Why Taste Matters: My research and the Celebrity Studies Conference

On Saturday I gave the first conference paper I have given in a long time. Importantly, this was the first conference paper I’d given since I passed my viva. It’s incredible what a difference a passed viva makes, I knew exactly what I wanted to say and why (and somewhat pathetically, I knew that the ‘experts’ in the field had okayed it, which gave me an additional kind of armour).The paper that I gave was part of a pre-defined panel at the Celebrity Studies conference, a conference full of inspiring, articulate and supportive academics. The panel that I was part of was put together by the CelebYouth team, a team working on a project that has strong parallels in to my own, and so a team that I have been in contact with for some time. We were (virtually) joined by Kortney Sherbine whose work considers young people’s engagement with Justin Bieber in the US. As a panel, one of the things we had agreed we wanted to emphasise in all of our papers was the importance of empirical research in the study of celebrity.

My intervention has always been that we should take seriously the role of taste within everyday life. I argue that what we say we like or dislike (when taste becomes public) can say interesting things about how we see ourselves and our culture more broadly.

I think it says something that some people are surprised, and that sometimes I even have to defend liking The Kardashians.

I think it says something that many people don’t often understand my support for Jorge Lorenzo. And I think it says something that I spent much of my teenage metal-head years hiding my past as a Take That fanatic (and heaven forbid people should know that I went to see them at Earls Court). But then again, after the return of Robbie and the tax fraud of Gary, I’d rather people not know that history of mine at the moment either…

 

The basis of the argument in my thesis is that taste matters, and this is what was at the heart of the paper I gave at the Celebrity Studies conference. I argued through my findings, which found that boys’ tastes are highly regulated on the grounds of (re)producing acceptable forms of masculinity and that girls taste were centred around ideas of ‘girls can like more because girls have less to lose’, that the regulation of taste happens in contemporary youth cultures.And thus it follows that I believe this matters.

It matters because it limits who and what young people can be, and who and what they can grow into. Boys, who were very fearful of appearing gay, were expected to engage with celebrities that allowed them to reproduce hegemonic masculinity (which is to say to be masculine in a way that fits with how we imagine men ‘should’ behave). Through this then the sort of celebrities they were expected to like often held some form of technical skill, so celebrities such as footballers and musicians were commonly cited. Equally, ‘conventionally’ sexually attractive women that would allow boys to perform ‘being straight’ were also seen as important. When it came to the celebrities that girls liked, it was much more varied. Part of this was because the young people described engagement with celebrity culture as quite a feminine thing, particularly in terms of the bitching and scrutiny that was seen to be a large aspect of talking about celebrities. The main workings of my argument, along with some quotes from participants, the methods I used and the theories I referred to, can be seen in this Prezi (its the one I used in my presentation):

There’s a lot of really good textual analysis work going on how there in the field of celebrity studies. This work is important. But so too is the empirical work that’s going on. By talking to young people and hearing what they had to say in focus groups, I have learned that the ways in which young people talk about celebrity is regulated by ideas of gender appropriateness. There are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ tastes to have about celebrities for young people. Of course its complicated, context is really important, so we can’t overly generalise. Nevertheless, the only reason I know any of this, the only reason I can firmly say ‘appropriate responses to celebrity plays a significant role in how gender is reproduced during youth’ is because I went out there and engaged with young people. I spoke to them and they spoke to me.

It was eluded by theorists such as Graeme Turner that it’s really hard to be able to say things empirically, to which I would respond that ontologically/epistemologically its hard to say things, to know things, full stop. But just because its tricky it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give it a go.

 

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