Celebrity Doppelgängers, Vanity Fair’s “New Hollywood” issue, and Visibility

February 12, 2010
By | 13 Comments

The profile picture for the Doppelgänger Week Facebook page

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.

Vanity Fair's March 2010 Cover

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.


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13 Responses to “ Celebrity Doppelgängers, Vanity Fair’s “New Hollywood” issue, and Visibility ”

  1. roxanne on February 12, 2010 at 10:43 AM

    Though I am black, I have been regularly told that I look like white celebrities, as have other black friends of mine. This doesn’t nullify your observation about the (still) overwhelming whiteness of Hollywood, but perhaps people need to expand their imaginations.

    • Megan Biddinger on February 12, 2010 at 3:54 PM

      Excellent point, Roxanne. Thank you. Something that I’ve seen come up in discussions about the meme was the possibility of using it as a space for playing with ideas about appearance and identity. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts about that.

  2. Lindsay H. Garrison on February 12, 2010 at 4:00 PM

    Thanks Megan – this is something I’ve been thinking a lot about in the past few weeks, too, as friends have been replacing their profile pics, polling their friends for their look-alikes. You raise an important point in that visibility isn’t everything – there’s no such thing as a ‘perfect representation’ of anything, and even if there were, visibility of such alone wouldn’t necessarily solve all problems – but even so, the lack of visibility is, in fact, a real problem. And I think it *is* a question of visibility here, because it seems (at least to me) that it was about choosing famous people that LOOKED like you, not famous people that you emotionally/politically identified with, really liked, or wanted to be (which is a whole other interesting facet all its own).

    What really got me about the doppelganger game was that it was a moment where this lack of visibility was made jarringly obvious – and we should recognize it as such. While I certainly respect the need for (and pleasure in) expanding one’s imagination here, I think it’s a crucial opportunity for consciousness-raising and bringing attention to important issues of race, representation and (lack of) visibility.

    • Mary Beltran on February 12, 2010 at 5:22 PM

      Really interesting post, Megan, and I appreciate that you call our attention to the Vanity Fair cover as well. I followed some of the comments online responding to it and was struck by the number and vehemence of writers who defended the cover’s lack of racial diversity. Several wrote that blacks and Latinos had “their” stars, so what was wrong with Vanity Fair presenting “their” (white) stars? It was a bit chilling, that these writers apparently felt Vanity Fair, the Hollywood film industry, and the rest of the mainstream media belonged to and should focus squarely on white America. While of course these writers are not representative of all Americans or even Vanity Fair readers, this comes as a reminder that this sort of thinking isn’t confined to folks in more low-brow chat rooms. I agree, that we should pay attention.

  3. Jonathan Gray on February 12, 2010 at 4:17 PM

    It also struck me as often a way for “beautiful” people to congratulate themselves. Of course there were exceptions, but most of the people I saw with easy doppelgangers were in that situation because they conform to normative ideas of what constitutes “attractive” (and hence find themselves looking like celebs, who more often than not must conform to the same norms).

    • Erin Copple Smith on February 12, 2010 at 5:02 PM

      This is a great point, Jonathan. One reason I didn’t participate is because in heavier days (and when she was more beloved and less ridiculed figure), folks really did say I looked like Rosie O’Donnell. But I knew that if I put up Rosie’s picture, it would suggest I was fishing for compliments. (“Oh, Erin! You do NOT look like Rosie O’Donnell!” etc.) Indeed, a FB friend who did use Rosie’s picture got those kinds of responses to her choice.

      Ultimately, it leaves us looking for a few key identifying features (with short dark hair and dark-rimmed glasses, I figured the safest bet would be Tina Fey, although we don’t really share any other similarities).

      All of this to say…yes. This meme seems to be bringing up a great deal of problems w/r/t celebrities and societal norms.

    • sarah jedd on February 13, 2010 at 2:11 PM

      I agree with you, Erin– I also looked for some key identifying features. I went with Dora the Explorer (not oddly sexy new tween Dora, the regular preschool Dora) because we share the EXACT SAME HAIRCUT.

      But about the “beautiful people” notion: that’s also why I chose Dora, to make fun of all of my Facebook friends who chose congratulatory gorgeous doppelgangers without, it seemed, any trace of self deprecation. Ultimately, this was the most annoying Facebook meme since the bra color one.

  4. Christopher Cwynar on February 12, 2010 at 4:27 PM

    This is an excellent – and timely – post. I particularly like the final paragraph in which you incisively break down the manner in which often-discriminatory norms and values are subtly re-inscribed through ‘banal and ostensibly non-political cultural practices”. This is a matter that demands our critical attention, particularly in terms of the manner in which these practices are evolving in the virtual realm. As we increasingly turn to interactive web 2.0 platforms for community, information, and entertainment, we need to be attentive to the ways in which these developments are occurring. Commentators are quick to identify questionable depictions as they emerge in mainstream media venues such as ‘Vanity Fair’, but I think that it may be more difficult to identify these things as they emerge in our Facebook or Twitter feeds. This may be because these sites are forums for more ‘banal’ forms of communication, but it may also be because the information that coalesces on these platforms generally represents one’s friends and acquaintances. As such, one’s newsfeed is to a certain degree a reflection of oneself, and I would posit that this may cause users (sub)consciously massage the information they find there into palatable forms (even if that just means disregarding things that may register as questionable).

    The other point here is that these memes are quite ephemeral. The doppelganger game emerged, flourished, and was gone in a week. Now, one finds only doppel-traces in the form of a few lingering profile pics, erstwhile profile pics hidden away in albums, and a bit of media coverage (i.e. this blog post). If we want to understand these cultural phenomena, we have to grab them as they touch us and then race on by. I like this post because it asks us to pause and contemplate this meme before it effectively disappears, to be replaced by another similarly short-term phenomenon.

  5. Annie Petersen on February 12, 2010 at 5:40 PM

    I really appreciate the introduction of race into the examination of the celebrity doppleganger phenomenon. I recently blogged about it in the context of star studies — and the way that most of the stars chosen are not *huge* stars, but rather “normal” or average looking. You can find my post here: http://bit.ly/d3seAU

  6. mar on February 12, 2010 at 6:10 PM

    hollywood is not diverse. i’m white and i had a hard time finding someone to be my doppelganger only because i have curly hair. however, celebrity should not be reduced just to hollywood… not only is there an independent movie circuit but also movie/music/literary industries outside the u.s. maybe this shows how prevalent and internalized cultural imperialism is.

  7. Jeffrey Jones on February 12, 2010 at 9:03 PM

    Wonderful post

  8. Claire on February 12, 2010 at 11:46 PM

    According to myheritage.com, my doppelganger is Bela Lugosi. Not that I’m complaining, but wow.

  9. Josh Shepperd on February 13, 2010 at 8:03 PM

    I think you’ve got a basis for a publishable paper topic here, Megan.