‘Hiding in Plain Sight’: The Shifting Cultures of Celebrity
‘Hiding in Plain Sight’: The Shifting Cultures of Celebrity
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In 1990, British entertainer, DJ and presenter Jimmy Savile (1926-2011) was awarded a knighthood for his charity work, having raised some £30 million for a variety of charities over his long career. In the same year he also received a Papal knighthood (KCSG). He had previously received an OBE in 1972 and held various other markers of high social status. Widely celebrated in his lifetime, within a year of his death in 2011, Savile was identified as a predatory and serial sexual abuser of children and adults, male and female, in private, in hospitals, at the BBC TV Centre, a school for girls and in other institutional settings. Some 73 per cent of his victims were children. A report by the NSPCC and Metropolitan Police said that he had been active since at least 1955 and that around 450 people had made formal complaints of abuse since his death, concluding that ‘The details provided by the victims of his abuse paint the picture of a mainly opportunistic individual who used his celebrity status as a powerful tool to coerce or control them, preying on the vulnerable or star-struck for his sexual gratification’ (Gray and Watt 2013: 24).
During and after the Savile case, other high profile British celebrities have been drawn into a much wider ‘historic abuse’ scandal, with numerous allegations of routine inappropriate behaviour, sexual harassment and rape made against a variety of male celebrities dating back to the 1960s. For instance, BBC sports commentator Stuart Hall was jailed in 2013 after admitting a string of indecent assaults between 1967 and 1985 and faces more allegations of abuse and rape. Similar investigations are continuing while others have led to current court cases. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said of the Savile case that ‘what we are seeing is the dark side of the culture of celebrity, and actually in this case it wasn’t a culture of celebrity, it was the cult of celebrity’.
The implication here is that the clamour for fame and the audience’s reverence towards celebrities and their lifestyles also creates vulnerabilities that can be exploited by powerful abusers. This case also illustrates the radical disjunction often sharply felt by celebrities themselves, between their private and (very) public personae (Cashmore 2006). Some sociologists see broader issues in this clutch of recent cases.
Frank Furedi (2013) argues that these ‘historic’ cases are part of a broad-based mistrust of key public institutions in British society, taking in the MPs expenses scandal of 2009, the banking-fuelled credit crunch of 2008 and concern at banker’s bonus payments alongside phone-hacking by tabloid newspapers revealed in 2011. Furedi sees a veritable ‘epidemic of scandals’ and whilst, sociologically, a scandal or ‘moral panic’ tends to be short-lived, leading to a restoration or restatement of core moral values, today that restorative moment appears unreachable. His argument is that there is no longer a consensus on such core values. Instead, there is widespread disagreement on basic values and behavioural norms in social life and, therefore, a scandal of this kind cannot end in the restoration of consensual moral values. Hence, the Savile scandal is best seen not as a typical moral panic with a distinct beginning, middle and end, but as an on-going ‘moral crusade’ which has the potential to move from one issue to another. Moral crusades tend to try to change behaviour in a particular direction and in a persistent way so that, for example, in the area of child protection, new crimes and offences against children continue to be uncovered both historically and contemporaneously. None of this denies the seriousness of Savile’s offending nor the impact on his victims, but Furedi suggests that the feverish social response to the Savile case is one more indication of a deep mistrust of people towards each other and major social institutions.
But is Nick Clegg’s brooding sense of the dark side of celebrity status accurate today? There may be a strong argument that the spread and intensification of a ‘culture of celebrity’ will, paradoxically, not lead to more abuse but rather to less. In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s when celebrities were relatively few and celebrity culture more restricted, that rarity helped to produce a deference which served to insulate celebrities from criticism and investigation. The Savile inquiry provided evidence of a widespread indifference to his abusive behaviour within important social institutions which allowed him to ‘hide in plain sight’ (Gray and Watt 2013: 6). Savile (along with others) was seen as ‘untouchable’ by his victims, most of whom thought they would not be believed if they came forward. However, we now live in a time when ‘celebrity’ status is within the reach of ordinary people who appear on‘reality’ TV shows and a plethora of other formats including cooking, baking, property, confessional, talent and music shows and many more. As celebrity status is effectively ‘democratized’ or at least made more widely accessible, its aura and mystique have been punctured.
At the same time, celebrities themselves are no longer shielded from public scrutiny and debate. Quite the reverse. A whole industry has developed based on opening up the world of celebrity to public gaze and, today, every aspect of celebrity life is of interest and open to critique. Moral debates about ‘correct’ lifestyles and behavioural norms are conducted through the withering and unforgiving lens of celebrity magazines, TV chat shows, social media and online forums as well as in extensive newspaper coverage and gossip columns.
In this climate it becomes much more difficult, almost impossible perhaps, for contemporary celebrities to ‘get away with it’ in the way that Jimmy Savile evidently did. Even the smallest celebrity indiscretion can now be the source of a major story. So, if the nascent culture of celebrity of the post-1945 period was indeed a fertile ground for persistent and undiscovered sexual abuse, today’s more established version may have become, albeit inadvertently, something of a bulwark against the abuse of power by those living celebrity lifestyles.
Furedi, F. (2013) Moral Crusades in an Age of Mistrust: The Jimmy Savile Scandal (Oxford: Palgrave Macmillan).
Gray, D. and Watt, P. (2013) Giving Victims a Voice: Joint Report into Allegations made Against Jimmy Savile (MPS / NSPCC).
Rojek, C. (2001) Celebrity (London: Reaktion Books).
Chapter 18, The Media, contains some useful material on the development of media forms and celebrity culture is discussed briefly on pp. 786-88. However, it is important to get a sense of how and why children and childhood have become such a major social concern, so Chapter 9, The Life Course, will be helpful too, particularly pp. 348-52. In Sociology: Introductory Readings, Reading1 (C. Wright-Mills) on sociology’s interest in private/public life gives a very general overview of this issue and Bauman’s outline of postmodern cultural change in Reading 7 may be of interest.