• What We Talk About When We Talk About Brangelina

    May 16, 2012
    brangelina by tshein / CC-BY

    brangelina by tshein / CC-BY

    Picture the person who comes into the library and heads straight for the magazines. She beelines for People, maybe spends some time with Vanity Fair. She may or may not tear a few pages from the copy when it suits her needs. She loves celebrities: she’ll read InStyle if you have it, Cosmopolitan if you don’t. Picture another patron: he likes USA Today. He reads the Parade section of the Sunday newspaper and frequently spends an hour with GQ or Esquire even though, at least by appearances, he doesn’t seem to be that interested in fashion. And then there’s the older woman who spends a lot of time chuckling at microfilm of old Photoplay magazines in the basement.

    These descriptions might fit specific patrons that you recognize, or they might serve as stand-ins for a whole group of people who visit the library, read celebrity gossip, and leave. Some might say that these people are misusing the library, or at least missing the point of libraries in general.

    But are they? The library, broadly defined, is a place where people of all ages can access information that, we hope, will make us more educated, engaged citizens of the world. We go to the library to look for comfort. We go to the library to look for a challenge. We seek Greek cookbooks and jazz CDs, poetry and hiking guides, newspapers and knitting magazines. By happy accident or librarian recommendation, we sometimes happen upon a text we didn’t even know we sought or wanted. And through this process we gain something: knowledge, understanding, texture, and nuance.

    Celebrity gossip provides all of those things. In fact, the magazines that contain it may be some of the most valuable cultural artifacts currently housed in your library.

    Stay with me here. I’d like to provide a history of gossip and celebrity, and their place in American culture—enough for you to reconsider your current valuation of People and its purpose within your collection.

    Celebrity has a long history. As Leo Braudy argues in The Frenzy of Renown (1997), the phenomenon extends as far back as Alexander the Great. Put simply, a celebrity is a public individual who becomes well known for an achievement (Napoleon), misdeed (John Wilkes Booth), or by birth (Prince William). The cult of celebrity strengthened with the expansion of the printing press, which allowed information about popular figures to circulate broadly and regularly. Celebrity is a particularly modern phenomenon, symptomatic of a culture that attempts to “know” a person through mediated forms (the magazine, the newspaper, the newscast).

    Stardom is a particularly potent form of celebrity. Stardom first began to develop on the 19th century stage—think Sarah Bernhardt—but truly exploded with the expansion of the American film industry in the late 1910s and ‘20s.1

    A star isn’t just someone who appears on screen. Rather, a star is formed when audiences combine information about the star’s onscreen performances (the type of person she plays on screen; Reese Witherspoon, for example, is “America’s Sweetheart”) with information about the star’s off-screen life (her romances, her children, and other gossip). Put differently, a Star = Textual Information + Extra-textual Information. Each star’s “image” is the result of this alchemy.

    Actors do not become stars because they are beautiful or talented. There are hundreds of beautiful and talented actors who appear on-screen every year, but only a select group get to become the Tom Cruises, Will Smiths, Julia Robertses, and Angelina Jolies of the world. These actors become superstars because their images—what they seem to represent, on- and off-screen—embody something vital to contemporary American identity. It’s no accident that Tom Cruise’s brand of white, working class-turned-suave masculinity resonated in the 1980s, or that Julia Roberts’s postfeminist approach to sex and relationships gained traction in the early 1990s. As Richard Dyer suggests, “stars matter because they act out aspects of life that matter to us; and performers get to be stars when what they act out matters to enough people” (Dyer, 17, 1984).

    Looking at a star or celebrity as an ideological construct and unpacking that construct is the work of “star studies.” Like hundreds of other scholars the world over, star studies is the bedrock of my research. We look at popular figures and try to figure out what their popularity indicates about a culture’s current understanding of race, gender, sexuality, class, politics, and a host of other issues.2

    I publish star studies on my blog and as part of my scholarship, but other writers and journalists outside of academia do the same sort of work every day. Chuck Klosterman, David Foster Wallace, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Molly Lambert, and dozens of others have thoughtfully profiled stars, trying to get at the meat of who they are and why they matter (Klosterman’s “Bending Spoons with Britney Spears” is a classic of the genre; Sullivan’s piece on Michael Jackson, republished in this year’s Pulphead, is a marvel).

