Guest post by Lucy Jane Stoner who for her own reasons won’t use her own name or reveal exactly which celebrity rag she used to write for.
Celebrity gossip is anti-feminist.
Through its relentless criticism of both female and male celebrities’ bodies, it perpetuates an ideal that not even celebrities themselves can attain. As Britney Spears – one of gossip’s favorite targets and textbook victims – said, she’s “Mrs. Too Big Now She’s Too Thin.” She’s never right, her body is always wrong and we – people who don’t even know her – are entitled to judgment. Unlimited access to high resolution, high volume, and highly commodified photos of celebrities makes them powerless to scrutiny of their every flaw and their every imperfection. We place them on pedestals and then we take pictures up their skirts.
Celebrity gossip’s contributors, its publishers, and its lawyers – the people making money off of it – are mostly men capitalizing on the exploitation of insecurities manufactured in advertising firms under a guise of empowerment. With this misdirection, a system of oppression remains quietly intact, its trenches dug deep in the grocery store check out lane.
And I used to write it.
I was once a celebrity gossip junkie, occasionally late to classes, work, and appointments because I wanted to read just one more item on Lindsay Lohan. My friend introduced me to the habit on a weekend night after I commented on the rags in her bathroom. I said, “You know, I’d never actually looked inside one of those magazines before, but it’s kinda addictive, huh?” And then she showed me her favorite sites.
So when I got the job, I was thrilled. I could spend all day reading and writing celebrity gossip…and I wouldn’t have to minimize the screen whenever a supervisor walked by. Imitating the classic style of snark set forth by the the Grand Dame of Dish – Liz Smith – it was an exercise in voice, brevity, comedy, and wit, and I relished the opportunity. It was fun, it was light, it was a fluffy way to make money.
But it wasn’t long before I ran out of clever nicknames and new phrases for, “So-and-so was a hot mess at the so-and-so event last night!” “Has so-and-so got a bun in the oven or been eating too many buns?!” “Looks like so-and-so forgot to shave! Ew fuzz!” “So-and-so is looking rough/fat/skinny/good/glowing/ugly/flawfless/fugly,” “What a slut!” What I once found amusing and gratifying quickly became demoralizing. Inundated with photos of women skinnier, smoother, blonder, fairer, and richer than I could ever hope to be, my self esteem sank. Even though I was and am totally aware of the impact of body obsession on body image, the constant onslaught of glossy red carpet photos and the often awkward paparazzi candids eventually dismantled my critically developed defenses against media, and I became so depressed that I would cry in the bathroom at lunch.
I stopped reading gossip in my spare time even though I couldn’t escape it those other forty hours of my week.
More alarming, however, were the attitudes of some of gossip’s purveyors, who in highlighting the faults and flings of celebrities became strange celebrities themselves. Their obsession with celebrity found them doggedly pursuing it through the defamation of the idols they wished to become, and along with the pursuit came diets, self-conscious vanity, and externalized and internalized bigotry (Most notably illustrated in certain confrontations between one blogger and a beauty pageant contestant and then between that blogger and a music producer). When made the subject of criticism, the gossipers often cried wolf on the very same sort of attacks that they perpetrated toward others, and woefully failed to then identify with their victims even as they became them. It never once occurred to them that the pain and humiliation of gossip might actually be a universal human reaction.
I couldn’t do it anymore. As I was slowly gaining weight under distress despite my active lifestyle and diet, I began to sympathize with the celebrities I was bashing. And it’s really embarrassing how belatedly I stumbled across the realization that hey, these images, these names, these characters…these are people. And more importantly, a lot of these people are women like myself, and by contributing to negative body images, I’m hurting women, and perpetuating some of the most damaging effects of emphasized feminine socialization – competitive, catty, divisive gossip. I had dehumanized the people I should be collaborating and forming alliances and community with – other women. Moreover, the environment in which I created these sensational fabrications was neither positive nor communal, where criticism was not only aimed at strangers, but directed inward toward the individual. After all, gossip really does stem from jealousy and jealousy is born from insecurity.
So instead of writing that So-And-So forgot to shave her arm pits at a red carpet appearance and ew how gross is that?, I wrote that she had decided to go “au-naturel” – which by no means challenged gossip’s agenda, but attempted to unravel it. It became my small, passive protest from within the industry, and I secretly hoped that for the girls poring over their weekly rags, my unconventional praise – as heavily veiled as it was – would catch them for a moment, and that even if they never threw away their razors, at least a flicker passed over their brains. “Whatever her weight, if she’s happy then we’re happy too,” “After all, who needs beauty conventions?!” “Even though her outfit may not be the trendiest, we appreciate her style!”
I was fired after an evaluation that I was not “performing to standards,” which could mean a lot of things, but I am pretty sure it meant, “You’re not writing the content that we want.” I don’t read celebrity gossip anymore.
But the truth remains that I was a teenage anti-feminist.
And therein lies one of celebrity gossip’s most insidious messages to the women and girls who comprise most of its audience: that women are and will always be just middle school girls quarreling on the schoolyard. Celebrity gossip’s success demonstrates how we continue to infantilize women, so that not only are we always encouraged to look younger, but we are encouraged to behave childishly as well. By engaging in and therefore perpetuating celebrity gossip, we never quite move entirely beyond the overbearing self-consciousness of adolescence to become realized, confident adult women. Instead we divide ourselves up in front of our computer screens to systematically dehumanize other women because their pores are too big, or their eyebrows are not plucked, or they enjoy having sexual partners, or simply because they have been constructed as the villain (Consider celebrity gossip’s relationship with Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie…Jolie engaged in a romance with Aniston’s husband at the time, Brad Pitt, and Jolie is still painted as a model of humanitarian femininity while Aniston has been resigned to a bitter old maid). Buying celebrity gossip continues to feed the beast that exploits and preys upon us, it validates an industry that tells us to our face that it hates us, much like the “popular girl” who excluded us from her table at lunch.
In middle school I was hopelessly dorky and bitterly self-conscious. One time an email listing explicit and crude criticisms of all the girls in my class started going around, and the email was signed with my name. The perpetrator hadn’t done his or her homework, because everyone immediately discounted me as its author on the grounds that I wasn’t even cool enough to be that bitchy, but it did cause its intended controversy and hurt a lot of feelings.
And that’s exactly what celebrity gossip is…it’s that mean email attacking victims with rumored truths and unfair and unkind criticisms. By continuing to pass this metaphorical email around through gossip mags and blogs, we’re stunting our growth, while the people behind the curtain – the bullies who wrote that email – continue to make a buck off of our insecurities, our petty childishness, and our willingness to continue to affirm the stereotypes that people use to justify sexism.
It’s time to grow up.