Recent NewPolCom PhD and current Teaching Fellow Dr. Ellen Watts is presenting at the Political Studies Association (PSA) annual conference on 15 April 2019 in Nottingham. She is part of a brilliant panel organised by the PSA’s Media & Politics Group (MPG) called The drama of politics, featuring Dr. Katy Parry and Dr. Beth Johnson (Leeds) as well as Prof. Kay Richardson (Liverpool). Ellen’s paper is on Celebrities as Political Representatives - you’ll find her abstract below.
Panel - The drama of politics
This panel considers the intersections of politics and drama, exploring both the portrayal of politics on screen and the activism of actors off screen. We consider both the manner in which formal politics is represented in television drama through the fictionalised work of politicians and the way in which actors use their celebrity to fight for social and political change through varied political channels. Building on scholarship which argues that popular culture provides valuable spaces through which to examine political values and tensions (Corner & Richardson, 2008; van Zoonen & Wring, 2012), this panel looks at how interventions on and off screen potentially shape understandings of politics in the UK.
Ellen Watts - Celebrities as Political Representatives: Capital, Credibility, and Continuity
The ability of celebrities to become influential political actors is evident, but the process enabling this is not. While Driessens (2013) proposes conceptualising celebrity as a form of capital, it remains unclear how celebrities obtain political recognition. I argue that a return to the question of whether and how celebrities act as ‘legitimate’ political representatives is needed to address this (Street, 2004). Building on Driessens’ concept of celebrity capital, I argue that the ability of celebrities to exchange this for political capital is contingent on their claims to represent others (Saward, 2010). In this paper I take Emma Watson as a case study to explore how this process works in practice, drawing on ethnography of her online feminist book group Our Shared Shelf. I show how Watson uses her resources – including her large social media followings – to perform three types of claim to represent feminists. Through interviews with Our Shared Shelf members I explore why Watson is accepted as a representative - affording her political capital - by those who are not predominantly her ‘fans’. This demonstrates the interconnection between celebrity, politics, and representation; Watson is accepted as a legitimate political actor due to her ‘reach’, afforded by her social media platforms and ability to attract media attention. However Watson’s case also demonstrates that while celebrities can bring meaningful political change, their evaluation according to political and cultural hierarchies is more broadly indicative of continuity. Watson is accepted as a political representative not because she is a celebrity, but because she is ‘not like other celebrities’. These comparisons are based on Watson’s ‘connection’ to formal politics through her role as a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador (Saward, 2010), class-based assessments of her ‘appropriate’ behaviour, and her consistent self-presentation across fields and platforms. These resources enable Watson to negotiate what I argue is a ‘paradox of self-promotion’ in celebrity politics, whereby celebrities must attract attention to be accepted as credible representatives while avoiding accusations of ‘attention seeking’.