When I was in the supermarket yesterday, I was struck by the two covers of the major fan magazines. US Weekly featured two ‘stars’ of Teen Mom – the third time the magazine has put the reality stars on its cover this summer/fall, while People reports the “TEEN SUICIDE TRAGEDIES: DEADLY BULLYING.”
Before I delve into the historical and industrial motivations for these covers, I do want to acknowledge that Teen Mom is a rich, if troubled text: as Mary Beltrán points out, it should be called “White Teen Mom” and regularly ignores the socio-economic factors that lead to these young women’s status as ‘Teen Moms,’ but it does not shy from portraying the isolation, despair, and decidedly unglamorous life that most often accompanies teen pregnancy. But there’s also something truly touching about the show that separates it from other reality programming – for Amanda Klein, the mixture of sadness, regret, poor parenting, and inter-personal drama render it irresistible.
When US Weekly made the teen moms into cover girls, it was straightforward to critique the magazine for glamorizing these moms and their choices. The implicit message: impressionable young girls would follow their example in hopes of achieving the cover of a glossy weekly. Of course, most girls are smart and wouldn’t, oh, have a child in order to become famous. But I do see how many girls, especially those who feel mired in poverty, might see pregnancy as an avenue as commonsense as any if it allows them to escape their circumstances.
What’s more, by discussing the suicides of bullied teens, I don’t mean to trivialize the issue. Part of the reason these covers sell is because people are genuinely moved, worried, or feel anxiety about the issues they represent — but that doesn’t mean that these aren’t real people, with real families, and their stories are real, not fabricated tragedies. Whenever I discuss a celebrity — whether loving or hating them, disparaging them or admiring their skill — I’m not talking about the actual person, but the mediated IMAGE of that person. It’s easy to forget with stars, as their very vocation is to be available for that sort of commentary. With “real people” without star or celebrity personas, as the victims of bullying are, this distinction becomes muddled, and reminds of the pain and difficulty that must accompany unintentional celebrity. Just to be clear.
But why would “gossip magazines” be running stories about bullying and teen pregnancy?
First off, Historical Precedence.
Time Inc. began developing what would become People Magazine in 1973, ostensibly as a replacement for Life, which had been shuttered for unprofitability at the end of 1972. Time Inc. didn’t want a gossip magazine — Photoplay, Modern Screen, and Motion Picture were all in the twilights of their runs; due to shifts in coverage and unabashed tactics of scandal-mongering, the label of “fan magazine” was everything that People wanted to define itself against. This new magazine would feature a Hollywood star or two, but its more explicit focus would be PEOPLE — everyday people, political people, people whose will triumphed in the face of adversity, people who were cute, people who played sports well, people who had interesting stories.
The strategy was a brilliant, economically — it expanded the pre-existing content pool, limited to Hollywood stars, Jackie-O, and select music and television personalities TO THE ENTIRE WORLD. If you were a person, you could be featured in People. Scratch that: if you were a cute dog, you could be featured in People. All you needed was a skilled Time Inc. writer to render your story into the stuff of melodrama.
People was incredibly, breathtakingly successful. Part of this had to do with the fact that it could have a “comprehensive launch” due to its placement within the Time Inc. publishing empire. But it also offered a type of coverage — “personality journalism” — that was enormously palatable, went down easy, and was attractive to a nation with “serious issue fatigue” following Vietnam and Watergate. This wasn’t the news, it wasn’t gossip, it was just stories about people! The backlash was immediate: Jimmy Carter decried it, cultural critics framed it as the downfall of engaged journalism. It could be read in one sitting; its stories were the perfect length to read during a commercial break. It could avoid the label of gossip or scandal magazine — which is why it’s collected by public libraries. It was the first mass audience magazine to succeed in nearly half a century.
Of course, People immediately spawned imitators, including US, first published by the New York Times company. Rupert Murdoch attempted to combine the success of People with the format of the equally succesful National Enquirer in the form of a glossy Sun. Even Entertainment Tonight was sold as “People in television form.” Yet none of the knockoffs would be able to compete with People — US passed to various owners and various iterations, and languished as a monthly, neither a true gossip nor industrial magazine in the vein of Entertainment Weekly. In 2000, the magazine became a glossy weekly with a new name: US Weekly.
In 2003, Janice Min took the post of editor-in-chief, and US Weekly began its attack on People in earnest. In some ways, US is to People as the old school Red Sox are to the Yankees: US lacks, or at least lacked, the cash base to pay for photo and story exclusives available to People, with its deep conglomerate pockets, extensive subscription base, and “storied” history with advertisers. Under Min, US was scrappy — they’d attack People, use clever covers and photo-montages to go head-to-head with People exclusives, and generally play the role of feisty, unflappable dog yapping at People‘s heels. And while US still trails People in overall circulation, its readership numbers of increased exponentially since the early 2000s, especially in the much-coveted teen/under-30 market, with an overall circulation of 1.95 million in 2010. (People is still the uncontested leader in the gossip/personality journalism race, with 3.65 million in circulation in 2010).
This roundabout history trip is meant to show that the magazines were founded on the editorial philosophy that people, not just stars, could generate good gossip. Of course, all stars are people – and the really juicy gossip is never related to things they do that seem super-human (buying jewels, jet-setting, looking beautiful — it’s all good copy, but it’s not bestselling material). Rather, when celebrities’ humanness — their fraility, their weaknesses, their vulnerabilities, their compassion, their base desires — shine through, that’s when they’re most interesting.
But again, this is a question of economics. Real people are cheap, if not free, to cover.
It’s nice to think that People covers the story of bullying because they truly view it as a problem plaguing America’s youth. And, given the fact that they clearly had an exclusive interview with Mel Gibson’s ex-wife Oksana Grigoreva, as featured on the top of the cover, it would appear that they were choosing to cover a social issue over a salacious one (although, it should be pointed out, Gibson’s abuse of Grigoreva, and domestic abuse in general, is no less grave or systemic a social ill than bullying). But magazines sell on covers — this is a simple, well-known fact. Magazines make their money through newsstand sales, and people pick magazines on the newsstand based on covers. For this particular week, the ardent human interest story promised more drama, not to mention cultural resonance, than an exclusive interview with a woman whose claims went public months ago.
But there’s also the matter of payment. People undoubtedly paid Grigoreva — that’s why they were able to call it an “exclusive.” But there’s no exclusive rights to covering a public tragedy. Anyone can put the yearbook photos of these teens on their covers. This cover was not only more culturally resonant, but its profit margin was wider. (In general, you can spot a slow gossip week by the presence of a public interest story on People‘s cover.)
The “stars” of Teen Mom would be paid, but again, this number would be (relatively) small — I’m guessing between $5,000 – $10,000, if that, for exclusive photos and interviews per cover. (If anyone has information on the specifics, please let me know). Again, compared to what they would be required to pay a star, or even a reality star like the Kardashians, this is a GREAT DEAL.
And it’s an even greater deal if they can hook readers on the story of these girls. Us has proven particularly adept at “changing the conversation,” as Don Draper would say, when they can’t play on the big boy playground. So they can’t get an interview with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, or pay for baby photos of another A-List celebrity? Just come up with an alternative narrative, much cheaper, that they can control. They’ve done this with Teen Mom; they did it with Jon and Kate Gosselin; they did it three years ago with Heidi and Spencer. If you say it’s a story, and worthy of a reader’s attention, it becomes one. And if you’re good at using the cover, photos, and captions to create ongoing drama, you can milk it for several, even a DOZEN, issues. Take, for example, the cover detailing
Catelynn’s Maci’s “second chance at love.”
A few things to note: first of all, Maci is obviously the most photogenic of the bunch. None of these girls are drop-dead gorgeous – they are, after all, NORMAL PEOPLE — but she is skinny, has clear skin, and is white. You’ve got those things, and you can be a celebrity, no prob. Her “real life” narrative, including the back-and-forth with the father of her child/ex-fiance and new love, is, in the hands of a skilled gossip writer and/or reality television editor, a good melodrama. Her story is just as “tearful” and “tortured” and filled with “hostile exes” as any other celebrity or star — and leads readers to come back for more in future issues.
(As a side note, I’d kill to know the specifics of the contracts these girls and other reality stars sign when they agree to appear on the cover. Does Us stipulate exclusive access? Is it like signing on for a movie with potential sequels, where if the first one hits, you’re obligated to appear in two more? With the three aforementioned examples, Us has proven so adept at changing the conversation that People was forced to play catch-up, printing their own, belated overage of the dramas. The People teen mom cover featured a mom who had not theretofore appeared on Us, so this exclusivity contracts seem likely.)
So that’s why the Teen Moms and the bullying victims are on the cover of your gossip magazines. Whether or not it’s a culturally productive practice — that’s another question altogether. But it’s a brilliant financial strategy, and one that has fueled the success of “personality journalism” in its myriad forms for decades.
Brilliance, as we well know, is not always ethical, nor is it necessarily responsible. But no one ever accused the gossip magazines of being morally sancrosanct. The argument that they’re simply reflecting our morally jaundiced society is a weak one — as I emphasize above, they’re very good at determining what readers will care about, and then feeding demand for more information about that subject. But when a story hits, as this Teen Mom story so obviously has, or even Jon and Kate did before it, it’s not simply because the editors behind the scenes have done a good job of crafting a story. It touches on something — some anxiety, some worry — and amplifies it, embodies it, allows reader to think about these girls’ specific problems instead of systemic problems that lead to teen pregnancy and, in many cases, lives of poverty. The backlash against the covers wasn’t really about whether or not these girls’ lives were being glamorized, but about how gossip and celebrity culture — and consumption of fan magazines — seems to turn every issue, no matter how banal or tragic, into fodder for glamour. The backlash wasn’t against Us, per se, but against larger issues long-percolating around reality television and its celebrification of “real” people — and the unspoken reality that a reality show and celebrity cover might be the only way for the babies of these teen moms to have, say, a college fund, or for their mothers to not have to work several jobs while taking care of the child and trying to go to school. The real issue is class — it’s just not easy to say.
Ultimately, the problem is that personality journalism makes problems digestible – so minced up, re-dressed, and re-situated that they no longer bare any resemblance to the original issue. Indeed, as People‘s first editorial proclaimed, the magazine wasn’t about ISSUES, but PEOPLE. And this neglect of issues — and our national hesitance to deal with them head-on — is the real problem cultural illness. Teen Moms on the cover of US Weekly is just one of many symptoms.
Note: this is the second in a series of posts dealing with Photoplay Magazine and its changes through the course of the 1950s. You can find the first in the series here).
Think, for a second, about the people that head up our current gossip industry. They might not all be movie star gorgeous, but they are at least somewhat attractive, and if not, they’re young, or gay, or funny. Joel McHale, Ryan Seacrest, Lainey Gossip, even someone like Mary Hart on Entertainment Tonight. You may hate Perez Hilton’s flamboyant persona and style, but it’s certainly young, unique, fully self-aware. People who are most often behind the camera or pen manage to manifest a youthful persona — see, for example, the seldom photographed but firmly developed personas of the Fug Girls Heather and Jessica.
