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Maneuvering Audience Perception by Re-f(r)aming the Class Conscious "D-List" Celebrity

by Ethan Tussey

by Garret Castleberry for IN MEDIA RES

Prior to entering the "Reality TV" arena, "D-List" celebrities recognize their participative role(s) as pre-conditioned into hierarchical systems that segregate based upon overt ideological codes of beauty, talent, fortune, and fame, but also covert codes cognizant of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Hierarchic celebrity classifications denote pre-determined class dichotomies between public and private, anonymous and scandalous, eager and earned. This institutionalized dualistic spectrum requires social and cultural classification, within which sub-categorizations emerge.

In structuralist terms (see Levi-Strauss or for quicker digestion Williamson), the "Natural" talent encoded as Hollywood's raw materials undergo transformational change into cooked hierarchies ("A-list," "B-list," etc.) that, when spoiled, frequently metasticize into reality TV commodities. Thus as a TV sub-genre, celebrity-reality becomes coded as lower-class programming for unfashionable stars. While technically broad audiences consume these programs, "Reality TV" imitates former entertainment constructions of low-culture kitsch in a purported "Golden Age" era boasting televisual refinement.

Vh1's mid-2000s Sunday night programming block (dubbed "Celebreality") paraded (and parodied) celebrities through various produced reality conventions including public humiliation (celebrities hazed for audience gaze) and scripted dehumanization. Re-f(r)aming "confrontation" as a carnival grotesque posits one of the genre's most distinguishable conventions. Celebreality series included texts like The Surreal Life, Flavor of Love, Hogan Knows Best, and Celebrity Fit Club among others. These series range in stagedness and "reality" conventionality; from The Real World-style live-ins to "House Harem" competition-dating (Levy, 2006) to failed inversions of Fa(ux)ther Knows Best (Morrissey, 2011). 

Yet when reading genre as an institutional form of categorization for purposes of marketing and capitalism, we might (re)view the "D-List" category as akin to subaltern spectacle that features subsequent fallout such as tabloid fodder, divorce, legal, and mental health issues, and even downward spirals ending in death. Generically, framing "D-List" as a strategic marketing device reconstitutes audience perception from that of a negative commodity (reputation) into a positive one (viewership). This follows the path of commodification and thus extends our understand of how D-List Celebrities, game to their own Selfsploitation, actually function to promote the status quo in Hollywood. This promotion (or is it demotion?) occurs at a (class) conscious level, often at a celebrity's own expense. Just as segments in a "Celebrity Fit Club" epsiode or season are pre-determined, so too it is (pre-)destined that these "fallen stars" cannot ultimately regain their footing, given the industry rules by which they always already subscribe and thus cannot not ignore.  

D-List Celebrities and Fit Club

A scene from Celebrity Fit Club

from Celebrity Fit Club (2010)
Creator: MTV
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey
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