Christopher R. Darr, Indiana University Kokomo
Harry C. Strine IV, Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania
The existing literature on celebrity testimony in Congress suggests that celebrities are nothing more than pawns of committees who use these witnesses to publicize their hearings. The current study modifies this understanding by looking at the rhetoric of celebrities using Burke’s dramatistic pentad of act, scene, agent, agency and purpose. Our use of Pentadic analysis, which takes the perspective of the witnesses rather than the perspective of the committee, reveals a much different view of celebrities and their purposes for testifying. We argue that the scene-act ratio dominates the rhetoric of celebrity witnesses: Celebrities portray their testimony as giving voice to the voiceless (act) and as motivated by significant societal ills (scene). They commonly use emotional appeals (agency) toward the self-professed end of improving the lives of the less fortunate (purpose) and downplay their own celebrity status (agent).
For better or worse, the American people pay deference to celebrities, and celebrities often capitalize on their status to draw attention to issues important to them. For instance, actor Michael J. Fox severed ties with his popular television show, Spin City, to help pursue a cure for Parkinson’s disease in 2000, telling a United States Senate committee “what celebrity has given me is the opportunity to raise the visibility of Parkinson’s disease and focus attention on the desperate need for more research dollars” (Abelson, 2000, p. F1). Other entertainers have used their celebrity status to draw attention to stem cell research (Christopher Reeve), AIDS (Elton John), diabetes (Mary Tyler Moore), music piracy (Lars Ulrich), freedom of religion (Isaac Hayes), and other medical, social, legal and political issues. Celebrities are clearly aware of their latent political power and are willing to use it to advance various agendas.
Likewise, legislators often use celebrities to draw attention to specific issues and legislation by inviting celebrities to testify before Congressional committees. Since 1969 there have been at least 400 celebrity witnesses at House and Senate hearings, including Ben Affleck, Charleton Heston, Danielle Steele, Muhammad Ali, Sheryl Crow, Tony Bennett, Julia Roberts, and a host of other actors, musicians and athletes (Strine, 2004). Strine (2004) points out that despite the large number of celebrity witnesses to appear as experts, their role in the legislative process has been largely ignored by political scientists. Communication scholars have also largely ignored this phenomenon—indeed, committee hearings, with the exception of Supreme Court hearings, have been almost totally neglected by rhetorical critics. Recent communication studies of Congressional communication have focused on floor speeches given during confirmation debates (Bates, 2003; Darr, 2005) and the Supreme Court nomination process (Darr, 2007; Parry-Giles, 2006), but to our knowledge no study has yet looked directly at the rhetoric of celebrity witnesses.
This study seeks to address this issue by examining the rhetoric of celebrity witnesses in House and Senate hearings using Kenneth Burke’s pentad. We begin by briefly reviewing the literature on committee hearings in order to give context to the phenomenon of celebrity testimony, then explain Burke’s pentad (act, scene, agent, agency and purpose) as a critical method. Third, we apply the pentad to a sample of celebrity opening statements. Our pentadic analysis suggests that celebrity testimony functions as persuasion designed to win public and lawmaker support for legislation on the basis of personalized, emotional appeals: Celebrities portray their testimony as giving voice to the voiceless (act) and as motivated by significant societal ills (scene). They commonly use emotional appeals (agency) toward the self-professed end of improving the lives of the less fortunate (purpose) and downplay their own celebrity status (agent).