Now I want you to take a look at these pictures of the women who ruled the gossip industry from the 1920s through the end of the 1950s.
That’s Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper, and Elsa Maxwell — the mavens of Hollywood gossip, still attempting to rule the roost through the ’50s. Sheilah Graham, pictured below, is the youngest of the bunch; like Hedda Hopper, she was a failed actress.
There were also male gossip journalists — Walter Winchell foremost amongst them. But Winchell mostly gossiped about New York cafe society with a bit of Hollywood in for good taste; his work was rarely featured in the actual fan magazines. Mike Connolly was perhaps even more powerful than Winchell — as the gossip columnist for the Hollywood Reporter, his gossip was what others in the industry read and believed. He was ruthless and merciless, and was specialized in lording his knowledge of others’ homosexual preferences in order to protect his own closeted sexual identity. A 1954 Newsweek article on the gossip columnists (and rise of press agents) puts a fine point on his power:
“….as one big-time press agent said: ‘The most important plant in town? Mike Connolly. So many people are out of work today, the first obligation is to get a client work. I want the producer, the casting director to see my people’s names. Maybe only 50 men. Everyone in the industry reads Mike. But not everyone reads Hopper or Parsons. An actor — an idiot type — wants to see a lot of space always, but for me and my smarter clients, the trade sheets are the life blood of the business.”
He regularly wrote toothless pieces for Photoplay — usually about a page in length. Working for several publications was quite commonplace at the time — Parsons, Hopper, Maxwell, and Graham all wrote for multiple magazines in addition to daily or weekly columns syndicated nation-wide (and long-running radio shows, plus a smattering of television specials). I’d always heard that Parsons and Hopper were arch rivals — and they were, but only until the late ’40s. There’s been a lot of work on these early gossip mavens, including Samantha Barbas’ The First Lady of Hollywood and Neal Gabler’s fantastic and expansive Winchell. I’ve recently been able to read sections of Jennifer Frost’s forthcoming book, Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservativism, forthcoming in 2011, which deals with the Hopper’s unexplored role in ushering in the age of American conservatism in the early ’60s. It’s nice to think of this old, proper women as keepers of classic Hollywood.
But just look at these women! They were invited to everything — all the big parties; they strolled around at the Hollywood hot-spots, dined and shopped and had tea with the stars. Through the medium of Photoplay and the newspaper columns, the columnists were the mouthpieces of the stars. But they were odd ducks: they didn’t in; some were failed actresses; jealousy and lack of self-confidence regularly manifested in the form of passive-aggressive quips in print.
But what I really want to point out is the fact that these women ARE ALL OLD BIDDIES. Especially by the time we get to the mid-’50s — these ladies used to be matronly, but now they’re downright elderly. They’re your Great Aunt with the costume jewelry telling your brother to shave his beard. And they were the face of traditional fan magazines — and gossip more generally — as Hollywood attempted to reconfigure itself during the 1950s.
They weren’t just old in appearance — they were straight-up old-fashioned. Sheilah Graham less so — perhaps because she herself had earned her initial fame by being the mistress of F. Scott Fitzgerald when he died, then penning a tell-all memoir. But the other three were moralizing, vindictive, and generally unforgiving. They played favorites — that’s nothing new — but they also used their posts to condemn those, like Ingrid Bergman, who would dare not to concede to their authority. From all that I can gather, when Bergman was pregnant with Rossellini’s baby and estranged from her husband, it wasn’t that she wanted to lie to her public — or the columnists — about her illegitimate child. She just didn’t want to talk at all — an early symptom of the stars ceasing willingness to abide by the rules of the old implicit contract between fans, magazines, and stars.
But Louella Parsons knew that one star refusing to play by the rules would open the floodgates, and she lashed out, attacking Bergman for weeks for her transgression. To my mind, it was a tacit acknowledgment of her forthcoming obsolescence: the peak manifestation of her power foretold her slow descent into irrelevancy.
Now, most of the most vicious rhetoric actually isn’t in the Photoplay pieces, but tucked into the end paragraphs of the daily newspapers columns. The Photoplay columns take a different tact, essentially explaining ‘bad’ or scandalous behavior through speculation and pop psychology. A smattering of examples:
On Judy Garland — who had endured a roller coaster of romance, scandal, weight-gain, exhaustion, drug-overdose, and attempted suicide — Parsons argues that Garland can only recover by ceasing to blame others, instead of overwork and MGM head Louis B. Mayer: ”Judy, herself, likes to believe that it is this early childhood effort and strain that hs caused her complete breakdown. But many disagree. Child actresses on the motion picture lots are sent to school and permitted by the courts to work only a certain amount of hours.” Further “one thing I shall never in the world believe is that Judy was driven into her condition by a hard-hearted stuido forcing her to work beyond her endurance….Always Mr. Mayer has loved Judy and advised her like a father…It was L.B. who sooted her to the point of her decision to go East for treatmet under the care of the doctors…Far from her being forced back to work against her will, she was acutally begging MGM to put her to work. ‘I’ve worked all my life,’ she pleaded with them, “Im restless being idle.’ And, believing her, they put her to work in Summer Stock.” (1950).
Two years later, Elsa Maxwell spends an entire article admonishing readers to “Stop Pitying Judy!” “It is past time we all stopped being sentimental about Judy Garland,” she explains, “we should stop being sentimental about Judy, and making excuses for her, encouraging her, in other words, to go on the way she is going…..Her emotionalism, no doubt about it, is both dramatic and touching. And audiences respond to it. But when it goes on and on and on, when unhappy time after unhappy time her secretary, manager, lawyer and physican excuse her as being overwrought or emotionally exhausted, it becomes evident she is ill and need s medical help.”
Maxwell concludes that “Something should be done about Judy — now! That she is permitted to go on appearing overweight, failing to make performances, tading on her emotionalism by sobbing through curtain speeches is unjust to her and it also is unjust to the tradition of the theatre.”
On the subject of the quick break-up of Nicky Hilton and Elizabeth Taylor, Maxwell explains —
“Elizabeth Taylor and Nicky Hilton came to their breaking point before their marriage really began; just as soon as eitehr of them was required to think first of the other. The failure of this marriage — if six months of life on luxurious ships and trains and hotels can be called a marriage — must be blamed, I think, not upon Liz and Nicky, but upon their parents who first spoiled them; then sanctioned their marraige after a courtship so short and public that they were little more than strangers…”
When Kirk Douglas insists that “Divorce is a Private Affair,” Parsons is completely befuddled —
“Never have I been more puzzled….Had Diana been a non-professional who stayed home and concentrated on him — forgotten her career — they might have been happy. But Kirk would not admit this. ‘Diana has talent. She should act if she wants to. She is one woman in a million; quite capable of bein a good wife and a good actress at the same time!’”
Parsons reassuring readers that even though Joan Fontaine is getting a second divorce, she’s still a ‘man’s woman’:
“A odd as it may sound, this ordinary gay, carefree girl, who is at the height of her career, has two qualities unusual in a career woman: she has a natural inferiority complex. And she has a natural, inborn dependence on the male sex which naturally makers her devastating to men! There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that Joan Fontaine will marry again, in spite of being a two-time loser in the matrimonial sweepstakes. She is fundamentally a man’s woman — and that she won’t even attempt to change”
And Hedda Hopper admonishes the stars for their generalized bad behavior — especially their negligence of their ‘duties’ —
“I am sick of the people who revel in the gifts of stardom but groan at the liabilities. They forget that they were deliberately created in and by the public mind; and therfore, to a great extent, they belong to the public. They want the fame that brings screen success; and at the same time, the anonymity of a John Doe when they choose to step out of line. This is impossible, and, having written about Hollywood for many years, I’ve sweated blood trying to explain it to stars. If all stars would take stock of thesmelves, they would see just how dependent they are on the their associates and the world for their success. They have no right to offend th epublic who decides whether or not they’ll swim or sink professionally. I for one feel the time has come for the people of Hollywood to draw the line. We must say to stars who won’t conform: Behave yourselves, or there will be no place for you in this town” (1953)
In my previous post, I concluded that part of what went ‘wrong’ in the 1950s — and precipitated the decline and eventual collapse of the traditional fan magazine — was a change in the terms of agreement between the fan, the star, and the gossip industry that served as the mediator between the two. Now, part of that change had to do with what the star was willing and/or able to give to the fan as the result of structural changes in the studio system. But this shift was put into greater relief by the presence of aging moralist columnists still present in the traditional forms — I mean, there’s nothing that’ll make you feel like a publication is old-fashioned like an elderly woman saying ‘kids these days…’ – exactly what these women were doing on a monthly basis.
They had a right to be nostalgic and embittered. The Hollywood they had constructed with their pens was crumbling; the rules they had helped to set were crumbling. But they stuck to them, and certainly continued to please a broad swath of readers who were still eager to believe that the spread of television, the moves to the suburbs, the baby-boom, The New Look, The Kinsey Report, the publication of Playboy, The ‘Miracle’ Case, and myriad additional cultural events had and would not change the moral contours of Hollywood.
But the Photoplay editors weren’t clueless. They knew they needed to cater to the burgeoning youth audience — not only by featuring young stars, such as June Allyson and Liz Taylor and other ‘young marrieds’ — but by offering younger, snappier voices. Sheilah Graham provided some of this flavor — indeed, during this period, her newspaper column surpassed Hopper’s and Parson’s in circulation numbers — but Photoplay also used small aesthetic and visual concessions, promising ‘What Everyone in Hollywood is Whispering About” and daring to even put the word “sex” on its cover (granted, it was to ask if Hollywood was too obsessed with sex — but the word appeared nonetheless).
In some ways, it’s like abstinence porn: decrying the morals, but still bringing up the act itself, keeping it on the minds of all involved. That’s the fine line that Photoplay attempted to ride, and by the end of the decade, the old guard of gossip was on its way out. They voiced the beliefs of many in America — those still firmly against low neck lines, integration, extra-marital fornication, even divorce in any case — but those who believed that way were no longer the ones buying movie tickets.
Ultimately, Photoplay had to make a decision: go with the moral (but silent) majority….or go with the transgressive, sexy, young, yet potentially alienating style adopted by the new set of scandal magazines and tabloids. They tried to both in the 1960s — and did neither well. In the 1950s, however, the persistence of the old biddies underlined Photoplay’s resilient ties to classic understandings of stars and star behavior….and how increasingly anachronistic that approach was becoming.
(Note: this post will function as a continuation of my previous post on the importance of the banal, boring, straight-laced fan magazines of the 1950s, which you can find here.)
First, a methodological note: fan magazines are notoriously difficult to locate. Photoplay is held by several large research institutions for most of its run — mostly on microfiche, with a few smatterings of battered print copies. Other than that, there’s very little that’s been saved. The Pop Culture Library at Bowling Green University apparently has tons of stuff, but they’re mostly unsorted and not available for Inter Library Loan. Same goes for the fan mag collections at the Herrick in Los Angeles. (If you’ve been out of school for awhile, Inter Library Loan is a magic feature where you can request items from basically all of the libraries in the US and/or world….articles are scanned and arrive in your inbox as a PDF; books are sent from Biloxi Community Library, etc. etc.). So for much of my research, I go to eBay, amassing at least $500 of old, dusty copies of magazines that smell keenly of my granddad’s house. People who don’t know what they have list them for cheap — usually between a dollar and five — while people who know they have something good charge upwards of $20-$50 dollars. I now have most of Confidential from 1954-1958 (when it was published by Harrison) and random yet crucial issues of Modern Screen, Photoplay, Rona Barrett’s Hollywood, Screen Stories, etc. from the ’40s through ’80s. (People Magazine is now available in full color PDF – every issue! — on its website. Thank you, conglomerate archiving).
