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Unit information: Celebrity Culture: Icons, Industry and Aesthetics in 2019/20

Please note: Due to alternative arrangements for teaching and assessment in place from 18 March 2020 to mitigate against the restrictions in place due to COVID-19, information shown for 2019/20 may not always be accurate.

Please note: you are viewing unit and programme information for a past academic year. Please see the current academic year for up to date information.

Unit name Celebrity Culture: Icons, Industry and Aesthetics
Unit code ENGL30110
Credit points 20
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Dr. Andrew Blades
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of English
Faculty Faculty of Arts


The study of celebrity offers provocative interdisciplinary possibilities for thinking about issues of performance, affect, gender, race, sexuality, and visual and cultural representation. The study of Celebrity may be new, but the cultural fascination with fame and the famous is ancient. This optional unit explores notions of celebrity—its bodies, images, aesthetics, texts and industry—in transhistorical contexts. We will think about issues of audience, spectacle, spectatorship, gender, race and economics, and their interaction. As well as literary texts, we will analyze films, visual culture and performances, drawing on a range of theoretical materials—from cultural and film studies, to queer and feminist theories—to better understand our obsessions with the bodies that we make mythic (or anti-mythic). Strands of inquiry may include: how stars perform and embody celebrity, such as the eighteenth-century star actress Sarah Siddons, later posed in tableau vivant by Bette Davis; the figure of the black athlete and its racialised, gendered and economic performance legacies, from the nineteenth century’s ‘Hottentot venus’ Saartjie Baartman and minstrelsy to the Ziegfeld Follies. We may look at ‘starmakers’—from Cecil B. De Mille to Andy Warhol, and photographers like Robert Mapplethorpe and Leibowitz—focusing on how writers interpret, document, and make celebrity, e.g. Janet Flanner on Josephine Baker; David Foster Wallace on David Foster Wallace; Wayne Koestenbaum on Jackie Kennedy; Langston Hughes, Frank O’Hara and Rita Dove on Billie Holiday. And we may think about how political voices, singing voices, and stage voices are constructed, deconstructed and mythologized—from the Greek chorus, to politicians and opera singers. Students will be provoked to think about how celebrity voices and bodies, and our own, are changed and shaped by new forms of media culture.

Intended learning outcomes

Upon successful completion of this unit, students will be able to:

  1. demonstrate advanced knowledge and understanding of the cultural, theoretical, literary and political constructions of celebrity;
  2. apply thorough understanding of historical, cultural and intellectual contexts to readings of images, films, music, nonfiction prose, poetry and journalism;
  3. discriminate between and analyse different critical perspectives on celebrity;
  4. present and critically assess pertinent evidence to develop a cogent argument;
  5. demonstrate advanced skills in close analysis, argumentation, and critical interpretation using evidence from primary materials and secondary sources;
  6. contribute to group tasks and discussions and demonstrate advanced skills in oral presentation.

Teaching details

1 x 1 hour seminar

1 x 1 hour lecture

1 x 1 hour discussion / workshop

Assessment Details

  • One 3000 word portfolio (75%) [ILOs 1-5].
  • One group presentation (25%) (ILOs 1-6].

Reading and References

Theodor Adorno, The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture (Routledge, 2001)

Roland Barthes, Mythologies (1972; Vintage Classics, 2009)

Fred Inglis, A Short History of Celebrity (Princeton University Press, 2010)

Wayne Koestenbaum, Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon (2009; Picador, 2013)

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Penguin, 2015)

Mary Simmons, Body, Knowledge, Performance (Oxford University Press, 2013)