Celebrities, Congress and Committees
The existing literature on celebrity testimony in congressional committees, sparse as it may be, characterizes celebrities as the pawns of committees: Committees and committee members use celebrities to draw media attention to issues and hearings in order to gain strategic leverage in the legislative process. In terms of the larger process of committee hearings, scholars (including Bailey, 1950; Cohen, 1950; Davidson & Oleszek, 1977, 1985; Deering & Smith, 1997; Keefe & Ogul, 1973; Redman, 1973; and Reid, 1980) have long argued that hearings fulfill a strategic purpose in that they are designed to advance the interests of either the committee chair or other members of the committee. Hearings, these authors argue, are political maneuvers as much as they are information-gathering exercises. Strategic moves—including witness selection—are made by committees and their members in order to further or oppose particular policies rather than to gather the information needed to craft quality legislation. For example, Cohen (1950) warns that “it is doubtful” that hearings serve as information-gathering exercises, instead arguing that they serve as “sounding board[s]” where policy makers gauge the strength of their support (p. 892). Similarly, Hinckley (1971) asserts that “hearings may provide the opportunity for representation of different interests, although chairmen have been known to ‘pack’ the hearings with spokesmen [sic] for one point of view” (p. 95). Likewise, DeGregorio (1992) reports that while committee staffers usually invite both “pro” and “con” witnesses, this is usually done to provide “political cover” so the majority is not accused of silencing the minority’s witnesses (p. 980). So scholars tend to look at committee hearings as only partly informational (if at all)—their information-gathering potential is overshadowed by the strategic considerations of committee members.
Thus celebrities enter the strategic situation in terms of their potential to garner attention for legislation and issues: Celebrities draw attention to hearings when they testify, and are usually invited specifically for that purpose. For instance, Oleszek (2001) claims “the testimony of celebrity witnesses, such as movie stars, television personalities, or professional athletes, is a surefire way to attract national attention to issues” (p. 94). And according to Leyden (1992) and Vincent (1999), committees take great care to select witnesses that will have maximum impact on the hearings, including the generation of media coverage and public attention. But this attention does not always facilitate the passage of legislation or guarantee enlightened debate. As Smith (1999) puts it, “some hearings generate little but rhetoric and media coverage—members’ questions turn into lengthy statements, celebrity witnesses offer scripted answers, and the television networks later replay a twenty-second exchange between an antagonistic committee member and an acerbic witness” (pp. 58-59). So in terms of publicizing an issue or the work of a committee, celebrities attract media attention but may do little in terms of providing information to the committee that alters the legislation being considered.
This literature suggests that celebrities are simple pawns of committees who use them to further their own political goals. A Burkean approach to this phenomenon, however, encourages a different view of celebrity testimony. Specifically, Burke’s pentad encourages scholars to ask several questions, including: What motivations are apparent or are attributed in celebrity testimony? How do celebrities characterize their own motives or the motives of others? How does celebrity rhetoric portray the activity of celebrities and the purposes of hearings? Given that celebrity testimony has received so little attention and that the rhetoric of committee hearings has also been largely ignored, we turn to Kenneth Burke’s pentad to help answer these questions and to more fully explain the rhetoric of celebrity witnesses.
Burke’s Pentad as Critical Method
Burke’s pentad of act, scene, agent, agency and purpose provides a useful tool for analyzing rhetoric, specifically in terms of the attribution of motive. It therefore makes sense to investigate the questions posed above using pentadic analysis (What characterizes the rhetoric of celebrity testimony? How do celebrities characterize hearings? How do they characterize their own involvement in the legislative process?).
Burke (1967) asserts that by studying the language—or “terministic screens”—of people, we can glean insight into the ways in which they attribute motives to themselves and to others. Motive and terminology are related, and dramatism is concerned with this connection. As a system, dramatism is designed to enable the investigation of language and specific rhetorical acts via the “methodic inquiry into the cycle or cluster of terms and their functions implicit in the key term, ‘act’” (1967, p. 332). The pentad is the centerpiece of such investigations.
Burke (1945) describes the pentad in depth in his essay “The five key terms of dramatism.” The five terms are, of course, act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose. Burke says that these terms, or some variant of them, will always figure into any statement of motives, and we can explore how a rhetor attributes motives by looking at how he or she uses the five terms. Act is central—as dramatism is a theory of symbolic action—and refers to how a person describes what was done or what happened. Scene refers to the setting of the act. Agent, of course, is the person or entity that committed the act, and agency refers to how the act was committed (means, method, etc). Finally, purpose refers to why an act was committed (toward what ends). According to Burke, humans use the terms of the pentad to attribute motive (either to themselves or to others), and all five of these terms will figure into any rounded statement of motive.
