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Politics, Memes, and Nipples, Oh My! Celebrification in Pandemic Times - Michelle Flood

Politics, Memes, and Nipples, Oh My! Celebrification in Pandemic Times

I’m not sure what else 2020 is going to throw our way and I won’t futilely attempt a comprehensive breakdown of the catastrophic disaster that has been 2020. But somewhere nestled between the tragic passing of Kobe Bryant in January and the loss of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September was a significant shift in the production of celebrity. The global coronavirus pandemic has, at least in part, helped to shift public opinion on many topics, including racialized police brutality and universal healthcare. To my surprise, it’s also changed how individuals become celebrities. As they are chosen, championed, scorned, or even worshipped, celebrities reflect back onto their audience what exactly we value as a culture. Therefore, in a year of sustained crisis, it makes sense that the celebrities of the year are not those of the cultural industries but rather those who are the most immediately visible during moments of crisis: political leaders. Two of the most recognizable figures in this historical moment, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot have ascended from the status of a notable politician to that of conventional celebrity. Their leadership during the pandemic, acting as both cultural and public health authorities amidst uncertainty and crisis, is simultaneously heralded and criticized. However, one thing is clear: these public officials are now celebrities in their own rite through the nationwide digital promulgation of their leadership. The mass consumption of their daily media briefings, tweets, YouTube videos, and viral clips turned Cuomo and Lightfoot into household names seemingly overnight. While Chris Rojek asserts that celebrity status is a precondition to political success,[1] I contend that these individuals’ celebrity exceeds that of a typical politician and instead borders on something more akin to the conventional understanding of celebrity as it exists in popular culture.

The celebrification of Andrew Cuomo and Lori Lightfoot extends the previously theorized avenues of achieving celebrity status in part because entertainment news coverage sets them up not only as leaders but also as celebrities. The parasocial relationships American audiences have with these figures extend well beyond their immediate constituencies, but the relationships engendered by entertainment news are very different for Cuomo and Lightfoot, respectively. As the pandemic gained traction in February and March 2020, both politicians became household names as their nonsensical leadership made national news. Though their pandemic-times leadership share a number of similar qualities, including less than efficacious strategies of flattening the curve, their differences reveal some of the more insidious means of celebrification. Audiences’ relationship to Cuomo suggests that they see him as a celebrity figure who they want to know intimately, either paternally or romantically. Their fascination with his personal life, his daily press hearings, and his viral banter with his CNN newscaster brother point toward a desire for more authentic interaction with the governor – that is, they want to know who he truly is because he’s been discursively refigured into America’s Dad during this moment of crisis. Conversely, the treatment of Lori Lightfoot gestures toward a celebrification that incorporates malicious satire in the form of memes. Various publics take up Lightfoot as a source of entertainment, specifically in the form of memes, and I contend that this opens up Lightfoot’s likeliness to potential digital blackface. In his seminal work on stardom and celebrity, Richard Dyer reminds us that “stars articulate what it is to be a human being in contemporary society; that is, they express the particular notion we hold of the person, of ‘the individual.’”[2] Therefore, all who fall under the broad category of celebrity have something to offer us in the way of understanding what we as a culture find valuable. Taken together, the celebrification of these two politicians points toward a striking difference in how leaders are discursively figured along the lines of identity.

Celebrification is the process through which an individual becomes a celebrity.[3] This process in and of itself is complicated and depends on many factors, including the individual’s personality and physical appearance, as well as current events, social trends, public access to digital spaces, etc. Historically, this process was almost reserved exclusively for individuals who had access to entry into cultural industries, but the advent of the Internet added useful intervention into how someone becomes famous. Two relatively new avenues of celebrification are available through the Internet writ large, but specifically through social media. It can happen either through intentional self-promotion or through audience participation. What happened in the early months of the pandemic, then, most closely aligns with the latter as American citizens, stuck in their homes during lockdown, turned to digital spaces to fulfill many of their needs. Claire Sisco King’s work on celebrity illuminates why audiences look to public figures and celebrities as spectacle: “Audiences make affective investments in celebrities that derive from who these extra/ordinary people are imagined to be and what they are imagined to represent—such that identification with a particular celebrity figure may slide metonymically into acceptance of ideologies with which he/she is associated (and vice versa).”[4] Therefore, the celebrification of both Cuomo and Lightfoot reflect back onto us something about the present moment.

