Identifying Cult Stardom: A Check-list For The Digital Era
Trinity College Dublin
Citation: O’Meara, Jennifer. “Identifying Cult Stardom: A Check-list For The Digital Era.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 21, 2019. doi:10.20415/hyp/021.let02
Abstract: this listicle uses the form of an online quiz to deconstruct the notion of cult stardom and the underlying gendered politics of such celebrity status on digital platforms. The list draws on the format of online checklist-style quizzes, to help people determine if a given performer is being actively celebrated – in typical cult fashion – in a Web 2.0 environment. The checklist focuses on three actors, with a view to demonstrating how cult film stars are subject to similar online practices by fans.
Keywords: media studies, cult film, quiz, fandom, celebrity, gender.
As Ernest Mathijs and Jamie Sexton explain when defining the concept of cult cinema, a film’s reception is key to establishing its “cult” status – with such films revealing themselves gradually over time (2011: 1-10). The tendency for fans to engage in an ongoing and active celebration of a given film, or performer, is one significant aspect of cult film reception. Kate Egan and Sarah Thomas have built on Mathijs and Sexton's work on cult films, so that it speaks to cult stardom. In Cult Film Stardom (2012: 1) they note that such stars generally have “offbeat qualities” – such as a distinctive voice or body type – which make them stand out from the typical mainstream performers, and which selected audiences embrace and celebrate.
Although cult film stardom pre-dates digital media, the internet has provided a wide array of outlets for fans to actively celebrate their favorite unconventional stars. Memes and mash-ups frequently employ images or live-action performances by character actors like Steve Buscemi and Christopher Walken, or dead-pan favorite Bill Murray. Their distinctive traits, such as Buscemi’s haunting eyes or Murray’s blank affect, are rendered all the more entertaining when edited into another media form. There are other living male memes out there, including Jeff Goldblum – who has even ranked the internet’s best Jeff Goldblum memes. Yet while Goldblum is eccentric, he veers too close to being a conventional heartthrob, and too willing to get involved in his mimetic persona, to be grouped in this precise category. After all, it is the unexpected erotic appeal of his naked chest that has garnered him the most likes.
The accompanying check-list draws on the format of online checklist-style quizzes, to help people determine if a given performer is being actively celebrated – in typical cult fashion – in a Web 2.0 environment. The checklist focuses on three actors, with a view to demonstrating how cult film stars are subject to similar online practices by fans. Through the checklist format, the various implied criteria for achieving digital cult status – such as distinctive but ‘normal’ features, remixable performances and maleness – are also underscored.
Identifying Cult Stardom: A Check-list for the Digital Era
That not-very-current celebrity keeps popping up on your social media, but you’re not sure if this means they’re a digital star. If your celebrity meets at least 6 of the criteria below then they're a bonafide cult sensation!
1. Your celebrity’s name been reworked in a variety of pun-based memes.
2. Your celebrity is the subject of a recut film trailer which parodies their lack of conventional sex appeal.
3. Your celebrity has spawned an unofficial, satirical Twitter account.
4. Your celebrity is being used to sell kitsch products on Etsy, the popular, craft-based site.
5. Your celebrity has been given their own special edition show on a major streaming site.
6. Or, your celebrity inspires other seasonally themed fan-works.
7. Your celebrity’s most distinguishing physical feature is regularly Photoshopped onto the faces of others.
8. The wise words of your celebrity are regularly featured on popular websites.
9. Most importantly, your celebrity is a middle-aged actor who in no way resembles an actual Hollywood heart-throb.
If so, the internet has probably found many varied ways to celebrate him -- yes, him: unconventional middle-aged female performers are much less present, digitally. Male cult stars, exemplified by Steve Buscemi, Bill Murray and Christopher Walken, however, have an irreducible presence. Yes, the digital sphere grants some much-earned space to the likes of Emma Thompson and Tilda Swinton, but we’re still waiting for them -- and other unconventional woman -- to receive their Christmas specials and parody Twitter accounts.
Egan, Kate and Thomas, Sarah (eds.) Cult Film Stardom: Offbeat Attractions and Processes of Cultification. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012.
Mathijs, Ernest and Sexton, Jamie. Cult Cinema: An Introduction. Oxford and Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.