    But I don’t need to make a case for you to acquire the books and magazines in which those type of essays appear for your library’s collection. Pop culture criticism is an easy sell: the public consumes these texts, so it behooves the library to carry work that contextualizes that consumption. For instance, the library may not broadcast football games, but it does offer biographies of football players, guides on how to coach football, and histories of the game. The same idea applies to drugs: the library doesn’t offer heroin, but it does offer ways to think about heroin use.

    Perhaps a shift in perspective is necessary here. Instead of thinking of the library as a place where culture is accessed, we might also think of it was a place where culture is created: where the individual and information collide and meaning is made.

    That’s what happens when the library hosts an expert or invites a storyteller. That’s also what happens when you carry a magazine with pages of glossy photos of a celebrity, or columns detailing who wore what, appeared with whom, and left too late. These magazines and newspaper columns, and the discourse they foment, are the building blocks of the star image.3

    I use the academic term “discourse” to describe what happens when someone sees a picture in a magazine, but you could also say that these magazines encourage gossip.

    Gossip has a history even longer than celebrity. Ever since there have been social formations—villages, schools, clubs, neighborhoods, secret societies, political parties—there has been gossip to structure them. By definition, gossip is characterized by “casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true.” We gossip about people we know and people we don’t know, about our co-workers and our family members and our closest friends.

    As countless sociologists and anthropologists have underlined, gossip is a means of social policing. In other words, we gossip about those who test the status quo: the man who wears too much pink or the mother who breastfeeds for “too long.” We talk about those who bend or break established societal rules, in part to discourage others from challenging what has been established as “the way things are.”

    Of course, gossip can be destructive, and it is particularly noxious when it comes to the policing of women’s bodies. It can also be startlingly conservative, especially as it pertains to established sexual and social mores. Just when you thought it was okay for young girls to be tomboys, the uproar over preschooler Shiloh Jolie-Pitt’s cropped hair and “boy” clothes—and the belief that her parents (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie) are “turning her into a boy” —demonstrates that gender play is still fraught territory. This is gossip at its most regressive, a club wielded to keep others in line.

    But gossip can also be progressive, especially in the wake of scandal. Actions that cause scandal are never de facto scandalous. Rather, an action becomes scandalous when it ruptures the accepted standards of behavior—standards specific to time, class, race, and gender.

    When Ingrid Bergman became pregnant with Roberto Rossellini’s child in the late ‘40s, it wasn’t “being pregnant” that was scandalous, but the fact that she was married to another man. Bergman transgressed rules for appropriate behavior on the part of a woman and a public figure. The resulting gossip was tsunami-like in strength, fueled by the vitriol of gossip columnists (Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper) writing in major newspapers, as well as dozens of fan magazines (Photoplay, Modern Screen, Motion Picture). Bergman was even denounced on the floor of the United States Senate, melodramatically deemed an “instrument of evil.”

    Bergman fled to Europe, where the expectations for female sexuality and behavior were somewhat less puritan. But what happened to Bergman matters less than the conversations it helped start. Some conversations were certainly focused on shaming Bergman and reifying standards. But it also led to questions of context. Why did Bergman cheat? What was the relationship like between her and her husband? Had she married too young and too quickly? As men and women attempted to make sense of how a woman like Bergman could break a rule so flagrantly—her image up to that point had been that of the “Nordic Virgin”—they were also making sense of what happens when young women are forced into marriages with older men, and what can and should be excused of the behavior that follows.

    Any time a major star challenges the status quo—by smoking marijuana (Robert Mitchum), by flouting the marriage contract (Elizabeth Taylor), by coming out as homosexual (Rock Hudson), by showing love by jumping on Oprah’s couch (Tom Cruise), or by spewing racist epithets (Mel Gibson)—it starts a conversation. Hudson’s example is particularly instructive, because it helped introduce words that had been theretofore unspeakable—gay, AIDS—into dinner conversation. Again, not all of that conversation was positive, but it was a conversation nonetheless. As star scholar Adrienne McLean points out, scandal does not simply “upset the status quo temporarily;” rather, it may function as “a wedge driver,” illuminating “the vulnerability of many ‘primary social frameworks’ that together make up what we so often refer to as dominant ideology” (Cook and McLean, 2001, 5). Making ideology and cultural expectations visible, even legible: that’s what celebrity gossip does best.