Burke (1945) elaborates on how critics might investigate the terms of the pentad, stating that any term of the pentad can be paired with any other term in order to come up with a ratio (such as act-agent, scene-purpose, act-purpose, etc.). These ratios constitute statements that attribute motive. The scene-act ratio, for example, grounds an act in its scene. So, for example, a person might portray his or her actions as the only possible option, given the setting. Or scene might serve as a justification for future action. Similarly, the scene-agent ratio might portray the agent as a product of his or her environment. Ratios, Burke says, are used to portray the terms of the pentad, and thus human motivation, in certain ways: They are used to justify and explain behavior, and critics can investigate motivation by applying the pentad to texts in order to determine what ratios exist. As he puts it, “the explicit and systematic use of the dramatist pentad is best designed to bring out the strategic moments of motivational theory” (1945, p. 67).
To view an artifact dramatistically using the pentad is to look for what is featured so that we can understand how people attribute motives to themselves and to others. The systematic application of the pentad illuminates the “terministic screen” used by the rhetor so that critics may discover what is emphasized and what is minimized, what is included and what is excluded. To apply Burke’s method, critics must (a) apply the five terms, noting how the artifact portrays act, scene, agent, agency and purpose; (b) label the ratios in order to identify the dominant term, and thus the way in which the artifact attributes motive.1 In the next section, we apply the pentad using these two steps.
Telling the Stories of Others: A Strategy of Personalized Emotional Appeals
For analysis we selected 72 opening statements given by celebrities between 1997 and the present in both House and Senate committee hearings. Obtaining such statements is problematic, since rules for committee procedure are not uniform in either the House or the Senate (see Riddick, 2003), and therefore not all committees publish complete and accurate transcripts of all hearings. Moreover, the concept of “celebrity” itself is troublesome, as Boorstin’s (1987) popular definition illustrates—he defines a celebrity as “a person who is known for his [or her] well-knownness” (p. 57). We used Strine’s (2004) more concise definition of a celebrity as “someone who entertains and/or works in a visible component of the entertainment industry” (p. 17). This definition includes people involved with college and professional sports, movies, television, music, literature, and theater. Using key words suggested by this definition (including “actor,” “actress,” “coach,” “musician,” “artist,” “author,” etc.), we conducted a search of the Lexis-Nexis Congressional Universe database to create our sample of 72 items. Our analysis is broken up into two sections. First we describe the five key terms as they appear in celebrity testimony: act, agent, scene, agency, and purpose. Second, we argue that two ratios prevail in celebrity testimony: agent-act and scene-act.
The literature reviewed earlier suggests that one function of celebrity testimony is to publicize an issue or the work of a committee (Oleszek, 2001). While it is undoubtedly true that this occurs, Burke (1978) encourages critics to apply the pentad internally rather than externally—in other words, to look at how the speaker describes his or her own actions and therefore his or her motives. From this point of view, few celebrities actually portray their actions as publicizing an issue. Instead, they characterize act as giving voice to the voiceless.
For instance, Catherine Bell (2001) and Isaac Hayes (2001) both testify about alleged abuses of human rights and religious freedom by the French government. Bell sums up the testimony of several celebrities by stating “Artists like Isaac Hayes, Anne Archer, Chick Corea, John Travolta and I appreciate the forum to speak out for people, who otherwise would have no spokesperson. We are here to make sure their voices are heard” (para. 6). Likewise, Michael J. Fox (2000) characterizes his testimony as an act of speaking for other sufferers of Parkinson’s disease when he states “none of these people mind that I get more attention than they do. They simply say that if I get a shot in front of a microphone—I should start talking. So here I am” (para 1). Similarly, Carroll O’Connor (2001) portrays his actions as speaking for the families of drug addicts, composer Alan Silvestri (1999), Tony Bennett (1999) and Mary Tyler Moore (1999, 2000, 2003) speak on behalf of diabetic children, Muhammad Ali (2004) represents less famous professional boxers, actor Sam Waterston (1998) claims to be speaking for international refugees, and singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow (2000) claims to speak for herself as well as “artists unable to attend the hearing today but who would like to have their voices heard” (para. 1).