Collectors love Hollywood memorabilia, and fan magazines are no exceptions. There seem to be many who have amassed full collections of mint condition magazines — troves I would love to explore. (AND IF YOU HAVE A GREAT AUNT BERNIE WHO COLLECTS FAN MAGAZINES, PLEASE LET ME KNOW). They’ve also put together resources such as MovieMags.com, which, through a very elegant interface, provides full color .jpgs of hundreds upon hundreds of magazine covers, organized by magazine and year. Here’s the page of Photoplays from the 1950s; here’s Confidential; here’s Modern Screen. (You can click on them and scroll through the enlarged images….really quite marvelous).
These images help supplement what’s available to me in the form of microfiche — which are basically shadowy x-ray scans of an otherwise vibrant magazine. Have you worked with microfiche? It’s pretty much the weirdest thing ever. I’ve made some new microfiche best friends: a middle aged professor looking at John Quincy Adams’ handwritten correspondence and journals from the mid-19th century and an elderly gentleman apparently scanning all obituaries in regional newspapers in the 19th century — amateur genealogist. And me, looking at bra advertisements in fan magazines. While the process is still oddly endearing in its slow and analog-ness (spool the reel; press the forward button; look at the blown up image) many libraries (UT included) have acquired technology that allows you to scan a page-size segment of the microfiche, even several page-size segments, and turn the entire deal into a nice little PDF on the attached computer.
But even the best PDF scans still can’t make up for the fact that you’re basically making a photocopy of a photocopy; the over-darkness, the infidelity of images, it’s all pretty horrible. For example, the introductory profile of Marlon Brando in a 1950 Photoplay, entitled “That Mad Man Marlon.”
Text is usually clear — and obviously that’s what’s important — but I can only assume that the picture is what the caption tells me it is. With all that said, cross-referencing with the color photographs online, I feel like I have a solid grasp of the magazine’s format, tone, style, and changes from 1948-1960. There’s a polemic to be published somewhere about the lack of archival funds allocated to pop culture materials such as these — and once I finish this dissertation, I’d love to attempt to help host a wiki of PDFs of the fan magazines that media scholars have already purchased themselves.
But for now, I’ll just write my way through some initial findings…
Each Photoplay I’ve looked at begins the same: the cover, a full-page ad for a popular women’s item (Lux, Playtex, Revlon), the table of contents, and a full-page ad for the latest MGM extravaganza, highlighting the film’s stars. (This is a small but crucial point — by the end of the 1950s, the studios would basically cut off most advertisement in the fan mags, citing their scandalous and immoral content…and the fact that fan magazines didn’t actually sell movie tickets. The fan magazines countered that their readers were all that was driving Hollywood, etc. etc. But the fan mags have never really recovered — at the height of the studio era, all of the major studios paid for lavish ads, basically bank-rolling at least half, if not more, of the magazine. Cut out that income….and you need a lot of make-up and soap advertisements to take their place). You can see a representative table of contents below:
Note how each article is titled something catchy and flirty, but with a very explicit parentheses to alert the reader as to the single star focus of the article. When a parentheses is absent, it’s almost always because the star him/herself is proclaimed as the ‘author’ of the post. Above you’ll see that Joan Crawford penned a column entitled “If You Want to Be Charming” — one of a series that lasted around a year, all purportedly written by the star (who, at this point in her career, basically spent a large amount of time bitching about how low-rent and crass the new crop of stars were. It reminds me of the part at the end of Almost Famous when Fairuza Balk’s character is talking about the new crop of groupies and sighs “None of them use birth control and they eat all the steak.“)
Crawford was one of several stars of Classic Hollywood who fueled their dwindling careers on nostalgia for Classic Hollywood. For example, Claudette Colbert served as the magazine’s resident Dear Abby for several years while her career rapidly faded, answering reader queries of “What Should I Do?” (The evocation of classic Hollywood is central component of ’50s era fan magazines, and one that I’ll explore at length in a future post).
The covers also promise these first-person narratives — below, for example, you’ll see that Tab Hunter offers “Advice to Teenagers” while Doris Day offers an essay on “I’m Well Again.”
The pieces themselves are always well-written. Who knew all our stars were so good with grammar and vocabulary and turns of phrase! Mostly, they’re earnest; sometimes they’re witty or tongue-in-cheek. For example, in February 1954, Janet Leigh is credited with a piece entitled “Spoil the Brute!” detailing how she caters to the whims of husband Tony Curtis: “I’m an old-fashioned wife who holds the currently unpopular opinion that a husband should be picked up after, catered to, babied, waited on and made comfortable.” The rest of the article then proceeds to underline what a slob Curtis is, gently teasing him for his silly ways — a process made all the more endearing through the use of Janet’s first person voice.
Of course, these articles were not, in fact, written by the stars. At this point, they would have been written either by the star’s ‘press agent’ (what we now refer to as P.R.), regular agent (the person who got them work, most likely at William Morris or MCA during this time), or someone at the studio, depending on whether or not the star was under contract. These individuals would most likely collaborate with Photoplay and its editors to get the tone and format right. (I have little documentation of how much oversight editors during this time exercised on pieces generated outside of the magazine, but if you have any insight, let me know).
Now, did people actually believe that the stars wrote these articles? In recent years, much work has been done in star studies to correct the notion that fans of the time were clueless as to the machinations of the studios. As Adrienne McLean convincingly demonstrates in her work on Rita Hayworth, the magazines themselves often highlighted the ways in which stars were fabricated and transformed. (Further bolstering this claim is a 6-part series in Photoplay from 1950 on ‘How to Be a Star’ that explains, in pretty faithful detail, the process of transforming ‘raw material’ into a studio star). But what about these articles? People knew that stars had been changed — their names, their hair color, their walk, their accents — but did they believe that they would deceive them in this way?
If you’ve happened upon any research or information on this, let me know. Historical reception of stars is so difficult. For Jackie Stacey’s groundbreaking work on the subject, Star Gazing, she advertised in British newspapers and magazines, asking for women to write about their experience of fandom and spectatorship during the 1940s and 1950s. She received a wealth of responses, but even those have caveats, as these women were describing their experience through the filter of time, memory, and nostalgia.
A second means of getting at reception = letters to the editor. They’re contemporaneous and responding directly to the articles themselves — and I’ve happened upon several that indicate a belief that the sentiments expressed in an article (such as Marilyn Monroe’s heartfelt, four-page realization that “I Want Women to Like Me”) were those of the star him/herself. But Photoplay editors selected the type and tenor of letters they published; while they didn’t shy from printing letters decrying certain stories, I very much doubt they’d print a letter accusing the magazine and the star of purposeful deception. The letter below is a perfect example of this sort of interplay:
Mitchum was arrested in Sept. 1948 for possession of marijuana; he declared his career dead. But after a stint in jail, a triumphant reunion with his wife and children, and some deft publicity work, including a Photoplay mea culpa, referenced above and entitled “Do I Get Another Chance?”, he became a bigger star than ever.
As Marsha Orgeron points out, it behooved the magazines to encourage a strong (and oftentimes interactive) connection between the publication and the readers:“First, the magazines encouraged readers to consider themselves valuable critics and correspondents whose opinions could impact the industry and especially the stars. Second, the magazines relentlessly promoted self-improvement, a task with clear connections to the commercial interests of their advertisers…” For example, in all the issues I’ve read, half of the letters to the editor were devoted to “Casting” — basically, fans would write in with their suggestions for who should be in a picture together, or who should star in a potential adaptation of a popular book, or who should be cast in the remake of a classic (such as Gone with the Wind). Every month, dozens of suggestions.
The imagined connection between reader and star — that the star could speak directly to the fan; that the fan could voice his/her reply in fanmail — functioned in this very way. Of course, Photoplay editors selected the type and tenor of letters they published; while they didn’t shy from printing letters decrying certain stories, I very much doubt they’d print a letter accusing the magazine and the star of purposeful deception.
So I could fixate on this — and try to prove that people did or did not believe that the stars were writing them. Basically I’d be spending a long time proving that there’s no real way to get at the way that actual fans responded and thought and felt in the actual moment, and that’d be my conclusion. But I think it’s more productive to think about the fact that the magazines and the stars themselves thought it was a smart idea to perpetuate the illusion.
I mean two things by this: most obviously, the first person narrative connotes authenticity; a story would not only make the singular star appear more real, sincere, down-to-earth, loyal-to-fans, etc., but it would also help reinforce Photoplay‘s reputation as the most direct link to the stars. Orgeron touches on this — fans really want to believe that what they think can influence what happens in the films. Photoplay would authenticate that belief not only through first person narratives (the stars really want to tell you the truth!) but also through polls “Do you Want Ingrid Bergman back?” (Answer: 75% did; Photoplay pledged to serve as trusted ambassador of the results to Bergman herself). The magazine also held a yearly “You Pick the Stars” contest, asking readers to read bios and photos of a select group of up-and-coming stars. While many of the chosen ones never made their way to stardom, several previous winners — Ava Gardner, Kim Novak — are amongst the most renowned of the period…a point Photoplay is keen to remind its readers. The reader is rhetorically endowed with the power to influence the industry at large – at the same moment that his/her loyalty to Photoplay as the intermediary between the two is reified.
So what’s going on here? Building on the ideas of intimacy and Photoplay as the foremost in Hollywood publications, I want to think of these features in terms of the magazine’s attempts to fashion an ideal fan magazine reader — and an ideal fan-magazine-star relationship. This ideal reader would be wholly invested in the stars — and interested in them as people, interested in reading their human concerns, not just seeing their clothes. Along these lines, this reader will believe in the importance of a star’s personal morality: for these readers, what the star does and says in her personal life matters. A lot.
Now why would this be important? Pretty simple: if fans are interested in private lives, the magazines can generate (and recycle) an endless amount of material, detailing stars’ biographies, children, love lives, religious views, etc. etc. The moment that fans become disinterested in the persona lives of stars — instead focusing on (gasp!) actual performances — would signal the end of the fan and gossip market. You can only generate a finite amount of speculation over a character in a film — and a star only plays a limited amount of characters in any given year. In this way, the entire gossip industry is dependent upon fans caring about what the stars do and say.
This seems like a bit of an obvious point, but I think I take it for granted. The star-penned articles simultaneously create a demand — and feed it — for first hand access to the stars’ private lives. The more the star discloses, the more you want to know, the more you’ll be willing, as a fan, to write in and ask for more. In essence, these articles, as laughably forged as they may seem today, are the most perfect manifestation of this ideal studio-fan agreement: the studio promises to give you stars, shining and beautiful and moral new, if you promise to believe in and care about and consume them.
