Helle Kannik Haastrup is a scholar specialized in celebrity culture. According to her, studying celebrities is now a thriving field.
What lead you to the celebrities? What was the reason for becoming interested in this subject?
I wrote my PhD on contemporary cinema and intertextual storytelling, in that sense I had made my way into film aesthetics and culture as defined by cross-media relations between texts, but also understanding cross-media as a way of analyzing specific aesthetic strategies, and how they work in very different ways. Intertextuality is a way to tell stories and to flesh out characters and a way to communicate with the audience across media.
The notion of cross-media as an analytical approach became a key perspective for my research and my way into studying celebrity culture. Initially it was the Oscars, as a live media award show, that caught my attention because it is an example of communicating film culture on a global scale. Three factors inspired this research early on: Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz and their study of media events with focus on how media events are storytelling as a contrast to previous studies of the Oscars as primarily a film historical phenomenon.
My participation in the Ross Priory Research Group with Paddy Scannell was very inspiring as well, because they were working with live media events as a particular kind of cultural broadcast communication. The third factor was Richard Dyers work on stardom where he combines the sociological theory with an aesthetic sensibility. My research on celebrity culture is thus both within film studies as well as media and communication studies starting out with the analysis of the Oscars as a cross-media event and today my research has a much broader focus from silent cinema stardom to the role celebrities play in our digital media culture.
Maybe after that work, did you have the chance to travel to the Oscars ceremony?
No, unfortunately, but I wrote an article about it, One re-enchanted evening, and I watched it on TV. In Denmark, the Oscar’s are broadcasted live and during the commercial break, there is a talk-show with film critics, former Oscar-winners and fashion experts. I enjoy following the Oscars live, and to study what it means to Danish film culture. This year we have a nomination in foreign language category and this ceremony can make a big difference for Danish directors if they win.
Intertextual and cross-media perspectives
How would you define yourself as a scholar in terms of disciplines, and more particularly, within the media and a communication research?
I am a what you can call ‘a cross-over’ scholar, I think of myself as a film and media scholar with an interest in aesthetics in film and television, but also with focus on the cultural and sociological aspects of film and media culture, and always interested in the intertextual and cross-media perspectives. I started with film aesthetics and storytelling and ended up doing research on celebrity culture in digital media.
Please describe your research path in your own words: how did you find your way until today? How did you discover new research questions, how did your career choices make you make certain decisions?
When I started, my research focus was on contemporary cinema and developing a theoretical framework for analyzing intertextual storytelling in many different ways from Pulp Fiction and Scream to Magnolia and The Matrix. After my PhD I used my insights from intertextual theory to develop a framework to investigate how cross-media works as a key component of film and media culture in a more general sense.
My starting point was two Postdoc-projects: The first project concerned cross-media relations between film and computer games, and the second Postdoc-project was about celebrity culture addressing how celebrity culture works from the Hollywood star system to digital media culture. In recent years my research on celebrity culture has focused on female film stars: One example is my case study of feminist activist Emma Watson and her online book club and the work for UN’s HeForShe-campaign, an analysis of the 2018 Golden Globe Awards show as platform for activism and the #metoo movement, and my current project on Asta Nielsen as a Danish silent cinema superstar.
A thriving field of study
How has the Nordic media research field changed during your career? What are the most important and perceivable changes?
It has changed a lot. The NordMedia conferences are where I meet most of the researchers and they are good places to see what is going on and to exchange ideas. I am usually in the group for film and media fictions but for a while I was head of a temporary working group in celebrity studies two conferences in a row. It seems that there is a momentum in studying issues of celebrity but not as a specific research topic rather it is interconnected to other fields of research. In a Nordic context it seems that the research on celebrity is a cross-over topic integrated in studies of film, gender, political communication, fan studies, social media research, journalism studies and audience studies. So I can’t complain – celebrity studies research is thriving. Even though it might not be a specific section at NordMedia – interesting research is being done. To support and share research on celebrity culture I co-founded the Nordic Celebrity Studies Network in 2015.
What have been the most important findings in the research you have conducted during the past years?
In my studies in celebrity culture, I would argue that we need to see it as a part of society. The way to do that is to study specific media texts because they can show us how celebrities are an integral part of culture and politics. It is important to have that sensibility if we want to understand society.
For my cross-media studies, it would the necessity for a theoretical framework to study media aesthetic and communication as two sides of the same story, from intertextual storytelling to celebrity activists and media events, it is all connected but what does it mean and how does it work?
Teaching about celebrity culture
How have the students change, since the time you were teaching?