These statements are similar in that the celebrities portray what they are doing—their act—as giving voice to the voiceless. Several even use this terminology, including Catherine Bell (see above), golfer Terry-Jo Myers (1998), who says “I am here to give a voice to all those IC [interstitial cystitis] patients who are still too ill to leave their homes, and cannot speak to you today” (para. 1), and Anthony Edwards (1999), who mentions autistic children who “have no voice” (para. 1). These celebrities portray themselves as representatives of those who are suffering, be it physically, politically or otherwise. Their personal experience may or may not be directly related to the subject matter of the hearing. For instance, Michael J. Fox suffers from Parkinson’s disease, but Bob Barker (2000) and Loretta Swit (1998) are obviously not victims of animal abuse. Likewise, celebrities like Ben Affleck (2001), Steve Beuerlein (2000), and Katie Couric (2000) have no direct experience with ALS or colon cancer, but discuss at length their friendship with those who have had such direct experience. Even those like Fox who have such direct experience go to great lengths to make clear that they are speaking out for others, not for themselves. Thus these celebrities downplay their own status even as they use it to draw attention to the issue at hand. This rhetorical “bait and switch” may function to boost the ethos of the celebrity witnesses, who portray their act as the benevolent assistance of those who are less fortunate.
Moreover, in terms of agent, we might expect to see celebrities use their status as celebrities to lend credibility to their testimony. However, this is rarely the case. Some celebrities do use this tactic, including singer Chuck Blasko (1999), who begins his testimony by discussing his singing career as part of the classic rock and roll group The Vogues, and Eva Marie Saint (1999), who begins with a resume of sorts, listing several films she has appeared in including On the Waterfront with Marlon Brando. Far more common is for a celebrity to briefly mention her or his status in passing, as do Bryton McClure (1998) (from television’s Family Matters), Danica McKellar (2000) (The Wonder Years), Doris Roberts (2002) (Everybody Loves Raymond), and Dick Schaap (2000) (a well-known sports reporter). Unlike Blasko and Saint, these witnesses only briefly mention their celebrity in passing, rather than as a way of introducing themselves to the committee and other audiences. For instance, Jane Seymour (1999), testifying about alternative medicine, discusses her own experience using nontraditional and non-Western techniques. During one lengthy anecdote near the end of her remarks she says that “during my 16 hours a day, 5 days a week job on Dr. Quinn, I rarely got sick” (para. 3).
So contrary to what we might expect, most celebrities do not open with introductory passages about their celebrity status. Instead, most downplay this status in favor of private personal experience or other credentials designed to build credibility. For instance, Christopher Reeve (2002) begins his testimony on cloning and medical research by stating “for the record, I am a C-2 ventilator-dependent quadriplegic, which means that I am paralyzed from the shoulders down and unable to breathe on my own” (para. 1). Reeve (1997, 2000a, 2000b, 2002, 2003) appears before Congress five times in our sample of statements, and never once mentions his acting career. In three separate appearances concerning funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and diabetes, Mary Tyler Moore (1999, 2000, 2003) introduces herself as “International Chairman of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation,” and Michael J. Fox (1999, 2000, 2002) begins each of his appearances by talking about his personal fight against Parkinson’s disease. Fox’s (1999) appearance is illustrative of how celebrity witnesses often downplay their celebrity status in favor of personal experience. He begins by saying “perhaps most of you are familiar with me from 20 years of work in film and television. What I wish to speak to you about today has little or nothing to do with celebrity” (para. 2), then proceeds to discuss the effects Parkinson’s has had on him and his family.2
For these witnesses, agent is not synonymous with celebrity. Each portrays him or herself as a spokesperson for others (as described in the previous discussion of act) or as a witness whose opinion is valuable because they have direct, personal knowledge of the hearing topic. Pragmatically, this rhetorical approach makes sense: Michael J. Fox’s celebrity is obvious to the committee and likely evident to most outside audiences. As a truly iconic figure and perhaps the most famous boxer of all time, Muhammad Ali embodies his celebrity and needs to do little to remind audiences of who he is. Instead, these and other celebrities emphasize their experience with the topic—be it Parkinson’s disease (Ali, Fox), spinal injuries (Reeve), or mathematics (McKellar). If they lack direct experience, they use the experience of family and friends to build credibility (Affleck, 2001; Bell, 2001; Beuerlein, 2000; Edwards, 1999). In either case, celebrities construct an agent who is personally involved with the issue and who cares deeply about those who are affected by it. Celebrity per se is rhetorically subverted to personal or indirect experience with the issue at hand.
