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​Themes covered on this page:

  • Accountability and Transparency

  • History

  • Celebrity, Democracy and Post-Democratic Politics

  • Charismatic Leadership and Affect

  • Gender

  • Racism

  • Networks, Apparatus and Machinery of Celebrity

  • The Business Case

Accountability and Transparency


Accountability means being answerable and responsible, with the requirement of a process of accounting. In governance terms, accountability is used to refer to a relationship in which individuals or institutions are liable, or required to report, to other individuals or institutions. Part of this accounting process is linked to notions of transparency. Transparency is a political condition that is highly valued in contemporary international affairs, yet it remains under-theorized, while practically promoted.  The idea is that particular constituencies should be able to ‘see’ the processes of global humanitarianism and use them to call actors into account for their actions. Celebrities play an important role in advocacy for transparency and accountability, yet their own practices are rarely called into account.


For a better understanding of how celebrities themselves question transparency and accountability:


  • See how celebrities have started their own organizations where accountability and transparency become an issue for them. Richey's book, Chapter 6, pages 135-137 on Ben Affleck’s organization in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Chapter 2, on Madonna’s organization in Malawi.

  • See how celebrities promote values of individual accountability in making good choices in Richey's book, Chapter 4, page 101 on South African Celebrity Sophie Ndaba.

  • See how villagers hold Madonna accountable in Chapter 2, page 63-64.

  • See also how Madonna is held to a ‘tabloid accountability’ by interested publics online in Chapter 2, pages 58-59.

  • See how Angelina’s work within the United Nations apparatus leaves large accountability gaps in Chapter 1 (pages 40-43)


The study of celebrity is quite old. It has produced some venerable, indeed wonderful, writing. Perhaps one of the first is Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s (both Marxist critics of the Frankfurt School), critique The Culture Industry. Published in 1944, their work takes a dim view of the mass produced needs the entertainment industry creates and satisfies; it invokes a particularly passive audience to support the argument. (Here is a useful summary, and here a lively commentary on that debate). Guy DeBord’s great thesis The Society of the Spectacle (1967) is another distinguished Marxist analysis of the role of images in capitalist society, with considerable implications for the study of celebrity.


One of the first works to dwell on and explore celebrity is Daniel Boorstin’s book The Image. This, ironically, is a famous book about fame in which he coined the phrase that a celebrity is well-known for their well-knownness. It is this book which introduces the idea of ‘pseudo-events’ which are happenings designed principally for media consumption (click here for a review). The Image was published in 1962, and referred to events over the previous three decades. The fact that it still feels fresh and relevant now is both a testimony to the prescience of the author, and the persistence of what appear to us to be new concerns, but which are in fact enduring issues, surrounding celebrity. Other landmark, but more recent, events in the study of celebrity have been Richard Dyer’s work (Stars, 1980 and Heavenly Bodies, 1987), Richard Schickel’s Intimate Strangers (1985) and Leo Braudy’s The Frenzy of Renown (1986) which provides a history of fame over several millennia.


The vigour of celebrity studies these days owes much to the work of Joshua Gamson (Claims to Fame, 1994), David Marshall (Celebrity and Power, 1997), Chris Rojek (Celebrity, 2001), Graeme Turner (Understanding Celebrity, 2004) and shared works like Fame Games (Turner, Bonner and Marshall, 2000). These books have analysed the structures and industries producing fame emphasizing, to use Rojek’s words, that the celebretariat are industrial products. Celebrity is promulgated because it helps to sell things; it helps capitalism to grow. This structural explanation, however, needs also to explain why audiences buy the products. Gamson’s work with focus groups and consumers of celebrity demonstrates best the variety and complexities of the ways in which people actually interact with the celebrity products served to them. Much of this work (although Turner is omitted), and much more, is well reviewed in Kerry Ferris’ article in Sociological Compass in 2007. There are also comprehensive readers available from Marshall and Holmes and Redmond and a recently published Short History of Celebrity from Fred Inglis.


This literature makes clear that the proliferation of fame, which provokes so much comment these days, is an old and enduring phenomenon. I would date the formation of celebrity as we now it to the birth of modern cinema in Hollywood in the 19-teens, for that is when star systems became commercially organized to sell products. But there are many antecedents in the growth of newspapers and photography in the nineteenth century. And as celebrity itself is old, so also is the fight against it. Many of the more annoyed commentators who complain of the shallowness and artifice of celebrity in the present day are repeating versions of Horkheimer, Adorno’s and Boorstin’s arguments. Celebrity may have spread, but it has been continually resisted.


When thinking about the history of celebrity it is useful to steer away from accounts which are based on the individuals themselves – but rather it is interesting to focus on the systems and arrangements which make particular forms of fame possible. Brockington’s book, Chapter 4, explores this system based approach with respect to celebrity advocacy.


It is also useful to examine detailed historical case studies to see precisely how old some of the things which we take for granted are, and the similarities which exist between affairs now and in the past. For insights into ‘celebrity colonialism,’ and on how contemporary celebrity humanitarianism resembles the propaganda wars between 19th century settlers and humanitarians, see Richey’s book, Chapter 9.



Celebrity, Democracy and Post-Democratic Politics

One of the more divisive debates about celebrity concerns its relationship with democracy and good government. Here are some of the most widely differing viewpoints:

  1. Some authors suggest that celebrity is good for political debate and is becoming one of the ways in which political issues become real and meaningful. Celebrity creates an engaged citizenry. For example see Andrew Cooper’s book  and John Street’s work on this topic, here or here.

  2. On the other hand some authors are pessimistic that celebrity revives political engagement (Couldry and Markham).

  3. Then some authors think that celebrity invigorates publics (Marks and Fischer).

  4. Finally there is an interesting account here of how celebrity achieves change – but without actually engaging the public at all, merely exciting elites (Cox).


In these books please see: 

  • Richey, Chapter 6, p. 131-148 to understand how Ben Affleck’s organization working with a two-pronged approach to humanitarian intervention promotes post-democratic politics.

  • See chapter 8 for the ironic case of perhaps ‘too much’ democracy or a ‘highly inclusive ignorance.’

  • For a summarizing argument about how celebrity humanitarianism links to post-democratic politics, see the Epilogue.

  • Brockington’s book, Chapter 3, provides an outline to some of the literature on celebrity and democracy and chapter 7 provides an account of how celebrity advocacy works with elites. Chapter 8 reviews the evidence that suggests that celebrity advocacy might not engage publics as much as we might expect.

Charismatic Leadership and Affect

Celebrities perform the affective scripts for everyday humanitarianism. They serve a pedagogical function teaching how to feel and how to act, and the appropriate ways to document and share these feelings of compassion. As Chouliaraki 2013 has summed up so well, ‘the tearful celebrity, the rock concert, the Twitter hype and the graphic attention are prototypical performances of post-humanitarianism.’


For how Angelina exhibits a ‘globalised sensibility and a cosmopolitan caring’ see Richey's book, Chapter 1 (pages 33-36).


See Richey's book, Chapter 7, pages 149-169 to understand how Sean Penn’s personal leadership and agency plays into his humanitarian possibilities differently in contexts in the North versus those in the South.



See Richey's book, Chapter 1, page 36-37 for Angelina Jolie as a ‘mother without borders.’


For how gender affects the possibilities afforded to celebrity humanitarians, see Richey's book, Chapter 4, on South African celebrity Sophie Ndaba. This is a particularly useful case for the intersectional understanding of race, class and gender within a non-traditional humanitarian context.


See Richey's book, Chapter 7, on the ‘bad boy’ Sean Penn and how gender shapes his celebrity humanitarian interventions in the US and Haiti.


For an insightful critique on gender and celebrity humanitarianism see:

Repo, J. and Yrjölä, R., 2011. The Gender Politics of Celebrity Humanitarianism in Africa. International Feminist Journal of Politics, 13 (1), 44–62.





See Richey's book, Chapter 8, pages 170-188 on how celebrity humanitarians can perpetuate racism, even in the name of humanitarianism.


See Richey's book, Chapter 4, on race and celebrity humanitarianism in South Africa where the dynamics of North-South helping are reconfigured as relations between black women.


Networks, Apparatus and Machinery of Celebrity


For what Angelina’s humanitarianism actually did for the people of the Thai-Burma border communities, see Richey's book, Chapter 1, pages 36-43.


To understand the unique case of China’s state support of celebrity humanitarianism, see Richey's book, Chapter 5 on Pu Cunxin, pages 106-127.


For a grounded historical understanding of humanitarianism and the networks of empire, see Richey's book, Chapter 9, pages 202-206.



The Business Case


See Richey's book, Chapter 3, on how business makes a celebrity humanitarian out of Muhammad Yunus.

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