First and foremost, Cuomo and Lightfoot’s leadership strategies were embraced by American audiences not because their policies have been effective in fighting against COVID-19, but rather in part because they are framed as recognizable figures in popular culture in entertainment news outlets. Cuomo’s daily media briefings were long, yet consolatory, and they spread rapidly not only in mainstream media new outlets but also on social media. As Cynthia Littleton describes, “‘The Andrew Cuomo Show,’ as it were, is a strangely compelling mix that is part ‘West Wing’ revival, part therapy session and most importantly, a credible source of important information about the contagion that has abruptly upended every aspect of life in the U.S. and around the world.”[5] As these daily briefings permeate Facebook and Twitter, it is readily evident that his reach goes beyond that of his immediate constituents and reaches toward a more generalized American public. Comparably, Lightfoot’s immediate implementation of orders that attempted to protect Chicago’s most vulnerable populations garnered mainstream news attention. As her own media briefings climbed in views, Trevor Noah invited her to a Zoom interview for The Daily Show, actor Sean Penn joined her in touring COVID-19 testing centers, and the hosts of The View debated her most recent haircut. Chicagoans and broader American publics championed Lightfoot as a voice of reason. The coverage of their leadership would have historically been confined to mainstream news outlets, particularly by local channels reaching their immediate constituents, but the digital proliferation offered by social media catapulted these two into national consciousness.

Anne Helen Petersen’s understanding of celebrity also helps to underscore what this generalized public finds so comforting about Cuomo: “Celebrities are our most visible and binding embodiments of ideology at work: the way we pinpoint and police representations of everything from blackness to queerness, from femininity to pregnancy.”[6] When I say popular culture celebrification, I am specifically referring to the ways that Cuomo and Lightfoot have been subjected to entertainment news. Both government officials are situated as two of the most easily recognizable figures in this moment in history, in part due to the blurring of their public and private lives. Cuomo is a divorcee colloquially nicknamed America’s Dad or America’s Governor, and Lightfoot’s status as a Black lesbian mayor was initially deemed a win for those championing progressive ideals. Before the pandemic, neither Cuomo nor Lightfoot were necessarily household names despite their political success. Cuomo teetered on celebrity only adjacently through his relationships to his famous brother and celebrity chef ex-girlfriend, as well as his success in the gubernatorial race against Sex and the City actor Cynthia Nixon. Similarly, Lightfoot only made headlines in 2019 when she succeeded Rahm Emanuel as the mayor of Chicago. The first openly LGBTQIA+ person to hold this position, as well as the second woman and the third Black person to do so, Lightfoot was championed as a potential tide-shifter for the city of Chicago. This hype quickly died down as her policies dismayed left-leaning constituents by increasing police presence. The attention paid to these two was largely relegated to their constituencies and focused on their policies and job performances. Politicians’ personal lives are typically only up for this kind of scrutiny where there is palpable controversy, especially that which affects their performance as elected officials. However, the conditions of the pandemic prompted American audiences to parasocially interact with these politicians in ways that reflect our collective desire for humor and relationality as momentary respite.

The online obsession with Cuomo is both endearing and invasively creepy. In a now-viral CNN interview with his brother, the Cuomo brothers bickered over who is the better son and who is their mother’s favorite. Their banter quickly became routine as Chris Cuomo repeatedly interviewed his brother during the first three months of the pandemic. Combined with his daily coronavirus press hearings, Cuomo’s increased media presence lent itself to a type of discursive transformation in which he simultaneously became America’s dad and America’s heartthrob. Atypical of audiences’ relationships with politicians, the public fascination with Cuomo veered toward a reverence that can only be described as celebrity obsession. Writing for Jezebel, Rebecca Fishbein detailed the collective fawning over the governor:

And yet, in this time of crisis, with little concrete information available, I need Cuomo’s measured bullying, his love of circumventing the federal government, his sparring with increasingly incompetent city leadership. Not only that, but the less contact I have with other humans, the more I start to think of Cuomo as my only friend. I’ve started laughing at his little jokes. I catch myself touching my hair (not my face!) when he talks about an increase in testing capacity. I swooned when he told a reporter he had his own workout routine. I have watched a clip of him and brother Chris Cuomo bickering about their mother at least 20 times. I think I have a crush???[7]

Far from the only article written about Cuomo’s charismatic air of authority, Fishbein’s thinking illustrates how deeply preoccupied Americans became with the governor in the early months of the pandemic. The respect for his leadership was not the only thing that grew at the height of the pandemic; his celebrity status as a dreamboat did as well.

Shortly thereafter, Cuomo made national headlines again when he dressed in a revealing white polo. It appeared that there are four spherical objects poking through his shirt, and fans were quick to speculate whether Cuomo has pierced nipples [Figure 1].