Scene also plays an important role in the celebrity testimony. Many describe the scene in terms of some social, political, or medical problem that exists. For instance, David Hyde Pierce (1998, 2002) describes scene as the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s disease on victims and their families. Other “scenes” include AIDS (Elton John, 2002), teen steroid use (Curt Schilling, 2005), teen drug use (Bryton McClure, 1998), the need for stem cell research (Christopher Reeve, 2000; Michael J. Fox, 2000), diabetes (Mary Tyler Moore, 1999, 2000, 2003), and coastal pollution (Ted Danson, 1999).
Not all descriptions of scene involve health issues. Jesse “The Body” Ventura (2001) describes a scene in which Major League Baseball operates as a “self-regulating, billion-dollar monopoly” (para. 25). Television actor and musician John Schneider (1998) testifies in favor of an anti-flag burning amendment, portraying a scene in which “flag desecrators go beyond the bounds of decency and civility. They are no longer fellow citizens expressing opinions, but violent thieves, attempting to steal our nation’s soul” (para. 13). Schneider discusses the 1989 Supreme Court decision protecting flag burning as free speech and details several instances of protest involving flag burning. Baseball manager Tommy Lasorda (1998), testifying at the same hearing, portrays a similar scene in which “baseball, like the American flag and national anthem, ties everyone in this great country of ours together” (para. 4). For Sheryl Crow (2000), the scene is one in which recording artists are treated unfairly by record labels.
For some, scene is more personal. Former NFL quarterback Jim Kelly (1999) describes the scene in terms of his own son’s struggle with Krabbe Disease. Tony Bennett (1999) uses a similar approach with diabetes, discussing two friends and fellow musicians:
I was fortunate to be close friends with two wonderful performers—Ella Fitzgerald and the coronet player Bobby Hackett. Through the years that I knew them, I would witness how this terrible disease took their toll on them, as they suffered from the complications caused by diabetes. (para. 1)For these celebrities, the scene in which they are acting is a more personal one. Each describes the “setting” of their own personal life or the life of a family member or close friend, implying that others are also suffering in this way. Regardless of whether these celebrities describe scene in terms of large groups of people or individuals, nearly all celebrities portray the scene of their testimony as one in which some social, political or medical problem is causing suffering for others—and sometimes themselves. Once more, pentadic analysis reveals that celebrities subvert their own status as public figures in favor of a more private or personal ethos.
For Burke, agency describes how the act is done. One theme that runs throughout the celebrity testimony we examined is that of pathos—celebrities often use emotional appeals as they “give voice to the voiceless.” Appeals to pity, sadness, fear and unfairness are common. For example, Christopher Reeve (1997) combines both pity for victims and their families with anger toward insurance companies when he states “it is hard to sympathize with insurance companies when you watch a mother in tears begging for a chair so that her quadriplegic son can take a shower” (para 18). John Schneider’s (1998) testimony is replete with angry emotional appeals, as when he describes the 1989 Supreme Court flag burning decision as “absolute, unadulterated hogwash” (para. 6), while Mary Tyler Moore (2000) describes the horrors of facing amputation due to diabetes (para. 6). Sam Waterston (1998) describes the experience of a Ugandan refugee in horrific detail, telling how she fled her country only to be denied refugee status and imprisoned in an American jail alongside dangerous criminals:
It was then that Yudaya broke down. She began to sob, “I want to die.” The prison sent a team of men dressed in riot gear, accompanied by a dog, to restrain her. They then began to strip search her . . . . She begged them not to remove her bra and panties, but they ignored her pleas. They then placed her in four point restraints, nude and spread-eagled on a cot in a solitary confinement cell. She was heavily sedated for three days and left in solitary for a week. (para. 3)Even Lars Ulrich (2000), drummer for the heavy metal band Metallica, creates an angry emotional appeal in relation to the topic of music downloading when he describes the popular download service Napster as having “hijacked” Metallica’s music (para. 3).
