Anne Helen Petersen,  March 31, 2014

Beyoncé, Kim, and the Politics of Celebrity Labor

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How do you make a celebrity? It’s popular to think of celebrities as highly disposable—as cheap and as flimsy as a poly-blend tank from Forever 21, with similarly dubious ethics of production. But the labor involved in the production of celebrity is not only complex, but taxing—on both the body and the psyche.

The labor of celebrity-production, then, is to make you like—or at least be compelled by—the celebrity’s presentation of self. But that’s not as easy as it might seem—you can’t just throw out a semi-fascinating self and expect fans to respond to it. Recent and historical examples suggest that the most successful celebrities fall on one of two opposing ends of the labor spectrum: they either make their labor incredibly visible, effectively inviting us to respect it and the celebrity apparatus more broadly, or else they efface it entirely, thereby contributing to the illusion of charisma as a natural, God-given trait. One extreme emphasizes the ways in which stars are “just like us” (working, tired, hustling); the other suggests they’re nothing like us at all (naturally blessed).

That split between “relatable” celebrities and other-worldly ones is nothing new, and there will always be a mix of the two qualities in the figures we choose to venerate. Yet the rise of digital technologies—and social media in particular—has recalibrated the mix: even the most diefied of celebrities are now making their labor visible. In this way, to labor glamorously—and to be “honest” about it—has become the new signifier of authentic talent.

Historically, celebrity labor has become most visible when labor, writ large, has entered the national conversation. Bette Davis was one of the biggest stars of The Depression Era—and it’s not coincidence that her image was built on the constant invocation of her unflappable New England work ethic. Even the rhetoric around Shirley Temple was obsessed with labor—specifically, the absence thereof. Unlike the millions of children who had been forced to labor after the crash, Temple supposedly saw her non-stop shooting schedule, the memorization of lines, and learning elaborate tap-dance routine as “play.”

It makes sense, then, that the visibility of celebrity labor would coincide with a period of fraught, if often sublimated, labor politics—a visibility facilitated by the spread and co-option of social media by a broad array of celebrities. Beyoncé Knowles Carter has arguably done this most visibly and effectively. Her singular name, like Madonna or Cher, is the product of her labor. Her perfectly curated Tumblr, coupled with her equally curated documentary, Beyoncé: Life is But a Dream, advance an image that is equal parts sweat, control, and endurance. This image does not take away from the mystique of Beyoncé, it adds to it: we like her more, not less, because of the supposed transparency: Girl works hard to be the Queen.

Beyoncé is still laboring to enrich what we’re meant to understand as natural talent. Yes, she has to berate her dancers to get the show together on time; yes, she spends hours dancing and writing. But she has a voice and a body that’s naturally inclined towards refinement, and her talent is quantifiable.

Now compare Beyoncé’s visible labor with that of Kim Kardashian, one of the hardest working celebrities in the business. Whereas Beyoncé has “real” talent, Kim’s (and that of the rest of the Kardashians) is often characterized as a simulacrum of talent: she’s famous for being famous or, to get specific, she’s famous for appearing in a sex tape with a B-list celebrity and for having a Dad who defended a former football star against a murder rap.

Unlike the “modern” celebrity, whose reason for fame (or infamy) is clearly discernable, Kardashian is an exponent of postmodern celebrity: all surface, no substance. In many ways, she functions as the dark double to Beyoncé’s celebrity: Beyoncé sweats; Kim preens. Beyoncé orders; Kim dithers. Beyoncé breaks free from her father; Kim is subject to her mother. Put simply, Beyoncé’s labor is masculinized and legitimated, while Kardashian’s is feminized and denigrated.

This bifurcation has to do with enduring cultural hierarchies: Beyoncé isn’t just a pop star, but a writer—one who’s appeared in films, even Oscar-winning ones, and whose documentary aired on HBO, a channel that prides itself on not being television. Kardashian isn’t just a celebrity, but a reality star—the lowest of the cultural low. Even the format of their respective media divides them: Beyoncé’s narratives of self, the labor that produces it, are mapped within the tight confines of a song, a ninety-minute film, or a collection of Instagram photos. Kardashian’s labor is diffuse, loose, and meandering. An episode of E! Entertainment Television’s Keeping Up With the Kardashians lacks the clear thesis of a Beyoncé product, especially as representations of the worth of their respective artists’ labor. No one would dare apply the term “artist” to Kardashian, despite the artistry clearly required to so carefully fashion her image. Beyoncé creates; Kardashian exists.

I’m not suggesting that Beyoncé and Kardashian should necessarily be seen as equals—they are pursuing different paths, albeit to similar ends. Yet the way we conceive of their labor functions to further stratify the gendered division of labor, between labor that is meaningful and labor that is meaningless. Both Beyoncé and Kardashian hustle; one just effaces that mediation, that “image”-ness, more effectively than the other. More than any other figure, Kardashian reflects the realities of media production and labor. But life—or at least Beyoncé’s version of it—is but a dream, and we’ve always preferred that over reality.

Anne Helen Petersen mostly writes about celebrities, television, and feminism. Follow her here.

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