    Celebrities can also serve as cultural reference points: conversational anchors that help us displace topics too intimate for discussion. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Brangelina,” in other words, are our own perspectives on love, marriage, divorce, and the formation of family. Celebrities are no less fictional than characters in novels. Just as the divide between “Team Jacob” and “Team Edward” says a tremendous amount about how young women (and men) think of contemporary masculinity and romance, so too does a preference for Justin Bieber over Justin Timberlake.

    When we talk about celebrities with whom we want to be friends, we’re actually talking about the qualities we value in “real” friends. I want to be friends with Tina Fey because her image is that of an intelligent, self-deprecating, hilarious, multi-tasking woman—attributes I seek and value in myself and others. Similarly, Paul Newman is my “eternal star boyfriend” not because he is handsome (although he is certainly that) but because his image is inflected with advocacy, charm, ruggedness, wit, and steadfastness, all of which are qualities I seek in a partner.

    Which is all to say that celebrities, the texts that cover them, and the conversations they engender are important: they represent and produce culture.

    Why, then, is there such opposition to taking these texts seriously? Whether at libraries, in journalism, and even in academia, there is tremendous resistance to celebrity-oriented publications. Put differently, why does Us Weekly remain a “bad object”?

    The reasons for this status are complex, but not altogether indecipherable:

    In academia, star and celebrity studies are ascendant. They’re a cool kid in an already cool discipline (cultural studies). More and more graduate students are doing work in celebrity studies and the adjacent fields of television studies, media industries, and new media. But celebrity is still a low-brow subject in a discipline that has historically been rooted in the study of the high-brow. While this has been gradually changing since the late ‘70s, it’s still thought of as a less “rigorous” object of study than, say, Iranian film or avant garde feminist cinema.

    For journalists, celebrity is both necessary and nasty. With the new click-oriented metrics of online journalism, celebrity coverage is a sure-fire means to more hits and, by extension, more advertising dollars. As a result, “serious” coverage is enervated with “breaking news” on celebrities of all kinds. Celebrity exacerbates our culture’s already short attention span, making it easy to subsist on a media diet composed of fashion and gossip reports—and little else. Before you’d have to buy the entire newspaper in order to get at the gossip column, and would probably pick up some “real news” on the way. Now, even serious, high-brow publications use celebrity hooks to snag readers. Even pieces bemoaning the spread of celebrity culture exploit it: a recent article in Slate, for example, asked “Where Did All the Accomplished People Go?”—yet used Kim Kardashian’s photo and name to promote the story (the link includes the words “kim_kardashian_why_does_she_fascinate_us”).

    But fascination with celebrity is a symptom, not the disease. It illuminates how journalism is currently struggling to make the transition to new, digital paradigms, but it’s not the problem. Instead, it’s evidence that the system is broken. It’s also an easy target, as are the teeming, anonymous masses who opt for brief, easily consumable stories about celebrities over lengthy, complex pieces on international affairs.

    In libraries, the prejudice against celebrity materials is most likely the same as the prejudice held by society at large. These magazines are low-brow, glossy, and trashy. They’re all fluff, no substance. They’re junk food. They’re a waste of time. A guilty pleasure. They’re directed at a specific demographic that excludes large swaths of the population. You can pay for your own, but state-funded organizations shouldn’t pay for them for you.

    Consider these assumptions: celebrity materials are “bad” because they’re popular, directed at women, and “low-class”. Because they’re filled with images, they’re somehow bereft of ideas. Because people want to consume them, they’re not as ideologically potent and, by extension, valuable as things that people don’t want to consume. Because they’re gendered as “feminine pleasures,” they’re less valid than masculine pleasures like watching sports or, for that matter, reading Sports Illustrated.

    These are sexist, classist, and outdated assumptions that fail to account for the meaning made through gossip consumption, as evidenced above, as well as the varied audience for celebrity materials. While most of People’s readership is female, middle-aged, middle-class, and straight, its audience also includes those who are male, queer, teenaged, and elderly.

    If you stock the magazine shelves with gossip fodder, will you turn your library into a coffee klatch? Into a hair salon in disguise? Will it prompt heated discussions about whether stars have a right to privacy when it comes to their sex lives?

    Would that be so wrong? Libraries, at least in their current iteration, are more than depositories and archives: they’re cultural centers. Just as many librarians took the success of Twilight as an opportunity to organize discussions about the tradition of the vampire or encourage broader reading in the genre, you might likewise look at celebrity culture not as a pestilence, but as an opportunity.

