CGWS Summer School Notes – Amy Winehouse and the mediated politics of disgust – Dr. Debra Ferreday

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Google Search Result for ‘Abject Definition’

Last night’s screening of ‘Amy’ was followed this morning with an interesting lecture from Dr.Ferreday on the politics of disgust. I was particularly moved by her discussion of Amy as an ‘abject’ figure which prompted me to search for the above dictionary definition – ‘completely without pride or dignity’ which seemed a fitting way to describe how Winehouse has often been depicted. Ferreday also notes the links with bodily disgust, blood, sweat, pus etc. Interesting too to think about the tabloid celebrity press’ use of the ‘red circle’ – usually for highlighting the bodily transgression of cellulite was used to highlight the embodiments of Amy’s mental illness.

Interesting too to think about the ‘co-opting’ of feminist media analysis which I think was often evident in the kinds of concern trolling we see in relation to troubled female icons such as Amy Winehouse. I’m not sure how we can create an analysis which isn’t so easily co-opted but was reminded of what Jack Halberstam said to us on Monday about academia being too often ‘disimpassioned’. In our cultural analysis we are usually kinder to the objects of discussion but we tend to treat them as objects nonetheless and don’t often acknowledge our emotional investments in our favourite stars and the real significance that some of them have for us personally. We tend to conflate the person and the celebrity in much the same way as the mainstream media do so maybe there is scope here for a more personal exploration of cultural production.

We then moved on to a workshop discussing the documentary and were asked to think about our responses to it. For me, as well as the obvious sadness there was also an uncomfortable feeling of panic and claustrophobia. I think we are hardened to seeing images of the paparazzi chasing celebrities from the outside, but the film featured footage taken by people around Amy of the paps hounding them and it reminded me of a panic attack I had in Ikea a few years ago. There were so many people around and no obvious path to the exit. I reflected on my own mental health battles and how hard it is to even face my family and friends, the people I love, when I am unwell let alone the world and a never ending barrage of camera lenses.

Notes are my lecture notes from talk given by Dr. Debra Ferreday so ideas are from her presentation or those of others cited by her but not fully cited by myself below.

  • In relation to previous discussion on humour – presence of violence in humour and how certain ways of looking make us complicit in forms of violence
  • Manchester attacks – attack on a centre of working class cultural production. Interesting to see the media talk about these attacks on girls and their pop culture as if these things are particularly valued by western culture
  • Amy – argument = female celebrities are not produced as geniuses like Bowie and Prince – her culture must be autobiographical and her talent is seen as inevitably linked to her downfall
  • –Amy as ‘Abject’ ‘without pride, dignity- self abasing’ definition
  • Video – You know I’m no good – expected to take depictions of female celebrities literally/ at face value
    • Scopophilic
    • What does it mean to take Amy at her word when she says ‘I’m no good?’
    • Amy produces the image in a knowing way
    • Produced as melancholic femininity/ heterosexuality linked with ‘the jazz/blues’ singer
    • Rockabilly Gothic, ‘existentialist ghoul’ Image
      • Classed and racial images
      • Lady sings the blues – genealogies – Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Billy Holiday
      • Cultural appropriation but also alternative to classed norms of white femininity – Janis Joplin
    • Need to ‘read against the grain’
    • Davis – trace the theme of trauma, linked with political feminist consciousness
    • Link to pain and trauma of being a woman and particularly a woman of colour
  • Being visible is an act of defiance which exposes women and woc to certain forms of violence, trolling etc
  • Monica Casper – tendency to focus only on the emotion ‘Billie holiday was a woman, not a song, And she was/is not merely the embodiment of historical trauma.’

How can we imagine female singers as more than ‘trauma’ or ‘pain’?


  • Talked openly about her struggles with mental illness
  • The media knew full well how vulnerable this person was


‘Celebrity- ‘the condition of being talked about’ is understood as a distinctly disciplinary sphere of social life, a class pantomime through which the establishment of social hierarchies and processes of social abjection (qua punishment for sexual and social transgression) are acted out figuratively (Tyler and Bennett 2010:376)

The Politics of Affect

  • Movement from emphasis on structures to on embodiment and affect
  • Relationship between body and self-identities not just fixed but constructed through identification and disidentification
    • Embodiment – the ‘turn to the body’ esp in feminist theory
    • Affect – emotion as in ‘affection’
      • Way of thinking about the relationship between bodies – how we affect one another

Julie Kristeve and the Abject

  • ‘The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It Is death infesting life. Abject’ – Powers of Horror
  • Abject and the making/ reading something as ‘filthy’ and ‘disgusting’
    • We’re made to look
    • We take comfort in being separate from the abject thing
      • Boundary creation
      • Abject as a social force
        • The bodies of immigrants, mothers – producing abject bodies for political ends

Classed Bodies

  • Working class women’s bodies are pathologised
    • Present in liberal feminism – role models, ‘affect’ on the audience
    • Routed in misogynistic notion of disgust
  • Working class female bodies – skeggs
    • Beyond governance – fat, white, loud, excessive, drunk, hen parties
    • Tyler and Bennett apply this to celebrities

The height of Tabloid Celebrity Media

  • Growth of tabloid celebrity magazines – ‘Heat’
    • No longer dependent on the celebrities’ consent
      • Paparazzi
    • Sue Holmes – current of narratives produced
  • Aspirational celebrity – Hello Magazine- celebrities who have complete control over content
    • Heat presents itself as an intervention against this
    • Mark Frith editor of Heat ‘Celebrities always want to give the idea that they’re higher beings, more perfect than everyone else.. don’t be bullied by them’
      • Presented as an intervention against bullying whilst hounding celebrities for being too fat or too skinny
    • Dolly Alderton, Man Repeller
  • Mental health as voyeurism
    • Britney Spears
  • The ‘red circle’

Amy -The bloody ballet pump

  • Red circle moves from physical imperfection to pointing out scars from self-harm and bloody feet
    • ‘Look how disgusting this woman is’
    • Concern trolling
  • Presented as a feminist intervention of respectability
  • Constructions of stigma and victimhood in celebrities

 How can we produce feminist media analysis which can’t be co-opted?


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