I wrote a really long post about celebrity gossip and its destructive effects, and my blog editor erased it, damnit! I can’t possibly recall the entire thing, but my main points are as follows.
Point 1: Celebrity gossip encourages public scrutiny of women’s bodies
One of the major pastimes of gossip magazines, websites, and TV shows is critiquing celebrity women’s bodies in great detail (excellent example from the Superficial, see also any tabloid cover where there’s a “Diet Secret” or “Diet Winners or Losers” or “Best Bikini Beach Body” or whatever). Many people claim that this is empowering and a way for average women to see that celebrities are imperfect, thereby subverting the mainstream discourse that says celebrities are beautiful, perfect role models.
I maintain that this is a total fallacy. First, the dissection of celebrity women’s bodies is just part of an overall social practice of policing the bodies of regular women (e.g. catcalling in public spaces, fatphobic comments voiced inappropriately, young women’s bodies always being the spaces where public anxiety over sexuality is read, etc.). Second, if you read the comments sections on gossip blogs, you’ll see that for the most part people use celebrity bodies as a way to denigrate women’s bodies in general and uphold the mainstream, unrealistic standard of beauty. Viz. to wit:
“hey fat bitches no those are not curves those are fat rolls, and u dont have to starve yourself to be thin but you have to get your lazy but up and do something called exercise..but you fat Americans are too lazy to exercise that’s why your average 20 year old looks like a 40 year old who’s had 3 kids…” and “there are so many fat stay at home moms who come on here to satisfy their low self esteem fat asses by praising fatties like J-Love…newsflash her weight is not healthy, fat is not healthy, muscle is..but you wouldn’t know what a muscle is since your exercise routine consists of walking from a couch to a fridge to stuff your fat mouths with junk food..”
Yeah, that’s really empowering! And so different from the dominant discourse that a woman’s worth is her weight.
Point 2: Celebrity gossip encourages behavior that is vapid and shallow
This really doesn’t need to be emphasized any more, does it? Not only do most mainstream celebs seem to inhabit some sort of clubbing/shopping otherworld where reality barely exists, this is presented as something aspirational. Ergo, demonstrating intelligence at anything other than matching your cute clutch to your cute shoes is a no-no. The best example of this is MTV’s My Super Sweet Sixteen, which I’ve seen three seasons of so feel qualified to comment on. The girls and boys on that show are emulating celebrity behavior to the absolute best of their ability, which involves being dim-witted, obsessing over outfits, demonstrating enormous ego, throwing money around, showing a sense of intense entitlement and positioning oneself as an object, complete with catch phrase / nickname, etc.
In media studies, there is what’s known as the “Magic Bullet Theory”, the long-since-discounted theory from the 1950s that media acts as a “magic bullet” on people, turning them into sheepish dolts or “cultural dupes.” I’m not saying teens are so stupid that they’ll turn on the television, see a picture of Paris Hilton on MTV and start emulating her every move.
But celebrities are given 100% more air time than computer nerds, artists, people with interesting hobbies, young people devoted to charity work, intellectuals, etc., making those types of behaviors far less prevalent and therefore seen as far less worthy. I think young athletes can be good role models, at least the ones who aren’t abusing drugs and engaging in spousal battery, but Paris Hilton and her ilk are, simply, not. And doing stuff like publicly snorting cocaine and dropping trou for the paparazzi isn’t something that should be celebrated. And face it, fame is so emphasized that being on a cover of a magazine, even if it’s for being a skanky, bad role model, is still seen as something to emulate. Paris has taught us that and MySpace proves it.
Furthermore, I think that Sweet Sixteen was originally intended to be a sort of cautionary morality tale, like, immerse our kids in narcissistic fame culture and see what happens, but now it is positioned as fully something to aim for. See the MTV-created Sweet Sixteen social networking site.
Point 3: Celebrity gossip has a very conservative system of morality
It reminds me of soap operas, where True Love is always with someone you’ve known since your teens and if you sleep with someone, you’re engaged to them. Heterosexuality is totally normative (and closets are kept firmly closed as to not alienate publicists, except on the smaller blogs) and there’s a crazy obsession with marriage and babies even at super young ages. Furthermore, the marriage/babies scenarios are completely romanticized in a very 50′s, teen dream type of way, contributing to both the out-of-control average-30K wedding industry and the acquisitive yuppie parent lifestyle/Yoga supermom trope.
There is almost zero discussion of any kind of lifestyle except the most idealized.
Point 4: Celebrity gossip normalizes extreme wealth
…which in turn makes middle-class lifestyles seem poverty stricken, and truly low-income people are just written out of existence. All of popular culture does this, but the emphasis on price tags in celeb gossip (like “The Fabulous Life Of..” series on VH1) makes it a solid contributor to the problem.
This also contributes to the idea that poverty is a personal failure and that people who are poor are so because they’re lazy or don’t work hard, rather than addressing systemic or endemic causes.
(And very little of this wealth is redistributed, Brangelina notwithstanding.)
Point 5: It’s very, very seductive
It’s a distraction from the suckiness of current events, from one’s own problems and one’s own life. It’s everywhere. It requires absolutely zero brain power. I did a project last year where I was asked to find four issues of People magazine, one from 1976, one from 1986, one from 1996 and one from 2006. I was absolutely stunned to find that the People of 1976 had full-on lengthy political essays and social commentary and that the People of 1986 featured a really wide array of people, focusing more on people in the news than celebrities. By 2006 it was almost content-free, just a lot of pictures of people wearing dresses and a few human-interest stories here and there.
I detoxified from the tabloids two years ago, and now when I find myself reading more than one gossip blog a day, I know it’s procrastination and I have to settle down to work. But the underlying sexism and mean-spiritedness of gossip and its extreme popularity really bothers me. I know that the hate and vitriol heaped on celebrities is a backlash from the 1990s-early 00′s glossy celebrity profile/total PR lies masquerading as fact /Pat-Kingsley-power-PR period– blogs and message boards let people read between the lines, trying to find out “the truth”. That’s the appeal of blind items as well. I remember reading the long-deceased Fametracker when Mariah Carey had her mental breakdown and learning about the realities of her mental illness and subsequent treatment rather than the “exhaustion” that was being parroted on television. But gossip ends up, more often than not, being used as a way to hammer the most extreme, sexist conservative value system into everyone’s heads, 24/7. It’s exhausting and I’m tired of it.