All of these celebrities (and others, including Danielle Steel, 2000; Carroll O’Connor, 1998, 2001; Anthony Edwards, 1999; Catherine Bell, 2000, 2001; Christopher Reeve, 2003; David Hyde Pierce, 1998, 2002; Jim Kelly, 1999; Michael J. Fox, 1999, 2000, 2002; Sam Moore, 1998; and Stephen Curtis Chapman, 1999) use emotional appeals as the agency by which they tell their stories and the stories of others. This is not surprising. Celebrities—even those with direct personal experience—are not experts in the sense that other witnesses are. Expert witnesses like doctors and scientists can provide committees with testimony about the scope and breadth of social problems in ways that those with limited personal experience cannot. But rather than allowing their limited experience to negatively affect the quality of their testimony, celebrities use their experience to focus on specific individuals and their personal struggles with the issues being considered—scope is traded for depth. The emotionally-laden testimony of celebrities serves the rhetorical goal of personalizing an issue in ways that broad scientific testimony cannot. Thus, in terms of hearings as a whole, celebrity testimony can be seen as providing pathos where other witnesses would have to provide more logos-driven statements.
As for purpose, the final element of the pentad, celebrities describe their purpose as helping to pass legislation and therefore to improve the lives of the less fortunate. Many celebrities appeal to the committee to support or vote for a specific piece of legislation, resolution, or constitutional amendment, including Bob Barker (2000), Catherine Bell (2000), Isaac Hayes (2000), Muhammad Ali (2004), and Tommy Lasorda (1998). Others appear before committees or subcommittees who are not considering specific legislation, but are exploring the need for funding for research—usually related to specific diseases—including Michael J. Fox (1999, 2002), David Hyde Pierce (1998, 2002), and Christopher Reeve (1997, 2003). Although specific legislation is not being considered, these celebrities portray their purpose as helping to create legislative solutions through increased appropriations. For instance, Fox specifically calls for the Senate Appropriations Committee to double National Institutes of Health funding for Parkinson’s research (1999, para. 1).
Others make an indirect call to action, describing how life for the voiceless would be different if Congress passes a particular bill under consideration or acts to solve some problem. Art Alexakis (2000), for example, reflects on his impoverished childhood, stating “what a different life I would have had if HR 1488 [a bill to help mothers collect child support from absent fathers] had been in existence when I was a child” (para. 1). Similarly, Catherine Bell (2000) discusses the importance of stopping alleged human rights violations against religious minorities in Europe so that minority groups can worship freely.
While their act is described as giving voice to the voiceless, celebrities portray their actions as designed for the purpose of not simply being heard, but creating change through legislation. They have added their voice to the debate in order to positively affect a scene in which others are suffering. They portray themselves as providing a voice for those who cannot stand up for themselves or who cannot be heard. Celebrity has given them the opportunity to change the scene for the better, and they portray their purpose as noble and selfless.
Ratios: Agent-Act and Scene-Act
The second step of pentadic criticism is to label the dominant term and describe the key ratios. Oleszek’s (2001) claim that “the testimony of celebrity witnesses . . . is a surefire way to attract national attention to issues” (p. 94) neatly summarizes most of the literature concerning celebrity witnesses and suggests a purpose-act ratio (the purpose of attracting attention controls the act of calling celebrity witnesses). However, this perspective is clearly that of the committee: Undoubtedly, committees use celebrities to draw attention to their work (see also Smith, 1999; Vincent, 1999). Despite the popularity of this perspective and its practical utility for congressional committees, the rhetoric of celebrities rarely attributes motive in this way.4 Much more common are attributions of motives in terms of the agent-act and scene-act ratio. Celebrities portray their actions (giving voice to the voiceless) as controlled by agent (their own personal experience with the subject—not their celebrity status) and scene (the suffering of the voiceless).
