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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Britney Spears: The Construct Constantly Deconstructing

Britney, Paris, Lindsay, Nicole, Angelina, Brad -- even Owen (Wilson), Amy (Winehouse) and "Gummi Bear" -- they're a reality show that unfolds day by day, and it's one where you get to write the script as you look for more clues about their behavior in the various celebrity blogs. It's FaceBook Meets Reality TV as you watch videos, look at paparazzi-provided images, read the day's scandalizing behaviors, react, and post comments in discussion boards.

Audio (click for podcast).

Celebrity Feuds: The Glass Menagerie, constantly updated
Lindsey Lohan's parents accusing each other of criminal behavior, Charlie Sheen and Denise Richards in ongoing custody arrangement power struggles, Courtney Love accusing a British actor of supplying "hillbilly heroin" to Owen Wilson before his suicide attempt. The outrageous claims that border on libel occur every day in the online tabloids. Hollywood seems to need to consume a few of its own each year -- the blood spilled, the tears shed -- are they fuel to feed the narrative machine? Do they satisfy a need for sacrifice? There are certain echoes of Day of the Locust, Nathanael West's classic.

Tell-All Friends: Sex, Lies, and MySpace
The pace at which the narrative unfolds can be blindingly quick. It's much faster than reality television. It's amazing how many friends, acquaintances, and assistances decide to sell their stories after (or even while) they maintain relationships with the celebrity-du-jour. Britney's assistant of two weeks sells her story to OK! magazine for undisclosed amount, replete with lurid tales. Cellphone images get posted -- it has all the energy of MySpace, but when celebrity "frenemies" spill their stories, it jumps out of the circle of friends and into the web at large.

Virtual Graffiti: Trainwreck-a-licious
A moustache on the Mona Lisa? There seems to be a universal and time-honored urge to draw horns and moustaches on images of our sacred cows. has become a master of the graffitoed celebrity image. He also incorporates the "what they're really thinking cloud" comic strip technique, and caption techniques dating back to Mad Magazine and other lampoon and humor magazines.

Britney Spears: The Construct Constantly Deconstructing
Britney has come a long way from being a mouseketeer. Her rise to fame as a bubblegum sizzler was a carefully orchestrated series of productions. I use the word "production" because it was clear that from the beginning, the Disney factory created a persona that teens would find irresistible. She was produced and packaged.

However, it's probably more interesting to look at Britney as a construct -- the construct we all willingly participate in creating as we project our own narratives and expectations of what we think the embodiment of abstract concepts -- glamour, exoticism, wholesomeness, girl-next-door, schoolgirl, nymphet -- as well as coming-of-age dialectics (naughty vs. innocent, clean vs. dirty, sophisticated vs. naive, rural vs. urban).

As opposed to Madonna, whose self-creation has reached the level of machine-like predictability (her arms even look a bit like something from an early Terminator film), Britney's attempts at self-construction show disintegration rather than Madonna's smoothly polished echoes and appropriations of collectively held and understood icons (see "Madonna in Che Guevara's Beret").

We know the images: the shaved head, the shoulder-length brunette wigs, the tangled and matted weaves, the blonde "signature" wigs. Britney, at her most Disneyfied, is a highly photoshopped glowing blonde "knowing" teenager. Britney, at her most interesting, is a puzzle where, like the "What's Wrong with This Picture?" in the old Highlights magazines in the doctor's office, you get to count all the things you find disastrously misaligned with the Disneyfied perfection we came to know as "Britney."

Each paparazzi shot of Britney is a treasure trove of "what's wrong with this picture" -- and, while it's fun to try to pick out all the things that are a stylist's nightmare -- it's also instructive. In a single Britney pic, one might find ill-fitting wig over shaved head, a shirt worn as a dress (revealing fleshy buttocks), a miniature Yorkshire terrier wearing a cast on its leg, a crying child, assorted "wardrobe malfunctions," and assorted food and grease stains on expensive fabrics.

With Britney, we get to hone our skills at being social beings and identifying non-verbal communication and symbol interpretation. We recognize that people convey images with their appearance, and their acts. Britney shows how quickly people turn vicious when their expectations have been dashed, and how they attack people who do not fit the norm (whatever the "norm" is for the category the person seems to fit in).

With Britney, we get to see the unraveled costume, which in unraveling, reveals itself to be a costume, rather than the wardrobe the real person would wear.

Further, Britney's own (probably unintentional) deconstructions of a pop star image make the construction process transparent. It's Frankenstein's monster with the thick stitching hanging out for everyone to see that he is not the creation of a real god, nor is he, a real monster. Like Frankenstein's monster, who was given to eloquent soliloquies and exquisite pathos, Britney Spears shows her humanity as she rages against her Frankenstein (her mother?) and the loutish or greedy villagers who seek to devour and destroy (K-Fed? Perez Hilton and other bloggers?).

Possible "Teachable Moments" in an elearning course
What is remarkable about celebrity blogs is the level of energy and enthusiasm they inspire. People read, they consider, they think, and they comment. They also do the following:

Take a position. Debate. Propose explanations. Create meaning from images. Relate to one's own experience. Engage in the interpretive process. Support positions with evidence.

Can the dynamic interaction and high level of engagement be translated to e-learning?

To answer that question, it might be necessary to answer a few questions: Why do we care when we read celebrity blogs? Is it a case study in media and public opinion? An opportunity to observe theories of human behavior in action? The answer is yes, and it's also the other items mentioned earlier.

Discussion boards create a place for engagement. If students can post drafts as well as comments, they can scaffold their learning as well. Writing and communications courses provide a great deal of opportunity as well.

A Few EduBlogs with notable recent posts or updates:

D'Arcy Norman's EduBlogs list:

Pedagogy of the Compressed

Christopher D. Sessums

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