustained reading of the cultural meanings of an extended celebrity text, and Section 5 looks at claims relating to the increased presence of celebrities in the news.

What you can expect from this course

Start thinking where you get your information about celebrities from. You may occasionally go to a live performance, but mainly you will learn about celebrities from television, magazines, and other media sources. As we have already mentioned, in this course all these sources are referred to as ‘texts’. In media studies the term ‘text’ doesn't refer simply to writing, but to music and images as well; in fact to anything that represents someone or something else. It can be argued that celebrities are created, rather than being born ‘special’. This course focuses on texts, where the creation of celebrities takes place. The topic of representation is important, and so is that of convention. This is because each type of text (e.g. pop music, a press photo) has its own set of conventions – or rules – according to which representations are constructed.

Key questions and course themes: knowledge, values and beliefs

How do we make sense of texts? This course shows us that we know roughly what to expect from a text because we categorise it in advance. Having categorised it as a TV programme (and not, for example, as a video game), we then re-categorise it as a certain type of TV programme (for example, regular news bulletin). This initial work helps us make sense of the text. Now, the text (that news bulletin, say) may look as though it is mainly factual information. But, as the course shows, textual information is infused with values and beliefs. And that is why the theme of ‘knowledge, values and beliefs’ groups the three terms together: they cannot be separated. So, how do values and beliefs come to be in texts? Partly this is a question of analysing production but it is also about examining texts themselves. In order to do this, media students use semiotic analysis, a method of examining a text very closely. Semiotic analysis examines the conventions underlying the ways in which texts communicate values and beliefs. Casual readers may be very familiar with the textual conventions, while remaining largely unaware of them. As a result, they make what is called the ‘preferred’ reading of the text. What we've been discussing here is the very substance of the theme ‘knowledge, values and beliefs’. This theme is central to the whole course because, in focusing on celebrity texts, we are examining what we know, value and believe to be true about celebrities.

Key questions and course themes: power

What potential effects on power in society might a text have? This partly depends on how audiences interpret these texts, but it also depends upon the texts themselves. In the case study of the career of Kylie Minogue (see Section 4), Bonner shows, for example, that Kylie texts have been influential in bringing together the world of pop stars and film stars with that of fashion. And, perhaps more significantly, other Kylie texts acquired a gay following in the 1990s, and thus helped towards the normalisation of homosexuality.

Key questions and course themes: change and continuity

Change and continuity also has a strong presence in this course. Here are a few examples that you will encounter:

  1. The concept of celebrity has been around for over a century, but its meaning has changed – Bonner suggests that we no longer always think of film stars as more worthy than other people.

  2. ‘Genre’ is a form of categorisation that distinguishes one type of film from another (musical, western, sci fi, etc.), one type of TV programme from another, etc. Genre is best thought of as a process – which implies change over time, but also roots that remain recognisable.

  3. ‘Tabloidisation‘ refers to recent changes in current affairs reporting in the UK. These changes have been described as ‘cultural decline’ and conversely as involving ‘the feminisation of media practices’. But such reporting is still recognisable as media reporting.

Now read the course.

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