Gossip GrrrlCan celebrity gossip ever be feminist?

This article appears in our 2012 Summer issue, Fame + Fortune. Subscribe today!

Gossip: We all do it. And when we do, we probably think of it as easy conversation rather than as a means of social policing (which it is). But what about celebrity gossip? What happens when the focus of your speculation and chatter shifts from real people with whom you live and work to celebrities you’ll never meet?

When we talk about someone gaining or losing weight, and whether it’s a good or a bad thing, we’re really honing in on what we—as a culture, as a peer group, as people who subscribe to a particular set of politics and values—think is “normal.” Objects of gossip are those who teeter on or fall outside the lines of contemporary standards of good behavior: the women who dresses “too young” for her age, the mother who packs her child’s lunch with salty processed meats instead of organic veggies, the man who prefers knitting and tea to basketball and beer. In short, gossip helps maintain a status-quo social order.

But if gossip is a form of social policing, doesn’t that make it antifeminist? Doesn’t it, like so many aspects of patriarchal culture, dangerously circumscribe potential ways of being in the world? The simple answer is yes. Gossiping about the your co-worker’s recent weight gain or your neighbors’ ugly divorce is not feminist, and you don’t need me to tell you that. 

But approaching celebrity gossip from a feminist perspective is another matter, in part because it touches on issues of pleasure and credibility. Can I be a “real” feminist if I acknowledge that flipping through Us Weekly is fun, if I confess to keeping up with the Kardashians? 

Feminist media scholars have considered some version of this question for years. In a 2008 special issue of the online journal Genders, Kirsty Fairclough discusses contemporary celebrity gossip as an extension of postfeminism and “bitch culture.” Unlike the bitch culture of, say, this magazine, which celebrates women who are “confident, self-assured and focused,” Fairclough explains how:

“Bitch culture” that exists within the gossip blog does not operate to celebrate women who exude such traits, but to continually denigrate them. Bloggers often adopt the traits traditionally associated with the term; they are outspoken, flout codes of courtesy, and are fiercely opinionated. As well as reconfiguring the celebrity image in terms of detailed discussion of how female celebrities rigidly conform to, or deviate from, the prescribed boundaries of femininity, Perez Hilton also attempts to “out” celebrities (and has done so with ’N-Sync singer Lance Bass and actor Neil Patrick Harris, while regularly hinting at the possible homosexuality of stars such as Will Smith, John Travolta, and Tom Cruise). 

Hilton’s heyday of scribbling crude penis drawings on celebrity photos has passed, but Fairclough’s definition of bitch culture expands to include online gossip arbiters like Elaine Lui of Lainey Gossip, Michael K of DListed, and much of the Oh No They Didn’t! LiveJournal community. For all their lighthearted, self-deprecating humor, even the much-loved fashion critiques at Go Fug Yourself are arguably part and parcel of bitch culture, if only because their authors, like so many others in the fashion blogosphere, make a living by lampooning (and, to a lesser extent, lauding) the fashion choices of the rich and famous.

In Fairclough’s analysis, bitch culture sanctions and validates criticizing other women based on how they look. It is inflected with jealousy, insecurity, and self-doubt. And, sadly, it’s nothing new. One need only look to Jane Austen’s oeuvre for its predecessors: Pride and Prejudice’s Caroline Bingley, for example, propagated a thriving bitch culture of one. And the society pages of newspapers practiced bitch culture long before it was okay for ladies to even say such a word in public.

Yet the rise of digital media and the anonymity it provides have allowed bitch culture to thrive and expand, and female celebrities are its chief focus. 

As Diane Negra and Su Holmes point out in their 2011 essay collection, In the Limelight and Under the Microscope: Forms and Functions of Female Celebrity, the media as a whole treats female celebrities differently than male celebrities. They are subject to greater scrutiny and expected to embody more complex ideologies (then demonized when they fail to do so). Female celebrities are as combustible as they are disposable, and we secretly love to watch them go up in flames. As Negra and Holmes suggest, “[o]ne reason why stories of professionally accomplished/personally troubled female celebrities circulate so actively is that when women struggle or fail, their actions are seen to constitute ‘proof’ that for women the ‘work-life balance’ is an impossible one.” Indeed, though male celebrities implode as frequently and fantastically as their female counterparts, the judgment on women for venturing into the public sphere in the first place—accompanied by slurs like “attention whore”—seems more uniformly harsh. Compare, for example, the coverage of Robert Downey Jr.’s meltdown with that of Britney Spears, or the reception of Tom Cruise’s quest for eternal youth with Madonna’s. In most celebrity coverage, the dichotomy is clear and consistent: men go on a bender, women go crazy. Men ripen, women decay.

