Monday, October 5, 2015

Samantha Barbas's "Laws of Image: Privacy and Publicity in America"

Samantha Barbas is Associate Professor of Law at SUNY Buffalo Law School and the author of Movie Crazy: Fans, Stars, and the Cult of Celebrity (2001) and The First Lady of Hollywood: A Biography of Louella Parsons (2005).

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Laws of Image: Privacy and Publicity in America, and reported the following:
Laws of Image is about two intertwined developments in American history: the beginnings of our obsession with personal image, and with it, the development of an area of law that I call the “laws of public image.”

My story begins in the rapidly-expanding cities of the late 19th century. In small towns and villages, a person’s reputation was often a product of deep, ongoing contact with one’s community. In cities, by contrast, one’s social identity was more often a function of images and first impressions—what observers might infer about someone based on chance encounters and glimpses on the streets and other public venues. There developed a new “image-consciousness,” a sense of being an image in the eyes of others, and a preoccupation with mastering and perfecting one’s public image.

This image-conscious sensibility intensified in the early 20th century with the rise of the mass media, especially visual media –photography, photojournalism and film. New “image industries”– fashion, cosmetics, the advertising industry–encouraged Americans to focus on their appearances. Pop psychologists began preaching a message that should be familiar to us today: you are your image, you have a right to feel good about your image, you can transform yourself by transforming your image. Celebrities, who achieved fame and fortune for their images, became role models and icons.

This is where page 99 comes in. I describe the “industries of counterimage” emerging in the 1920s—tabloids, gossip columns, and scandal publications, devoted to dismantling celebrities’ images by exposing their private lives. These publications were “as critical to the new cult of image as the image-building industries,” in that they reminded readers of the importance of meticulously managing their images. The celebrity who let down her guard, who went to the grocery store without her makeup on, or was too candid with a reporter – she was lambasted in the tabloids, and suffered an embarrassing fall from public grace. The efforts of celebrities to manage and spin their images represented the struggle, writ large, that every person waged in her own project of creating and perfecting her public persona.

This image-consciousness led to the creation of new areas of law, including a law of “invasion of privacy,” and a civil action for “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” By the 1940s, not only celebrities, but ordinary people were regularly suing the media for injuring their public images, and their feelings about their images. The law affirmed and legitimated the importance of personal image, and became an architect of our image-obsessed society –a nation where, to quote a 1990 Canon advertisement (p. 203), “image is everything.”
Learn more about Laws of Image at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue