Building Narrative: Character, Actor, Star

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The previous section discusses television narrative as if the characters involved were pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, depersonalized components fitted into abstract patterns. This is misleading. While it is, of course, important to understand narrative structures, it is equally important to understand the characters that inhabit those structures. In a sense, these characters can exist even before the narrative action begins. The first time we see Dr. Mark Greene in the first shots of ER's pilot episode (1994), we immediately begin to construct an idea of his character: a dedicated, overworked doctor (Figs. 1- 3). Even before this character does anything in the plot structure, we begin to make assumptions based on setting (the hospital room), props (the bed, his glasses), and his appearance (disheveled). Furthermore, characters such as Dr. Greene exist after the narrative action concludes each week. For instance, when we pick up a copy of TV Guide because we respond to a picture of Dr. Greene, we are carrying his significance beyond the story lines of ER. Dr. Greene has begun to take on a "life" of his own. Additionally, such magazine coverage of television introduces us to the actors who embody the roles, and it nurtures the process of turning common actors into genuine stars. The TV Guide issue is as much, or more, about actor Anthony Edwards as it is about character Dr. Mark Greene.

To put it bluntly: Without characters there could be no television narrative and no television stars. Correspondingly, without actors there could be no characters. Characters, actors, stars: these three intertwining phenomena will be the focus of this section. We will begin by charting the mechanisms used to construct characters on television. Among these is the performance of the actor, which will be discussed in terms of contrasting acting strategies. The significance of the actor does not end with his or her performance within a televisual text, however. An actor, such as Edwards, may also appear in other media texts: magazines, movies, newspapers, public appearances at shopping malls. As the image multiplies, the actor evolves into a television star.



Because characters typically assume human form, because they look like us, talk like us and, in some sense, behave like us, it is easy to mistake characters for real people, with real lives beyond the boundaries of their television programs.

Most of us realize that Buffy Summers is not a real person, that writers have designed her words and directors have chosen camera angles to present her. But still we willingly set that knowledge aside, suspending disbelief while watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Or, more accurately, the program endeavors to hide the work that went into creating Buffy, to render invisible the making of a character. If it succeeds, we accept Buffy as a plausible human being (even if her slaying actions may seem fantastic). If it fails, we respond with annoyance or amusement: "People don't talk like that!" or "They want us to believe that teenagers could save us from demons? Get real!" Annoyance at television's implausibility, its "fakery," is a first step toward viewing the medium critically. However, to systematically analyze TV, we must channel the occasional awareness of television's "fake," constructed nature into a systematic critique of how those narrative constructions operate. In this case, we need to ask how characters are manufactured and how we come to understand the meanings associated with them.

Fabricating characters is the day-to-day work of writers, directors, producers, and other craftspersons. Indeed, it's the principal work of the entire televisual medium--creating signs of character that signify the character to us. We, in turn, interpret or read these signs according to a variety of factors:

• Our understanding of the world, of television, of genre.

• The context (i.e., program) in which the character appears.

• The viewing situation itself (Did we have a large meal just before turning on the television? Is the room too brightly lit? How large is the television? And so on.).

All these variables can influence how we perceive a character. They make character construction an imprecise science. Still, we can better understand how characters are constructed if we identify the types of signs that signify character and investigate the code of character construction. This code comprises certain "rules" that govern what meanings a character signifies to us and how those meanings are created.

Both producers and consumers of television have learned this code. In fact, we learn it so well that we take it for granted. Television producers (and writers and directors) unthinkingly use this code to construct characters; and television consumers (we, the viewers) incorporate it into our commonsense understanding of the medium. Producers and consumers alike understand, for example, that a character such as Dr. Greene who wears eyeglasses is supposed to be more intellectual or sensitive than other characters. If characters smoke, they will likely be evil or immoral. When Dr. Greene smokes, for example, it suggests that he's losing his grip. These conventions of costuming and props are part of a code that is so taken for granted as to become nearly invisible. It is the analyst's task, then, to make it visible again. In so doing, it is important to remember that this so-called code is both historical and cultural. That is, it changes over time and is not fixed; and it differs from one culture to another and is not universal.

Although the historical and cultural nature of the code is true of all aspects of character construction, it is most obvious in the case of costuming. The skinny ties worn by Sergeant Friday in the 1950s and 1960s program Dragnet (1952-59, 1967-70) were part of a total costuming style that signified moral and political conservatism. When that same style of tie was worn by musicians such as Elvis Costello in music videos in the early 1980s, it had liberal and hip connotations-perhaps even reflecting the styles of 30 years prior. Time had changed the meaning of that visual signifier (the tie). As well as being bound to a certain time, such specifics of costuming are also culturally determined. The width of Sergeant Friday's or Elvis Costello's ties would not mean much to a traditionally attired African, for instance, whose code of dress does not normally include neckwear.

To provide a less frivolous example of the cultural significance of dress, consider that in the Western world black is recognized as the color of mourning.

It has come to signify death. In contrast, in Asian countries mourners wear white. Hence we may see that no costuming convention is universal. The code changes from one culture to another.

As we begin to examine the conventionalized code of character construction, we will rely heavily on a typology of character signs articulated originally by Richard Dyer in his studies of cinema stars. I Most of Dyer's comments on film characters may be imported into our consideration of television characters, but television is not the cinema, and the following typology alters Dyer's scheme where appropriate.

A Typology of Character Signs

Viewer Foreknowledge. Before watching a single episode of a television program, we are provided with signs that signify the characters to us.

Advertising on television and in print describes and promotes the program in terms that capitalize on our familiarity with the program's genre, its stars (if famous enough), and, in the case of programs spun off other programs, its parent show. If a program is advertised as a new police drama, then we can expect certain genre character types: the foolish rookie, bitter veteran, helpless victims, and so on. If it features Andy Griffith, as when he appears in Matlock (1986-), then we are prepared for a character articulated by Griffith's homespun star image. And if the program is a spinoff, such as A Different World (1987-93), then we have already seen some of the characters (e.g., Denise Huxtable) in previous stories, although in a different context (The Cosby Show). Such aspects of genre, star, and parent program generate a narrative image of the program-an enticing representation of what the program's characters will be like-that functions to lure us to a new program.2 Of course, once the program has been on for a few weeks (or months, or years), viewer foreknowledge before each individual episode rises to the point where the characters become as familiar as figures from literary and cinematic series, such as Frankenstein's monster or Nancy Drew or Tarzan. An established program often plays on our familiarity by using its credit sequence to rehearse character relationships. The credit sequence of M*A*S*H, for instance, presents us with each of the major characters and their milieu. Even though we are, most likely, already familiar with these characters, this short pre-narrative segment re-presents the program's cast and diminishes the need for a full exposition to establish the characters.