The star-penned articles, along with the ‘casting suggestions,’ disappeared slowly, just as the classical star system itself trickled slowly away. Photoplay attempted to change with the times, adopting the sensational tactics of the tabloids through the course of the 1960s, but it continued to lose readership: to Confidential in the ’50s, to The National Enquirer in the late ’60s and ’70s, to People starting in 1974. While larger industrial shifts in publishing are somewhat responsible, I believe that what really changed was the tacit agreement between those who made the stars and those who consumed them. As the Hays Code slipped into oblivion, the films themselves became more risque, with actors performing theretofore unspeakable deeds, including kissing horizontally. And as the stars refused and/or failed to cover their drunken or sexual tracks, it became more difficult for readers to ‘buy’ the illusions sold by the fan magazines. The scale was out of whack. Stars seemingly cared less; gave less. And the fans reciprocated: not by abandoning stars, per se, but by allowing themselves to believe the worst of their former idols. As always, it wasn’t that the stars of the 1950s and 1960s (or today) are necessarily more scandalous than the stars of the 1930s and ’40s. It’s that the cover-up was poorer….and that the fans, after the slow and silent breaking of the former agreement, were ready to believe the worst.
We might call the new agreement the “right to scandal.” Libel laws were substantially revised in 1964, opening the floodgates for what could be speculated and published concerning a public persona. The new fan didn’t agree to believe the best in return for personal information; rather, she agreed to believe the worst, especially so long as the star proved uncooperative. The more indignant a star becomes about her lack of privacy, the more the fan believes he/she has the right to read speculation about that so-called private sphere.
The question, then, is how to connect this shift to other cultural currents in the 1950s – 1970s…..? Ideas? I’ve thought of the general disillusionment concerning privacy and secrecy post-Watergate, but that’s a little late.
First, full disclosure: I’m writing under the influence of massive amounts of painkillers and steroids — treatment for a sudden and acute case of jaw pain that may or may not be TMJ. TMJ disorder is basically a messed up jaw joint; many are caused by grinding teeth and stress (and certainly no stranger to graduate students in dissertation) but that’s not the case with me. I just apparently have a weak jaw tendon. And while I wait for it to heal (and to stop taking things that make me feel somewhat as if floating) I’ve been tinkering around with a new format/style for the blog. Turns out altering CSS while doped up is not as difficult as one might think. (It also turns out that this is the weekend for blog alteration, as Alissa Perren has done a fantastic revamp, including a set of indepensible links, over at Media Industries)).
You’ll notice that the blog now has a new URL — http://www.annehelenpetersen.com. You’ll want to note this in your blog readers, etc. as the old URL — http://annehelenpetersen.wordpress.com — will remain active for a short period of time only to redirect readers to this site. Also note that I’m still working through some kinks in old posts as a result of the transfer, but hopefully all posts will be back to normal within a few weeks. If you do have any problems/suggestions concerning the redesign, I’d love to hear from you, either via Twitter or email.
The majority of these last few blurry days have been spent with the blog redesign, but I’ve also been subconsciously thinking through the piles and piles of fan magazines I’ve been reading, scanning, and annotating via dusty microfiche in the university library. And while I still do plan to maintain a relative hiatus from the blog, I think that writing my way through some of these initial ideas might prove beneficial (and, just perhaps, interesting to readers other than my mother).
The first chapter of the dissertation will be dealing with a few overarching changes in the way that Hollywood — and stardom within it — operated following World War II. (For those of you familiar with Hollywood history, I’m going to recite some well-rehearsed information concerning the end of Classic Hollywood, and you can skip to the image of Photoplay Magazine). But for those of you perhaps less familiar, it’s important to go through a few overarching changes in Hollywood following World War II.
First, the big studios of Hollywood were at last forced to divest themselves of their theater holdings in what have become known as the “Paramount Decrees” of 1948. This move had been a long time coming — the Department of Justice had been moving since the late ’30s to attempt and break up the monopoly held by the big studios over production, distribution, and exhibition of films. By forcing the Big Five studios to sell of their exhibition holdings (each held vast strings of theaters — think of the old places in your hometowns named ‘The Paramount’ or ‘The Fox’) the government was essentially forcing a massive reorganization of the way that Hollywood could do business. Without as much pure capital coming in from the theaters — and without the ability to block book lesser films with sure-fire hits — the studios couldn’t maintain the massive movie-making machines that had churned out dozens of films a year with amazing efficiency. The bottom line: the studios slowly but surely transformed into smaller entities, much more focused on *financing* films (oftentimes produced by independent producers) than making them on-set themselves, using their own contracted actors, make-up artists, directors, screenwriters, etc. Put differently, MGM, known for the most lavish of musicals and as the home of the biggest, brightest stars, simply couldn’t afford to keep all of its massive staff on retainer. They simply had to get smaller — and the movies, and the way that stars were used, changed as a result.
Now, keep in mind that none of this happened over night — MGM kept many stars on contract through the 1950s, and Hollywood had its very best year in 1946, pulling in enormous grosses from films like The Best Years of Our Lives and Duel in the Sun, both of which were star-driven.
Importantly, though, both of these films were produced by independent producers in agreement with studios. David O. Selznick was the most important and successful of independent producers in Hollywood, putting together massive hits like Gone with the Wind and Rebecca. In fact, he was more like a little mini-studio, signing stars to contracts and then lending them out at his will, as he did with Ingrid Bergman throughout the ’40s. Selznick was behind Duel in the Sun, while Samuel Goldwyn, another powerful independent producer, put The Best Years of Our Lives together with financing and distribution agreements with RKO. This would prove to be the mode of production that would govern Hollywood until the present day: independent producers putting a film together, with a studio functioning as the ‘green-lighter’ — providing financial backing and distribution of the film. I can’t over-emphasize what a sea-change this would be from the old way of doing things — before, the film was conceived of, staffed, made, finished, distributed, and even often times shown in theaters all under the control and oversight of the studio. Everything was done in-house. Now, all labor became freelance, and every picture became a game of puzzle-piecing together talent, financing, stars, distribution, exhibition.
During this same period, the stars were also fighting for power. In 1944, Olivia DeHavilland, acting on advice from MCA agent Lew Wasserman, won her case against Warner Bros., terminating the practice of placing stars on suspension in order to extend their contracts indefinitely. While her courtroom victory did not end the star system – many stars remained contracted to the studios well through the ‘50s – it marked the first in a series of shifts that would transfer power formerly vested in the studios into the hands of the stars and their agents. Stars began to go ‘freelance,’ relying on their powerful agents to leverage power over the weakening studios.
What’s more, social and cultural shifts strongly affected Hollywood: as patrons moved to the suburbs, the traditional urban picture palaces lost large swaths of their potential audience. Growing families, distance from theaters, and alternative leisure – including the rise of television – functioned to discourage what once were weekly and bi-weekly patterns of movie going.
But I want to be clear: Hollywood wasn’t in freefall. Attendance numbers were certainly decreasing, the studios knew something was up, but people were absolutely still going to the movies — and still infatuated and enthralled by stars. But what it meant to be a star — the labor involved in maintaining an image — was absolutely beginning to shift. You can see this shift in the rise of agents and the specific rise of the monster agency MCA, headed by Lew Wasserman. You can see this in the rise of Confidential, which feasted on the transgressions of the stars, no longer under the watchful eyes of studio fixers. (For more on Confidential — which will be featured extensively in this chapter of the dissertation – see my post from last year). You can see it in the change in ideas of what ‘glamour’ meant — instead of opulence, it became a sort of innate quality to be refined, made visible on live television, when a star’s ‘true’ glamour quotient became visible. (The outside reader on my dissertation, Mary Desjardins, is exploring this idea at length in her forthcoming book, Recycled Stars).
But you can also see this in the mainstream fan magazines — and that’s what I’ve been immersed in for the last week. Photoplay was, without a doubt, the biggest and most influential fan magazine of classic Hollywood. Founded in 1911, it grew alongside the industry, featuring beautiful color portraits of the stars and elaborate, melodramatic, often times first-person narratives of life stories. (e.g. “My Childhood,” by Clara Bow, as told to Adela Rogers St. John).
The magazines boasted a full color cover, almost always a portrait (as opposed to an actual photo) until the early ’40s. The inside was black and white, but replete with illustrations, ads for women’s products, as evidenced below, but also advice columns, fashions, film reviews, and tours of stars’ homes, cars, etc — the stars conspicuous consumption, or, in Richard Dyer’s words, the picture of the way that the stars lived. Photoplay performed a serious amount of discursive labor in constructing the stars as simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary — the supposed ‘first person’ narratives allowed stars to seem intimate and confessional, looks into their private lives and pictures of their children made them seem domestic and approachable….at the same time that photos from premieres, and of their luxurious environs, emphasized their otherworldliness.
As film historians, we like to limit this sort of unabashed star myth-making to Classic Hollywood. The magazines and the studios were in perfect cooperation: Warners would offer a confessional or inside look at Bette Davis’s home; in exchange, Photoplay would get to boast that they had the exclusive look at her home, or the exclusive scoop on her latest divorce. But in order to keep that ‘scoop,’ they had to toe the studio line, basically regurgitating a clean-cut, coherent, immensely likable star image.
With the rise of the scandal mags, Confidential foremost amongst them, the ability to control this image was compromised. This was one of the first discoveries I made when I first started investigating the history of celebrity gossip, but it’s also one of the most obvious — and in some ways facile. Because even though some images were compromised, causing a tremendous amount of anxiety (basically all of Hollywood sued Confidential publisher Robert Harrison in 1958), the mainstream fan magazines continued to churn out the exact sort of rhetoric for most of the 1950s, with very few exceptions. In fact, the ways in which they attempted to passive aggressively deal with the rise of the scandal mags — and scandal in general — without every naming them….and the changing landscape of Hollywood, without ever identifying it — are perhaps even more illuminating of the state of the nation and its attitude towards stars than the scandal rags themselves.
Let me rephrase that a bit. As counter-intuitive as it might seem, what I’m arguing is that the really scandalous — and even bigger selling, sensational publication, e.g. Confidential — may shed light on what hot-button topics were, but it doesn’t really paint a comprehensive picture of how Hollywood and its public were negotiating what a star should be like. Sure, Confidential focused on the subject that undulating beneath all conversations during the 1950s — sex — but dared not speak its name. But the style of Confidential was so over the top and campy — a purposeful strategy, as Harrison well-realized that things that made people laugh couldn’t, at that time, be considered obscene and thus banned from the mail. Point is, I think that these magazines, while hilarious and fascinating and an ostensibly perfect research subject, actually serve as a distraction. If I really want to understand how the concept of stardom expanded and renegotiated its identity during the post-war period, I’ve got to look to the magazine that had been attempting that very negotiation since the inception of the star system, the selfsame publication that reified and supported the status quo, rather than challenging it.
Think of this in the present: if we want to study current celebrity gossip culture, and look at the predominant attitude towards stars, should I look at something like Lainey Gossip? Or should I actually focus on the magazines like People and US Weekly that attract far broader audiences? Which one is more representative of the overarching treatment and value of stars and celebrity today?
Studying Lainey — or even Perez — is much more interesting. Even more interesting than TMZ. But one thing that I’ve discovered over the course of my preliminary research is that the most interesting media artifacts are easy to write about — they’re sexy, there’s some sort of hook to write about, there’s a potential for transgression, they oftentimes embody the spirit and spark that we, as scholars, love to attribute to the best and brightest of media. But they’re not actually want most people are consuming. Thus the most seemingly banal of objects — the Entertainment Tonights and People Magazines, the Photoplays and Good Housekeepings and TV Guides – demand detailed attention…and attention that doesn’t simply dismiss them as banal. They seem so boring and normal as to be unworthy of comment, but they’re actually fortifying the line which the other products push against and transgress.
This is a familiar argument in media studies, especially in film and television — namely, that we should spend less time gasping over The Wire and more time thinking about Everybody Loves Raymond. But I’ve only recently realized that the maxim holds when thinking about magazines and gossip publications: granted, most would dismiss both Photoplay and Confidential as unworthy of study, but I want to push this chapter not only to think through the ways in which Confidential challenged the 1950s status quo, but how Photoplay, Modern Screen, and dozens of other straight-laced, traditional fan publications diligently, steadily, and quietly countered that discourse. How, exactly, did these publications sustain their popularity? What did and didn’t they alter in their design? What were people yearning for — what image of Hollywood — when they continued to read this magazines?
I’ll address those questions in more detail in my next post, so stay tuned….
P.R. Mess, that is.
As anyone reading this blog is aware, Tiger Woods was involved in what was termed “a serious accident” on Thanksgiving night. He had driven his SUV into a tree at some point in the early morning and sustained injuries to the face — and that was all that was known, or at least all that was released.
When I first read the news bit, I knew something was fishy. First of all, there was no denial of intoxication. Perhaps even more importantly, there was no discussion of intoxication whatsoever — they didn’t even say “it is not known whether or not Mr. Woods was intoxicated.”
The timing was poor. Some would argue that the release of scandal on the eve of a holiday is a way to cushion the landing — see, for example, Sarah Palin’s announcement of resignation as Alaska governor…on the eve of the Fourth of July. You miss the newscycle — or at least miss a critical mass of people watching the newscycle.
But Thanksgiving is far different from Fourth of July. On Fourth of July, people aren’t watching the news because they’re out stuffing themselves on hamburgers, getting suburnt, and blowing off appendages. On Thanksgiving, the vast majority of America has been pushed off into TV rooms and dens to watch television while they wait for dinner, digest dinner, or lazy through the day after. And this wasn’t just any scandal — this was a sports-related scandal. On one of the biggest single sports-watching four-day weekends of the year. It wasn’t a blessing that the incident occurred on a national holiday; it was a P.R. curse.
Which is part of the reason the situation wouldn’t go away, as Tiger Woods no doubt wished it would. Woods is notoriously private — about his training regimes and golf-related activities especially, but also about his family and personal matters. His approach to the incident, then, was to say very little at all. No spin — and relative silence — was the best spin. Or so he apparently thought.
So let’s break it down. How did Tiger end up with this big mess?
1.) HE SUCCESSFULLY KEPT HIS PRIVATE LIFE UNDER WRAPS.
When you release so little information about yourself — outside of your very controlled statements concerning your sports skill — you become an enigma. Woods is ridiculously wealthy, but we don’t get to see him spend it. He’s married to a gorgeous Swede and they have a gorgeous child, but we rarely get to see them — and he rarely talks about them. So the built up curiosity was there — even if subconsciously — and waiting to explode. In theoretical terms, he was attempting to assert that the ‘real Tiger Woods’ (his ‘authentic’ self) was what you saw on the fairway, in highly controlled interviews, and in his dozens of advertising deals.
2.) THUS, WHEN AN ADDITIONAL LAYER OF ‘SELF’ WAS REVEALED, THE MEDIA WENT CRAZY.
As if blood into a shark tank. Richard DeCordova has convincingly argued that the emergence of stars in early Hollywood was a multi-tiered process — as each new ‘layer’ of the people on the screen were revealed, each became the new site of truth. At first, a star’s extratextual activities provided that source of truth. But with the eruption of the Fatty Arbuckle and Wallace Reid scandals in the 1920s, scandal (or the disclosure of scandal) became the only true means of arriving at the ‘authentic’ identity of the self. DeCordova is following the work of Foucault, who has long asserted that knowledge of sex (illicit or transgressive sex in particular) has come to be regarded as the most true and authentic avenue to the self. Put differently, knowing a person in bed (or knowing about how a person is in bed) is tantamount to knowing the ‘real him’ or ‘real her.’ Of course, this has everything to do with the construction of sexual activity through discourse — and the particularly American practice of shadowing sex with shame. Woods not only revealed that there was a deeper level to excavate — he wasn’t always cool and under control! — but, as the day went on, that that deeper level was somehow ‘off,’ potentially in a sexual way.
(To approach the issue somewhat differently, I’d argue that Woods’ image was too ‘univocal’ to absorb the shock of a scandal. Adrienne McLean has argued that the reason that Ingrid Bergman’s star image was unable to absorb the hit of her scandal with Rossellini was that her star image was so wholly (and unflexibly) that of the virginal, righteous, pure girl from the North. (She contrasts the ramifications of Bergman’s scandal with a similar ‘transgression’ associated with Rita Hayworth — because Hayworth had created a complex, nuanced star image that included a ‘desire to be loved,’ her marriage to Aly Kahn was naturalized and accepted, even celebrated. In contrast, Bergman was denounced *on the senate floor.* Crucially, like Woods, Bergman had refused to cooperate with Selznick and others who hoped to craft her image into something more nuanced; as a result, it was near-wholly based on her film roles, just as Woods’ was near-wholly based on his appearances on the golf course.
3.) NOT SAYING ANYTHING = SAYING EVERYTHING
By late Friday night, everyone knew something was up. The stories began to shift. Things didn’t add up. Some people made the connection between The National Enquirer story revealing a Woods affair, published Wednesday, and the Thursday blow-up. Over the course of the weekend, speculation exploded: his wife was attacking him with a golf club. (Which, as someone pointed out to me, is rather hilarious: like Kobe Bryant being pummeled with sneakers). She scratched up his face. She chased his car. He was passing in and out of consciousness. He had cheated. The situation was likened to that of Chris Brown and Rihanna.
By not shutting down or guiding discourse though his own P.R., statements, or any other type of damage control, Woods allowed the discourse to go in all directions.
4.) DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE (INVESTIGATIVE) GOSSIP PRESS
As I’ve asserted several times on this blog, some of the best investigative journalism comes from the gossip press. This was true during the time of Confidential; this was especially true for The National Enquirer, especially following the tightening of libel laws in the 1980s; it’s even more true today, when TMZ routinely scoops traditional news outlets. And they do it with more accuracy, detail, and speed. It’s difficult for us to think of ‘tabloids’ as journalistic, simply because what they cover is oftentimes not regarded as ‘newsworthy.’ But to get to the truth of what happens in an event — using interviews, surveillance tapes, 911 calls, cell phone messages, even bribes — that’s certainly investigative journalism, even if you might not call it entirely ethical.
TNE had the first story of the mistress — one that might have been easily forgotten, if not for the explosive aftermath. TMZ has posted dozens of updates, challenging the stories of Tiger Woods, his wife, and even the official statements of the police with actual footage, eye-witness testimony, etc. And US Weekly entered the fray yesterday, dropping a bombshell of past and current philanderering on the part of Woods. The gossip press got the goods — and if the speed of publication, as well as the amount of dirt they obtained, is any evidence, they got them easily.
5.) TIGER IS A GREAT GOLFER. BUT HE’S A SHITTY CELEBRITY.
He didn’t cover his tracks. He didn’t have a password on his cell phone. He left messages on his mistresses voicemails. He had relationships with several women — many of them young (21!) and ready to brag. One alleged mistress still has over 300 text messages from him. He didn’t cover his tracks. He had no defense plan. And he somehow expected none of this to effect his public image.
Just look to his first real attempt at P.R., released today:
…Although I am a well-known person and have made my career as a professional athlete, I have been dismayed to realize the full extent of what tabloid scrutiny really means. For the last week, my family and I have been hounded to expose intimate details of our personal lives. The stories in particular that physical violence played any role in the car accident were utterly false and malicious. Elin has always done more to support our family and shown more grace than anyone could possibly expect.
But no matter how intense curiosity about public figures can be, there is an important and deep principle at stake which is the right to some simple, human measure of privacy. I realize there are some who don’t share my view on that. But for me, the virtue of privacy is one that must be protected in matters that are intimate and within one’s own family. Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn’t have to mean public confessions. (Statement available in full here).
I understand his argument. A person’s private — sexual — actions are, for most people, indeed just that: private. If Tiger Woods chose to remain a sports figure alone — winning The Masters, winning everything, but staying a golfer and no more — perhaps he would have isolated himself from public scrutiny of his private life. But part of what makes Tiger Woods Tiger Woods is his public visibility: not only due to the color of his skin (over which he obviously has no control) and his resultant uniqueness, but, more importantly, through his endorsement deals. Over $1 billion worth. The reason he is a celebrity — and not just a golfer — is that his face is EVERYWHERE. In the pages of The New Yorker selling watches, all over Sports Illustrated and ESPN selling golf gear, in newspapers, billboards, car commercials, The Wall Street Journal, credit card ads, Gilette Razors, all that is Nike, you name it.
Mindfully holding back on all the potential snark that could be unleashed using the rhetoric of above advertisements
The significance, of course, is that a celebrity is chosen to endorse a deal BECAUSE of their public image. If not, why not choose another good looking man to say they use a particular product? Wood’s image is of excellence — but also of the absence of scandal. Of dedication and drive. Not extra-marital affairs. When a company pays Woods to appear in association with their products, they are hitching their good name to his. When scandal erupts, that scandal extends to those companies, even if only by association.
My contention, though, is not necessarily that the press has the right to know everything about every celebrity. Rather, if a celebrity — and Woods is a celebrity and a public figure, no matter how much he bemoans the fact — chooses to do things that read as scandalous, he must protect himself against the ramifications, either ahead of time or in the aftermath.
Tiger Woods refused to do either of these things, instead passing blame to the press and its audience. He may admit to ‘sins,’ but his insinuation — that WE are the ones who are, in truth, at fault — is as elitist as it is absurd. Each of us certainly contributes to celebrity journalism and scandal mongering through readership. But the idea that a man who has willingly and mindfully made himself into a public figure should have a right to privacy is absurd. Would he also like us to give him his privacy while he plays golf? Leave him alone when he tells us to buy watches? Not tune in to watch him put on the Master’s jacket?
I realize that he is attempting to make a distinction between his public image — which he wishes to be available for consumption — and a private one. As evidenced by the case of Robert De Niro, whose anti-stardom I profiled a few weeks back, this is certainly not impossible. But you have to play by the rules — a maxim that Woods, of all people, should know by heart.
