7 Social Theorists Who Are Bigger Stars Than Their Celebrity Doppelgangers

Being inundated by social theory throughout our graduate and undergraduate careers, it is sometimes difficult for sociology students to think about theorists as anything other than vastly influential figures. They have crafted the methods and paradigms of our field, and have had an enormous impact on how we perceive our social world. But did you also know that they shine even brighter than some of our most popular celebrities? That’s not just us saying that, though; that’s science.

Using archival data from an obscure source called “Google Images,” high-tech software from premier social science website Celebrity.MyHeritage.com, and longitudinal macro-data from the US-based think tank Rotten Tomatoes, we are able to empirically demonstrate that popular movies and entertainment would be approximately a thousand times better if they featured social scientists instead of these so-called “celebrities.” We have a $4 million grant proposal out to the NSF to expand on this pilot research—fingers crossed!—but in the meantime, we invite you to consider some of our most fascinating results…

1. Michel Foucault

The Theorist:

Michel Foucault is a post-structuralist who found that title too wordy and pretentious, even for a French sociologist. His most famous works include Discipline and Punish, where he interrogated the social norms and values that are perpetuated by our criminal justice systems, and The History of Sexuality, where he explained, like, all of the sex. He’s also famous among undergraduates for being “that guy who writes the stuff that’s really hard to read.”

The Celebrity:

Jeff Goldblum was a man-sized fly monster, a leather-clad dinosaur puncher, and a 90’s-era computer hacker who took down an alien invasion with naught but an Apple Powerbook and a pre-Scientology Will Smith. In other words, he’s a screen legend.

Does the Theorist Outshine the Celebrity?

This is a close one. Both of these men have managed to build highly diversified and successful resumes. Both are tall, gangly sexperts with hipster glasses and a penchant for scarves. And both are famous for being both erudite and also kind of weird.

Consider how Foucault would have done in Goldblum’s most famous roles. When faced with the plot twist in Jurassic Park that the dinosaurs had figured out how to change genders in order to reproduce, he would have grinned that crazy person grin and waxed philosophical about how sexual bodies and social roles both shape and contradict one another. As the alien mothership rained death lasers over our major cities, he would’ve laughed a dismissive, cartooney French guffaw as he explained the ephemeral and totally illusory symbolic importance of our built environment.

As The Fly, he would have… wait, no. Only Goldblum could’ve been The Fly. Still, Foucault wins this one.

2. bell hooks

The Theorist:

A prominent feminist theorist and activist, bell hooks has published prolifically on how race, class, and gender intersect with one another to construct and reinforce inequality. She has written on sexuality, history, capitalism, education, and mass media, and has produced not just scholarly work, but also film and art projects in an effort to speak truth to power. Not bad for someone with a life-long allergy to capitalized nouns.

The Celebrity:

A perennial star of those wonderfully problematic, gender binary-reinforcing Lifetime Network movies that we all secretly love to watch, Holly Marie Combs is probably best known for playing a witch on television’s Charmed, a late-90’s attempt to capitalize on the “Girl Power” movement that grew out of the simultaneous rise to power of Hillary Clinton and the Spice Girls. The 90’s were a very complicated decade.

Does the Theorist Outshine the Celebrity?

Holly Marie Combs may have portrayed a woman with the power to explode people’s brains with her mind, but hooks has been exploding heads for decades. Her books have made feminism more accessible than any other author’s, and her multimedia approach has given her both impact and breadth. And while Combs may have had Shannen Doherty and Alyssa Milano fighting beside her, hooks counts among her friends Malcom X and Toni Morrison, so hooks obviously wins the Coolest Posse award for this issue.

You may not necessarily want to see hooks in a Lifetime movie, but you sure as hell would love to watch one with her. Imagine sitting on her couch, comfortable in the warm embrace of your matching Snuggies, splitting a bottle of wine and deconstructing all of the problematics involved in Denise Richards’ struggle to keep up with her wedding planner business while denying her feelings for her client’s handsome fiancé (no, really).

3. Karl Marx

The Theorist:

Seriously? He’s Karl freakin’ Marx.

The Celebrity:

Yup.

Does the Theorist Outshine the Celebrity?

You don’t get named the grandfather of an entire discipline of study by being easily upstaged.

4. Talcott Parsons

The Theorist:

Love him or hate him, you can’t deny that Talcott Parsons has left a lasting impact on the field of sociology. He’s often called a functionalist, usually with a sneer, and he is most often critiqued for basing his organizational and social action research on vaguely eugenicist notions of social evolution. Life for upper-middle-class white men was really rough in the 1960’s.

The Celebrity:

Harrison Ford is one of nerd-dom’s most prominent icons. As Indiana Jones, he punched a Nazi ubermensch through an airplane propeller. As Han Solo he most definitely shot first. And as President James Marshall, he restructured Social Security with a revolutionary new tiered pay-in plan (and also told a terrorist to get off his plane).

Does the Theorist Outshine the Celebrity?

Ford is a big name with serious cred among nerds, the only population who would even think to ask the question of how celebrities stack up against social theorists. On the other hand, the franchises that made him most famous have been on the decline in recent years. The Star Wars prequels replaced swashbuckling space adventure with political headbutting and racist caricatures. The upcoming Episode VII threatens to put Ford in the role of over-the-hill Han Solo, admonishing space-kids to stay off of his space-lawn. And the last Indiana Jones installation introduced such innovations as extra-terrestrials and Shia LaBeouf to a franchise that absolutely did not need either.