Character Name. Characters' names distinguish them from the rest of the cast and, more important, signify certain character traits to us. These traits may be as program-specific as the character's familial bonds: Alex Keaton is obviously related to Elyse and Steve Keaton on Family Ties (1982-90). (Familial relationships are particularly important to soap operas.) Names also carry significance within the general culture. The name Ricky Ricardo (I Love Lucy [1951-61] ) carries Hispanic connotations. Miles Silverberg (Murphy Brown [1988-98] ) conveys Jewish associations. Each of these names raises expectations that the character will either fit into ethnic/religious stereotypes, defeat those stereotypes, or perhaps select particular stereotypical connotations while rejecting others.

Character names connote meanings other than religion and ethnicity, too.

On Murphy Brown, the title character's name is distinctive enough within U.S. culture (a family name, Murphy, used as a first name) to imply an extraordinary woman: unusual name = unusual character. And, on the same program, the name Corky Sherwood is used to diminish that character's seriousness by using the diminutive and, for a broadcast journalist, overly familiar, -y ending (cf. Buffy, Tippy, Candy). Further, when Corky married a man named Forrest, she became Corky Sherwood Forrest-the pun on her married name creating humor at the character's expense.

Appearance. Appearance can be broken down further into three components: the face (and hairstyle), the body (build and posture), and costuming.

Television's reliance on the close-up favors the face as a signifier of character. Unfortunately for the purposes of analysis, the meanings of facial characteristics are ephemeral and difficult to pin down. Aside from clear-cut racial characteristics, it is hard to particularize the meanings of a face--although we unthinkingly make these interpretations a thousand times a day. What does Tom Selleck's or Burt Reynold's moustache "mean"? What does David Leterman's tooth gap signify? These are questions that cannot be answered with any rigor. And yet, there are some facial characteristics that become significant because of their difference from facial norms: Farrah Fawcett's copious amount of blond hair in her Charlie's Angels days (1976-77) signified "blondness" and a specific type of "sex symbol" to many viewers (Fig. 3.4). Her blond hair linked her to other female sex symbols and thus signified a certain sexual availability and vulnerability in the Marilyn Monroe tradition. It is the variation from the norm that not only makes a characteristic noticeable, but also creates meaning.



Corporeal (bodily) attributes carry clearer meanings than facial ones.

Selleck's robust physique conveys strength and masculinity. In contrast, Roseanne's physique during the early years of her sitcom (1988-97) associates her with the "mammy" stereotype-the overweight woman who is sexually neutral but an expert at caring for others (Fig. 3.5). These actors' physiques and the way they carry them quickly signify aspects of their characters to the viewer.

As we have mentioned, costuming is a significant component of character construction. Within television there are two very active overlapping codes determining our understanding of costume: the code of dress predominant in a specific culture at a specific time, and the code of dress specific to television and television genres. Our earlier example of skinny ties in Dragnet and music video is one instance of a fashion element that was part of the culture at large and was incorporated into television programs. Narrow ties would have existed with or without TV. Certain genres, however, develop a code of costume that is not shared by the contemporary culture. Westerns, private eye shows, and science fiction programs each have developed clothing items that hold specific meaning. The gambler's fancy vest in the Western, for example, has come to signify his greed and untrustworthiness. Costuming is closely related to, and often overlaps with, our next sign of character.

Objective Correlative. Objective correlatives are objects (or some times animals) that are associated with characters and convey something about them. Objective correlatives include the environment that is the home or work place of a character. The living room and neighboring junkyard of Sanford and Son (1972-1977) help establish Fred Sanford's social class and lifestyle. Sitcoms, in particular, rely heavily on a limited number of sets; and those settings come to be as familiar to regular viewers as their own living rooms.

Even more distinctive than these sets are objective correlatives that are individual objects linked to characters: Lucas McCain's rifle in The Rifleman (1958-63), Ricky Ricardo's conga drum in I Love Lucy, Bart Simpson's skate board on The Simpsons (1989), and so on. In each instance the object comes to signify something about the character. Bart's skateboard, for example, connotes that he's a bit reckless and brash (Fig. 6).


Dialogue. What characters say and what other characters say about them determine a good deal about our understanding of that character. These meanings range from the direct (character A saying that character B is a murderer) to the oblique (the inflections of Jerry Seinfeld's voice as he cracks a joke). In each case, meaning about the character is communicated to the viewer.

Lighting and Videography or Cinematography. Some of the more technical aspects of filming or videotaping an actor also contribute to our sense of character. These are discussed more fully in the sections on visual style, but we may note here a few ways that television technique affects character.

Deviations from the standard of broad, even lighting have come to signify aspects of character. When actors are lit from below, their characters are thought to be sinister. When lit entirely from behind, the resulting silhouette conveys a sense of mystery. Other, more subtle lighting effects also serve to represent character. In the ER example above (Figs. 3.1-3.3), the repeated intrusion of light into the dark hospital room (also note the nurse's silhouette in Fig. 1) and the strong side-lighting of Dr. Greene contributes to the sense of his discomfort and disturbance.

Similarly, camera lenses and other technical devices (see section 6) may influence character development. Close-ups taken with a wide-angle lens may distort actors' features, making them appear strange or goofy. The odd, low camera angle of Dr. Greene (Fig. 1), for example, emphasizes his feet and his reclining position, but conceals his face until we cut to the high-angle shot (Figs. 2- 3). The first shot effectively intrigues us as to his character and pulls us into the narrative (remember, this is the very first shot of the program's first episode). Most viewers are not actively aware of such technical manipulations. Nonetheless, they do affect our understanding of character, and it is the analyst's responsibility to remain sensitive to these uses of television style.

Action. What characters do in a story-that is, their actions-determine in the final analysis what characters mean. Characters who do evil things come to signify evil.


We have discussed the character as a fairly static object: a human being of a certain appearance, associated with certain objects, who is presented in a certain way, and fits into a narrative structure. What we have ignored thus far-and what is frequently overlooked in television studies in general--is the work of the actor in the creation of character. Acting and performance, as we will use the terms, refer to how a line of dialogue is spoken and how a gesture is made and how a smile is smiled. It is what the actor does that is distinguishable from the scriptwriter's lines or the director's positioning of the camera. Consequently, performance is often difficult to isolate from other aspects of character and is even tougher to describe.

Our approach here, first of all, scraps any attempt to evaluate or judge acting. The evaluation of acting is clouded by ever-changing codes of good and bad acting and the mercurial psychology of the individual viewer or critic. What is considered good acting at one time and place seems strange or exaggerated at another. Moreover, acting is not like the physical sciences; there is no such thing as progress in the art of acting. Acting does not get better and better. There are only different types of acting and different eras and different cultures that view certain types as better than others. For instance, there is a long-standing prejudice within U.S. culture that rates television acting below that of the theatrical film, and both television and film acting below that of the live theater. (And acting in daytime television is rated below that of prime time.) While there may be minor distinctions among the performances in these media, the main determinant in these judgments is a cultural elitism underscored by economic class prejudice; only relatively wealthy persons can afford to see live theater today. Consequently, television and film have become the cultural upstarts that have undermined the theater's dominance of the acting arts.

