I have a confession: I cannot live without celebrity gossip. Before I was born, my grandparents owned a hair salon called Siz Whiz. It was a failed venture, only open a year or so, but it led to a wonderful bonus for my family, particularly for my grandmother and me: A lifetime supply of free gossip rag subscriptions. (Giving free subscriptions to establishments with waiting areas, such as doctors' offices and hair salons, has long been a way for magazines to plump circulation numbers. They never figured it out when the address changed to my grandparents’ house.) Every week, we got People, Us Weekly, Life & Style, and my personal favourite, The National Enquirer. I spent a lot of weekends at my grandparents' house growing up, devouring each of the magazines cover to cover, my grandmother and I passing them back and forth to one another when we were finished.
These days, I don't flip through the actual physical magazines that often, but trust I keep up-to-date on what celebrities are doing. When people first meet me, they are often surprised to find that my knowledge of the complexities of our healthcare system lies juxtaposed alongside my ability to trace the Kardashian family tree back to Armenia. I find their shock slightly irritating because I think it’s another example of how feminine interests are always coded as stupid, while men’s are not, even when they are equally useless. (Please explain to me how sports trivia is anything but a manly version of celebrity gossip. I’ll wait.)
So, considering how much gossip means to me — especially right now because I don’t think I’d survive the Trump Administration without the distraction — I was not thrilled to see Jenny Slate’s comments in Vanity Fair this week casting my beloved pastime as a tool of the patriarchy.
“For me, it connects to a very deep-seated belief within a patriarchal system,” she said, referring to the gossip industrial complex’s interest in her love life, especially her relationship with Chris Evans. “If you’re a woman, the system actually owns your private life; the system has an opinion on your decisions; the system has a verdict on how you have sex and who you have sex with, and anything in between. For me, I am not open to that. I get really pissed about it, because it’s only my business.”
Oh boy. First of all, Slate is right that historically "celebrity gossip" has always been harsher on famous women, as a way to police their looks (the cruelest example is the coverage of aging and plastic surgery) and shame them for having sexual agency. She’s also right that a central tenet of patriarchy is this ownership of women’s private lives, which you can see in the continued legislation of women’s bodies. But still, it’s hard to think of celebrity gossip as horribly patriarchal because today, more than ever, famous women are in more control of their publicity than ever before. And also, the celebrity gossip mill itself just isn't what it once was.
In fact, some female celebrities have taken complete control of their narratives. That has led to an exciting new world for the celebrity gossip mill, one where the editors and reporters who work in it, many of whom are young women, don’t have to rely on blind items or digging through people’s trash. They can create tonnes of content using social media.
The best example of this strategy is Beyoncé, who controls all of her narrative by speaking directly to her fans using only her work, including her elaborate Instagram posts announcing typical gossip items like her pregnancy.
A more interesting example might be Jennifer Aniston. A few years ago, she wrote a first-person essay for the Huffington Post about what it feels like to be the subject of particularly sexist tabloid gossip about her decision to not have children and wild speculation about her feelings toward her ex-husband Brad Pitt and his new wife (now ex-wife) Angelina Jolie. Jenny Slate might argue that if the patriarchal tabloids didn’t feel such ownership of her story in the first place, she wouldn’t have felt the need to respond. But that just misses the point of talking about celebrities, and also the point of celebrities themselves, in the first place.
In general, gossip, which is different from harassment and public shaming, is a deeply human activity. In psychological studies, it has been shown to be good for promoting bonds between friends. When we gossip, what we’re doing is grappling with the rules of human behaviour — that’s why juicy or scandalous gossip is always more fun. Yes, it’s fun to talk about your friend’s new girlfriend, but it’s way more fun and way more interesting to discuss whether she was justified in cheating on her then-boyfriend with her new girlfriend. As for celebrity gossip specifically, it's even more so a way for us to discuss ideas about human behaviour, I think. Jennifer Aniston (and Jenny Slate, for that matter) is an actress who has achieved celebrity, which doesn't mean she's not a person, but we don’t know her as a person. We only know her as an "idea" as Buzzfeed’s Anne Helen Peterson, who has PhD in celebrity gossip, put it.
“A lot of celeb gossip is deeply fucked and deeply invested in shoring up the status quo," Peterson wrote on Twitter. But, she continues, “Gossiping is also the way to work through ideas in flux, like whether the *idea* of a woman like Jenny Slate dating a man like Chris Evans and what it means. Most stars resent being treated as ideas. But they are.”
Thinking of it this way makes it even more interesting that Aniston waded into her own gossip cycle. While some might read her essay as “standing up to the gossip rags,” ultimately what she was doing was participating in what I think of as the new world of the celebrity gossip cycle, one that is more clearly focused on what it all means. Aniston's essay even acknowledged her role as a symbol to women and the importance of the message the rags send when they paint her as a sad childless witch. Her point was that the story she had been cast in was deeply flawed. “Here’s where I come out on this topic: We are complete with or without a mate, with or without a child,” she wrote.
But don’t even celebrities have some right to privacy? Well, yes. There may be very valid criticism of relentless paparazzi and a debate about privacy that needs to be had here — but that still doesn’t mean that caring what celebrities are doing is a tool of the patriarchy. Let’s also not forget that the gossip mill — especially in regards to the who’s dating whom canon — is equally interested in male celebrities' lives.
I can understand why the interest in Jenny Slate’s love life could feel sexist or off-putting to her, as a person. But lastly, let's not be dense enough to forget that at the end of the day celebrity gossip is also an exchange. Attention is also currency, as the Kardashians and any number of the members of the Spencer Pratt school of fame have discovered in recent years. And as A-listers and movie marketers and PR mavens have known forever — what's that saying? Oh yeah, "There's no such thing as bad press."