Cult of the Political Celebrity

In the now (in)famous TV commercial, McCain’s ‘celebrity’ ad against Obama portrayed Obama as an over-hyped spectacle. However you may feel about this ad or McCain’s campaign strategies – his criticism is reflected in the images we find in the media. Consider these examples –

How are these images to be read? First – What do we see? A baby, journalists, fans, and cameras. Second – How do we see the in-focus subjects? In the background and framed by blurry figures in the foreground. Third – What do we not see (at least clearly)? Palin and Obama.
Despite this reversal of focus, one could still argue that Palin and Obama are the subjects of these photographs.

The spectators, media and fans alike (and by extension – this political season?) construct the majority of the photographic space. Despite the spatial prevalence, all of the attention – cameras, phones, faces, and even our eyes – is pulled together by the gravitational force of a blurred figure located front and center. The fuzzy or turned away figure frames the shot and pulls all eyes (organic or filmic) toward him or her.

When I came across these photos yesterday, I immediately thought of the ‘cult of the celebrity’ that is cited often in film studies. In classical cinema especially, the story, directing, and cinematography were less significant to fans. Instead, many movie goers were hopelessly devoted to stars and starlets. The form and content of the films were second to the celebrity who graced the screen with his or her shining presence. But this may not be a valid comparison as I have never seen a photo of an out-of-focus Greta Garbo or James Dean hidden behind adoring fans.

Is a new relationship between spectator and star being represented in these images? What we find is a new ‘cult of the celebrity’ but this new cult is participatory and productive. We no longer only consume but create and distribute images and information. The spectator’s role
has always been central to creating the political star: just as leaders cannot exist without followers; superstars do not exist without their fandom. By giving the political fandom greater power, it seems that the cult of the political star may soon eclipse the politician.

We have seen so many photographs of politicians, now we take photographs of people taking photographs of political celebrities. Is this documenting democratic movements in action? Or has our fascination shifted from the celebrity to the cult of the celebrity itself? How may this shift change our political atmosphere for better or worse?