I’ve previously posted at length on Nikki Finke and her divisive role in New Hollywood — see also Alisa Perren’s nice take on the strife (and lack of public attention) around the war between Finke, Variety, and industry bloggers David Poland (The Hot Blog), Sharon Waxman (The Wrap), and Kim Masters (The Daily Beast).
My earlier post was incited by a short by succinct article on Finke by The New York Times. Yesterday, The New Yorker went live with a new article, available here (don’t worry, it’s not behind the pay wall), that has incited a bit of a Hollywood shitstorm, most of it fueled by Finke’s own incendiary rebuttal.
The article was authored by Tad Friend, a NYer staff writer who often pens the “Letter from California” or “Letter from Hollywood” section of the magazine. The article, available on newsstands today, is part of the magazine’s annual “Money Issue” — and explains why the piece takes the tact that it does, reporting on Finke’s leverage within the industry of Hollywood (as opposed to, say, a gossip columnist’s leverage in celebrity culture).
For me, there are several salient points of the article:
1.) Nikki Finke is not, or at least is no longer, a journalist. She feels no need to heed journalistic ‘ethics,’ however one defines them.
2.) Nikki Finke is not a gossip columnist.
3.) Nikki Finke does not care about movies, per se.
4.) Nikki Finke cares about power, reputation, and melodrama.
In other words, the comparison between her and the “unholy three” gossip mavens — Friend enumerates them as Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper, and Sheilah Graham — is, like the New York Times‘ comparison to Walter Winchell, off the mark.
We love to tell stories — and write profiles — by evoking the personas of others: George Clooney is the new Cary Grant (I did that one myself); Lady Gaga is the new Madonna; Angelina Jolie is the new Elizabeth Taylor. Journalistic profiles especially take this tact: either by photographing the celebrity/persona in a manner evocative of other historical figures (one of Annie Leibowitz/Vanity Fair‘s favorite traditions) or dropping specific allusions throughout the article.
But such comparisons leave much to be desired, especially as all four of the classic gossip columinsts were working in classic Hollywood — and the stakes, not to mention the ‘rules’ — were incredibly different. Winchell dealt with New York cafe society and, to some extent, Hollywood; the others were concerned with the studios and the stars employed by them.
By contrast, Finke writes about money, agents, deals, and massive media conglomerates with international holdings across film, television, print, new media, and hardware. The old school columnists wrote for the public at large; Finke writes specifically for the industry — and does not deign to modify her style to an Entertainment Weekly/Tonight-style industry news.
Finally, Finke is ridiculously brazen. So were the other columnists, but none would have dared to have posted the following:
I’m too superficial to read The New Yorker because it’s so unrelentingly boring. Even the cartoons suck these days. So back in 2008, soon after the writers strike ended, I said no when The New Yorker first approached me to cooperate for a profile. Fast forward to this summer, when the mag was desperate to liven up this week’s dullsville “Money Issue” with some Tinseltown mockery.
Or further indict the publication for collusion/hypocrisy:
I found Tad Friend, who covers Hollywood from Brooklyn, easy to manipulate, as was David Remnick, whom I enjoyed bitchslapping throughout but especially during the very slipshod factchecking process. (Those draconian Conde Nast budget cuts have deflated the infamous hubris of this New Jersey dentist’s son.) But I wasn’t the only one able to knock out a lot of negative stuff in the article without even one lawyer letter, email, or phone call. I witnessed how The New Yorker really bent over for Hollywood. NYC power publicist Steven Rubenstein succeeded in deleting every reference to Paramount’s Brad Grey. Warner Bros and Universal and DreamWorks and William Morris/Endeavor and Summit Entertainment execs and flacks and consultants also had their way with the mag. (They were even laughing about it. When I asked one PR person what it took to convince Tad to take out whole portions of the article, the response was, “I swallowed.”)
Or, for that matter, drop the C-bomb — first by putting the word in Weinstein’s mouth, and then by appropriating it herself:
At Harvey Weinstein’s personal behest, his description of me as a “cunt” became “jerk”. (Then the article would have contained two references to me as a “cunt” in addition to its four uses of ”fuck”. Si Newhouse must be so proud…) And so on. Now remember, readers: you, too, can make The New Yorker your buttboy. Just act like a cunt and treat Remnick like a putz and don’t give a fuck.
Of course, all of this is, as my former adviser and secret gossip aficionado Michael Aronson pointed out, part of Finke’s own plan to a.) direct massive amounts of traffic to her site and b.) reify her image. She’s already known within the industry as cutthroat and crude — the article, and her response to it, simply amplify that image, making it available for (quasi) popular consumption.
Finke will never be Perez Hilton, but she does live and report on Hollywood, which has enjoyed a long and spirited feud with New York. Indeed, as Anne Thompson, Finke, and others point out, Friend’s “Letter from Hollywood” only highlights how out of touch even a reporter tasked with knowing the business really is. He’s an outsider — and will remain so. A tourist on sunny vacation, believing what’s whispered in his ear as truth.
Interestingly, I think both Hollywood (embodied by Finke, Thompson, Variety, and all the other industry bloggers and journalists) and New York (represented here by The New Yorker) are suffering from inferiority complexes, perhaps rooted in the fact that neither industry (Hollywood or New York Publishing) have figured out how to monetize their old media forms in the new media environment, perhaps best evidenced by Variety‘s plans to move back to a pay wall, The Hollywood Reporter going from a daily to a weekly, and today’s announcement that Conde Naste was eliminating Gourmet. Even Finke, who sold her site to mail.com for a reported $10 million, gets relatively little traffic — granted, most of it is very loyal, but we’re not talking huge ad dollars.
This brings us back to Alisa Perren’s interesting observation about the non-hoopla over the ‘brawl’ between these entities — sure, Finke, Thompson, Variety, and all these other players hate each other; sure, Ari Emanuel colludes with Finke and alienates other parts of Hollywood; sure, Finke said she ‘bitchslapped’ the editor-in-chief of one of the nation’s long-established high brow weeklies.
But does any of it matter when T-Mobile’s Sidekick service is down, one of the Real Housewives of Atlanta’s ex-fiance was murdered, and there’s sweet zombie movie in theaters? This is great gossip for those of us interested in the machinations of Hollywood and media more generally, but rather banal for everyone else. That’s why Finke is not Winchell, Hopper, or Parsons: those columnists had loyal audiences numbering in the millions. Their subtle insinuations may not have always been legible to those not ‘in the know,’ but their gossip about clothes, romance, and betrayal was still readily consumable and spurred discussion in circles outside of The Ivy.
The question, then, is if Nikki Finke swears up a storm and no one, or at least relatively no one, really hears her, does it even make a sound? I suppose the answer would be yes: posts Finke writes and deals she scoops have real ramifications on the types of media that we consume. But I’m still dubious as to whether or not Finke is a gossip so much as a power-hungry, popularity-obsessed instigator. She doesn’t make public appearances, but that simply ups her rep. Again, I’m tempted to make the comparison to Lew Wasserman, who eschewed publicity and, like Finke, had but one or two photos of himself in public circulation — and still controlled Hollywood for much of the postclassical period. But Wasserman was an agent, actually making deals and profiting off of them — and Finke is just writing about them and calling names. Which doesn’t necessarily make her less influential — of all people, I celebrate and appreciate the tremendous power of discourse — but does, in some ways, put her in perspective.
Over the course of my comps studying, I’ve been thinking a lot about the “new” mavens of gossip — Perez Hilton, Harvey Levin at TMZ, to some extent Lainey. While these gossips share characteristics with some figures from the past — Perez is the new Hedda Hopper; Levine is the new head of Confidential — there’s no one as ruthless and powerful as some of the columnists of yore. That’s not just nostalgia — those old columnists were published in thousands of outlets (newspapers, weeklies, via radio broadcasts) across the country. Their audience was HUGE. And while Perez garners millions of hits of a day, that’s nothing compared to a nation-wide newspaper audience from the 1940s.
But then there’s Nikki Finke, author and founder of Deadline Hollywood Daily. If you’re not in the industry or media studies, you’ve probably never heard of the name. But as an article in this morning’s New York Times explains,
In the three years since she started Deadline Hollywood Daily, a daily blog about the entertainment business, her combination of old-school skills — she is a relentless reporter — and new-media immediacy has made her a must-click look into the ragingly insecure id of Hollywood.
Among movie executives, the stories of Ms. Finke’s aggressiveness are legion, but they remain mostly unspoken because people fear being the target of one of her withering takedowns.
“I’d prefer not to ever deal with her,” said a senior communications executive at a studio who declined to be identified. Many others declined comment saying, variously, “she gave me a nervous breakdown,” “she terrifies me,” and “there’s no percentage in me saying anything to you about Nikki no matter what it is.”
But they all read her. In a town where people often secretly hope for the worst, Ms. Finke delivers wish fulfillment. During the recent merger of the William Morris and Endeavor agencies, she ridiculed William Morris executives to the point of distraction. She has published network schedules before many people at the network knew what was on them.
Finke is the most powerful journalist in Hollywood right now, and she’s doing it using a combination of “old school” journalism — tons of contacts, always on the phone — and new media immediacy. You can find her site here — I’ve been reading it for several months now, and she indeed breaks stories earlier — and with more, well, panache, than Variety, NYT, or any other industry source.
She’s tremendously powerful — but like many who have successfully wielded power in Hollywood (such as Lew Wasserman, the head of MCA (and then Universal) who parlayed consistent behind-the-scenes manipulation as an agent into becoming head of one of the largest and most successful studios) she is consistently anonymous. The article calls her “hermetic.” There’s only ONE picture of her in the press files, dating to 2006 — an anecdote that again recalls the lore of Lew Wasserman.
She hangs out behind her computer, spends a ton of time on the phone, has a web of reliable informants, and has developed a reputation of fear for herself. People give her things — scoops, schedules, news of firings — because they’re scared to be on the opposite end of one of her posts.
This is of course nothing new. All the old school gossip columnists and early smut mag editors leveraged information and threats in order to receive scoops. They all played favorites — as the article asserts Finke does as well (her favorites, however, aren’t stars — they’re studio heads. And also labor: the site first rose to prominence during her meticulous coverage of the Writer’s Strike. She was firmly and unabashedly on the side of the writers — one of the few power players in Hollywood to do so.) As I mentioned above, she uses the “old style” journalistic tactics of an army of sources and general investigative digging to get what she wants — before starting Deadline Hollywood, she had a long career in journalism.
But she’s also incredibly different, and here’s how:
1.) She is a woman. And she leverages power in Hollywood. Apart from the spectacular Sue Mengers, an agent with ICM in the late ’70s/80s, few women have successfully wielded power in Hollywood. Finke, however, is not only wielding that power but sustaining it — despite attacks on all sides. We might attribute this to her relative anonymity — it’s hard to attack her for her dress, to shoot embarrassing pictures of her, or otherwise humiliate her in the style usually reserved for women when she keeps such a low profile.
2.) She started and remains in control of her own site.
