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Visual Literacy and the Red Carpet: Celebrity ‘Make Unders’

With the Grammys coming up this weekend and the Oscars in a couple of weeks, as a culture these days we’re in full red carpet-mode. In addition to the usual “Who are they wearing?” and “Who rocked (or didn’t) a certain outfit?” coverage that’s characteristic of tabloids across media, young people are about to be deluged with the same sort of beauty-is-skin-deep-but-oh-what-glowing-skin ethos from more mainstream outlets.

As an antidote to all this–wait, did I say antidote, I meant “as a prompt to critical thinking”–you may want to share images like the one below, which I came across recently at Jason Kottke’s blog. You can find the full shot of Kim and Kanye (if you don’t know who they are, good for you–but chances are, your students/kids do) here, as well as a senses-shattering one of Tom Cruise, and the explanation that “photographer Danny Evans photoshops images of celebrities so that they look like normal people.” (There’s a link back to a Facebook gallery of dozens of such make unders.)

The idea here is simple: celebrity itself is a media-constructed concept, perhaps the media-constructed concept par excellence as it’s self-generating and needs no external rationale (i.e., the Kardashian pictured above, along with other Reality TV stars, is “famous for being famous,” as the saying goes). And while the subject of photo alteration is hardly a new one in the media literacy field (this blog covered it in terms of teen girls and the anti-airbrushing campaign), rarely do we have the opportunity to deconstruct images so rigorously that they actually invert themselves in the process… making the celebrities in question less attractive than they really are.

With that in mind, consider comparing and contrasting some of Woods’ kind-of photos with next-day red carpet spreads, which are taken at live events and theoretically shouldn’t be altered (although of course hair-and-makeup practices, not to mention surgical enhancements, can be considered real-life alterations of a sort)…

and with the cover photos that may adorn certain magazines in your library or that young people may be reading on their own (perhaps on an iPad). Ask: which of these images reflects what celebrities truly look like?

Then ask the better question, better because it’s more telling: how would you know? Because, after all, unless we’re close friends with such stars, when do we ever behold them outside of some form of media representation?

About Peter Gutierrez