Elitism aside, the judgment of acting is a subjective business-inevitably anchored in deep-rooted drives and desires of which the viewer-critic is barely aware. In this guide we will set aside the elitism and the subjectivity of judging acting in favor of trying to understand how we interpret acting and how performance conveys meaning. To this end, we will start with the raw material of acting--what Dyer calls the signs of performance-and then we will consider some of the strategies of performance that greatly determine how we interpret acting.

A Typology of Performance Signs

When actors construct performances, they have two raw materials to work with: voice and body. How these materials are used is what defines performances.

Further, in studying performance it is useful to divide these materials into four types of performance signs:

1. Vocal

2. Facial

3. Gestural

4. Corporeal

It may appear that there is some overlap here between performance signs that depend on the actor's body and the previously discussed character signs.

The difference between the two is that performance signs deal with how the raw material is used; the discussion of character signs focuses on what material is selected and how it appears, even before being animated through performance.

Before considering briefly some of the specific ways that performance signs function, we should note that actor performance, more than any one character sign, contains the principal signifiers of a character's presumed emotional state.

The way an actor talks or moves or smiles signifies how the character feels. In television, unlike the novel, we seldom have direct access to a character's emotions. The novel may represent emotions simply by describing them verbally: "Christine felt sad the day she murdered Bob." But a television program- unless it uses voiceover narration or characters talking about their mental health-must signify these emotions principally through performance signs.

It is worth reiterating, however, that characters are not real people, that they do not feel emotions. Instead, emotions are represented through character and performance signs, which the viewer interprets as signifiers of emotion: a particular look in Christine's eye while she murders Bob equals sadness. This difference between the emotions of characters and the emotions of real people is more than just semantics. It is a distinction we must keep in mind to distance ourselves far enough from character emotions so that we can analyze how they function in the narrative structure, how they motivate the story.

Vocal Performance. There are a number of vocal qualities that may be manipulated in the construction of a performance: principally, volume, pitch, and timbre. Just as in a musical performance, these qualities may be organized for specific effect.

The meanings of volume are varied. Loudness may signify strength, or it may signify shrillness or terror. Softness may signify meekness, or it may signify a control so total that speaking loudly is not necessary. As usual, context determines meaning.

Pitch in music is how high or low a note is. Vocal pitch within our culture tends to convey gender-oriented meanings. A higher pitch is associated with the feminine and a lower pitch with the masculine. Higher voices are also linked with childlike characters. The deep bass voice of William Conrad helped create the tough, masculine character of Detective Frank Cannon (Cannon [1971-76] ). Georgia Engel's high voice contributed to Georgette Baxter's femininity in The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77). The gender significance of pitch is rooted in obvious biological differences between men's and women's vocal chords, but gender is also culturally determined. Individual men's voices are not necessarily lower than individual women's, and vice versa. And since pitch significance is part of culture, not just nature, female actors may use lower pitch to signify masculine characteristics, while male actors may use higher pitch to signify feminine ones.

The final aspect of vocal quality that actors use in creating a performance is timbre, which is the most difficult to describe. Timbre is the tonal quality of a sound. Aside from being high or low, soft or loud, is a sound harsh or mellow or nasal or smooth? In short, what type of tone does it have? The harsh, nasal tone of Fran Drescher's voice augments the tough, street-wise attitude of her character in The Nanny (1993-99). Sharon Gless's throaty delivery underlines the sexual potential beneath the police detective exterior of Chris Cagney (Cagney and Lacey [1982-88]). Different tonal qualities convey a myriad of connotations within our culture. To describe them all would be nearly impossible, but still, the analyst needs to remain alert to them.

In addition to vocal quality, the performance of dialogue is also affected by the rhythm of the speech. Bob Newhart's trademark of halting, interrupted speech signifies his characters' lack of confidence (in The Bob Newhart Show [1972-78], Newhart [1982-90], and Bob [1992-94] ). Peter Falk's slow delivery of crime scene analysis in Columbo (1971-77) masks his quick and clever deductive skills. Lucille Ball's rapid-fire delivery of dialogue in I Love Lucy marked her wacky nerviness. In each case the rhythm of the vocal performance conveys meaning to the viewer.

Facial Performance. Facial performance is the way that facial appearance is used. Facial appearance-for example, Fawcett's hair in Figure 4 - is a character sign. We may also think of it as a performance sign in terms of how Fawcett moves her hair. Fawcett's hair is not just larger than normal, it is also emphasized by the performer, which accentuates its significance. With each toss of Fawcett's head, the meaning of these signs (Fawcett's "blondness") is re-emphasized.

Most facial performance is not as large as Fawcett's, obviously. Minuscule movements of facial muscles can have significance. The viewer easily distinguishes the different meanings suggested by tiny variations in facial movement.

A certain type of smile can mean amusement, while another can mean condescension or disbelief. In the context of the scene from which Figure 4 was taken, Farrah's smile signifies flirtation as she plays dumb with a group of men Charlie's Angels are investigating. Her exaggerated performance in this scene also signifies to the viewer that her flirtation is a put-on, that it is just part of her disguise. In contrast, Marlon Brando's smile in A Streetcar Named Desire is quite predatory as he sizes up his sister-in-law (discussed below, Fig. 3.10). Of all the performance signs, the facial presumably signifies the most about character emotions-which is why soap opera, the genre most concerned with emotion, contains the most intense examination, in close-up, of facial performance.

Gestural Performance. The significance of human gestures to a performance has been discussed since at least the late 19th century, when a French teacher of elocution, Francois Delsarte (1811-71), codified gestures into the Delsarte System of performance. In the Delsarte System there is a strict vocabulary of gesture: a raised fist means "determination or anger" and an open hand tilted downward means "apathy or prostration." However, the meanings of gestural performance are not as clear-cut or universal as Delsarte maintained.

Instead, gestures convey meanings in more ambiguous fashion and in a way that changes over time and from culture to culture. (Hand gestures, for instance, differ markedly from one country to another). While Meg Ryan was on As the World Turns (1982-84), her performances featured gestures that sometimes caught the camera operators by surprise. For example, in one shot she waves good-bye to a friend and does it so broadly that her arm extends beyond the frame of the image (Fig. 7). What meaning are we to assign to this arm movement? Perhaps we can say that this odd gesture contributes to the quirkiness of her character, but that is nowhere near as precise as Delsarte's strict code of gesture.

Corporeal Performance. The stance and bearing of an actor's body communicate meaning to the viewer that, obviously, ties in with the actor's gestures. The rigidly erect posture of Bebe Neuwirth (Fig. 8) signifies the emotional stiffness of her character, the psychiatrist Lilith on Cheers (1982-93)

while Ted Danson's casual stance and fluid movement (Fig. 9) on the same program represent the moral laxity of Sam Malone. Neuwirth holds her body stiffly and gestures minimally; Danson leans and slouches and often gestures comfortably.



Strategies of Performance Most of the time, we do not concern ourselves with the work that the actor used to create the performance. Indeed, the television program erases the marks of that work by emphasizing the character as a "real" human being rather than a constructed collection of character and performance signs. However, our understanding of performance signs is often affected by presumptions of how the actor came to create those attributes. And discussions of acting inevitably return to questions of performance strategies: principally, how did the actor create the performance? As this is also the main concern of acting schools, it seems appropriate to deal with this issue here. To best understand the different approaches to acting, it is necessary, however, to place acting strategies into a historical context-since one style often reacts against another. It also becomes necessary to stray into the related media of film and live theater to place performance history in context.

The danger in studying strategies of performance, however, is that it presumes that what is going on in the actors' minds is going to be evident in the way they perform. This, obviously, is a hazardous interpretive leap. Actors may be performing emotionally charged scenes and be thinking about what they will have for lunch that day. There is no way we can truly know an actor's mental processes. And yet, what we assume about those processes can be a key element in understanding how we interpret acting.

Fundamentally, there are two approaches to performance in fiction television: the naturalist and the anti-naturalist. In naturalistic performance styles, actors struggle to create a performance that we will accept as a "plausible," "believable" character-as human beings, and not actors trying to look like someone they are not. Anti-naturalist performance styles reject the notion of a believable character, but they do so for a broad variety of reasons that will be discussed in due course.

The Naturalists There are, of course, many schools of thought regarding the production of a naturalistic performance. Limiting our scope to the 19th and 20th centuries we will consider two types of naturalistic performance: Repertory and Method.

It must be noted at the outset, however, that these two strategies do not exist in pure form. Any performance is an impure mixture of approaches.

Repertory Performance. In repertory theater, a set group of actors performs a series of different plays during a season. One week the group might perform Ibsen's A Doll's House and the next week perform Shakespeare's Macbeth. As a result, the actors are constantly assuming new roles. To facilitate this ongoing change of roles, a repertory-style performance sees acting as a process of selecting particular gestures and spoken dialects and constructing a performance from them, although it does not rely on a code of gestures set out in an acting manual. The work of the actor is to study human gesture and speech and borrow gestures and dialects from life in the construction of characters. Repertory actors are dispassionate in this assemblage of movements and accents. They don't become emotional while acting, but instead use the gestures/accents that signify emotion.

For example, when Larry Drake began the role of the mentally challenged Benny Stulwicz on L.A. Law (1986-94), he observed psychiatric patients to see how they moved and spoke. Armed with this information, he could signify mental retardation by reenacting the gestures and speech patterns of the mentally challenged. Some film actors are also particularly well known for this performance strategy--Laurence Olivier and Meryl Streep, for example.

Even though repertory acting today does not rely on the Delsarte System of performance, it would be inaccurate to say that repertory performances are not in a sense "coded." True, there is no clearly delineated code such as Delsarte believed in, but repertory acting does draw on the rather flexible code of human gesture and dialect that operates in a society at a particular time. An actor's selection from life of gesture and dialect depends on certain common sense presumptions about how people move and speak. Even when an actor such as Drake takes special pains to study a certain type of person, his perception is still filtered through assumptions of which gestures and dialects are significant and which are not. So-called body language follows certain conventions that shift over time and cultures.

Method Performance. The style of performance most generally known in the U.S. is called simply "The Method." Method acting differs sharply from the repertory style. Rather than stressing the selection and assembling of gestures and dialects, Method acting encourages actors to become the characters, to fuse their personalities with the roles, to relive the characters. Method teachers argue that once the actor becomes the role, then the gestures and dialects necessary for the performance will organically grow out of that union of actor and character. Repertory performers are accused of mechanical acting by Method believers, because non-Method performance relies on a machine-like fitting together of techniques.

Three tactics that Method actors use to encourage the actor-character fusion are emotional memory, sense memory, and improvisation. Using emotional memory, actors draw on their memories of previous emotions that match the emotions of the characters. To encourage those memories, the actor can use sense memory to remember the physical sensations of a particularly emotional event. Was it hot or cold? How did the chair they were sitting on feel? Thus, sense memory is used to generate emotional memory. Improvisation is mostly used during rehearsal in Method acting. Actors imagine their way into the "minds" of characters and then place those characters into new situations, improvising new lines of dialogue based on this actor-character union.

According to Method advocates, if actors successfully tap into deep-rooted emotions and "become" the characters, then their performances will express a higher degree of "truth" because the actor is feeling what the character is feeling and behaving appropriately. For better or worse, this has become one of the principal criteria for judging acting: Do the actors appear to be fully submerged into the characters? Do they feel what the characters feel? Judging performance in this fashion can be dangerous. It rests on the ability to read the actor's mind during a performance-an impossible task. For this reason, the evaluation of acting based on Method acting criteria remains dubious.


Method acting initially came to the attention of the U.S. public at about the same time that television enjoyed its first growth spurt: the late 1940s and early 1950s. At that time, director Elia Kazan brought Marlon Brando to the stage and then to the screen in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, Fig. 10), which was followed by On the Waterfront (1954). Brando was the most visible of several distinctive new actors who were advocating the Method. Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Julie Harris, and others had been trained by Method teachers such as Lee Strasberg (at the Actor's Studio) and Stella Adler (Brando's principal teacher). However, the Method was being taught in the live theater long before this crop of actors made their impact on U.S. cinema. The technique originated in Russia at the end of the 19th century, when Konstantin Stanislaysky founded the Moscow Art Theater in 1897. Stanislaysky disdained any acting other than that of the live theater. He barely tolerated film actors and died in 1938 before television became a mass medium. Still, the impact of the Stanislaysky system on television has been immeasurable.

The Method made a remarkably early incursion into television performance. The musical variety programs, Westerns, sitcoms, and soap operas-and, moreover, the bulk of 1950s television--had little to do with the Method, but 1950s television also hosted the so-called golden age of live television drama.

Stage-trained actors and theatrical productions were imported into television to be broadcast live on programs such as Playhouse 90 (1956-61) and Philco Television Playhouse (1948-55). The latter was initially sponsored by the Actor's Equity Association (the principal theatrical actors union in the U.S.) and dealt directly with Method-influenced performers. One such actor was Rod Steiger, who trained alongside Brando at the Actors' Studio and brought the Method to the title role of Marty-broadcast live on Philco Television Playhouse May 24, 1953 (Fig. 11).