    Whether patrons access these texts at your library or at home, they’re not going away. Just as I use the classroom as a means of helping students dissect, but not destroy, the meaning and pleasure they receive from popular texts, so too can the library. Here’s how:

    • Put a book on the history of gossip in the court of Louis XVI next to Us Weekly; pair the latest GQ and its coverage of George Clooney with Tom Payne’s Fame: What the Classics Tell Us About the Cult of Celebrity; feature a biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire with one of Princess Di.
    • Place documentaries that historicize and explore celebrity—Smash His Camera, Tabloid, Teenage Paparazzo—near to films that exploit it (the latest blockbuster pinned to a high-profile star).
    • In the online record for, say, Britney Spears’ latest album, place a link to an online text that elaborates on her fame, such as the aforementioned “Bending Spoons with Britney Spears,” as well as The Atlantic’s “Shooting Britney.” Some of these pairings might take time to seek out, and who knows how many patrons will actually pursue additional material. But once in place, many will seek. I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve received from readers who happened upon my site via Google Image Search for photos of Robert Pattinson.
    • Acquire accessible books on the history of stardom and celebrity and display them prominently. See the footnotes for examples.4
    • Ask an academic or writer to come and talk about the way that celebrity works today. If you work at or near an institution that teaches cultural studies in any form, it is very likely that someone will be willing to come and speak. Graduate students are desperate for speaking opportunities: take advantage of their ambition!
    • To advertise these talks, fill each copy of a magazine that includes gossip with provocative inserts: “Want to know why you’re enthralled by Beyoncé’s pregnancy? Celebrity Gossip Deciphered: Tuesday, 7 pm.”
    • Find a “flavor” of celebrity gossip that you, yourself, can get behind—or at the very least, where you can understand its appeal. Fashion mixed with humor? Try Go Fug Yourself. All positive, all the time? Just Jared. Stars: They’re Just Like Us? UsWeekly.com. Feminist slant? Jezebel. Commentary and contextualization? Lainey Gossip.

    Celebrity culture isn’t going anywhere. My suggestion, and what I’ve spent my academic career attempting to get people to do, is to stop wasting time decrying it. Instead, use that energy to make sense of it.

    I hope this article has inspired you to think differently about your own relation to celebrity gossip, as well as the unstated assumptions that have formed and continue to structure that relationship. By extension, I hope it has encouraged you to think expansively about the potential relationship between celebrities, gossip about them, and the public, intellectual, cultural space of the library.

    Many thanks to Emily Ford and Sophie Brookover for their insightful questions and suggestions on an early version of this piece. Brett Bonfield has been gracious, patient, and tremendously encouraging throughout the process, and helped persuade me that librarians would, indeed, like to read about celebrity.

    You might also be interested in:

    1. The development of stars is a fascinating and complicated process with much more nuance than is appropriate here; for more, see Richard DeCordova’s excellent Picture Personalities (1990). []
    2. Some classic, accessible examples of star studies work in race, gender, sexuality, class, and politics include:

      Mary C. Beltran and Camilla Fojas, eds.
      Mixed Race Hollywood
      Richard Dyer
      Heavenly Bodies
      Christine Gledhill, ed.
      Stardom: Industry of Desire
      Adrienne McLean
      Being Rita Hayworth

      []

    3. One of my reviewers asked, “Are they really? I see it as a cycle: consumers of pop culture and celebrity gossip need the information, and the media makes them need more of it. It hard to to tell where one starts and the other stops. Assigning all the power to the media doesn’t do it for me.” My response: I don’t at all see star formation as an entirely top-down process. But the fact remains that the starts are produced before they’re consumed, and the meaning is made somewhere in between. []
    4. In addition to the works listed above, I recommend the following scholarly works:
      Samantha Barbas
      The First Lady of Hollywood: A Biography of Louella Parsons and
      Movie Crazy: Fans, Stars, and the Cult of Celebrity
      David Cook and Adrienne McLean, eds.
      Headline Hollywood
      Elizabeth Currid
      Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity
      Jennifer Frost
      Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism
      Neal Gabler
      Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity
      Joshua Gamson
      Claims to Fame
      Paul McDonald
      The Star System
      The entire Routledge “Star Decades” Series

      For less academic (less fully sourced) but nonetheless fascinating reads:

      E.J. Fleming
      The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling, and the MGM Publicity Machine
      Robert Hofler
      The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson
      Sam Kashner and Jennifer MacNair
      The Bad and the Beautiful: Hollywood in the 1950s
      Anthony Slide
      Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine

      []

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