Unlike Parsons or Hopper, who both worked for men — Parsons, in fact, was heavily beholden to William Randolph Hearst. Finke, however, was initially the owner of her own site — it was ‘hosted’ by LA Weekly — and only recently sold to Mail.com, where she will still control her site, presumably with very little oversight. She’s entirely in control of what is published — the words, rhetoric, choice of topic, etc. are completely hers. This is possible, of course, because of new media and blogging technologies — when she decided to go out on her own in a few years ago, she wanted to do it on the cheap — and there are few cheaper ways of reaching a mass audience than the blog. For me, this underlines the ways in which new media technologies do indeed, from time to time, facilitate the rise of non-traditional voices.
3.) She’s not covering celebrities.
If she does, it’s on their salaries. She’s covering INDUSTRY — the traditionally male realm of Hollywood. Salaries, deals, schedules — that’s her bread and butter. Again, transgressing the ‘traditional’ place for female reporters in Hollywood…which might be part of why she so angers so many people. She also has a distinctly ‘masculine’ writing style — she’ll write TOLDJA in all caps whenever one of her speculations/predictions comes true — and the site itself is presented with a particularly masculine aesthetic (bold fonts, neutral colors, very few pictures). She means business. And it has garnered her respect — and fear. The NYT piece describes her style as “thuggish” — and this morning’s post reads:
DHD on Page 1 of The New York Times: The article about DeadlineHollywoodDaily.com by NYT media columnist David Carr for Friday is online. It claims I’m “thuggish”. So thug this: I’ll be back to work on Monday.
4.) She’s no Walter Winchell. She’s better.
The Times pieces opens by comparing Finke to Winchell, who operated as a quasi-gossip-columnist/industry reporter for decades, mostly for Hearst’s New York Evening Graphic and via radio broadcasts, where his trademark staccato delivery became famous. Like Finke, Winchell relied on informants, secrets, alliances, fear — see Neal Gabler’s massive and excellent tome Winchell — but he was also a man, mostly operating out of New York, concerned with celebrity, very publicly known/seen, and a viscous Red-mongerer and ardent supporter of Senator Joe McCarthy.
Finke’s insistent defense of the labor side of the WGA strikes signals a clear opposition to such tactics: she’s not a Commie, but she certainly doesn’t think the place of the press is to root out or destroy the power of labor, especially in the already labor-hobbled Hollywood.
In other words, the comparison is off.
In many ways, having an industry watch-dog, for lack of a better word, like Nikki Finke is a blessing — it keeps the industry on its toes as to promises, mergers, secrecy, back-stabbing, etc. And as both Variety and The Hollywood Reporter continue with cuts to their print editions and general reporting (and Premiere down to a bare-bones innocuous online site), Nikki Finke has taken up residence in the journalistic vacuum they’ve created. She’s doing it more brazenly than any of the above sources ever dared, but she can afford to — as the article again points out, “Her liabilities in the world of print — a penchant for innuendo and unnamed sources — became assets online. To admirers and detractors, she is the perfect expression of the Web’s original premise, which suggested that a lone obsessive could own the conversation.”
I don’t need to state that the blog, in all of its form, is the ascendant form of journalism. Whether in the form of Huff Post, Perez Hilton, TMZ, or Nikki Finke, it’s increasingly where people in the industry (and from the outside looking in) go to get their news and speculation. What remains to be seen is how such immediate reporting — and the somewhat ‘democratic’ access to authorship — will affect the way business is done in Hollywood.
As I discussed in an earlier blog post, the proliferation of industry info has its benefits and drawbacks — a point heavily debated in the comments section, which I suggest you check out. Nikki Finke — and the spread of her blog, which will certainly become only more widely read following a front page NYT article — is a participant in this selfsame phenomena. She’s not USA Today or Entertainment Tonight, though — she’s making far more important and essential information available, which might lead to a more educated understanding as to the meanings/raminfications of grosses, openings, up-fronts, etc. Right?
JTT and Christian Slater: Two ’90s Stars I Probably Shouldn’t Write About
This post is a bit different, in that it’s not really a post so much as a plea.
Amidst all of my reading/prepping for my comprehensive exams in August, I’ve agreed to write a chapter in my Whitman mentor’s current book on Hollywood industry from 1990 – the present. (It’s not a collection — my contribution is kind of like the one-off chapters in the decade series, for those of you familiar with media studies texts). I’m to focus specifically on stardom (changes in, industrial concerns, etc. etc.) from 1990 – the present. Someone (CBD, I think?) suggested that I could arrange the chapter around case studies: stars whose paths encapsulate the various ways stardom has changed and been negotiated through the spread of new media, the indie early ’90s, the Weinsteins, the continued expansion and importance of the blockbuster, etc. etc. (Each star doesn’t have to relate to all of those topics, but I do need to touch on all of them at one point or another). He/she also doesn’t have had to be a huge star from 1990 to now — his/her career could have petered off, or just become a star in the last ten years, you get the picture.
I have a few ideas, but I’d really love/need to hear yours as well — I’m thinking I’ll want a total of three somewhat complimentary studies.
Where (some of, but not all) of the minivan majority sleeps
I first read the term ‘minivan majority’ on LaineyGossip. I can’t recall if she explained it in that particular post, or if it was just a bit of vernacular whose meaning I quickly came to understand, but it’s stuck — both with me and with the blog in general.
Its immediate connotation is pretty clear: mindless suburbanites with minivans who may not be the statistical majority in this country but compose a ‘ruling majority’ when it comes to media and taste. But I don’t think that’s quite it.
Lainey generally uses the term pejoratively — but beneath her scorn lies a rather astute analysis of the morals, beliefs, and desires that drive media production, whether within the gossip industry or the entertainment industry more broadly.
It’s hard to define the minivan majority in a sentence, so I’ll start with some descriptors. Not all of these are necessary true of everyone in the minivan majority — and if some of them describe you, that doesn’t necessary mean you’re in the minivan majority (and I want to make it clear that I don’t dislike or disdain the minivan majority — but it’s important to know the identity of those quietly driving taste and entertainment in the country.)
Some traits of the minivan majority:
- You probably live in a non-urban space — either suburban or rural, but most likely suburban.
- You are probably white.
- You have no radical convictions. You are neither an arch conservative nor strong liberal. In other words, you are probably a self-described ‘moderate.’
- You love pictures of babies. Especially celebrity babies.
- You believe things that appear in print in the gossip magazines.
- You are not overtly racist, sexist, or homophobic, but you might subconsciously discriminate against people who are different than you or the people that you know and see on an everyday basis.
- You don’t like things that are too much: too gross, too sexual, too outrageously expensive.
- You might own something from Ikea. You almost definitely own things from Target or Wal-Mart.
- You style is a combination of Gap, Banana Republic, Ann Taylor Loft, Talbots, Coldwater Creek.
- You are a parent.
- You probably battle your weight, even if it’s just those pesky ten pounds.
- You may (duh) own a minivan — or a similar SUV type vehicle.
- You believe that people of any race, color, creed or background can make something of themselves with hard work.
- You believe in a higher power — most likely God — even if you don’t necessarily go to church every week.
- You are not generally an early adopter — of a technology, a political candidate, a new fad, etc.
- You enjoy the reliability of chain restaurants and all-inclusive vacations.
- You have a subscription to Cooking Light and/or contribute recipes regularly to allrecipes.com
Good clean fun in Gap khakis.
Now, some media products favored by the minivan majority:
- Jennifer Aniston
- Julia Roberts
- Tom Cruise
- Michelle Obama
- Celebrities who hit their career pinnacle about 10-15 years ago
- National Treasure (and other Nicholas Cage movies)
- Marley and Me
- Reese Witherspoon
- Jennifer Garner
- Michael Buble/Josh Groban
- Norah Jones
- Dave Matthews Band
- Two and a Half Men
- Desperate Housewives
- Sex and the City (latecomers — started watching Season 3 or later)
- Network television in general
- Jay Leno
- Martha Stewart and/or Rachel Ray
- Oprah. Oprah’s Bookclub, Oprah’s magazine, things recommended by Oprah.
- Entertainment Tonight
- People especially, maybe Us.
- Nicholas Sparks novels and film adaptations
- American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, The Bachelor/Bachelorette
Minivan Fav Michael Buble
Again, just because one or more of these describes you does not necessarily mean that you’re in the minivan majority. What’s key to observe here is how unoffensive each and every trait listed above truly is. (Sex and the City might be the exception — but it’s a dirty minivan majority pleasure, and it can be watched without the dirt on TBS)
Because when you get down to it, the best way to describe the minivan majority is conservative. And when I say that, I don’t mean conservative in its political Fox News connotation — although some most definitely fit that moniker — but in its more literal interpretation as those who would like to conserve the current state of things. (Whereas the ‘liberal,’ at times referred to as the ‘progressive,’ wants to MESS SHIT UP…and change the way things are.) (Another note: Lainey may have taken the alliteration of the minivan majority from the famous ‘moral majority,’ but they are not so much siblings as cousins….maybe the minivan majority is the slightly more morally liberal moral majority?)
Thus the late-adopter status: the minivan majority will adopt something new, but only after it becomes safe. The minivan majority of the ’50s, for example, was probably not okay with interracial marriage and most definitely not okay with homosexuality or sex outside of marriage…but as it became more and more commonplace, and more and more represented in the media, it became more acceptable. If you look to the minivan majority media diet, it’s almost entirely things that rehash familiar genres and formulas — whether that be the romance (Nicholas Sparks), the soft jazz singer (Norah Jones…oh, and I forgot to add Diana Krall), the man-loves-dog story (Marley and Me) or the American-history caper with tried-and-true star (National Treasure).
The minivan majority is attracted to and endorses stars who uphold beauty standards — not people who introduce new standards of beauty. Thus Jennifer Aniston — who has an amazing body and great hair…but is in no way remarkable, either as an actress or in beauty. (She certainly doesn’t try to form a mini United Nations family, steal husbands, get tatoos, or speak out about genital mutilation…)
I could go on and on about the different characteristics and media consumption patterns….and please do so yourself in the comments….but I want to close with a bit on why the minivan majority is such an important entity in the gossip world.
To put it bluntly, the minivan majority controls the gossip market. While the movie market is controlled by the tastes of 17-year-old boys (and I’m not kidding here — it’s the target demographic: make something teenage boys will love and everyone else will come) the minivan majority drives a secondary, equally lucrative market — the market defined by rom-coms that generally come in 3rd place but cost far less money). In fact, those teenage boys are by and large the sons of the minivan majority — and will grow up to be part of the minivan majority itself. (For more on how the blockbusters since JAWS have catered to an audience far more conservative then the counter-cultural generation on the late ’60s, see Jon Lewis’ incredible article “The Perfect Money Machines.”)
With the help of Oprah, the moral majority can and does change consumption patterns — such as when she prompted millions of women to buy Pearl S. Buck, Faulkner, and Toni Morrison – but they generally reinforce established patterns. They can be relied upon to make the Sex and the City movie, however lackluster in relation to its source material, into the #1 R-rated opening weekend…EVER. (Last weekend’s The Hangover comes in at #3….after American Pie 2. Go figure.) The women at the head of these minivan families also hold the purse strings, and are thus an enormously lucrative market. And lucrative market = powerful market.
