A few months ago, I wrote a post heralding/interrogating the pleasures of Jezebel. And while I still think the site has a lot to offer, something has happened in the months between that has encouraged me to change my blog alliances entirely — to the extent that I very rarely look to Jezebel. And that thing goes by the name of The Hairpin.
If you follow me or the blog on Facebook or Twitter, you might have a hint of the levels of my affection, as it’s become a source of near-constant linkitude. I wake up in the morning and seriously can’t wait until 10 or so, which is about when the editors start posting. When it’s silent over the weekend, I miss it. I even go back and check comment threads. Ths is some serious affection, you guys, and while I might attribute part of it to slight derangement amidst Hurricane Dissertation, I do hold to some semblance of objectivity, and just in case you’re wondering, no, I’m not being told/paid to say these things, although HEY HAIRPIN, IF YOU’RE READING THIS, WILL YOU BE MY GIRLFRIEND?
In fact, I’m writing this because I think that wonders should be shared, especially when they’re wonders that are smart, oriented towards ladies, and refuse to pander. While Hairpin is not explicitly feminist, it’s explicitly intelligent, and applies that intelligence to the way it conceives of the placement of women in the world — whether in the workplace, in relationships, in bed, whatever. My friend Rebecca Onion, who blogs over at Songbirds and Satellites and used to have my all-time-coveted job of working at YM, recently told me that The Hairpin has totally taken on the mantle of the new Sassy…..and while I lacked the access, hipness, and sisters that would have given me access to Sassy at its peak, I know the reputation well, and could not agree more.
Before I get to the really good and juicy reasons to read, I’ll offer a little backstory. The Hairpin is one of three websites currently under the umbrella of The Awl, a blog whose tagline is, appropriately, “Be Less Stupid.” The Awl launched last year as a sort of smart person’s Gawker — with less of a mind towards massive hits, fudging ethical boundaries, and exploiting pornographic images. There’s a certain house style to The Awl (as there is to The Hairpin, which I’ll get to)’ suffice to say that you better like irony, twists of phrase, esoterica, and subjects that might interest hipsters who vow that they are not hipsters simply because they are educated, have beards, live in Brooklyn, and consume working class food stuffs. (My brother is one such person, and he works for what I can only imagine to be The Awl’s print and long form equivalent, n+1, so I’m allowed to make such claims, even if it’ll earn me an email with the subject line SISTER, I AM NOT A HIPSTER, NEITHER ARE MY FRIENDS, YOU ARE SO WRONG ABOUT THE AWL). Whatevs.
The Hairpin is a spin-off site, with the catchy subtitle of “Ladies First,” and functions somewhat similarly to how Jezebel functions within Gawker Media. Sometimes it reposts stuff from The Awl; sometimes The Awl reposts stuff from The Hairpin. There’s some cross-readership, but the real goal is to cultivate a brand that caters directly to women. I don’t have figures on what percentage of Awl readers were women, but I know that the impetus for Jezebel (according to founding editor Anna Holmes) was the fact that 70% of Gawker’s traffic were female — wouldn’t they like a site just for them? (The “brother” site, Splitsider, covers humor. I admit to devoting nearly all of my love to Hairpin, but others of the comedy persuasion have informed me that it is good — this is no Collegehumor.com or funnyordie.com, this is “Political Comedy’s Gender Gap,” et. al.)
The Hairpin went live sometime this Fall (Dissertation, youmakealldaysmeldtogether!) with the following About Me:
Hello and welcome! The Hairpin is a ladies website’ run by Edith Zimmerman and Liz Colville, two grave young women who spend all their time online. A hairpin is also a small tool for keeping your hair in place, and a kind of dramatic turn. For more information on those hairpins, stay on this page or slowly click through our entire archive — there’s surely something back there to answer your questions.
More about us: The Hairpin is a general-interest blog, meaning we’ll be linking to the stories of the day that appeal to us, from politics to makeup to the whereabouts of penis-shaped rainclouds, and is a ladies site insofar as it is run by women, will feature writing by women (although guys should feel free to get at us if they see a place for themselves), and will be mostly read by women….
Even more about us, in the abstract: You know how having cocktails at a friend’s house can sometimes be more fun than the Big Party you go to afterward? And not because the Big Party isn’t fun, but just because hanging out with select lady friends is sometimes unbeatable? This site hopes to be a little like that — a low-key cocktail party among select female friends. Imagine like we’re pouring you a drink. That you can’t actually drink, because it is inside the computer.
