Celebrity Doppelgängers, Vanity Fair’s “New Hollywood” issue, and Visibility
If you use Facebook, chances are you saw the Celebrity Doppelgänger meme dominate your news feed a couple of weeks ago. Perhaps you participated in the exercise yourself using a celebrity you’ve been told you resemble, consulting myheritage.com’s celebrity look-a-like generator, or submitting your picture to the Facebook fan page for Doppelgänger Week and asking others for suggestions. After all, it can be fun to imagine ourselves as celebrities with their glamorous lives and there is something appealing about an opportunity to see how other people see us (I’ll leave it to others to discuss why such things may or may not be fun). One anonymous poster to a college newspaper’s website even asserted that the Facebook doppelgängers “can actually tell you something about a person – their personality, what traits they admire in others, and whether they consider themselves significantly more attractive than they really are”. Yet, for many people it is just as fun to play with the meme, choosing, for example, self-deprecating pictures, non-humans, or celebrities of the opposite gender.
While no one in my own circles appeared to be taking the meme too seriously (and I suspect this stance was common), over the course of the week questions began to emerge about who was getting to have the fun and who was really able to play the doppelgänger game. A friend summed up one answer to that question with a status update which noted that, “given the current demographic distribution of celebrities, it is a lot easier for white folks to pick their doppelgängers.” I think she’s right. Even with US celebrity culture’s narrow definitions of beauty and attractiveness (even Megan Fox needs a stand-in these days), there is simply a much wider range of white faces to choose from than of other racial and ethnic groups. The flurry of responses to my friend’s status update generally affirmed her statement, noting how frustrating it was to have perhaps one celebrity who shares your racial and/or ethnic identity that would be recognizable to friends only familiar with US celebrity culture (it would be great to hear from folks about the meme beyond the US context).
I’m certainly not the first person to notice or report on these discussions. Sepia Mutiny observed similar frustrations and has already offered a really nice analysis of Facebook users’ discussions of the meme including debates about the fluidity and meaning of identity. Over at Racialicious there is an open comment thread on the topic of the meme that has garnered dozens of comments since being started on February 9.
Public conversations about race and ethnicity in US celebrity culture haven’t been focused solely on the doppelganger meme in the past few weeks, though. In her post on this site, Mary Beltran pointed out how while Vanity Fair‘s piece on up-and-coming starlets in the February issue included actresses of mixed race and ethnicity, they physically separated them from white actresses suggesting an ethnically divided star system. In the popular press, Vanity Fair‘s March 2010 cover of its “New Hollywood” issue has received criticism for overlooking breakout actresses of color (there were no repeats from the February piece). One piece on Yahoo’s Shine page puzzled over how such a cover and story could ignore the successful (and profitable) performances given by Gabourey Sidibe, Zoe Saldana, and Freida Pinto. That one article received over 18,000 comments. Whereas the Facebook comment threads I’ve seen tend to be populated mostly by people who agree with a poster’s critique of the doppelganger meme, comments about the Vanity Fair cover were dominated (not entirely surprisingly) by the opinion that these omissions did not matter and certainly did not reflect any racism or ethnocentrism in Hollywood or anywhere else in US culture.
At a moment when political figures (however fringe-y) such as Tom Tancredo are trotting out Jim Crow policy models like literacy and civics requirements for voting on the national stage, Vanity Fair coverage and Facebook memes may not seem like particularly significant sites of discourse about race and ethnicity in US culture. But phenomena like Doppelgänger Week and the responses to it illustrate the ways that exclusion occurs and privilege is shored up through the most banal and ostensibly non-political cultural practices. Moreover, the fact that when these absences are pointed out so many people are quickly moved to justify them not only reconfirms that we are not living in a society where race no longer matters, but that in fact we live in a society where supposed frivolities like popular magazines and social networking sites are spaces where constructions of identity are perhaps the most deeply resistant to meaningful change. What discussions surrounding the Facebook meme and the Vanity Fair cover can tell us is that while no one is suggesting that media visibility (via celebrity status or otherwise) is the key to resolving issues of racism and ethnocentrism, the absence of visibility is still still noticeable and significant. Both this lack of visibility and the notion of race and ethnicity as visible (which I know I haven’t touched on here) demand our attention as scholars and teachers.