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Hatsune Miku, Idols, and Kim Kardashian: On the Malleability of Public Identity

6 November, 2011 Comments off

I must say, I’m rather fond of Frank Bruni as a writer. I particularly enjoyed his stint in the NYT dining section. Anyway, he makes an interesting observation about Kim Kardashian this week:

Like other celebrities famous for being famous, she means nothing and can thus mean everything, an empty vessel accommodating all manner of observations, a malleable moral for many stories.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen the concept of malleability come up with respect to celebrities. It happened with Hatsune Miku, and with idols. But there are a few salient differences here.

The Hatsune Miku quote came from an animator whose music video was played at Anime Expo 2010. He mentioned that one of the great things about Miku is that, being a software program, she can be different things to different creators. She can be an entirely different personality from one video to the next. She is a memetic canvas for the painting of desires.

Idols, on the other hand, work in service of an ideology. An ideology of performed femininity, to be sure, but there is nevertheless a purpose to their everything-meaning. The idol is a utopian figure; she is the human embodiment of a fantasy of how people should relate to one another. She’s always cheerful, always helpful, always ready with a song or a cute mannerism. It’s a heavy burden to bear — and an ethically-dubious one in some respects — and many idols find that they cannot indefinitely sustain the illusion of being more than human. When they retire — out of choice or out of necessity — the next generation of idols takes over.

But the American celebrities-for-celebrity’s-sake, of which Kim Kardashian appears to be one, are none of these. They have their own identities, independent of any one work or event in which they appear. And the ideology they embody, if anything, is far from utopian. They simply seem to reflect a particular form of hedonism. They stand for nothing except consumption, and they promise no greater societal good arising from those who emulate them, save for the universal freedom of being able to shop as you please.

All three of these archetypes (Miku, idol, and celebrity-for-celebrity’s-sake) are problematic public-sphere concepts, each in different ways. But if I were to take one of these as a model for vicarious living, I would much rather prefer the abstract creation potential of Miku or the harmonious societal fantasy of the idol. The celebrity-for-celebrity’s-sake seems to promote not utopianism, but nihilism.

(Of course, there are also wildly different reception dynamics in play. I don’t know how many young girls treat Hatsune Miku or idols as role models. And it very well could be that Kim Kardashian does have some value as a public figure to emulate. I guess I’m more concerned, at least at present, with the underlying motivations behind *why* these archetypes circulate within the public consciousness, rather than what their direct effects are.)