So how can we justify tacitly contributing to these narratives by seeking them out? How can feminists discuss, let alone consume, gossip?

Mindfully and carefully.

I’m not the first to suggest that feminists can and should consume media products that aren’t explicitly feminist. In fact, feminist television studies got its start by thinking about how female viewers derived pleasure from soap operas—products that, on the surface, seemed regressive and patriarchal. But people negotiate all sorts of meaning out of the media they consume. A soap opera may not depict feminists working their way up in the business world, but it does provide points of identification and catharsis for viewers who might struggle to find their material realities represented on screen. Feminists who read Twilight, and who think and talk through what parts are pleasurable and what parts problematic, are doing something that’s much more progressive and, in truth, feminist, than simply deriding a text at face value.

So while there may not be such a thing as “feminist celebrity gossip”—unless we’re talking the dream guest list for a celebrity cocktail hour (Laura Mulvey! Carrie Brownstein! Susan J. Douglas!)—there is such a thing as reading celebrity gossip as a feminist. 

First, realize that celebrities are not actual people. I don’t mean this pejoratively. There is a person behind the celebrity, but Real Person + Media = Celebrity Image. That image is what film theorist Richard Dyer would call “polysemic”—it has many meanings, and people can pick and choose a particular meaning to fit his/her desires. I might find Britney Spears the tragic embodiment of America’s persistent virgin/whore dichotomy; others might look to her as resilience manifest. Tom Cruise can be The Sexiest and The Most Queer to different groups of people.

For years, Hollywood celebrity images were careful studio constructions. Because of the relatively slow speed of media, it was possible for studio publicists to control the narrative of a star—planting bits with gossip columnists, penning stories under the star’s byline to appear in fan magazines, and orchestrating romances and photo ops perfectly timed to promote forthcoming films. Any story or action out of sync with a star’s established image was effectively quashed, allowing a steady, unified image to emerge. Cary Grant was suave; Joan Crawford was independent; Clark Gable was masculine.

With the decline of the studio system in the 1950s, stars went freelance, employing their own retinues of publicists, agents, and managers. Fan magazines, once obedient to the studios, discovered that scandal sold far more magazines than steadiness.  

This loosened control over celebrity images has only accelerated with the rise of digital media. Whereas in the 1940s there were a handful of gossip columnists who passed judgment on the stars, today anyone with an Internet connection and a digital camera can be a gossip columnist or member of the paparazzi.

Technology has also brought new ways to affix meaning to celebrities, regardless of their actual actions, words, or performances. Millions of people have reveled in photos of Ryan Gosling arranged next to feminist philosophies on the Tumblr page called Feminist Ryan Gosling, not because Gosling has ever actually uttered the phrase “You’ve torn down the Yellow Wallpaper of my soul,” or even knows who Charlotte Perkins Gilman is, but because his image—the characters he plays on-screen, the way he speaks about women off-screen—suggests an inner, compassionate, understanding feminist. 

In this way, a celebrity’s meaning becomes the sum of their image and the way people interpret that image. Marlene Dietrich’s studio-produced image, for example, was never that of a lesbian, but because a particular audience “read” her that way, queerness has gradually become part of her overarching meaning and enduring significance.

Put differently, celebrity images attract cultural baggage. No matter how Britney Spears’s home life may seem now, she will never shed the now-iconic photo of her, head shaved, wielding a golf club at the paparazzi. Natty suits and action-hero franchises will not cancel out Tom Cruise’s couch-jumping past. Cultural memories can be fleeting, but they can also have stubborn endurance, especially when they seem to illuminate some “authentic,” and therefore hidden, component of the celebrity—his or her true self, on display for a moment before being reined in. Our reaction to a celebrity may be sparked by her appearance in a recent film, television show, or advertisement, but we must also understand our reaction as a form of alchemy. I don’t understand Oprah in isolation; I understand her as a constellation of meanings related to class, race, sexual abuse, American intellectualism, consumption patterns, and, well, Tom Cruise jumping on her couch.

