I was touched by Sarah Hepola’s optimistic article about how the growing celebrity gossip industry hit its peak and is now waning. In 2008, real issues became increasingly hard to ignore, and celebrity gossip finally took a second page to these issues many times. The election swept up a lot of that energy, for one thing, and of course the economy tanking didn’t help things. Which says to me that when real issues hit people where they live, they pay attention, and of course the economy hits people where they live, but I think this election did more than others, because it became a symbolic assault on white male supremacy, reflecting changes that people see in their own lives. Changes that make many white people, men especially, angry, and thereby eligible for being played like fiddles by the right wing noise machine. But that’s a topic for another post.
Celebrity gossip may wax and wane, but it’s here to stay. And it’s not because it’s a distraction from real issues at all, but actually a way for people to discuss political issues and transmit values about them without running into the obstacles you hit when you discuss politics openly: People who think it’s rude, heated arguments, and, if you’re reactionary, resistance from evil liberals armed with compassion and facts. Most really incendiary celebrity gossip stories have a political element to them, and you can tell what issues are hitting people close to home by what stories grab their attention the most. For instance, I’ve discovered that once you leave the glorious blue oasis of Austin and go into the bowels of reactionary Texas, the subject of Terrell Owens and his earrings comes up a lot. Now, I’m still a little unsure who Terrell Owens is—I know he’s a football player, and I gather that he’s black and that he’s a top player who makes a shitload of money—but there’s no mistaking why his expensive diamond earrings offend so many white people so damn much, especially in a year when we elected a black President. On a similar tip, there was something discomforting about the way that O.J. Simpson finally getting convicted of something caused this outpouring of self-righteous gossiping—Keith Knight put his finger on it perfectly. It’s not that Simpson isn’t a bad guy—he is—but if some people could muster half the outrage at Dick Cheney and George Bush for being war criminals that they aimed at Simpson for killing two people, this would be a much different country.*
I’m sure it’s anthropology 101 to point out that gossip functions as a way to share and enforce community values, and if you’ve ever lived in a small town or run in a gossipy social circle, then you know how true that really is. And those values are generally pretty reactionary—women get it worse for being sexual than men, for instance. It doesn’t have to be that way, of course—in more liberal circles, you can expect the gossip mill to denounce someone for being a massive sexist asshole, too. Gossip doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. I’m thinking of one episode of Dan Savage’s podcast where he told a woman it was more than okay to tell everyone in her social circles that this guy she slept with peed in her mouth on purpose, so that other women were forewarned and avoided him. But on the whole, most gossip is about sharing and enforcing reactionary values, and this is doubly true when it comes to celebrity gossip. The mainstream media has to follow all these rarely spoken rules about decorum and dignity, and they get denounced by the right wing media for it, but even the right wing media morons will try to avoid bald proclamations about race or gender that will be undeniably considered racist or sexist. Celebrity gossip creates this shadow world where people can talk about their most disgusting beliefs while maintaining the illusion that they’re talking about individuals and not groups.
There’s a reason for the popularity of stories about young women with a lot of money and fame who lose control of themselves. Most of these stories have the unspoken message that this is the price we pay for women’s liberation—if women are permitted to have their own money (to be rich, even!) and guardianship over themselves with no father or husband to control them, they will have no way to regulate their own behavior. The Britney Spears saga made this subtext text with the most recent installment. Spears was mentally ill and broken, we were told, until her father stepped in and had her status as an adult stripped away so he could be her guardian again. Having her status as an adult taken from her (I wasn’t even aware you could do that) has restored Spears to health and happiness. Women are happier when owned by men, QED. That many young starlets seem to do fine by themselves and even are smart enough to leverage their money and fame for more artistic integrity, like Christina Aguilera, doesn’t seem to register. Such women are erased from the tabloids, unless they do something that can be construed as “out of control”, even if it was probably just relatively harmless partying. The Amy Winehouse situation really shows how much this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s such a cultural trope that women can only be great musicians if they’re self-destructive messes, and Winehouse seems to have taken this to heart, and the tabloids in turn have used Winehouse as another example of how you can’t be a woman who is both talented/successful and happy. Self-destructive female celebrities are the flip side of the legend about career women who make a lot of money but can’t loosen up enough to find love.
Almost every story in this article has political implications, and that’s why it’s such a hit with the public. Hepola is right that Heath Ledger’s death turned a lot of people off celebrity gossip, and I think it’s because if a white guy who has it all self-destructs, it’s a meaningless tragedy. We like women self-destructing—it confirms our prejudices. But Ledger was the sort of guy that we want to make a master of the universe.** If Winehouse kills herself with her addictions, she won’t receive nearly the same kind of coverage as Ledger’s death got. In 2008, it became more true than ever that the way to get gushy, positive tabloid coverage was to make a big show of how much you love old-fashioned reactionary values. Talent-free Ashlee Simpson managed to grab a little bit of positive tabloid attention by embracing the role of the simpering bride.
Simpson told PEOPLE on Friday that she was never the type to dream about her wedding when she was growing up, but changed her tune once she got engaged. “Now that I’m doing it, I definitely have that big dream. It kind of went more fairytale than I thought. I got really into it.” Added Wentz, “She has this amazing imagination and to watch it take place is an awesome thing.”
And let’s not forget Mariah Carey running around flashing her diamond ring at everyone, as if to say that her multiple platinum records and hit singles pale in comparison to having some man validate you by bestowing the all-important ring on you. To make it worse, she and Nick Cannon made a fuss over how they waited to marry to have sex, knowing that nothing makes the tabloids go nuts like a virgin bride, even a fake one. I can’t wait until the purity trend in the gossip magazines dies. The less I know about the Jonas Brothers and their stupid chastity rings, the better.
And the Angelina Jolie/Brad Pitt saga shows no signs of coming to a close. To my mind, the tabloid obsession with that story is about rehearsing over and over again a story about how glamorous, strong-willed (i.e. bitchy) women are the enemy of you, the ordinary, sweet woman. Even though Jennifer Aniston is hardly the girl next door, her image in the whole story is that of the Good Woman, all sweetness and humility, whose rightful husband was snatched from her by a Bad Girl. That Jolie is an outspoken (if sometimes misguided) humanitarian doesn’t tarnish the Bad Girl image one bit. If anything, it reinforces it, because being political is an incursion on male territory. It seems to me, from just perusing the tabloid covers, that Brad Pitt is portrayed in the same unfortunate light that John Lennon was after he got with Yoko Ono—as if being with a powerful woman means you’re automatically pussy-whipped. Never mind that both men were still richer and more famous than their partners. We know that the problem with Good Girls is that they’re boring, and that many men who are interesting in their own right are going to move onto more interesting women.*** But we don’t like it, and men who unapologetically partner with Bad Girls will be punished by pushing the emasculation trope onto them.
*The good side of the whole sordid saga is that it did raise awareness of domestic violence. However, it didn’t do a whole lot to dismantle the belief people have that they can just tell if someone is a wife beater and that some people would never do such a thing.
**I’m certainly not bagging on Ledger, who deserved every ounce of fame he had. It’s just that I wish other people with as much talent but who are a different race, gender, or sexual orientation, got the same sort of respect.
***Frankly, I doubt that Aniston is actually the dull Good Girl the tabloids make her out to be. The gap between what people project onto her and how she comes off in interviews is huge. She seems like a smart lady who is over the whole thing, and a little bemused that the tabloids continue to yap about it.