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Aug 30 2012

The Case Against Celebrity Gossip

Credit: jezebel.com

Celebrity gossip bothers me.

I think it’s both interesting and sad how we assume that accomplished, well-known people exist for our consumption. That is, we not only consume the work they produce; we consume their lives themselves.

We expect them to be perfect and demand apologies when they fail, but we also gleefully feed on the news of their failures, perhaps encouraging them to fail if they want to be noticed.

When celebrities fight back against the culture of gossip and paparazzi, as they often do, we claim that by being so famous and “putting themselves out there,” they “deserve” the stalking, the intrusion of privacy, the destructive rumors and exposés, all of it.

It is, if you think about it, a victim-blaming sort of mindset.

And so, things that are absolutely unacceptable and legally punishable when done to an “ordinary” private citizen are just a day in the life of a celebrity.

I understand and uneasily accept that as long as there’s a market for celebrity gossip, tabloids will continue to exist. I think the onus is more on the public to learn that violating people’s privacy is wrong than on tabloids to willingly shut themselves down. However, I do reserve a harsher judgment for media outlets that trade in celebrity gossip while simultaneously branding themselves as progressive–or, worse, feminist.

Jezebel is a blog that I read loyally because it often (not always) features great writing and brings things to my attention that I may not have learned about otherwise. I read it with the understanding that the writing is often unnecessarily snarky and dismissive (the pot calling the kettle black, I know), and that some of the posts are best fact-checked elsewhere.

I know this about Jezebel, and I accept it. What I have more difficulty accepting, though, is that the same site that provides women with vital information about terrible politicians, interesting perspectives on sex and dating, and summaries of important research…also publishes things like this. And this, and this, and even more disgustingly, this.

It’s fashionable these days to consume things “ironically”–pop music, bad television drama, Twilight and Fifty Shades. Celebrity gossip, too, falls into that category of things people like “ironically.” This, I think, is why you often see it on blogs like Jezebel. Perhaps people think that reading it alongside articles about institutionalized sexism somehow makes it better.

Some might disagree with this criticism of Jezebel because it does not explicitly label itself as a feminist blog. Perhaps that’s a fair point. However, whether or not it labels itself as such, it unquestionably has a feminist perspective, and more importantly, it’s ironic that some of the issues Jezebel criticizes in its more serious pieces–body snarking, fashion policing, slut shaming–are things that it does in its celebrity coverage. (This has been written about already.) Perhaps avoiding the “feminist” label is just a way for Jezebel’s writers and editors to cover celebrity gossip without feeling guilty.

But is it possible to consume celebrity gossip ethically? According to an article in this summer’s issue of Bitch magazine, yes. The article, called “Gossip Grrrl: Can Celebrity Gossip Ever Be Feminist?”, was written by media scholar Anne Helen Petersen (and is, unfortunately, not available online). Petersen acknowledges the issues with celebrity gossip, such as the fact that it’s a form of social policing and prescribes the ways in which people (especially women) are allowed to be. She writes, “In most celebrity coverage, the dichotomy is clear and consistent: men go on a bender, women go crazy. Men ripen, women decay.”

But the question Petersen ultimately answers in her piece is not the one that is posed in the title. Celebrity gossip itself is not feminist. In fact, as Petersen points out, is it explicitly antifeminist. But the act of consuming celebrity gossip is a different matter entirely.

According to Petersen, we should consume celebrity gossip while acknowledging the problems with it, examining our own reactions to it, and keeping its historical context in mind. She provides a personal anecdote about learning that Leonardo DiCaprio and Blake Lively were dating and feeling irrationally annoyed by it. However, instead of taking her reaction at face value, she examined it:

I don’t like that someone who “means” what DiCaprio means to me (the first heartthrob of my teenage years, Romeo + Juliet forever) is linked with someone who “means” what Lively does (inexperienced, inarticulate, lacking in talent). I can look at my reaction even more closely, understanding my frustration when handsome, talented, seemingly intelligent men my age persist in courting women far their junior who don’t seem to be their equals. Is my reaction necessarily fair? No. But unpacking my reaction to a romance between two celebrities helps me understand my own issues with men dating younger (beautiful, lovely-breasted) women. In short, mindfully consuming celebrity gossip helped me make sense of my own biases.

What I took away from this article is that there are ways to consume celebrity gossip intelligently and mindfully, while learning about ourselves and our society in the process.

