Mariah Carey in a promo shot from 'Glitter' (2001)
Glitter (2001)
Stories & Ideas

Wed 19 May 2021

Diva Watch: re-examining films starring female pop stars

Film Pop culture Representation
tiana cropped.jpg
Tiana Stefanic

Festival & Events Coordinator

It's time to look back at films starring pop divas like Mariah Carey, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera through a new lens.

Is there a more potent and enduring term in popular culture than ‘diva’? The word often refers to famous female pop singers and growing up I always associated it with unreasonable demands or ‘riders’. But I know I’m not alone in having been fed a simplistic, downright sexist image of how we expect a successful female singer to navigate fame and fortune.

Recently, I, along with a group of friends, decided to explore the type of films that have shaped our perceptions of the diva pantheon, for better or worse. Dubbed ‘Diva Watch’, our criterion is simple – does the film star and/or is it about an iconic diva? Yes. Fantastic. Put it on the watchlist. We’re still at the start of our journey (we haven’t even touched Beyoncé, Kylie or Barbara’s oeuvres) but the films we have watched so far provide fascinating insights into how the moving image can influence public perception of these female artists.

On our list there are the well-known star-making turns – Jennifer Lopez building a whole career off the back of her fantastic work in Selena (1997) Whitney Houston’s iconic performance in The Bodyguard (1992), and Angela Bassett (not a singer but absolutely technically a diva) as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993). Perhaps most fascinating for us so far has been the triumvirate of films starring pop divas who rose to lofty heights in the 1990s and 2000s: Glitter (2001) starring Mariah Carey, Crossroads (2002) starring Britney Spears and Burlesque (2010) starring Christina Aguilera.

All three films were presumably intended to showcase the versatility and dramatic chops of each artist, and each film features variations on the arc of a naïve girl with big dreams who has an opportunity to get on the stage and show the world what she’s made of. Are these films good? No, not really. Do Brit, Mimi and Xtina give it their all and were the soundtracks unfairly maligned? Absolutely. Are they incredibly fun, camp, glamorous cultural artefacts and worth watching? You bet. The critical savagery these films received upon their release has vocal opponents, including many contemporary commentators who refuse to take these films at face value. [1]

The overdue re-examination of how the biggest pop divas of the past few decades were unfairly treated in the films they starred in and over the course of their careers generally is exemplified in memoirs like The Meaning of Mariah Carey (2020), and two comprehensive documentaries released this year: Tina and Framing Britney Spears. We are only now properly reckoning with the symbiotic role of the public and the media in feeding an insatiable public appetite for watching female artists navigate the rollercoaster of fame and fortune. Just as we are ready to build women up and glorify their talent and beauty, we are equally eager to tear them down at the slightest hint of them straying from myriad public expectations.

It is incredibly heartening to see the next crop of divas taking the reins of their own narratives. Undoubtedly the biggest female pop star of the moment, 19-year-old Billie Eilish, recently released a film documenting the reality of being a teenager catapulted to pop superstardom in The World’s A Little Blurry. This was swiftly followed by the reveal of a bold new look on the cover of British Vogue, accompanied by disclosures on her struggles with body image and the abuses of power rife in the music industry. Similarly, we have been treated to confessional documentaries detailing drug addiction and eating disorders (Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil) and the risks of being politically active when this can alienate a large portion of a celebrity’s fanbase (Taylor Swift in Miss Americana).

I for one am glad that the cultural conversation has finally shifted to let divas sing their own songs loud and clear.

– Tiana Stefanic

A brief taxonomy of Diva films

Divas playing beloved historical figures

Jennifer Lopez in Selena (1997)
Madonna in Evita (1996)
Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)

Divas playing thinly veiled versions of themselves

Bette Midler in The Rose (1979) and Beaches (1988)
Diana Ross in Mahogany (1975)

Divas playing thinly veiled versions of other divas in a film adaptation of a musical

Beyoncé as Diana Ross in Dreamgirls (2006)

Divas just killing it in dramatic roles

Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)
Cher in Moonstruck (1987)
Barbara Streisand in Funny Girl (1968)
Lauryn Hill in Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993)
Any iteration of a A Star is Born (1937, 1954, 1976, 2018)

Men can be divas too

Prince in Purple Rain (1984)
David Bowie in Labyrinth (1986)

RIP Aaliyah

Romeo Must Die (2000)
Queen of the Damned (2002)


[1] 'Hear me out: Why Crossroads isn't a bad movie', Pamela Hutchinson, The Guardian, 19 Mar 2021

'Movie Review: Burlesque – Reasons to Not Hate the Cher–Christina Aguilera Musical', Ramin Setoodeh, Newsweek, 23 Nov 2010

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