Figure 1: Screenshot of representitive coverage of Cuomo's alleged piercings

As the image circulated widely on Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram, a number of publications, including New York Magazine, Gizmodo, and Papermag picked up the story. This interest in his potential body modification infringes on Cuomo’s privacy in a way that is comparable to the way conventional celebrities are scrutinized. It borders on sexualized body shaming in the image’s online circulation. Proving this is simple: a quick Twitter search reveals that this so-called “nipplegate” was one of the most popular insults hurled at Cuomo for months after. The oscillation between stan-inspired speculation and prude disgust generally falls along partisan lines, demonstrating two things. First, it makes plain the American obsession with the abject. What is hegemonically unacceptable is spectacular and worthy of mass consumption; that is a mainstay in American celebrity culture. Second, the interpolation of abjection into political celebrity completely abandons previously established celebrity categorizations. There is no such thing as being strictly a political celebrity, or a Hollywood celebrity, or an Internet celebrity, etc. Those boundaries previously established by celebrity culture are blurred, and this could very well continue on past this current moment. Furthermore, Cuomo’s “nipplegate” did more to bolster the public obsession with him rather than quell it. His concurrent roles as America’s dad and heartthrob converged into a thirst trap phenomenon that could only happen to someone of his stature.

In stark contrast, Lightfoot became an Internet sensation overnight when reports of her own vigilante-style pandemic interference made national headlines. Whenever possible, Lightfoot took it upon herself to break up groups of people who were not socially distancing and taking precautionary measures.[8] These actions soon became the material for an onslaught of memes that feature the mayor’s signature scowl and solemn demeanor as she broke up group gatherings and attempted to enforce a shelter-in-place order for Chicagoans. According to Leslie Hahner and Heather Suzanne Woods’ work on the alt-right's use of memes, “[they] refer to concepts and images that spread virally across culture, largely through social media platforms. In their most popular instantiation, visual memes are used for humor, political claims, visual short hands, and more.”[9] The memes of Lightfoot circulated on social media quickly after news of her hands-on approach broached mainstream news media. Some featured Chicagoan culture, referencing the 108 years that Chicagoans waited for a Cubs championship or Millennium Park’s Cloud Gate, while others simply pasted Lightfoot’s image into iconic paintings like Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Others were less tasteful, superimposing her image into racialized memes that reinforced the trope of the Angry Black Woman. One meme even referred to the mayor as a doppelganger for George Jefferson, of the 1970s sitcom The Jeffersons. In his book on the cultural function of memes, Limor Shifman contends that “Internet memes can be treated as (post)modern folklore, in which shared norms and values are constructed through cultural artifacts such as Photoshopped images or urban legends.”[10] Therefore, the memes of Lightfoot convey a number of emergent norms and cultural values during this pandemic crisis. In inserting Lightfoot into Chicago cultural staples, these digital publics are locating the mayor as a fixture of the city’s history – perhaps a staple of Chicago culture as steadfast as Chicagoans’ distaste for hot dogs covered in ketchup. That is to say, Lightfoot’s digital presence during this moment of history is widely recognizable within and beyond her immediate constituency.

Figure 2: One of the more popular Lightfoot memes.

Simultaneously, some of the memes that remove the context of the severity of the pandemic veer into the territory of digital blackface. The term originated when Shafiqah Hudson, a critical race scholar, noticed that reaction gifs and memes featuring Black women were growing in popularity not only with general internet publics, but specifically with conservative Internet users. Born out of a weariness of white supremacist practices online, digital blackface is meant to critically analyze how racial stereotypes are perpetuated through digital means for white entertainment. Writing for The Guardian, Ellen Jones describes the practice of white people using gifs and memes of Black people as being particularly problematic. “Racist caricature and impersonation are widely accepted tools of white supremacy, but it’s when minstrelsy’s 19th-century traditional tools of boot polish and a wig are replaced with 21st-century equivalents that the confusion begins.” Participating in digital blackface typically takes one of several avenues. Most easily, white people use gifs of Black people reacting to things, be it an unimpressed Viola Davis or a shocked Miss J. Alexander from America’s Next Top Model, to visually describe how they themselves are feeling. This functions as a type of blackface because the expressions of Black entertainment personalities are meant to stand in for the white user’s reaction, which then becomes a caricature. The second avenue is through the creation and circulation of memes that work to reinforce racial stereotypes. Became memes, by definition, use images from an original context and superimpose them onto a funnier or timelier context, this form of digital blackface can be more challenging to discern. Blackness, as is evidenced by the popularity of cultural appropriation, is something that privileged groups seek to simultaneously adopt, fetishize, and reject. Digital spaces created an added layer of anonymity that makes this process of slipping in and out of different identities so appealing. To clarify, digital blackface often happens not necessarily out of malicious or racist intent but rather because the conditions of the internet and the embedding of anti-Blackness in the U.S. make it possible.

It is difficult to decide whether the memes of Lightfoot’s pandemic interventions are definitive examples of digital blackface. Instead, I would argue that the ways these memes function suggest two contradictory things about American publics in pandemic times. First, the ways that Lightfoot’s likeliness is superimposed into a widely recognizable piece of Chicago culture implies that her leadership is becoming a fixture of the city’s history. Lightfoot herself even called out these memes in a recent Instagram post, an ironic meme of her own, that reads, “The census takes 10 minutes. You spend 10 times that making memes of me.”[11] [Figure 3]. Her playful engagement with the memes concurrently acknowledges their utility and ridiculousness, and stress that ultimately, her messages to her constituency are ones of caution and instruction. However, Lightfoot’s own playfulness with the Internet phenomenon that is her meme does not mean that her leadership has to be entirely void of humor.