Once we realize that celebrities are images with accumulated meanings—the product of the films in which they appear, the people they choose to date, their publicists, their professional Photoshoppers, their paparazzi hounds, gossip outlets, and our own consumption practices—it’s easier to think carefully about how we talk about them. Our affection for (and alienation from) various celebrities becomes more transparent, and we realize that we don’t just like Meryl Streep “because she’s great,” but because she has come, over the span of more than 30 years, to represent resiliance, mature female sexuality, and sophistication.

Alternately, we can understand why we feel repelled or disgusted by a given star and his or her actions. For example, last summer I found myself seriously annoyed that Leonardo DiCaprio and Blake Lively (of Gossip Girl fame) were dating. Why? To what end? I don’t know either of them personally, and their actions don’t affect me in any way. But if I take a step back and see them not as two people dating, but two images colliding, my thoughts become far less snarky and far more introspective.

To wit: 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. Instead of just bitching about Blake Lively, I was able to see why my annoyance had little to do with her as a person and a woman, and everything to do with what her image, at that moment, represented.

***

To consume celebrity gossip as feminists, we also have to be mindful of its history. When I chose to write my dissertation on celebrity gossip, I wanted to do more than simply research how gossip was working today. The cries and moans of cultural critics across the mediascape linking the rise of celebrity culture with the demise of society as we knew it were so ahistorical, so infuriatingly myopic, that I knew my work had to focus on making the history of celebrity gossip visible. Yes, America—and England, and France, and India, and China—loves celebrities. But this is nothing new, and many smart people have made that clear. Leo Braudy’s classic look at fame and Western civilization, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History, traces celebrity culture to the Roman Empire and discusses how the 18th century’s advances in media led to evolutions in fandom. But isn’t this 21st-century fascination, emulation, and infuriation with celebrities something new?

Yes and no. The spread of digital technology has certainly made celebrity gossip more ubiquitous and readily available. Never before could a paparazzi photo, for instance, be snapped, uploaded, and accessed by readers over the course of an hour. But the central tenets of celebrity gossip have been around for more than a century. Fawning fan magazines, scandal-mongering rags, blind items, fashion trends, manipulative publicists, fan frenzies, “Stars: They’re Just Like Us!,” speculation over sexual preferences, “unnamed sources close to the star,” doctored photos, beauty-product endorsements—none of this is new. Some of it developed gradually (fascination with celebrity babies, for example, didn’t begin until the 1950s), but if these qualities are signs of the downfall of mankind, the world has been ending for well over a hundred years.

When you read celebrity gossip as a feminist, you can understand how it, like so many other gendered media texts, causes anxiety not because it is novel, but because it has been labeled, mostly by men, as feminine and frivolous. Movies, and celebrity fandom in general, have long been associated with the working class, with immigrant populations, with women, and with young people—in other words, with people who might aspire to something other than their current position in life. But you can see how just the act of aspiring could be construed as dangerous. The more women thought about gaining power and autonomy, the less they devoted themselves to their designated realm of caretaking and housekeeping.

In the 1930s and ’40s, weekend matinees were often programmed with “women’s pictures” (today, we call them Nicholas Sparks films). Women of all ages would attend what were pejoratively termed “wet, wasted afternoons.” Women, spending time together, watching other women struggle on film—that was a waste? Granted, these women weren’t organizing or writing or attempting to enact social change, but that’s not why people called these afternoons “wasted.” Women themselves called it a waste in part because they had internalized that spending time outside the home, in a femalecentric space, with texts directed towards them, was pointless. It’s the same attitude we’ve internalized toward other feminized media objects, whether they’re Hallmark Movies of the Week, romance novels, or gossip in general. Within this paradigm, celebrity gossip is vapid, useless, and hysterical.

I don’t wish to suggest that celebrity gossip is feminist because it is feminized, or because it has been derided by patriarchal and otherwise elite forces. But I do think that feminists encountering celebrity gossip should consume and critique it with a mind toward history. Celebrity gossip can be cruel and ugly, but it can also provide a vocabulary for talking through what is otherwise shameful. Often, a sensitive, personal topic may be displaced and worked through by gossiping about a star or celebrity in a similar situation. When Rock Hudson revealed, in the 1980s, that he was gay and had aids, it provided an entry point for those who otherwise did not know how to talk about homosexuality in common conversation. A celebrity with this new dreaded disease made the invisible visible, the unspeakable speakable. 

Granted, when Hudson came out, it was news, not gossip. His homosexuality was a fact, not speculation. Today, what do we do with a photograph of John Travolta kissing a man on the lips in broad daylight? Of Jodie Foster’s long-term partnership with a woman but simultaneous refusal to identify herself as a gay woman? Is gossip’s end goal to shed light into darkened closets?

Unlike Perez Hilton, I don’t think so. Celebrity gossip isn’t necessarily about finding truths; rather, it’s about making meaning out of the pop culture that surrounds us. As George Clooney recently told The Advocate, he doesn’t care if fans think he’s secretly gay, in part because a vehement denial “would be unfair and unkind to my good friends in the gay community. I’m not going to let anyone make it seem like being gay is a bad thing…. Who does it hurt if someone thinks I’m gay?”

For fans who believe Clooney—or any other perennial target—is gay, that belief makes meaning of his stardom. It makes watching his movies and reading queerness into them more pleasurable, and it makes tales of his heteronormative womanizing hilarious. When you speculate about a star’s sexuality, it’s because his or her image has opened an inroad for you to do so: Clooney kissing Billy Crystal at this year’s Oscars, for example, or Marlene Dietrich dressing in drag in the 1930s. Celebrity gossip expands that road, destabilizing established notions of sexuality. In this way, gossip helps reveal the seams in the construction of star images—the labor involved in performing straightness, masculinity, whiteness, American-ness. Wielded indiscriminately, celebrity gossip can be destructive; wielded mindfully, it can be liberating.

Even if we understand celebrities as images, and gossip about them as historical, we must always be mindful of how gossip is used to divide. Consider the last eight years of magazine covers devoted to that infernal triangle of Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, and Jennifer Aniston. Very few of them center on the relationship between Pitt and either women. Rather, they pit the sultry, sexy dark woman against the “girl next door” in a blatant reincarnation of the drama that transpired between Elizabeth Taylor, Eddie Fisher, and Debbie Reynolds in the late 1950s. (See? History!) The story is a familiar one: Two women fighting over one man. Feminist media scholar Angela McRobbie has termed this tendency “romantic individualism,” and it extends to any situation in which competition for a man divides women who would otherwise be united.

We see this tendency in fictional narratives (and, of course, in reality-based ones like The Bachelor), but we should also be aware of how gossip texts pit one image against another, invoking two factions of women—Team Angelina vs. Team Jen, for example—who must, necessarily, despise each other. Jolie and Aniston may not be best friends, but in all likelihood, they do not spend their days plotting to destroy each other. This phenomenon goes far beyond Jolie and Aniston, in part because scandal and fighting sells more magazines than friendship and solidarity. To read these gossip stories as a feminist involves knowing that there is both textual precedent and economic incentive for gossip writers to pit women against each other. You can realize that these women actually don’t hate each other, but that it’s convenient and profitable for magazine editors—and, for that matter, screenwriters, novelists, video game masterminds, and more to place two images in conflict instead of concert. And then you can talk about it.

Talking about it, writing about it, tweeting about it, blogging about it, and making these machinations visible: that’s feminist. Sure, talk is already feminized, and gossip is the most denigrated form of talk. That’s why it’s so ironic and perfect that the more you talk about gossip in a critical, feminist way, the more the seams of its construction become visible. But this process doesn’t destroy the unique pleasures of gossip; rather, it makes those pleasures richer, more robust.

My own blog, Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style, attempts to situate celebrities as images, provide historical context, and recuperate the potentially positive, community-building components of gossip. I don’t think all analysis is feminist, nor do I think that reproducing the same bitch culture entrenched in celebrity gossip sites is feminist. But with the tools described above, I do think it’s possible for feminists to consume and dissect, with certain delight, the myriad manifestations of celebrity gossip. 

This article was published in Fame + Fortune Issue #55 | Summer 2012
by Anne Helen Petersen
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Anne Helen Peterson is a senior culture writer for Buzzfeed News and author of Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman.

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