Ford’s franchises could perhaps benefit from a functionalist, macro-level analysis of how someone could have the idea for something called “Jar-Jar Binks” and still manage to avoid being fired out of a cannon, never to be allowed back into the city limits of Hollywood ever again. Imagine how much better future installations would be with a self-aware critique of how systems-level structures and micro-level interactions shape institutions. But, like, with lasers, we guess?

No, actually, we think this one has to go to the celebrity. Damn, we have a counterfactual.

5. Pierre Bourdieu

The Theorist:

Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of power have been foundational in sociology. His conception of capital as multidimensional and dynamic transformed the way we think of status and the reproduction of privilege. His theories were so groundbreaking that he had to invent a new word to describe it—“habitus”? Come on, Pierre—and his most famous work, Distinction, is still the subject of night terrors for grad students forced to plumb its 600-plus page depths.

The Celebrity:

Christopher Reeve was best known as Hollywood’s Superman before Zack Snyder turned Superman into a bearded, city-leveling cataclysmic event. Even sharing the screen with Margot Kidder’s burgeoning insanity, Reeve captured America’s heart and started a long and tired tradition of Hollywood comic book movie adaptations. America fell even deeper in love with him when, after a horse riding accident, Reeve was confined to a wheelchair and breathing apparatus. The accident didn’t slow him down; up until his death in 2004, Reeve was a disability advocate and fought for the legalization of stem-cell research to benefit spinal cord injuries like his own.

Does the Theorist Outshine the Celebrity?

In a lot of ways, Christopher Reeve was Hollywood’s answer to Pierre Bourdieu. He traveled through multiple fields of influence, parlaying his social capital first as a handsome and charismatic actor and then as a social activist to pretend to fly against a green screen of stock footage and advocate for medical research, respectively. In fact, if we ignore the whole “flying backwards really fast to reverse time” thing, their professional careers are remarkably similar.

Still, one has to wonder whether Super-Pierre wouldn’t have been better suited to solve the world’s problems. Combining his passion for the study of structural power relations with the ability to punch through an armored tank could go a long way in that whole “truth, justice, and the American way” thing that Superman has going on.

6. Jane Addams

The Theorist:

Jane Addams was a prominent figure in early American feminism and is considered today to be the mother of modern American social work. A women’s suffrage activist, she was a driving force in the Progressive Era of political reform. Addams also founded Chicago’s Hull House with college friend Ellen Gates Starr, a settlement home for immigrants and the poor that offered social services, education, and housing for those in need. Hull House was also the basis for a rich and prestigious tradition of social science research at the University of Chicago, a tradition that today’s UChicago graduates will never let you forget.

The Celebrity:

Salma Hayek is a Mexican-American film, television, and music star. Aside from being considered one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood, she is also an active humanitarian. She has been a vocal advocate for combatting violence against women, earning her a number of awards and accolades. She was also briefly the UN spokeswoman for promoting mothers nursing their babies and eliminating the stigma of public breastfeeding, earning her a lot of uncomfortable and bewildered looks from people all over the world who don’t really know what “stigma” is. But she’s also married to a billionaire philanthropist, so she probably doesn’t care all that much.

Does the Theorist Outshine the Celebrity?

In Frida, Salma Hayek portrayed a woman who eschewed social norms of how a woman should act and look in favor of painting the world as she saw it. In Desperado, she played a bookstore proprietor who was inexplicably talented at wielding automatic weapons disguised as guitars. In Dogma she played, like, an elf or something. We think it’s pretty obvious that the glory of seeing Addams in those roles far outweighs the good work that Hayek did. Imagine Addams pontificating on the importance of feeding and caring for the poor between gunfights, all while wearing a dozen petticoats, and then tell us we’re wrong.

7. Frantz Fanon

The Theorist:

Although his training was in the field of psychology, Franz Fanon has had a measurable influence on the sociological study of race and colonialism. His book Black Skin, White Masks is still cited sixty years after publication as the definitive text on the devastating structural effects of internalized racism. And he did it all while being named Frantz, no small feat for the brief, pre-hipster era of Western culture.

The Celebrity:

Jennifer Lopez hit the public spotlight on 90’s sketch comedy show In Living Color before launching a lucrative career in music, film, and bespangled bodysuit-wearing. She also spawned America’s love of the portmanteau when she and one-time romantic partner Ben Affleck were branded in the popular media as Bennifer. Our nation has never been the same since.

Does the Theorist Outshine the Celebrity?

As if this question even needs answering.

Could anyone deny that Maid in Manhattan wouldn’t have benefitted from a little critical analysis of the imperialist motives behind a Puerto Rican hotel maid pretending to be a high-class guest instead of an employee in order to impress her white, aggressively preppy love interest, with the help of all of the other hilarious stereotypes with whom she works in the underbelly of the hotel? Would Gigli have been even a little more salvageable if someone had been there to explain why a lesbian would suddenly find herself enamored with a greasy muscle for hire?

On the other hand, primary source data indicate that Fanon was notoriously tone-deaf, and could not possibly have brought us such gems as Jenny From the Block and If You Had My Love. We can all agree that we don’t want to live in an America where those songs were never introduced into the cultural lexicon.

Conclusions

The results are conclusive: sociologists and social thinkers make everything better. Whether they’re standing in for supernatural demigods, space pirates, or oddly-matched romantic leads, these theorists have demonstrated that they could’ve, at the very least, been much more entertaining than their celebrity doppelgangers.

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