Figure 3: a screenshot of Mayor Lightfoot's Instagram

Second, the memeification (and subsequent celebrification) of Lightfoot does open up the door for potential digital blackface because her stern no-nonsense approach to flattening the curve can be transfigured into the Angry Black Woman trope that unfairly characterizes Black women, especially those in positions of authority. Because memes’ creation begins with removing the original context of an image and updating it to something funnier or more immediate, Lightfoot’s scowl as she broke up large groups of Chicagoans was, in some cases, turned into a flattened image of a Black woman expressing anger. So while some of the Lightfoot memes are creative and gesture toward concretizing Lightfoot’s leadership in Chicago’s history, other memes easily move beyond simple political satire and toward representations of the mayor that are more akin to racist stereotypes. Moreover, Lightfoot’s celebrification stopped after she became a meme. Unlike Cuomo, who continues to be an Internet sensation as a leader, a thirst trap, and a subject of speculation, Lightfoot’s celebrity halts at the point of digital humor. To date, the only other time entertainment news took up Lightfoot was when the hosts of The View criticized her for getting a haircut. Aside from a tinge of lockdown hypocrisy, her personal life is not of interest to digital publics in the same way that Cuomo’s is. The public’s desire to know him and to make him a national father figure demonstrates a desire for Americana kinship in all of its normative comfort. In this moment, white male leaders like Cuomo make for great American dad figures who are going to save the day, and black female leaders like Lightfoot function as a source of entertainment and humor.

Finally, the difference in how publics react to their leadership suggests something about the way we culturally regard authority. While the categorizations of celebrity and politician are substantially blurred by entertainment news media, the celebrification of Governor Cuomo and Mayor Lightfoot included two starkly different processes, in part enabled and facilitated by their different subjectivities. The process of celebrification has shifted significantly to encompass times of crisis, but the standards of maleness, whiteness, and heterosexuality still inform this process significantly. Cuomo is currently American’s sweetheart because American popular culture adores handsome middle-aged men. Lightfoot’s leadership is source of entertainment because American anti-Blackness makes digital blackface possible. Undoubtedly, their participation in this moment of U.S. history will last beyond these brief pop culture moments. But the ways that digital cultures elevated Cuomo to celebrity status indicated a much higher level of regard, admiration, and respect than the ways that Lightfoot’s governance was taken up. Both political figures were met with recognition and humor, but the degree to which and the manner in which this happened points toward the difference in expectations of leadership along the lines of race and gender.

[1] Rojek, Chris. Celebrity. Reaktion Books, 2004: 185. [2] Dyer, Richard. Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society. London ; New York: Routledge, 1986: 8. [3] Driessens, Olivier. “The Celebritization of Society and Culture: Understanding the Structural Dynamics of Celebrity Culture.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 16, no. 6 (November 1, 2013): 641–57. https://doi.org/10.1177/1367877912459140. [4] King, Claire Sisco. “Hitching Wagons to Stars: Celebrity, Metonymy, Hegemony, and the Case of Will Smith.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 14, no. 1 (2017): 86. https://doi.org/10.1080/14791420.2016.1202422. [5] Littleton, Cynthia. “How the Coronavirus Crisis Turned Governor Andrew Cuomo Into a TV Sensation (Column).” Variety (blog), March 28, 2020. https://variety.com/2020/tv/news/andrew-cuomo-new-york-governor-coronavirus-donald-trump-1203548123/. [6] Petersen, Anne Helen. Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman. New York: Plume, 2017: xiii. [7] Fishbein, Rebecca. “Help, I Think I’m In Love With Andrew Cuomo???” Jezebel, March 19, 2020. https://jezebel.com/help-i-think-im-in-love-with-andrew-cuomo-1842396411. [8] Jones, Will, and Jesse Kirsch. “Multiple Large Gatherings Held across Chicago This Weekend Draw Outrage from Local Leaders.” ABC7 Chicago, May 3, 2020. https://abc7chicago.com/6146656/. [9] Woods, Heather Suzanne, and Leslie A. Hahner. Make America Meme Again: The Rhetoric of the Alt-Right. Peter Lang Inc., International Academic Publishers, 2019: 1. [10] Shifman, Limor. Memes in Digital Culture. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2013: 14. [11] Lightfoot, Lori. “Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Instagram: ‘You Know Who You Are. 2020census.Gov.’” Instagram. Accessed September 19, 2020. https://www.instagram.com/p/B_jJAC8FRp3/.

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