Hey everyone, hope you had a great fall break!
I expressed an interest in exploring the commodification of a modern celebrity; using Marxist concepts like “labor” and “use-value” in breaking down publicly marketed life and identity will demystify both the process of creating celebrity and the work of retaining it in the right kind of way (i.e. being labeled a star versus a has-been). I’ve decided to focus on Tyra Banks as a microcosm of this phenomenon. Details:
Tyra is a great example of one of Marx’s most hearty points: the laborer embodies both labor and commodity, consumer and consumed object. He is selling himself – ability, talents, social identification, appearance – in order to make and sell to others. Tyra aggressively seized the reins of her modeling career and retained a pivotal management role through her transition from swimsuit girl to model coach to talk-show host. She created socio-historical context for herself early by speaking out about the industry’s stance on black models, making herself a spokeswoman for a larger discourse on race and ideal physical American standards. She intertwined the separate worlds of her model-training program (“America’s Next Top Model”) with her brief foray into hip-hop music and her talk show. Tyra saturated any sphere she could lay her influence on with an almost comically obvious self-veneration, and she thus created a product that transcended its media environment. The image of Tyra Banks became conflated with TYRA, an emblem of the successful Other whose relentless business savvy is not disguised, but cheerfully exposed as another facet of the Tyra brand.
I like Tyra as a subject because she demonstrates the process by which a systematically oppressed population can penetrate the hegemonic structure through its own channels – something Fanon decries as selling out. I’m interested in examining how Tyra continues to dissect, and sometimes criticize, the visual ideal of whiteness and physical beauty while fiercely retaining her place as a popular, prosperous black visage in the media. I would love the opportunity to bring in some other theorists more well-versed on race in visual culture (i.e. bell hooks) in order to bring the drier political theory of Marx into the modern matrix of post-feminism and the slow assimilation of the “black is beautiful” dogma.