In short order, I'll be flying out to Las Vegas (USA) to speak at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education's annual conference. I'm presenting as part of panel 1401, 'Celebrity Worship I: Sensual Practices', with a paper entitled 'Crying out for Celebrity: Kim Kardashian West, Margery Kempe, and the Performance of Tears'. In this paper, I'll be talking through some key analyses that I present in Medieval Saints and Modern Screens (mostly ch. 3). For the ATHE, I'm centering my comments on the co-incidence of "ugly" crying in the lives of the reality-TV star Kim Kardashian West and the fifteenth-century English mystic Margery Kempe. To give a flavour of the paper, I've posted a content synopsis and my slides below.
Kim Kardashian West’s “ugly crying face” is a viral online sensation. In a 2008 “confessional” from Keeping Up With The Kardashians, the family’s massively popular reality-TV show, Kim’s sister Kourtney declared: “I start laughing at Kim when she's crying because I just can't help it, she has this ugly crying face that she makes”. This footage, coupled with Kim’s regular emotional outbursts, has become a well-known and much-circulated meme online. Margery Kempe (d. after 1438) is the Ur-example of “ugly crying”, and her Book is the fifteenth-century equivalent of must-see car-crash reality TV. The Book of Margery Kempe¸ composed in the 1430s, catalogues the various spiritual endeavours of its protagonist, including intense mystical visions and pilgrimages. The hallmark of Margery’s piety is ceaseless weeping. Her tears are the lynchpin of her religiosity, the primary means with which she visibly enacts her elevated spiritual status. But those around Margery reject and mock her lachrymose displays, finding them irritating at best, and heretical at worst. The woman is widely rebuked for her self-proclaimed religiosity, and driven out of various towns. At one point, even her husband has had enough: faced with her endless wails, he abandons her. The Book’s primary – and unsuccessful – aim is to make a saintly star of its heroine. Why does Margery’s “ugly crying” fail at making her a saint, whilst Kim’s “ugly crying” functions to underline, and re-inforce, her celebrity status?
This paper analyses the performative aspect of tears in the lives of the two women. Though separated by centuries, the pair are united in their explicit hunger for fame, and their dynamic bodily performances. Tears (bodily “evidence”) are not enough to cement Margery’s spiritual fame. The significance of her crying is at odds with the whims of the clerics around her. What’s more, she is known to us only through text, as text – a work which was co-created with various scribes and male collaborators. By contrast, Kim presents and re-presents her body on her own terms, at least some of the time. She has a secret weapon: the ability to produce her celebrity identity directly and through social media and carefully organized reality TV appearances. In other words, Kim acts as her own talent manager. With the hermeneutic of “ugly crying”, then, we tease out the various dynamics at play in the production of (celebrity/saintly) identity in the digital and medieval age.