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TV's Rebellious Bodies

The stigma associated with certain TV shows — think “Keeping up with the Kardashians” or the “The Bachelor” series and any of its spin-offs — may stem from the assumption that attention paid to celebrities means less consideration for matters of consequence. But according to Russ Meeuf, celebrities may help people process their own life events and the political sphere.

“TV serves as a tool for young people to better understand themselves,” said Meeuf, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Media and author of “Rebellious Bodies,” a book published by the University of Texas Press in March.

Meeuf’s book explores how popular media portrays, perhaps unrealistically, a society of cultural inclusivity and economic mobility through so-called deviant body types. The way mass media uses feel-good stories from celebrities of diverse backgrounds to cite a societal shift toward cultural inclusion is problematic, though, Meeuf said, and keeps society from achieving real policy change.

Meeuf’s case studies for exploring this problem include a star-studded cast: Melissa McCarthy offers a lens into weight and femininity; Laverne Cox, from “Orange Is the New Black,” lends insight into transgender issues; “Game of Thrones” actor Peter Dinklage leads to a discussion on male sexuality relative to disability; Betty White opens the door for ageism in Hollywood; “Precious” actress Gabriella Sidoubey paves the way for a study of the supposed post-racial identity after the 2008 election; and through Danny Trejo, best known for his “Spy Kids” series, readers get a glimpse into the Latino immigrant experience.

These stars’ experiences challenge conceptions about what makes a stereotypically normal body, along with the idea that the system is stacked against them. They serve as examples, used by popular media, of people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps — even in a society of income inequality. The result, Meeuf said, is an oversimplified perception that people can succeed on the basis of merit, and that policies to create more economic equality therefore aren’t necessary.

“The star system has always been there to give people the sense that if you’re talented enough and beautiful enough and work hard enough, you, like the people we see in films and TV, can achieve something,” Meeuf said. “We’re seeing an intensification of that rhetoric of individuals succeeding. It’s much easier to sell a melodramatic narrative about individuals than it is to have a deeper conversation.

“Those visions of feel-good inclusivity don’t actually question the underlying economic structures that create inequality,” he added.

“What we’ve actually been seeing over the past 30 years is that opportunities for upward economic mobility have been dwindling and stagnating.”

Meeuf writes from the vantage point of a cisgendered, straight, able-bodied white man. But the vision of equality is real to him.

“The ideal of America as a culture and democracy is that everybody has the same opportunities to contribute something,” Meeuf said. “Having a world that is not just tolerant of people who are different from us — but creating equality for those groups — is going to be an important part of how we face the real challenges of today. I hope that my book helps contribute to a larger discussion about how media and popular culture can act to create a world that creates opportunities for all people.”

Book cover: Rebellious Bodies: Stardom, citizenship, and the new body politics by Russell Meeuf
Cover of "Rebellious Bodies."

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