If you know me, you know that I am totally the type of lady to prefer the cocktails at the friends house over the party. I am usually the person who’s like “oh come on, lets open another bottle of wine and sit here and talk about THIIIIINGGS!” when people are drunkenly trying to motivate into cabs. Obviously this is the website for me.
And then they published some of the best, smartest, funniest, truest-to-my-experience things I’ve read all year — and continue to do so on every week day. It breaks stories before Jezebel — in fact, Jezebel frequently posts on the same topics hours, hours/days afterwards — and does so with more intelligence and wit. Just like this blog, Hairpin is intended as a site for people who want to take their interest in pop culture (in it myriad gratifying, pleasurable, and disgusting iterations) to a more contextualized, sophisticated level.
I’m going to offer an ample sampling of favorites below, but I do want to make a few caveats:
1.) If you don’t like The Hairpin, I think we can still be friends. (I think). I don’t dislike is absolutely a deal breaker….But The Hairpin might not be for everyone, although all the people to whom I have sent posts have agreed that it is totally the best thing ever.
2.) As mentioned above, The Hairpin has cultivated a bit of a house style, and your love for it will probably have something to do with your feelings towards said house style. As you might have gleaned from previous posts, I love ample use of the THE CAPS LOCK, exquisite use of profanity, puns, elaborate metaphors involving celebrities, personal anecdotes that sorta trail off, self-deprecation, and insightful, intelligent analysis of pop culture phenomena, all of which are present in spades on Hairpin.
3.) Like The Awl, The Hairpin sometimes trucks in esoterica, or at least elite quasi-esoterica. When we get to the part on Vilette below, you will understand what I”m saying. I can’t lie: this stuff makes me happier than anything else. But it might be for you, and I realize that it’s pretty odd, and Hairpin might seem like the kinda nerdy girl in high school who moved away from the small town, eventually went to graduate school and grew into her face, boys finally liked her, and she gained the gumption to start her own blog. OBVIOUSLY NOT EVOKING MY OWN EXPERIENCE HERE.
4.) Hairpin is not just for Ladies! As evidenced by the comment sections, there are many dudes who frequent the site, in part because it is funny and smart and offers some keen insight into ladies (or ladies’ frustration with their representation in the media). So whether you’re a declared feminist or not, a man or a woman, a grad student or actually making dollars, give a try.
A few most excellent incentives and personal favorites:
- Women Laughing Alone with Salad. Click to believe. This is a nice condensation of what makes Hairpin so good: a collection of images, without commentary, that somehow highlights a very specific inanity in pop culture.
- Decoding the Bird-Death Maps. The third decoder is my most favorite.
- The “Best Time” Series, with particular emphasis on “The Best Time I Made Up a Dance Routine with a Friend.” If I were a contributor to this particular piece, I would write about the f-ing SWEET dance routines my brother and I contrived to the tune of Manheim Steamroller, Track 2. They involved a significant amount of living room furniture and jumping.
- The “Ask a Dude” Series, which allows readers to pose questions to a rotating set of anonymous dudes, for its consistent awesomeness/perception/hilarity.
My favorite exchange:
DEAR DUDE: Are you more, “I’m secretly happy the patriarchy has worked out for me” or “I secretly think girls have it easier”? If you absolutely had to pick one.
Dude’s Answer: Are you kidding? The patriarchy has been scattering palm fronds ahead of me every step I’ve ever taken. The patriarchy stops just short of bringing me 7-Up and chicken soup in bed every time I get a sniffle. The patriarchy invented whiskey and then told everyone it was a ‘man drink’ so I wouldn’t have to compete with girls to get it.
Girls have a few things easier. They aren’t taught from birth that being confused or uncertain is a shameful state of affairs that they have to hide from everyone. (Which fortunately isn’t a problem for me, thanks to my UNASSAILABLE CONFIDENCE AND PRETERNATURAL WISDOM.) They have more specialty channels on cable. I personally think that ladies have more of an advantage in dating than most of them realize. But dudes definitely win the balance of the gendered perks.
I will say that the advantage of being a dude is nowhere near what it used to be. I also think that I get more free rides for my skin color than my junk.
- Some Futures I Thought I Might Have , with entries across the ages.
Age 12: I will be at a coffee shop, sipping my latte and reading Dostoevsky. Matthew Perry will notice me from another table, and he’ll be looking at me and not the prettier girl behind me. Neither of us will say anything at first. Then we’ll both be in line for more coffee, but I won’t have enough change. From behind me I’ll hear, “Hey, she’s covered,” and a hand will reach past me and pay the clerk. I’ll blush, but in an adorable way, where instead of my face getting red and gross, it’ll just get pinkish up by my cheekbones. My hands won’t get clammy. Matthew Perry will say, “This one’s on me. You get the next one.” And I’ll say, “The next one?” And he’ll say, “Yeah,” and wink.
Later that night I’ll be ringing Matthew Perry’s doorbell. He’ll let me in to his mansion, and kiss me on the cheek. I’ll go weak at the knees and almost fall over, but I won’t. And then we’ll be on his couch, cuddling really hard. He’ll want to watch You’ve Got Mail, and I’ll say, “Me too!” and then we’ll laugh about how silly it all is. How funny and simple life can be. Then we’ll hug tightly. For hours. “You are the best person in the world!” he’ll say to me. “No, you are the best person in the world!” I’ll reply, and we’ll fall asleep.
- Letter’s to the Editor’s of Women’s Magazines. Note: Here, Edith pairs a real letter to a women’s magazine with a made-up one in the same vein. Sounds weird, but trust me, hilarious.
I will neither confirm nor deny that I nearly choked on my dinner while reading the following:
Real Letter: Nothing else is as relaxing as sitting on my couch with a cup of coffee and reading your 600-page September issue.
Anastasia D., via instyle.com (InStyle, December 2010)
Not-so-real-letter: Sometimes when I feel sad I press my fingers into my throat until I fall asleep. I think of it as like a real-life fast-forward button, lol.
Kelsey P., Ontario
- The Very Serious F/M/K Famous People Series, which, if you don’t know what those initials stand for, you obviously never played a drinking game in college. Check out F/M/K Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase.
- “How to Lose 10 Pounds Using Wine and Anxiety.” Probably my favorite post of all Hairpin-time, if only for the precise evocation of exactly what my life would be like if I didn’t have people encouraging me to leave my apartment, consume vegetables, go to yoga.
- And for those of you who a.) like classic novels b.) like costume dramas or c.) are nerds in any way who d.) like caps lock, I cannot, cannot, CANNOT recommend these posts on the best book/best costume drama highly enough. The first, aptly entitled “Books that Beat Their Iconic Sister-Books: Jane Eyre vs. Villette,” begins with the following:
ATTENTION ALL LADIES. YOU ARE BEING LIED TO.JANE EYRE IS NOT THE BEST BOOK. REPEAT: JANE EYRE IS NOT THE BEST BOOK.
The best book is Villette.
And then proceeds with a bunch of esoteric hilarity that encourages you to read the book, and ladies, believe me, as a fan of the Brontes hook line and sinker, I have bought that book and will read it as soon as I get done writing about Britney Spears’ vagina for the tenth chapter of my dissertation. Also: read the comments. On every post, read the comments. These commenters are funnier than most bloggers.
The author of these posts, Carrie Ann Wilner, also has things to say about Dickens, but my most recent favorite has been her bit on Fancy Lady Film Hour: The Leopard, which outlines the specific pleasures of an Italian costume drama starring Burt Lancester from the 1960s.
As she explains: Look, I know and you know that 90% of the reason anyone watches movies is to look at sweet gowns. But sometimes you can’t so much talk about that with other people. Sometimes you need a fancy lady to sit you down and tell you what’s what. If you are going to the Philharmonic on gifted tickets and your boxmates try to chat with you, you can never go wrong saying you preferred the Debussy. Also, there is free champagne in the Patrons’ Lounge. But, you cannot — CAN NOT — tell one more grown-ass human adult how much you enjoyed the Pillars of the Earth miniseries. Stop it. Stop it. Right now. Stop it.
- I posted this to the blog Facebook feed the other day, but I will double dip because its awesomeness only gets better: Anne Hathaway Will Probably Make a Pretty Good Catwoman. I don’t like Anne Hathaway; I don’t really care about the Batman series. Which is precisely why this post is so brilliant: “The women of Batman movies are not the problem, the belief that Batman movies should be more than just Batman movies is the problem.”
- And finally, and obviously most importantly, The Babysitter’s Club: Where Are They Now. Perhaps all I need to say is “Well obviously Kristy is a lesbian.”
If this hasn’t given you ample reason to at least sample Hairpin’s various delights, I have failed as a rhetorician, endorsers, and generalized sycophant, and Hairpin will never want me as its girlfriend.
First off, my apologies for the prolonged absence. I’m going through a period of what I’ve come to call “dissertation lent,” writing thousands of words a day in my attempt to get my final chapters of my dissertation to my adviser before February 7th [this is all part of the greater plan to defend in early May, which would make it possible for me to receive my Ph.D. on my 30th birthday]. Rest assured, once this and the next hurdle (e.g. revisions) are finished, I’ll return in force.
While I can’t devote time to crafting long-form blog posts, I am posting an article or two to the blog’s Facebook page, which is gradually turning into a little gossip-style community. I would *love* for you to join, if only so I have a more direct manner of reaching readers. You can do so by looking over the right on the main page of the blog, or by going here and clicking “Join.” I absolutely promise that I will not exploit your readership in any way — no ads, no selling your information, no Facebook tomfoolery. But it’s a great way to post stories of note, especially if you don’t use/follow on Twitter.
As for the title of this post: I’m currently working my way through the chapter that details the rise of Us Weekly in the early 2000s under the editorial guidance of Bonnie Fuller and Janice Min. You may or may not know that Us has been around since 1978 — founded by the New York Times company, believe it or not — and went through several owners before Jann Wenner, aka founder of Rolling Stone, obtained full control in the mid-’80s. At some point, I’ll post versions of the chapters detailing with Us‘ continued struggles in the ’80s and ’90s (it was donned “Jann’s Vietnam”). In 2001, Disney obtained half-interested in the company; in 2002, Wenner hired Fuller, and the magazine became what we know it as today — a super glossy, unabashedly celebrity-focused publication that has gradually incurred on People‘s previous hallowed territory. Fuller was responsible for “Stars: They’re Just Like Us,” the magazine’s unique approach to headlines, the pastel color palate, and the overarching turn towards paparazzi photography, all of which have become hallmarks of the magazine. Fuller resigned in 2003 (if you’ve followed the business, she attempted to turn Star into a glossy, and has since been hired at mail.com, home of Nikki Finke) and was replaced her “no. 2″ Janice Min, who ran the magazine until 2009, refining Fuller’s tactics.
So I’ve read all sorts of articles in the trades (e.g. the magazines meant for people who work in the publishing, advertising, and filmmmaking industry) talking about the changes, the competition between People and Us, the way that Us appealed to a certain type of reading (young, more educated, more wealthy), the way that Us made celebrity gossip something that you weren’t ashamed to read at the nail salon, etc. etc.
But trades can only tell you so much. So what I want to know, loyal reader, is YOUR memory of Us and People — especially in 2002-2005, but today as well.
Do you remember the first time you noticed Us in the supermarket?
The first story that you wanted to read? The first time you bought it/read it?
What do you remember about the contents of those early issues — did they strike you as different than People? How? Do you remember “Stars: They’re Just Like Us?” Was it compelling? Why?
In general, what do you see as the differences between the two magazines? If you can only buy one, which one would you choose? Why?
What demographics do you think each magazine is catering to? Do you consider yourself part of the target demographic?
Do you notice an aesthetic difference between the magazines? Or different ways that they approach celebrity culture in general?
There are SO MANY other ways you could take this, and I would love to hear ANYTHING concerning your opinions, analysis, WHATEVER concerning the two magazines. This is *by far* the most interesting part of the dissertation yet, if simply because I have such a keen memory of the way that Us took the market by storm…..and I can’t wait to hear your own thoughts and memories.
First, a few links to a string of Antenna star/celebrity-based articles:
- “It’s a Bird, It’s a GaGa! It’s….Miley?” (Lindsay Garrison on the ridiculous new Miley video for ‘Can’t be Tamed. Sneak preview: She’s dressed as a GIANT BIRD)
- “I Don’t Give a Damn About My Bad Reputation: Glee Talks Back” (Sharon Ross, with a lively comments section)
- “Character Bleed, Or, What’s Lorelei Gilmore Doing with Nate Fischer” (Kristina Busse on the ways that television characters previous roles ‘bleed’ onto their new performances.)
Now onto the actual topic of the post…..celebrity pity.
This is the cover of last week’s US Weekly — the magazine’s counter to the People Mag Sandra Bullock bombshell. And while this cover isn’t nearly as compelling as Sandy with her baby giving the reader the ‘Don’t mess with my Mom’ look, it does touch on a sentiment that’s regained tremendous currency of late: namely, that these young women have been permanently damaged and distorted by fame….and it both is and is not our fault.
[Of course, this is no new phenomenon -- fame also ruined all the child stars of the 1970s and 1980s, just as it ruined Judy Garland. It's important to remember to historicize -- but I also think that what's happening with these celebrities -- and the very public and incessant cataloguing of their respective 'falls' -- is of a different intensity than that which has come before.]
The ladies of The Hills are in the spotlight because the show just began its final season, but the generalized sentiment (and its connection to tabloidization and reality TV in general) is by no means limited to Heidi et. al. US Weekly has participated in its fair share of blaming Kate Gosselin for ‘destroying her family’ through her quest for fame, while Jezebel recently published ‘In Defense of Lindsay Lohan,’ pointing to the ways in which Lohan’s current situation is the result of shitty, very public upbringing (and celebrity-hungry parents).
The Hills — and Heidi in particular — best represent this particular brand of destruction: the ideological work of celebrity is physically mapped on her body in the form of plastic surgery so drastic that it has made her back bow. She’s also unable to hug or run, and made her mother weep when she saw her. (For more on the tragedy of Heidi, see Liz Ellcessor’s fantastic guest post from a few months back comparing Heidi to Lady MacBeth).
The basic thesis of these pieces is that celebrities have been consumed by their fame — and that process of consumption has warped their ability to see themselves clearly, function in the real world, or follow the rules of society. They drive drunk, they do coke, they starve themselves, they post inappropriate messages on Twitter, they fight with their girlfriends in public, they spend tens of thousands of dollars on energy crystals. The thing about these celebrities that was compelling in the first place — the fact that they were beautiful but also mundane, living a life different than ours but also used the word ‘like’ every other sentence — is eclipsed by their transformation into entities wholly unrecognizable as a part of our daily existence. They turn from ‘just like us’ to ‘just like we never want to be.’ Indeed, it’s no accident that Lindsay Lohan is now so often compared to Gollum from Lord of the Rings: she’s no longer recognizable as human. They become freaks — physically and mentally distorted under the spotlight.
What’s fascinating to me, though, is the way that such articles elude to our participation, but evacuate the actual articles of any potential indictment, either of ourselves (as consumers of celebrity) or of the magazines/blogs themselves (as participants in the production of celebrity). Put differently, Heidi is destroyed by fame….but this destruction is (conveniently) discursively divorced from the fact that Heidi actually gained her current level of (in)fam(y) through a series of US Weekly covers two summers ago (and subsequent follow-ups).
US Weekly even ran a cover story about Heidi’s “Revenge Plastic Surgery” — effectively endorsing the fact that she used breast implants to get revenge (and find happiness).
Of course, gossip magazines are intended to make money — and the way they do so is by recycling stories, regurgitating details but framing them differently, making one party the villain and the other the victim….and switching the tactic the very next week. This worked brilliantly during the Jon and Kate maelstrom of last summer; it worked for Speidi the summer before that. And I’m not saying that US Weekly should suddenly turn hyper moral-/ meta-conscious and begin publishing editorials about the way in which it participates in the destruction of these women. That’d burst the illusion of celebrities simply occuring naturally — and illuminate the strings of production, which no one wants to think about. Most readers want to believe that celebrities simply exist…..and aren’t the product of a celebrity industrial complex. To acknowledge the production of celebrity is to acknowledge its hollowness.
What we should think of, however — especially as feminists — is the ways in which our participation as readers of these products does, indeed, contribute to this ‘destruction’…a destruction that afflicts female celebrities far more than their male counterparts. Even our pity for them — effectively allowing Heidi to think that her surgery was a great idea, as it managed to garner her more publicity — feeds that machine.
Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be interested in gossip, or that reading celebrity gossip blogs is akin to taking the knife to Heidi’s skin. That sort of blame and shame usually comes from those who are wholly critical and dismissive of celebrity and gossip in general; the people who tell you that by looking at the covers of magazine in the supermarket check-out line that you’re basically causing the end of the world as we know it. I’m neither that alarmist nor that condemnatory; obviously, I participate myself.
With that said, I do think it’s important for us, whatever our level of gossip consumption, to realize that the way that fame is destructive, and to acknowledge the fact that the industrial process that produces celebrity can’t function without readers. What’s happened to Heidi, Kristen, and Lindsay Lohan is what Lainey Gossip would call ‘sad smut’ — it’s the type of thing that we shouldn’t be pleasuring in. I may be disgusted by Heidi, but I also genuinely pity her.
When you pity someone, say someone you pass panhandling on the street, what do you do? Do you laugh at that person? Lecture her on the fact that she made decisions that led her there? Give her a paper you wrote on the fact that the structures of capitalism put her there? Probably none of the above. Usually you just avert your eyes and keep walking and try to forget. If anything, these US Weekly‘s are, somewhat ironically, forcing us to confront the result of fame — and our participation in it — on a daily basis. And while US Weekly is certainly part of the problem of profiting off of sad smut, it also provides a visual reminder that haunts the gossip blogs, the doctor’s office, the gym, the supermarket aisle, reminding us, if we choose to listen, of our participation.
And that’s the catch-22 and the delicate balance of celebrity gossip: it simultaneously produces and consumes celebrity….as it works to both encourage our consumption and make us feel shame for doing so.
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 just love that Sandra Bullock.”
“Oh, I know! She’s so natural and perky and down to earth!”
“She was great in that one movie — oh, you know the one I’m talking about, that one with the guy, and they’re from the South, and oh, it’s just adorable. She’s just adorable.”
“Oh I know, I watch that one every year. She’s just great. I just love her.”
This is not an actual transcription of a conversation, but an approximation of one I’ve heard numerous times — at church potlucks, on airplanes, in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. Because WOMEN LOVE SANDRA BULLOCK. More specifically, middle-aged women, many of them members of the ever powerful minivan majority, love Sandra Bullock. They love her for her inoffensive humor; they love her natural, unexotic beauty. They love the fact that she ends up with normal looking, wholly likable white bread men in the movies (Bill Pullman, Harry Connick Jr., Hugh Grant, Benjamin Bratt, Ryan Reynolds) but they most especially love the consistency of her roles.
Normal looking nice guy makes normal looking nice girl happy!
Of course, these women are victims of selective amnesia: Bullock has attempted to complicate her star image with risky roles, including parts in Crash, Murder by Numbers, and the second of the two Capote films, Infamous. (She played the Harper Lee character.) But such roles have done little to alter her overarching image as likable, slightly madcap, and always the recipient of pure and genuine love.
For Bullock is no sex object. She’s a girls’ star — a Julia Roberts, a Meg Ryan. Men do not generally find her attractive, but girls want to be her best friend. The director of The Proposal explained “After I met Sandy for the first time, I remember thinking, This woman has been my friend for 100 years.” She has a beautiful body, skin, and hair, but such attributes are generally revealed through the course of a narrative — she starts out an ugly, somewhat masculine, awkward duckling, only to be transformed through the quiet yet strong love of a good, honest man. Indeed, she is often nearly asexual at the beginning of a film — see her business-minded superboss in The Proposal or her scorned, weepy break-up victim in Hope Floats.
Bullock’s picture personalities is infused with promises and possibilities: you, too, fair viewer, can be transformed by the power of love. Not all of her films are makeover fantasies — indeed, only Miss Congeniality features an explicit makeover — but the most popular of films repeatedly position a non-glamorous protagonist as a site for transformation, both emotional and physical. Bullock’s presence in the lead encourages identification; she’s an awkward Jennifer Aniston, Julia Roberts with her makeup off and hair flat. She’s the supporting actor/best friend made central, and women love her for it.
Her extra-textual persona supports this image. In Glamour, she is described as follows:
Sandy loves her job but is not defined by it. And she knows how to have a life outside of Hollywood: She splits her time between L.A. and Austin, Texas, where she owns a popular bistro, Bess. She has a barn. She’s done a ton of good work for charities, like giving money to a New Orleans high school impacted by Hurricane Katrina. Hello, she even does her own home renovations, like tearing down walls with her bare hands! (OK, I might be exaggerating a bit.) But if I had to pinpoint what sets her apart, it’d be this: She’s humble. She’s real. It’s easy to lose yourself in this business, but Sandy hasn’t gotten swept up in any of it.
See! She likes people! She’d be friends with you! “She’s humble. She’s real.” She’s not a diva. She probably makes her own food and drives her own car and goes to the grocery store. Or so we are led to believe.
The other day, my friends and I were attempting to make a list of stars that our parents just love: stars who make them feel comfortable. Stars whose movies they’ll rent without any foreknowledge of plot; stars who will entice them to go to the movie theater for one of their 2-4 yearly trips. Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts made the cut. But Sandra Bullock was the most unanimous nominee: there’s something so wholly inoffensive and uniquely attractive about her, something that Julia Roberts has lost and Jennifer Aniston never really had. She makes 50 year-olds go see her fall in love with Ryan Reynolds. Her films make big bucks overseas. Her style and charisma translate. She appears virtually ageless, but not in an envy-inducing manner (Demi More) or as a grotesque (Nicole Kidman, Sharon Stone). She’s not stuck up (Renee Zelwegger/Aniston/Courtney Cox), she’s not intimidating (Jolie), she’s not perfect (Halle Berry) and she’s not too madcap (Roseanne).
Indeed, the only thing potentially controversial about Bullock is her choice of husband: motorcycle producer and heavily-tateooed Jesse James.
Bullock and Her Teddy Bear
Discursively, James has been constructed as the culmination of Bullock’s domestic fairytale. After being chased by many a prince (Tate Donovan, Troy Aikman, Ryan Gosling, Matthew McConaughey, Keanu Reeves) she settled with the least moviestarsish, least expected of the bunch — a man who simply made her happy. (And, coincidentally, recreated a narrative conclusion manifested in her most successful films).
In recent weeks, Bullock has been in the gossip weeklies — not to promote her upcoming The Blind Side or to apologize for the train wreck that was All About Steve, but because of her attempts to adopt James’ daughter from a previous marriage. In US Weekly, the article’s title declares her “Battle for Her Stepdaughter.” Bullock and James are attempting to receive full custody of James five-year-old daughter, whose mother, Janine Lindemulder, is a former drug addict, porn star, and general ne’er-do-well. The article is smattered with pictures of a dressed-down, casual Bullock carrying and holding hands with the young girl. Bullock’s image is placed in sharp contrast with the girl’s porn star birth mother: she is everything this blonde bimbo is not. Bullock is quoted declaring “My greatest joy is…being a good wife, a good stepmom.” She loves this child – and that’s what she’ll fight for. (Again, sounds mysteriously similar to the storyline of one of her films — only The Blind Side involves a black male high school student, not a cherubic blond girl).
Bullock says she doesn’t want to do rom-coms anymore — in fact, with something like The Proposal, she’s attempting to forge a path for the ‘female Judd Apatow film.’ Whether or not this is true is beside the point. For while The Blind Side is certainly not a rom-com, as evidenced by the trailer, it most certainly is a family melodrama. As such, the film caters to virtually the same demographic as the rom-com: females, both single and married, between the ages of 20 and 60. (Did you hear The Fray in the background? Yep, they’re talking to you, Grey’s Anatomy fans. Selfsame demo).
With that said, Bullock does not pull in the lower echelons of that demo. She’s got what I’ve termed her Forever Fans — the 30-60-year-olds who will always see her films, like our mothers — but she has failed to attract a younger demographic. Part of this is merely a matter of age — Sandra Bullock portrays 30-somethings and mothers, not teens and post-grads — but I’d also posit that it has something to do with her star image and its particular resonance. Her particular brand of spunk, quirk, Southernness, and romance seems very 1990s to me. Just as The Blind Side appears to be a remake of every film that’s ever told the story of white people saving black people, so too does Bullock’s star image seem to function as a reactivation and deradicalization of a certain type of female star: she’s Bette Davis without the teeth, Joan Crawford without the snarl. Davis and Crawford often ended their films happily coupled, but just as often they ended them alone — sometimes in tears, but nonetheless triumphant. Bullock’s characters never end unhappy; they rarely weather a storm without a silver lining already firmly in view. Bullock is soft, quick to weep, and quicker to give in, where Davis, Crawford, and even Stanwyk (especially in Stella Dallas) are steely, with a fierceness belied by their porcelain faces. These women were also points of identification, but the women in the theaters at the time were hard-bitten by the times — hungry, over-worked, exhausted, and oftentimes, due to the demands of The Depression and World War II, without even the dream of the help of a man or romance. The endings provided by the ’30s and ’40s melodramas emphasized a female independence that wasn’t simply a madcap act, neutralized by film’s end: it was a way of survival, a way of life.