Several examples help clarify the agent-act ratio in the rhetoric of celebrity witnesses. For instance, Christopher Reeve (2002) describes himself as motivated to speak out because of his own personal experience with paralysis, while Don Henley (2003) and Lars Ulrich (2000) portray themselves as speaking out because of their personal experience with music piracy. Danica McKellar (2000) portrays her motivation to testify about the lack of women’s and girls’ involvement in math and science as grounded in her personal experiences as a college math major. And musician Art Alexakis (2000) portrays his motivation to speak for neglected children as arising from his own experience growing up without a father. These celebrities argue that they are compelled to testify because of who they are in a private, rather than public sense. They are speaking as victims of spinal injury (Reeve), as victims of theft (Henley, Ulrich), as victims of sexism (McKellar), or as the children of delinquent parents (Alexakis), not as celebrities. Although celebrities may be invited to testify because of their ability to draw attention to hearings, and although it may be impossible to truly set one’s celebrity aside, the rhetoric of celebrities portrays a different, more personal motive. They are people with direct experience, not pawns of committees. They have come to improve the lives of the less fortunate, not simply to provide publicity to politicians and their work.
Far more common, however, is the scene-act ratio, in which celebrities portray themselves as motivated to speak for the voiceless because of the scene (whether that scene is widespread disease, political oppression, or some other perceived societal ill). For instance, Steve Beuerlein (2000) says
I am here for Jeff Sherer. But I am also here for all of the ALS patients, family members, and other ALS activists who have filled this hearing room. I am here for the Americans who already living with ALS. And I am here for the 14 Americans who will be called into a doctor’s office today and be told that they have been diagnosed with ALS. (para. 15)David Hyde Pierce (2002) attributes his presence to the suffering of Alzheimer’s victims and their families, and Isaac Hayes (2001) describes a scene in which French citizens are oppressed because of their religious beliefs.5 These celebrities position themselves as agents of societal change motivated to speak for the voiceless because of the suffering being inflicted upon them through disease, political oppression, sexism, ageism, or other evils. Their motivation is altruistic and pure, not self-centered or celebrity-driven. Celebrities portray their work as far more important than simple attention-gaining: Their purpose is not simply to create publicity for hearings, but to improve the lives of the voiceless and the less fortunate.
Implications of the Scene-Act Ratio: Celebrity Testimony as Emotionally Laden Victimage
This study sought to improve our understanding of the role of celebrity testimony in Congressional hearings. Using Burke’s pentad, we found that the scene-act ratio (and to a lesser extent the agent-act ratio) dominates the rhetoric of celebrity witnesses: Celebrities portray their actions as giving voice to the voiceless and as motivated by significant societal ills. They commonly use the agency of emotional appeals toward that end, and portray their purpose as creating social change through legislation.
Three implications of these findings merit discussion. First, the scene-act ratio downplays the importance of agency, particular celebrity status. This is somewhat surprising, given the suggestion in the literature that celebrity testimony functions simply to draw attention to hearings and their subject matter. From an outsider’s point of view, this certainly makes sense: Hearings involving celebrities attract greater media attention and the public therefore has a greater chance of learning about them, as Strine (2004) has demonstrated. But celebrity rhetoric downplays this role, instead framing the celebrity appearance as an act of speaking out for the voiceless that is motivated by an urgent societal condition. A quote by Michael J. Fox (2000) summarizes how the scene-act ratio downplays celebrity status in this way:
By now, many of you have heard my story. But, you haven’t heard this story,—about a 38-year old senior editor whose PD [Parkinson’s disease] caused her to lose her job at a publishing house, plunging her from New York’s middle class into poverty. (para. 4)What is important for celebrities like Fox is not their own celebrity or even their own personal struggles—they describe themselves as motivated to tell the stories of other, less visible victims. Agent is pushed aside in favor of scene. These celebrities do not argue “I’m here because I’m famous”—they argue “I’m here because the situation demands that someone give a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves.”
