Bruce Elder’s recent review of Emma Tom’s book, There’s Something About
Mary
(SMH, 11-12 February, pay per view) begins with a curious question. “A biography of Princess Mary.
Why?” It’s hard to imagine a rock music critic like Elder posing the same
question about a book on Mick Jagger.

But then rock music is respectable popular culture. Rock music is
allegedly revolutionary. We know this because of all the deep political
insights hidden in lyrics like “Yeah baby” and “The answer is blowing in the
wind.”

Princess Mary and the gossip magazine pop culture she represents
is, on the other hand, absolute trash. We know this because “ordinary” women
buy that stuff and stereotypes tells us that the average female consumer is
easily led, overly emotional and prone to elaborate fantasies.
Women who suck up this trash, let alone deign to write about it,
are clearly far less enlightened than all the blokes they know who spend hours
obsessing over the details of who has what kind of groin injury or yelling
themselves hoarse in front of a TV on a Saturday afternoon.

In fact, the fascination many women have with the lives of
celebrities is very similar to the fascination some men have with sports heroes
or rock gods. They are screens onto which we project our fears and desires.
Their divorces, battles with addiction or depression, moral choices, and
attitudes to having children are interesting to other women because they live
with these issues too.

Sure there’s a voyeuristic dimension to celebrity culture. But
there’s a voyeuristic dimension to sport and pop music culture too. Mary
Donaldson interests a lot of women because she started out as an ordinary
Australian girl who achieved a life many women would love to live.

Celebrity is a huge global industry today and it
is widely studied and written about by academics. Emma Tom’s book is a popular
contribution to this field. It’s time that media commentators woke up to the
fact that their contempt for celebrity culture is really a thinly veiled
contempt for the so-called ordinary women who consume it.

Catharine Lumby wrote her PhD on celebrity culture. She is quoted in There’s Something About Mary in this capacity and was one of the speakers at the book’s launch.

Peter Fray

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