In some respects, the 1950s live television dramas more closely resembled theatrical presentations than did the cinema of that time. In both theater and live television, each scene was played straight through, not broken apart and then edited together as it would be in a film production. And 1950s television drama was also shot on an indoor sound stage-equivalent to the theatrical stage-rather than the location work that was becoming popular in film at that time. In many respects, 1950s actors must have felt more comfortable in a television studio production than on a movie set. As previously suggested, however, Playhouse 90 and the like were not typical of programs on the infant medium, and Method acting was definitely the exception rather than the rule. Since that time, though, Method acting has found a home on television in dramatic programs such as Hill Street Blues (1981-87) and Law and Order (1990-), made-for-TV movies and, in diluted form, many other programs.

In theory, emotional and sense memories may be used to access a broad range of emotions, both negative and positive. The history of Method performances in television and film, however, has been heavily weighted toward darker emotions, anxieties, and quirky neuroses. It is no small coincidence that the Method was popularized at roughly the same time as Freudian psychology- psychoanalysis-became part of everyday language. Just as in Freudian theory, the Method presumes that negative emotions are somehow more authentic than positive ones; that sorrow, depression, and doubt are more realistic than joy, elation, and self-confidence. This, however, is a dubious assumption, because positive emotions appear in reality also; they are thus no less real. Nonetheless, the Method's emphasis on emotional discord is a large part of the reason it has not been used much outside of television drama. These sorts of emotions find little expression in sitcoms and the like.

Aside from the emphasis on gloom and melancholy, Method performances historically also have been marked by a specific use of performance signs. In the 1950s, the vocal performance of Brando, Dean, Clift, et al., was often remarked on. In comparison to contemporary acting norms, they used odd speech rhythms (offbeat, faltering); overlapped dialogue; and slurred or mumbled their lines.

Their movements were similarly offbeat and quirky, when compared to the norm of the time.

Thus, Method acting was initially described as a technique that actors used to create a performance, but it has also developed its own conventions, its own code of performance. It has come to rely on the creation of negative emotions and has been marked by odd performance signs.

The Anti-naturalists

Naturalism can thus be seen to dominate how most people--critics and everyday viewers alike--think about acting. But it would be wrong to assume that we always demand naturalism from television performers. Sometimes it's quite clear that the actors are "faking" it, that they are separating themselves from the roles they play and pointing to the mechanics of their performances. It's as if they were winking at the viewer and implying, "You and I both know that I'm not really this character. I'm only performing a role." When actors distance themselves from their roles, they reject the basic tenet of the Method. They don't become the characters, they just present them to us. This style of performance can be traced back hundreds of years to broad comedy traditions in the theater, but we'll limit this overview to two 20th century antinaturalist approaches: vaudeville and Bertolt Brecht's theory of epic theater.

Vaudeville Performance. Vaudeville was a style of theatrical presentation that was built around song-and-dance numbers, comedy routines, and short dramatic skits and tableaux (the cast freezing in dramatic poses). Vaudeville was at its most popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but by the 1920s was eclipsed by the competing mass entertainment forms of radio and the movies. Even though vaudeville as a medium no longer exists, the style of performance it used survives in many television forms.

Significantly, vaudeville performance does not demand that we forget the presence of the actor within the guise of the character. That is, vaudeville performance frequently reminds us that we are watching a performance and that the characters before us are not real people. This is largely achieved through the direct address of the viewer. Vaudeville actors often look straight at the audience and make comments to them. This violates the theatrical concept of an invisible "fourth wall" that separates audience from characters. In conventional theatrical performances, we observe the action without being observed our selves. In vaudeville, our presence is repeatedly acknowledged. And if we are acknowledged as viewers, then the entire illusion of the fiction is undermined.

The naturalist concept of the believable character becomes immaterial to the vaudevillian.

At its beginnings television bore the legacy of vaudeville. Musical variety programs-mixing vaudevillesque music, acrobatics, ventriloquism, and comic skits-dominated early television. The Milton Berle Show (1948-67), The Ed Sullivan Show (1948-71) and The Jackie Gleason Show (1952-70) are just three of the long-running variety programs that were popular during that time. In each, a host spoke directly to the viewer, introducing the short performances that constituted the weekly show. And the performances themselves were also directly presented to the viewer. Even the comic narrative pieces featured the performer looking directly at the camera (a taboo in dramatic television) and implicitly or explicitly addressing the viewer.

In the 1970s the musical variety program fell from favor with the U.S. audience, but vaudeville-style performance continues in programs such as Saturday Night Live (1975-) and in comic monologues such as those that begin late-night talk shows and litter the many stand-up comic programs on cable television.

Brechtian Performance. German playwright and theorist Bertolt Brecht once posed rhetorically, "What ought acting to be like?" He then answered: Witty. Ceremonious. Ritual. Spectator and actor ought not to approach one another but to move apart. Each ought to move away from himself. Otherwise the element of terror necessary to all recognition is lacking.6 Brecht's theories, as exemplified by his plays, abandon the naturalistic ideal of a believable character with whom we can identify. In his so-called epic theater (which has little to do with the traditional epic), we are alienated from the characters rather than identifying with or "approaching" them. Actors do not relive characters as in the Method, but rather quote the characters to the viewer, always retaining a sense of themselves as actors, as separate from the characters.

In other words, the actor presents the character to the viewer without pretending to actually be the character. Viewer and actor alike are distanced from the character; hence the term Brechtian distanciation.

What is the purpose of this distanciation? Brecht argues that conventional dramatic theater narcotizes the spectator. We immerse ourselves in a story for 2 hours and then emerge from the theater as if waking from a drug-induced nap.

Brecht contends instead that we should be confronted, alienated. His is a Marxist perspective that believes that the theater should be used to point out social ills and prompt spectators to take action about them. He advocates nothing less than a revolutionary theater.

Brechtian performance theory has found fertile soil in the cinema of film makers such as Jean-Luc Godard, whose 1960s work aspired to transpose the epic theater to the cinema. But its significance to broadcast television is, admittedly, marginal. However, Brecht has influenced avant-garde video production of the past 20 years, including works done in that medium by Godard and video artists such as Nam June Paik.