Secondly, and following from this observation, the scene-act ratio creates a much nobler motive for celebrity testimony. Celebrities do not portray themselves as public relations tools of Congress: They portray themselves as good people taking a stand on important issues. Whether the problem is a disease, lack of research funding, religious oppression, ageism, the mistreatment of animals, or a host of other issues, celebrities ascribe noble motives to themselves. This finding is not necessarily surprising, but is mostly ignored by the literature on committee hearings and witnesses, which suggests that celebrity witnesses are little more than pawns to be maneuvered about for political gain. This is also a more powerful rhetorical strategy—celebrity testimony may indeed be designed to draw attention to a particular problem, but if the public sees such testimony as nothing more than a public relations stunt, it is likely to become cynical about congress rather than to agree to the importance of the issue being considered.
Third, emotional appeals are the primary method (agency) used to tell the stories of others (act). By their nature, stories are more emotionally-laden than statistics and other forms of evidence, and celebrities take full advantage of this difference. By and large, the celebrity testimony we examined tells the stories of victims using emotional language and personal anecdotes. What are we to make of this phenomenon? Perhaps committees invite celebrity witnesses because of their ability to craft and deliver emotionally laden testimony that compliments the more logical approach of other expert witnesses (many of them are actors, after all). Future studies could compare the ratios of non-celebrity witnesses to those of celebrities in order to determine if this is true.
Regardless, it is clear that committees will continue to invite celebrity witnesses and that these celebrities will have much to say. If nothing else, they will undoubtedly continue to draw attention to these issues and to the committee hearings about them. Our pentadic analysis suggests that even though this may be the case, a more fuller accounting of the roles of celebrity witnesses must consider the rhetoric of the celebrities directly, as they characterize their purpose and motives quite differently than others do. Committee members may indeed look at celebrities as tools to be used in order to pass legislation or to promote their work to constituents. But by emphasizing the scene-act and agent-act ratio, celebrity witnesses portray themselves as noble and altruistic agents of social change, not just the pawns of committees. Only by recognizing this difference—as made clear through the application of Burke’s pentad—can we begin to more fully understand the “strategic moments” of celebrity testimony.
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Christopher R. Darr (Ph.D. Purdue, 2004) is Assistant Professor of Communication Arts at Indiana University Kokomo.
Harry C. “Neil” Strine IV (Ph.D. Purdue, 2004) is Associate Professor of Political Science at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
The authors wish to thank the anonymous reviewers and the editor of K. B. Journal for their helpful feedback on this project.
Correspondence concerning this article may be addressed to Christopher R. Darr at 2300 S. Washington St., P.O. Box 9003, Kokomo, IN 46904-9003 or to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- See Foss’s (2004) textbook on rhetorical criticism for a succinct summary of the pentadic method. For examples of rhetorical criticism using the pentad as method, see Brummett (1979), Hayden (1999), Ivie (1974), Ling (1970), Stewart (1991), and many others.
- Other celebrities who appeal to personal experience and non-celebrity forms of expertise (such as membership and/or leadership roles in charity organizations) include Carroll O’Connor (1998, 2001), Anthony Edwards (1999), Alan Silvestri (1999), Ben Affleck (2001), Charleton Heston (1998), Catherine Bell (2001), Isaac Hayes (2001), and Danielle Steele (2000).
- Ventura, a former professional wrestler, occupies a unique position. At the time of his testimony he was both governor of Minnesota (home of the Minnesota Twins baseball franchise) and a celebrity. His credentials raise an interesting question: Is he a celebrity or a politician? Our answer is “both.” Given our definition of celebrity, we included Ventura in our sample.
- One clear exception is Michael J. Fox’s (1999) assertion that “what celebrity has given me is the opportunity to raise the visibility of Parkinson’s disease” (para. 2).
- Other celebrities whose rhetoric can be classified as exhibiting this same scene-act ratio include Ben Affleck (2001), Muhammad Ali (2004), Bob Barker (2000), Catherine Bell (2000, 2001), Tony Bennett (1999), Peter Breinholt (2000), Steven Curtis Chapman (1999), Ted Danson (1999), Anthony Edwards (1999), Michael J. Fox (2000, 2002), Charleton Heston (1998), Lou Holtz (2001), Mary Tyler Moore (1999, 2000, 2003), Sam Moore (1998), Michael Medved (1999), Christopher Reeve (2000), Loretta Swit (1999), and Sam Waterston (1998).