Why did you choose celebrity memoirs as the object of your research?
In terms of high and low culture, ghost-written celebrity memoirs are often treated like they’re the absolute bottom of the pile. But if we take time to examine the genre properly, it has a lot to tell us about society, fame and even ourselves. Within these books, famous women tell us their story, in their ‘own words’. However, it is an open secret that constellations of ghost writers, management and market forces orbit these texts, undermining their promises that we can access the ‘real’ woman behind the celebrity image. As a result, the ghost-written memoir inhabits a complex grey area between biography, autobiography, fact and fiction.
Why does it matter if they’re ghost-written?
Looking at who ghost-writes and how both offers a fascinating peek ‘behind the scenes’ at the mechanics of fame-making and raises important political questions. For example, bestselling memoirs sold as the ‘true’ experiences of women are often co-authored by men. This is especially important to think about when the co-authored memoirs narrate stories of surviving sexual abuse as in the memoirs of celebrities Jenna Jameson and Pamela Anderson. This suggests that it is important we consider what power dynamics might lie in the construction of these texts and how that might shape the way stories are told.
What is the wider relevance of celebrity memoir?
In the process of examining memoir I get to interrogate values of contemporary society and the way that women are coaxed to perform certain roles. Memoirs are a particularly good example showing how that happens, especially when we consider how they are ghost-written. Looking at the conventions of this genre tells us about the space permitted to public women to tell their own stories. The contradictions of agency in self-representation shown in celebrity memoir can tell us about the wider contradictory demands that structure femininity in general.
What do you mean by contradictions of agency in self-representation?
Memoirs offer a certain amount of power to public women who wish to intervene in the kinds of stories that circulate around them in a media landscape largely populated by unauthorised exposés. This is important when we consider how much women’s stories have historically been erased. But memoirs also reveal the limitations that structure the way that women are permitted to represent themselves.
What is a Research Excellence Award and what will you do with yours?I have been lucky enough to receive funding from the university which I will be using to write my book and organise a series of events. The working title of the book is Subjectivity for Sale: the Gender Politics of Ghosted Celebrity Memoir. The events will be called the Celebrity Culture Club and they will bring together academics and people working in the media to discuss the urgent questions of the day relating to celebrity culture.
Dr Hannah Yelin is a Lecturer in Media and Culture at Oxford Brookes University