Sign of the times: celebrity, truth, and legal storytelling


University of British Columbia

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Master of Laws - LLM




Contemporary Western legal storytelling relies heavily on images and discourses in popular culture to secure meaning and give credibility to certain legal arguments. This thesis focuses on the legal stories told in the trial of a celebrity in Western society. As a system of meaning, the celebrity sign operates on the levels of signification and affect. The ambiguous semiotic power of the celebrity sign forces an examination by the legal audience regarding the "real" nature of the celebrity. Reality and truth are seen to emanate from this private self. Moreover, the affective power of the celebrity sign guarantees that, at times, emotion will dictate how much credibility will be given to particular celebrity legal stories and what stories will be considered plausible by a jury. In the trial of a celebrity "Other" — that is, one of the celebrated few who defies the white male norm -- celebrity legal storytelling looks towards issues of race, class, and gender, in addition to celebrity, in order to secure meaning and effect credibility. The aesthetic acceptance of the celebrity "Other," along with discourses of authenticity in Western society, work to shape what is considered credible and true in a courtroom. These factors place limits on the semiotic and affective power of the celebrity "Other" and, thus, on what celebrity legal stories will be accepted as truth in the courtroom. Looking specifically at the 1949 acquittal of jazz singer, Billie Holiday, and the 1994 acquittal/partial conviction of gangsta rapper, Tupac Shakur, this thesis will demonstrate the ways in which law, culture, race, gender, class, and the celebrity intersect in the Western mass media and how this intersection affects legal process and the trial tactics utilized in the trial of a celebrity "Other."


Culture and law; Popular culture; Sociological jurisprudence

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