My students are very interested in studying film and media as an integral part of society. In that sense they look for what is relevant and topical in contemporary film and media culture and they are engaged and critical. Only once in a while they may lack an interest in the historical background, maybe because they are so interested in new developments.
Probably the presence of Internet also marked a before and after in your research.
Definitely. In the beginning, working in cross mediat was focussed on film and television and developed from analysis of websites to social media and we had to theorize and analyze this differently. In particular with celebrity culture there has been the so-called ‘demotic turn’, where everybody has access to attention via social media.
If you should go into a school classroom and teach them three important lessons based on your research, what would you teach to them?
First, having a critical approach to celebrities on social media is the key because they are a part of your everyday life and make sure to have a conversation about the people your follow on social media about values, image and presentation of self with your family and friends. Second, film and media fictions are central to our understanding of what it is to be human – a way to understand life, culture and society. When watching film you can understand what the world looks like from a different perspective than your own.
Third, I would say: pay attention to how a story is told and how your favorite influencer is presenting him or herself – it matters for your experience and can be a short cut to understand who and what they are communicating.
Nordic celebrity culture
What kind of Nordic relevance are there in your research findings? How does the Nordic celebrity scene distinguish from, for example, the Anglo-American scene? What are Nordic characteristics?
In my book Celebritykultur (2020), the Nordic is present in my case studies of media texts including new Danish portrait documentaries, Danish film stars on Instagram and Swedish climate activists as Greta Thunberg. Thunberg is analyzed as a cross-media star brand including her documentary, social media presence and her biography. However, in my work on the Oscars I studied how the Danish framing of the live media event plays an important role and how the Nobel awards broadcast from Stockholm is also an example of celebrity culture combining science communication and cultural politics. In my work on cross-media fictions I have analysed the Norwegian television drama Skam as an example of the complex television series.
In my current research project I focus on the Danish film star Asta Nielsen and analyze her presence in Danish film culture in the 1910s and 1920s and how her star image productively can be understood through a cross-media perspective.
Nielsen’s break-through came with the Danish film called The Abyss in 1911 and it was in particular one scene that caught attention: ‘the Gaucho dance’ where Asta Nielsen, in a very tight dress, danced with a provocative choreography which was considered both daring and explicit at the time. She got a contract in Germany and became a big star and world famous. She was known for expressive eyes and subtle acting style and for creating many different roles on screen from ingenues to femme fatales and even a female Hamlet. In my article Die Asta: A Cosmopolitan Diva (2020) I analyse how her star image spread across different media in a Danish cultural context but with focus on her film Die Suffragette (1913) where she is playing an activist fighting for women´s right to vote. Very interesting subject for a film when women still did not have the right to vote in Denmark. (Women achieved the right to vote in Denmark in 1915).
How do you relate to celebrity culture and popular media in your free time – are you trying to disconnect or learn more? What are your main leisure time interests?
I really enjoy both art film and popular cinema and in that sense I am an ‘omnivore’ and at the moment I am looking forward to our wonderful documentary festival, CPH:DOX in Copenhagen in April – even though it is partly online. I am always interested in learning more and find social media very useful to keep up with news on literature, film, art and politics.
Janteloven at work
How about today’s celebrities? Who is a celebrity nowadays?
We have to take into consideration that a lot of criticism against celebrity culture tends to forget the whole picture. For instance, former US president Donald Trump is critized for being a celebrity, but Barack Obama is also a celebrity. However, Trump is in another league as the Twitter president and his association with populism and fake news. On social media political communication is also a performance as well: We’ve seen it in Denmark, with our Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen with a picture of an open sandwich with canned mackrel. She wanted to communicate that she is a woman of the people, a social democrat, very ordinary as well as being the Prime Minister. This was widely discussed in Danish media and she was accused of being a populist and at the same others lauded her for being relatable and authentic.
Even it transcended through History that Alexander the Great was a handsome man, so those legends based on the aspect have not changed through political communication, neither in social media nor Flavio Arriano’s texts.
A peculiarity of Nordic celebrity culture, seen from a foreigner’s gaze, is the naturally that modern Nordic celebrities behave and live, in comparison with the cult created around celebrities in other places. Is it a reflect of Janteloven?
That can be part of it and at the same time we pride ourselves in being relaxed about fame and famous people. We like it when Danish actors do well in international cinema, but we also appreciate when they get the attention at festivals and awards shows starring in Danish film and tv-drama. Directors Lars von Trier and Susanne Bier and actors like Sidse Babett Knudsen and Mads Mikkelsen are all regarded as achieved celebrities. Most recently director Thomas Vinterberg has gained success with Another Round winning prizes in Europe and being nominated for an Oscar. Janteloven is still working, but we also enjoy when our countrywomen and -men do well in international film culture.