We can find small instances of Brecht skulking about the edges of commercial television, if we look hard enough. In the music video for the Replacements' Left of the Dial, for instance, all that is seen is a black-and-white shot of an audio speaker in a room. The video begins with a tight close-up of it; then it starts to vibrate as the music begins. The camera pulls back to reveal a record player, a few albums, nothing spectacular. A person walks in front of the speaker, and we see his arm while he smokes a cigarette, but his face is never in frame (Fig. 12). The video ends without the band ever appearing, as is the convention in, say, 90% of music videos. So, to start with, there's really no one to identify with. Beyond that, however, Left of the Dial breaks some of music video's other conventions by refusing to create a spectacle. Nothing really happens. We are left to amuse ourselves, to think about the video and the conventions it's breaking. There's nothing for us to identify with: no spectacle, no characters (i.e., band members). This, we would argue, could be considered Brechtian television.

It is also possible to contend that the comic remarks made directly to the viewer by characters on It's Garry Shandling's Show (1988-90) and Malcolm in the Middle (2000-) are a watered-down form of Brechtian distanciation, although, in the final analysis, they're probably closer to the direct address of vaudeville and musical variety.

Thus, even though there is actually little Brechtian television to be found, we should still be aware that alternatives to naturalism do exist and, in film and theater, are actively investigated.



Not everyone who appears on television is a television star. Stars, as we will be using the term, are actors or personalities whose significance extends beyond the television program on which they appear. If actors' images do not range beyond their programs, then they are just actors trapped within the characters they've created-as are many soap opera actors, whose names are never known to viewers. A true star image, in contrast, circulates through the culture in a variety of media-magazines, newspapers, Web sites, other television programs-and has culturally delimited meanings associated with it.

Of Texts and Inter-textuality

Often it seems as if we know stars personally and intimately. We see them weekly (or daily) on our television screens, read about them in magazines, and hear them discuss themselves on talk shows. A large part of our conversation about television focuses on the personal lives of the stars. Wherever TV viewers congregate-the office water cooler or the high school lunch table-stars are a topic of conversation: "Do you think Jerry Seinfeld should marry someone so much younger than him?" or "Isn't it sad that Michael J. Fox has Parkinson's disease?" This illusion of intimacy is encouraged by television and other media, but it should not be confused with actual knowledge of someone's personality.

We can never know stars' authentic natures because our knowledge of them is always filtered through the media. Magazine articles and the like often claim to present genuine knowledge about the star's inner self, but media-produced information about stars is like the layers of an onion. One article will discuss the "truth" about Pamela Anderson's feelings regarding her break-up with Tommy Lee and the circulation on the Web of their sexually explicit videotape; and then, inevitably, another comes along and undercuts that particular "truth" and proposes its own "truth," which is then countered by another article with its version of Anderson's emotions. We viewers can never cut through all of the layers of the onion and have direct knowledge of the star's psyche. But, for our purposes, the "true personality" of a star is a moot point. What we are concerned with here is how a star's image is built and how it fits into television's narratives.

In this regard, it is helpful to think of a star as a "text," as a collection of signifiers that hold meaning for the viewer. Various meanings cluster around stars.

Their polysemy (literally: "many meanings") is generated by their appearance in several media texts: television programs, commercials, magazine articles, and the like. Roseanne, for example, appears in the sitcom Roseanne, but her presence is not limited to that program, which is currently in syndication. She is also the subject of numerous articles in popular magazines (from The National Enquirer to People to Time and Newsweek), has starred in a feature film (She-Devil [1989] ), has authored an autobiography, and has performed on HBO comedy specials and television programs other than Roseanne (including The Roseanne Show [1998-2000], her own syndicated talk show). Her star text, an image of how she lives and what she thinks, is constructed from the representation of her in all of these media texts. Thus, she has an intertextual presence in U.S. culture that creates a sense of her publicly available private life. Her intertextuality separates her from other actors and establishes her as a star. For our purposes, intertextuality is the main component distinguishing a star from an actor. Without intertextuality, an actor is "just" an actor.

The different types of media texts in which stars appear may be clustered into four sometimes overlapping groups:

1. Promotion

2. Publicity

3. Television programs (and films)

4. Criticism of those programs/films

By examining the stars' appearance in these media texts, we may better under stand their intertextuality and how their polysemy evolves.

Promotion. Promotional texts are generated by stars and their representatives: agents, public relations firms, studios, networks, and so on. Principal among promotional texts are press releases containing information in the star's best interests, print advertisements in television listings such as TV Guide (one of the highest circulation magazines in the world), promotional announcements on television (whether created by a network or a local station), and appearances on talk shows and news/informational programs (e.g., Entertainment Tonight and the El cable channel). Promotional materials represent the deliberate at tempt to shape our perception of a star.

The majority of promotional texts place stars in the contexts of their television characters. Promotional announcements on television especially focus on the character and the program in which a star appears-sometimes excluding the star's name altogether. The strength of the star's influence determines whether star or character will be emphasized. Genie Francis, probably the biggest soap opera star of the late 1970s and 1980s, left her role of Laura on General Hospital and began appearing on other, competing soap operas. The new networks then promoted her character as "Genie Francis in ..." This was extremely unusual for soap operas, and indicated just how major a star image Francis was. Prime-time programs' promotional material stresses stars more than does daytime drama's, but the star's character always governs how the star will be presented.

Publicity. We will here separate publicity from promotion, although the two are often indistinguishably intertwined. For our purposes, publicity will be used to designate information beyond the control of stars and their entourage: news reports about scandalous events in the stars' lives, unauthorized biographies, interviews in which stars are embarrassed or confronted with some unsavory aspect of their lives, and so on.


There have been many instances in the history of celebrity where promotion posed as publicity. Indeed, the career of the very first film star, Florence Lawrence, was launched by her producer spreading a false rumor that she had been killed in a streetcar accident. He then took out an advertisement declaring, "We Nail a Lie," in which he vigorously denied the rumor (Fig. 3.13). On a more mundane, day-to-day level, newspapers and magazines often publish verbatim the promotional press releases sent to them by the networks. Thus, often what appears to be a news story (that is, "publicity") is actually the work of a star's publicist ("promotion"). The distinction between publicity and promotion is not always clear, but there are some instances when it is quite obvious. When a tabloid magazine learned that Roseanne had had a child before she was married, had put her up for adoption, and hadn't seen her in years, it published the story even before Roseanne could speak directly with her daughter. The articles about this event in Roseanne's publicly available private life constituted information beyond her influence. Publicity such as this raises interesting questions about the tensions and conflicts within stars' images-aspects that contrast with the official narrative of their lives. In the instance of Roseanne's child, the publicity relates to her on-screen image as a mother. In her television program she's represented as a tough, but ultimately loving mother. In contrast, the publicity represented her as a woman who abandoned her child. The tension between these two representations of Roseanne, and her bringing them together in a single person, illustrates how a star may reconcile a variety of sometimes conflicting meanings.

Television Programs. As we have previously noted, the characters a star plays in television programs determine much of how a star is perceived.