And they also drive the tone, tenor, and subject of gossip. In my last post I outlined the ways in which gossip is used as a policing mechanism — a way to bring offensive, ‘progressive’, or different elements back into the fold. The gossip mags, taking their cue from their number one consuming public, enact this process. While Vanity Fair and The New Yorker‘s own brand of high fallutin gossip focuses on taking down bigotry, harlotry, and those brazen enough to cross the New York upper crust, these mags, like any other smart publication, aim to please their readership.
They do so by affirming the illusion.
You think Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston were a match made in heaven? That Tom Cruise is the most romantic man in the world? That ‘Sully’ from the Miracle on the Hudson is a modern day American hero? That Kirstie Alley really is going to take that weight off? That it’s wrong to criticize Tyra’s weight? This magazine will support and feed that belief.
But they also do so positively. This is where People and Entertainment Tonight figure so prominently. Unlike their ugly stepsister (Us Weekly) and stepbrother (TMZ) these two make you feel good about yourself, what you’re reading/watching, and the world around you. You’re not reading smut — you’re just reading about humans! That’s why People still publishes human interest stories (and, during a dry gossip week, will put them on the cover — see “Sully”) and Entertainment Tonight has Mary Hart as its host. Why their fonts are bubbly, their pages are draped in warm, soft colors and their address is inviting. Why neither stoop to lambasting stars so much as elevating those in the minivan majority’s favor.
Lainey Gossip blames the conservative tastes of the minivan majority for the failure of Friday Night Lights (they’d rather watch Dancing with the Stars). I like to think of it somewhat differently — NBC never figured out how to market their show to the minivan majority. I mean, Kyle Chandler is a minivan heartthrob waiting to happen. Anything that’s not too crazy can become a minivan mainstay — and a People darling. It’s just a matter of marketing.
Appealing to the minivan majority doesn’t necessarily mean dumbing something down or making it blandly palatable. Angelina Jolie has done an ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT JOB of turning the majority (and People) on her side — mostly by having beautiful babies, encouraging the affection for Pitt to extend to her, and allowing stunning pictures of the family to be published in its pages (and then donating the millions of dollars paid for those photoshoots to charity. Nicely played, indeed.)
In other words, it’s a matter of knowing your audience, understanding their quiet yet persuasive power, and playing to it. The Obama family on the cover of People? Absolutley brilliant. They don’t say he’s the smartest president in decades for nothing.
Want to add your own thoughts on the minivan majority and its quiet yet persuasive power? Comment away.
Bette Davis in All This and Heaven Too — Demonstrating the long, long history of gossip
With this post, I hope to add a bit of history and context to gossip — in part to address some questions raised in the last posts’ comments section, and in part just to set down some of my own thoughts on the subject. People will always see their current age as ‘more’ something than the age that came before — we’re more mediated, more concerned with smut, more superficial, etc. etc., than the good ol’ times of yore. While this nostalgia-tinged sentiment is completely understandable (there’s something easy and pleasing about bemoaning the faults of our society and seeing them as novel) it’s also enacting a sort of revisionist history.
Which is all a long way of saying that IT’S ALL BEEN DONE BEFORE. It may have been less digital, less explicit, or slightly less ubiquitous, but there is nothing novel about gossip, including its favorite targets and topics.
Anthropologists and sociologists have performed dozens of studies on the function of gossip in social groups, from ‘self-enclosed’ tribal groupings to present-day secretary pools. Indeed, gossip is everywhere, and we all do it — whether as teenage girls or grown men over drinks after work. And whether its subject is the new girl in school, a major star, the president, or the Queen, or the new hotshot at work, its function is almost always a variation on the selfsame theme: social policing.
Put differently, we talk about people who are different — who mess with the status quo, either by being exceptionally beautiful, exceptionally ugly, super awkward, incredibly intelligent, whatever….the person who dresses differently, doesn’t display his/her gender in a way that’s “appropriate,” hooks up with too many guys, or espouses ‘different’ political beliefs. Because a threat to the status quo is a threat to the conception of self and society — and you’ve got to grapple with that in some way. Thus you either talk about that person — and talk about him/her so much that she becomes a subject of ridicule and exclusion (read: teenage girls) or this person miraculously (and rather unpredictably) prompts a shift in the status quo….the new cool girl, the new hire who inspires everyone to start filing their reports differently, the new addition to your Ph.D. class who’s really hot on a new theorist, etc.
Stars do both. Sometimes they are such quintessential manifestations of the status quo that they become stars — but they’re never really interesting. Doris Day is a great example of this, as is Jennifer Aniston. Both fulfill the ‘girl-next-door’ template. Then there are stars who are different, transgressive, and spark a ‘shift’ in the way we think about the ideal man, woman, whatever. Angelina Jolie is obviously a perfect example here, as are Marilyn Monroe, Garbo, Dietrich, Mae West, Clara Bow, Jane Fonda, and Madonna.
Mae West asks you if you have a banana in your pocket…(and was thought to be a ‘woman impersonator)
Jolie multi-tasks as sex symbol, mother, philanthropist, tatoo-collector
The European Androgyny of Dietrich
All of these women inspired an incredibly amount of discourse when they first rose to stardom — just as much as Jolie does today. It was a mix of appreciation, awe, and anxiety — what would this example of womanhood (and sexuality) do to the supposedly naive women who looked up to these stars? Of course, this is by no means limited to female stars — I was just reading about the shift in the masculine star during the 1960s — the end of the always-heroic, always traditionally good looking and/or masculine star (Gable, Grant, Hudson, etc.) and the rise of the morally conflicted, weak, perhaps even anti-heroic roles, played by politically active, not always handsome stars (Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman). This transition caused no small amount of anxiety over what it meant — or should mean — to be a male in American society in the 1960s and ’70s.
But I digress a bit. The point is — we’ve always gossiped about people who are different, whether they’re a different sort of movie star or a different sort of person in our everyday lives. But we especially love to gossip about famous people who mess up. As Amanda pointed out in a comment on the post on Jon and Kate Plus 8, humans love to engage in schadenfreude — speculating about and reveling in the misfortune of others. It’s our bad, curious, vindictive side. But we especially like to revel in the misfortune of those who have been elevated above us — thus the fascination with the celebrity scandal, which basically reveals and opens up a space to criticize, gossip, and degrade those who were supposedly better than us (more beautiful, more wealthy, more sophisticated) but fall short when it comes to behavior or life choices.
Thus gossip and scandal are most often applied to public figures — the higher the figure, the more spectacular the fall. Gossip and scandal have circulated orally for thousands of years (the New Testament is filled with gossip about Jesus) and in print for hundreds of years. Thus the image that opened the post: Bette Davis starring in All This, And Heaven Too, a 1940 adaptation of an enormously popular romance of the 1930s….that fictionalizes the true story of the downfall of the July monarchy (in France in the mid-19th century) after gossip begins to circulate about the nanny and a member of the court. Their supposed affair is blown up by the gossip rags of the day (dozens of print newspapers) — and completely fabricated.
In other words: nothing new. Jesus, Caesar, the monarchies, the star system of the 19th century stage, contemporary stars, politicians — all have inspired gossip. What has somewhat shifted is the way that that gossip is collected and disseminated — and that is, at least in part, the topic of my dissertation.
Other things that aren’t novel:
1.) Bad Mother Stories.
It’s the easiest way to degrade a woman: criticize her performance as a wife or as a mother. Usually these stories pop up after the woman has committed some ‘sin’ that transgresses social norms — and has nothing to do with her children. Rita Hayworth almost had her children taken away from her, Dorothy Dandridge was nearly charged with child abuse, Princess Diana was off gallivanting on yachts instead of taking care of her young princes. And now we see it with reality stars, Britney Spears, and Angelina Jolie — the latter of whom seems to be subject to criticism not because of any particular action, but simply because no one believes that you could be gorgeous, married to someone gorgeous, and effectively parent six children.
2.) Gossip rags.
I’ve already written about Confidential, but the smutty, low-brow gossip rag existed in various form far before. Sometimes it was in pulpy papers sold in establishments of ill-repute (the 19th century); sometimes it was in the less respectable papers (the early to mid 20th century — Walter Winchell’s column in the New York Evening Graphic, Mike Connolly’s in The Hollywood Reporter) (Both of which remind me — gossip is also used to ostracize political outsiders, as both Winchell and Connolly did at length during the Red Scare. Or it’s used to ostracize those who cross establish moral boundaries — interracial dating in the 1950s, homosexual behaviors, well, since Oscar Wilde and his notorious trial) Historically speaking, Us Weekly and People sell relatively few numbers of magazines — especially when compared to the massive sales of dozens of movie mags during the classic studio era (Photoplay, Modern Screen, the list goes on and on and on…) Perez Hilton and TMZ may garner millions of unique hits a day, but millions of people read Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper, and Walter Winchell’s daily columns (syndicated nation-wide) during the 1930s-1950s.
3.) Young stars exploited by elders (mothers, studio execs, directors, etc.)
I could just put the name Judy Garland here and move on, but I’ll elaborate and say that she was fed barbiturates, repeatedly told she was too fat, and generally degraded during the crucial self-confidence years. Rita Hayworth had her name changed (from Margarita Cansino) and had her hairline electrolysized (in order to erase any signs of ‘Latin’ heritage)….all on the advice of her first husband, who happened to be 20 years her senior. (Rita Hayworth’s dad also took her to dance clubs as his partner and ‘wife’ at a very early age. For more on all of this, see Adrienne McLean’s phenomenal study Being Rita Hayworth.)
4.) Scandalous Relationships.
Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks left their respective spouses in order to be together….in 1920! Marlene Dietrich was strongly believed to be cheating on her German husband (and forsaking her child) with her svengali and repeat director Josef Von Sternberg; Ingrid Bergman left her Swedish husband and small child to be with Italian director Roberto Rossellini; ELIZABETH TAYLOR, ELIZABETH TAYLOR, ELIZABETH TAYLOR. Brangelina has NOTHING on the coverage of the Taylor/Eddie Fiscer + Taylor/Burton scandals….and Bergman was denounced ON THE SENATE FLOOR.
5.) Critics invoking celebrity gossip as the harbinger of the downfall of society.
Didn’t Jesus somehow imply that gossip was a sin? The very word ‘gossip rag’ implies a place of social degradation — and it’s been the favorite subject of the learned and upper class for centuries. Decrying the fascinations of the low-class and low-brow, labeling them stupid, too visual, poorly written, concerned with things that don’t matter. The 19th century gossip sheets, the early fan periodicals, Confidential, and today’s gossip disseminators form an extensive family tree — all of which has been gendered as feminine, labeled as silly, and determined as trivial.
A Marxist critic would say that celebrity gossip — like much of ‘low-brow’ entertainment — serves to distract the working class from the reality of their subjugation, poor working conditions (lack of health care, exploitation by corporations, the list goes on). I certainly agree with this. But until the Marxist revolution occurs….the gossip remains, and its remains a vital site of analysis for figuring out what society is nervous about, what trends are being ushered in, what we’re slowly becoming okay with talking about, standards of beauty and body and gender, what it means to be a good mother, husband, friend, woman, etc.
Any other ‘themes’ that persist today? Please lengthen my list below.