However, merely reporting the gossip (and I use the term “reporting” loosely) is not the same thing at all.

I know the mental contortions that people who love celebrity gossip sometimes use to justify it. It’s just for fun. Not everything has to be all serious and political. I don’t support it financially, anyway. It would still exist even if I stopped consuming it. The celebs deserve it.

Not everything has to be all serious and political, but many of our choices do have serious and/or political ramifications. And I know it’s never pleasant to be confronted with the fact that something you love is problematic. I also know that most people who like celebrity gossip have little interest in consuming it the way that Petersen describes.

But I think that refusing to participate in the invasion of another person’s privacy is more important than a few minutes of entertainment. Sorry, but I do.

12 comments

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  1. 1
    Beckie Smith

    Brilliant post as ever – I like that you picked up on Jezebel. I read them a lot but sometimes hate the way they deal with celebrity gossip as though they’re reporting it ‘ironically’ (as you say), but often it feels like they’re just passing it on. They’re a bit close to the bone sometimes!

    1. 1.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Mhm. I’ve always thought that the whole concept of “ironic” consumption was just a bunch of bullshit invented by people who’d rather consume mindlessly than examine their tastes critically, but it’s especially harmful when propagated by a powerful progressive blog or other media outlet, because it legitimizes it and makes it seem okay. Hey, if the feminists are joining in on publicly shaming women, must not be anything wrong with it, right?

      1. 1.1.1
        mx. punk

        ^^^ which articulates exactly why it’s never “just in fun” or “not serious.” you really nailed down the things that’ve always pissed me off about celebrity gossip– and anything misogynist/cissexist/heterosexist/ableist that’s marketed as “fun.”

  2. 2
    overthinkingmind

    This is brilliant! I especially agree in the case of celebrities being expected to apologise for their actions. Who are we to expect apologies from these people? If they have done something the only people who would potentially be entitled to an apology are their friends and family not some random people who read about them for £1!

    1. 2.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Exactly. And the notion that they’re supposed to be “role models” is likewise BS. They’re there to make movies, sing, play sports, or whatever, not to educate our children. Maybe parents and schools should do that themselves.

      1. 2.1.1
        overthinkingmind

        I know right! I read this blog (http://verybadapple.wordpress.com/2012/08/30/tweens-teens-and-thoughts-on-role-models/) a few days ago and was just in awe of how much parents expect celebrities to raise their children and explain morality to them!

  3. 3
    Ells

    I’ve always found celebrity gossip distasteful, but you’ve articulated the reasons why it leaves me cold much more eloquently than I could have. Thanks.

  4. 4
    Titfortat

    But I think that refusing to participate in the invasion of another person’s privacy is more important than a few minutes of entertainment.(Miriam)

    I would like to think this should hold true for any kind of ‘gossip’. Afterall, the most damaging type of gossip we typically see is in our daily lives.

    1. 4.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Yeah, I’m not a huge fan of that kind either.

      The difference, though, is that celebrity gossip is obtained by basically stalking people, tracking down their friends and family and questioning them, taking photos of them without their permission, etc. That’s why I think it’s much worse.

      But you’re right, ordinary gossip is destructive and probably much easier to do.

      1. 4.1.1
        Titfortat

        It definately ups the ante when you can make money from gossip. Not good for sure!!

  5. 5
    themommyquad

    I completely agree and thanks for the heads up on the Bitch magazine article; I’ll definitely pick up the summer issue. I am writing an entire chapter in my new (scholarly) book about how the media (especially celeb tabloids like Us Magazine but also “news” publications like the New York Times) dissect celebrity motherhood. So I’m trying to deconstruct and subvert it from a feminist perspective. But I still have to buy these disgusting publications as “research.” This is why I wish you had printed the headlines of the disgusting Jezebel articles rather than just providing links — then we wouldn’t have to patronize their site to know what you mean. Why give them even more of the traffic they pander for? Anyway, thanks for a great post.

    1. 5.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      That sounds like a really fascinating topic. Motherhood has become a highly politicized subject in the media in general, but when it comes to celebrity motherhood, I can only imagine things would be worse.

      I didn’t want to bog down the article with those long titles, but you can probably tell what they’re about by mousing over them and looking at the link URL. :)

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    [...] that post about celebrity gossip I just wrote? Well, here’s an example of how reading that stuff can be useful and [...]

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