However, to qualify as stars within our definition, stars must first of all have images beyond that of their characters. Francis and Roseanne are obviously stars. Their cultural currency extends beyond the texts of General Hospital and Roseanne. But an actor such as Jon Hensley-who plays Holden Snyder on As the World Turns-is not, because he is not recognized outside of his role.

When stars play roles, their polysemies may fit those characters in a variety of ways.' Often, as in the case of typecasting, the star image perfectly fits the character. For example, Don Johnson's former abuse of alcohol and generally dissipated life, and the meanings associated with that, made for a perfect fit with his character Sonny Crockett's background of alcoholism and degradation (Miami Vice). Johnson's publicly available private life and Crockett's "past" greatly resembled one another. Critics of television often presume that this perfect fit is the only way that stars are used in television. However, such is not the case.

Often there is a problematic fit between a star's polysemy and the attributes of the character he or she is playing. When a character is cast against type, the star image contrasts with the character. When Farrah Fawcett, whose image centered around her physical attractiveness and implied a certain empty-headedness, was cast as the abused wife in the ambitious MOW The Burning Bed (1984), there was a problematic fit between her image and the character portrayed. Similarly, during the 1970s, soap opera star Susan Lucci was represented in the press as a loving, devoted mother at the same time that her character, Erica on All My Children, was a manipulative woman who secretly took birth control pills to prevent conception.

Perfect and problematic fits of star image to role are less common than the selective use of the star's polysemy in the character's attributes. Larry Hagman, for example, has been represented in the press as an unpredictable man with a strong interest in spirituality and Eastern religions. His character of J.R. in Dallas selects Hagman's unpredictability, but ignores or represses his spirituality. In this fashion, Hagman's star image is partially used in the construction of his character.

This is probably the most frequent use of star image in characterization.

Criticism. The final media text contributing to a star's image is the commentary on stars and their programs that appears in print, on Web sites, and on television itself. Critics and fans who create Web sites are presumed to operate independently of studios, networks, and other promotion-generating organizations. And, although many a review has been written out of a network's press kit, critics write about stars from a viewer's point of view, evaluating their images and their use in television programs. Thus, critics and fan-generated Web sites often share in the dissemination of a star image or help to change it.

Although the start of each television season does see a host of reviews and previews of the new programs, TV criticism is not as important to television as film criticism is to the movies. Film criticism is an institutionalized part of the promotional hoopla that leads to a film's release; it helps to create a narrative image of what the film will be like; and critics' comments are an essential part of the marketing of a film on videocassette and DVD as well. Television criticism, in contrast, is likely read or seen after the program has been broadcast. We may already have developed an opinion of the program before we read a review of it. Still, some programs-such as Hi// Street Blues, Twin Peaks (1990-91), and Everybody Loves Raymond (1996-) -have benefitted greatly from critics championing their virtues.

Intertextuality and Polysemy: Roseanne To illustrate how a polysemic star image (or text) develops through intertextuality, we will focus on Roseanne-one of the most striking and sometimes controversial television stars of the late 1980s and 1990s. Her image is particularly instructive because the connection between her publicly available private life and her on-screen character is so strong. After all, the program's main character (Roseanne Conner) shares Roseanne's name. And yet, there are still important divergences between Roseanne and Roseanne Conner.

Roseanne's image has developed through three main sources: her stand-up comedy routine, Roseanne (the television program), and the scores of articles about her in the mainstream and tabloid press. Born in Salt Lake City, Roseanne began performing in clubs in Colorado in the early 1980s as Roseanne Barr.

Eventual success at Los Angeles's Comedy Store around 1985 led to appearances on The Tonight Show, at Caesar's Palace ( Las Vegas), and on a Rodney Dangerfield HBO special. Her first solo television exposure was HBO's The Roseanne Barr Show (1987), which included narrative segments of her as a disaffected housewife among the stand-up comedy routines. The following year Roseanne premiered (October 1988) and quickly became a top-rated sitcom, despite the controversies surrounding Roseanne.

A history of the publicity surrounding Roseanne would be much harder to trace, simply because there is so much of it. Early on, aspects of Roseanne's publicly available private life were both reported and, occasionally, invented.

Roseanne's life violated many taboos, and the press was quick to pick up on all of the ways that Roseanne deviated from the mainstream: her Jewish/Mormon religious training, her institutionalization in a psychiatric hospital, the birth (while she was still single) of a daughter that she gave up for adoption, her sexually charged relationship with ex-husband Tom Arnold and her championing of his career, her working-class roots, her problems with her own children (one of whom was treated for alcohol abuse), her charge that her parents sexually abused her, her off-key rendition of the National Anthem at a baseball game, and the list goes on. Almost all of the publicity storm swirling around Roseanne has centered on how she violates convention, does not fit in, and does not be have in a seemly manner. She is, as one critic put it, an "unruly woman." It might seem somewhat strange, therefore, that she has become such a major star.

What is the ideological function of a star? How do stars embody taken for-granted assumptions about how the world works? We can begin to answer these questions as we examine Roseanne's polysemy, the meanings that constellate around her image. It is arguable that three central themes run through Roseanne's image: ordinariness, feminism, and body image (her weight). Central to the appeal of Roseanne is its working-class milieu. The difference in economic status between the Conner family and that of the 1980s' premiere television family, the Huxtables (The Cosby Show), has frequently been commented on. Indeed, Roseanne breaks with a long tradition within the television domestic comedy of upper-middle-class families-as was evident in earlier sitcoms such as Father Knows Best (1954-63) and The Donna Reed Show (1958-66). Roseanne Conner's jobs as factory worker and waitress carry marks of "ordinariness?' They signify " middle America" and "normalcy?' The working-class origins of Roseanne, the actor, are likewise stressed in the publicity attending her-as in magazine articles chronicling her time living in a trailer while her first husband worked as a garbage truck driver and mail carrier. Even though she is now a wealthy star, she is still presented as being "one of us." In Roseanne's "feminism" we can see many of the tensions that her star image contains. On the one hand, she has been championed by feminists for humor that is critical of patriarchal assumptions about the woman's position within the home. Some of her wisecracks regarding housework include: "If the kids are still alive when my husband comes home, I've done my job" and "I will clean house when Sears comes out with a riding vacuum cleaner." Her feminism is apparent in her anger about the treatment of women. In a Ms. magazine interview she said, "I think of my mother, I think of all the women in the nuthouse, I think of all the women all the time. And I go, 'Hey, I will not be insulted anymore. There is no way to beat me, because I am so pissed: " On the other hand, there are aspects of Roseanne's image that contradict feminist principles. Even though Roseanne the woman ridicules aspects of the conventional nuclear family, Roseanne the program relies on an underlying belief in the validity of that family structure.

The family is still the ultimate source of love and support, even amid all the sarcastic remarks.

Roseanne's weight is the center of another ideological conflict. Her large size (Fig. 5) links her with the stereotype of the "mammy," one of the greatest nurturing figures in U.S. culture. The Aunt Jemima figure is a middle-aged black woman, whose origins stem from the enslavement of African Americans.

She nurtures her own children, her owner's children, and even the adult slave owners. Her large, shapeless form connotes her skill at cooking and also neutralizes her sexual attraction. The mammy is presumed to be fertile, a baby machine, but not sexually active or possessing her own desires. Rather, her de sire is displaced into caring for others. Roseanne is signified as a nurturer, as exceptionally fertile, but one of the most controversial aspects of her image has been her unwillingness to be sexually neutered. This is evident in Roseanne Conner's relationships with her husband, which often has sexual overtones. It is also evident in Roseanne's extremely sexual relationship with Tom Arnold (before and after they were wed), which was widely reported both in the tabloid press and more mainstream magazines such as People Weekly. As an overweight woman with sexual appetites she disrupts many assumptions about overweight women. She also disrupts the mass-media convention that only slim people are sexually desirable or sexually active.

In sum, Roseanne's polysemy is fissured with ambivalence: mother and anti-mother, sexually neutral and sexually active. She thus brings together conflicting meanings. This is often the function of stars within U.S. culture. They unite opposite elements within our ideology and, through their single images, manage an almost magic reconciliation of them. Roseanne is a raucous, unruly woman, a woman who has been roundly condemned as vulgar, blasphemous, antifamily and even unpatriotic. And yet, she was also the matriarch of the best loved television family of the 1990s. Her power to unite all of these contradictions is part of what marks her as an important television star.


Our relationship to the human figure on the television screen is a complicated and conflicted one, and we may never completely decipher its intricacies. How ever, it is possible to break down character, performance, and star images into their building blocks. Characters in narrative, actors acting, and star images lure us to the television set. The analyst must step back from that lure and ask how character, performance, and star image are constructed, how they function in narratives.

We have adopted a semiotic approach in this endeavor. Characters are made up of character signs-a variety of signifiers that communicates the character to the viewer. Acting is a matter of performance signs-facial, gestural, corporeal, and vocal signifiers that contribute to the development of character. And star images have been presented as texts fabricated through the media texts of promotion, publicity, television programs, and criticism. The existence of stars as real people has been de-emphasized in favor of their signifying presences within U.S. culture, as is exemplified in the case of Roseanne.

We have also briefly explored two different schools of performance construction: naturalist and antinaturalist. The former dominates television, film and theater-relying on the principals of repertory performance and the Method.

The latter is less well known, but we can still see the influence of vaudeville and Brecht on television programs.


The significance of characters to the television text is explained in John Fiske, "Cagney and Lacey: Reading Character Structurally and Politically" Communication 9 (1987): 399-426. Fiske continues and enlarges on this discussion in Television Culture (New York: Methuen, 1987). The few substantive writings on television actors as stars have focused on female performers. Patricia Mellencamp, "Situation Comedy, Feminism and Freud: Discourses of Gracie and Lucy," in Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture, ed. Tania Modleski (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986) applies Freudian psychology to Gracie Allen's and Lucille Ball's television performances. Denise Mann, "The Spectacularization of Everyday Life: Recycling Hollywood Stars and Fans in Early Television Variety Shows," Camera Obscura, no. 16 (January 1988): 49-77, explores the significance of performers like Martha Raye to television in the decade after World War II. Roseanne has been discussed in several essays, most notably Kathleen K. Rowe, The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1995). Discussion of women performers in music videos can be found in E. Ann Kaplan, Rocking Around the Clock: Music Television, Postmodernism and Consumer Culture (New York: Methuen, 1987); and Lisa A. Lewis, Gender Politics and MTV: Voicing the Difference (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990). Kaplan is most interested in Madonna as a figure who blends aspects of popular culture into a postmodern puree. Lewis examines Madonna, Pat Benatar, Cyndi Lauper, and Tina Turner principally in terms of their fans and the relationships between the fans and the stars. Madonna has been discussed in numerous critical essays and empirical studies-including Jane D. Brown, Laurie Schultze (1990) "The Effects of Race, Gender and Fandom on Audience Interpretations of Madonna's Music Video," Journal of Communication 2 (1990): 88-102. For an overview of academic writing on Madonna and the controversy it has raised, see Laurie Schulze, "Not an Immaculate Reception: Ideology, The Madonna Connection, and Academic Wannabes," The Velvet Light Trap 43 (spring 1999): 37-50. The student of television who is interested in the star phenomenon should also investigate the body of literature on cinema stars that has been developing since the late 1970s--especially since many television stars cross over into other media (e.g., Tom Hanks, Madonna, Tom Selleck, Meg Ryan). Some of the work done on the cinema may be transferred, with caution, to television studies.

Richard Dyer, Stars (London: British Film Institute, 1998), remains the best introduction to the study of stars and characters. Originally published in 1979, it laid the groundwork for most star discussion of the 1980s and 1990s. He has augmented that book with Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986), which approaches Marilyn Monroe in terms of sexual discourses, Paul Robeson in terms of racial discourse, and Judy Garland in terms of her reception by gay viewers.

Although not an actor per se, Princess Diana has been called the "first icon of the new age of the electronic image and the instantaneous distribution of images" by Nicholas Mirzoeff. His essay, "Diana's Death: Gender, Photography and the Inauguration of Global Visual Culture," addresses many of the issues of stardom and performance (in An Introduction to Visual Culture [ London: Routledge, 1999] : 231-254). A variety of key essays on performance and star image may be found in two anthologies: Jeremy G. Butler, ed., Star Texts: Image and Performance in Film and Television (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991) and Christine Gledhill, Stardom: Industry of Desire (New York: Routledge, 1991).


1. Richard Dyer, Stars (London: British Film Institute, 1998), 106-17.

2. John Ellis, Visible Fictions: Cinema: Television: Video (Boston: Routledge, 1992).

3. Dyer, 134-6

4. Several authors have discussed performance signs. The terms here are Barry King's, as quoted in Andrew Higson, "Film Acting and Independent Cinema," Screen 27, nos. 3-4 (May-August 1986), 112.

5. Reproduced in Dyer, 138.

6. Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, edited and translated by John Willett (NY: Hill and Wang, 1964), 26.

7. See Richard Dyer's classification of film stars' media texts. Dyer, 60-63.

8. See Dyer, 126-31.

9. Kathleen K. Rowe, "Roseanne: Unruly Woman as Domestic Goddess," in The Unruly Woman: Gender and Genres of Laughter (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1995): 50-91.

10. Susan Dworkin, "Roseanne Barr," Ms., July-August 1987,206..

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