Indeed, the ‘softness’ and heteronormatively-coupled endings of Bullock’s films have everything to do with 1990s in general: I could describe most of Julia Roberts’ films using the same language I’ve employed to describe Bullock. These films’ tone and conclusion likewise speaks to what women — and 30-40 year-old women in particular – imagine for themselves: how far they can reach, and what that place, and its potential splendors, might resemble.
Judging from Bullock’s recent films, happiness and fulfillment can come in the shape of a younger man, a retreat from strict professionalism, or venturing out of suburbia to participate in first-hand philanthropy. To me, all of these choices seem to present female self-reliance and independence as a hollow promise; that those women who sacrificed marriage and family for professional development will realize, sooner or later, that they too need a man, a cause, something greater than themselves. We can view this as selfless and a form of sacrifice…or as a troubling message that cultivating oneself, and one’s own desires, will never truly provide fulfillment.
I don’t dislike Sandra Bullock. I like her (early) films. But I do think that those who fail to understand her and her tremendous draw — as most clearly evidenced in Richard Rushfield’s perceptive yet reductive answer to “Why is Sandra Bullock Still a Star?” over at Gawker — they also demonstrate their lack of understanding of a key, if sometimes quiet, demographic. Middle aged women may not ‘open’ a film at number one, but they certainly can keep a film going strong when everyone else is off Megan Fox getting chased by giant robots. Media observers often express surprise when a film like The Proposal goes on to grosses $300 million international (on a budget of $40 million, no less). Those very same observers — oftentimes male — simply forget the tremendous power, however ‘unglamorous’ it may be, of neglected demographics.
This post explicitly concerns Sandra Bullock, but I’m also writing it as hundreds of thousands of girls and women head to the theaters to screen New Moon, which is now headed for a ridiculously huge international opening gross. Industry critics keep patting Summit Entertainment on the back for their luck in optioning the teen text, yet to attribute it to luck is to miss the point: someone at Summit realized that the text wouldn’t just exploit the teen girl demographic, but the adult female one as well. For The Proposal opened big ($33 million), but New Moon will open with $80 million domestic, if not more. Why? Women. Some of them already Forever Fans.
To answer Rushfield’s question, Sandra Bullock is still a star — and will remain a star — so long as her forever fans keep consuming. Her movies cost relatively little to make; even a bomb like All About Steve will not compromise her consistent palatablity. And with small costs and a built-in audience, she’s a much more reliable bet than Angelina Jolie or the over-priced Julia Roberts. The challenge for execs is how to cultivate new stars, equally inoffensive and socio-temporally resonant, to take her place in the years to come. Who will be our Sandra Bullock? Is it Jennifer Aniston? Gennifer Goodwin? Isla Fischer? Kate Hudson? Regardless, it’ll most likely be someone who men disdain, hot cultural critics ignore, and studios relegate to counter-programming.
Sandra Bullock matters, and is still a star, because women and their pocketbooks do, in fact, matter — and no number of billion dollar grossing smashfests will alter that fact.
The Gossip Facts:
1.) On last week’s cover, Us Weekly explained “WHY HE CHOSE RENEE.” For those not in the know, we’re talking about Bradley Cooper — suddenly someone to talk about following his turns in He’s Just Not That Into You and The Hangover — and his supposed romances with Jennifer Aniston and Renee Zellweger.
3.) Bradley Cooper has been quoted saying he likes ‘authentic’ women. Zellweger is supposedly into ‘appearing natural’ with no makeup and a ponytail. Aniston, on the other hand, is well-known for calculating her appearances. For more, see Lainey’s recent post here.
4.) Despite her marriage to Brad Pitt, Anison regularly plays the ‘role’ (both in films and in ‘real life’) of the eternal bridesmaid. As Us Weekly has declared on multiple covers, she is UNABLE TO FIND LOVE, whether with models, John Mayer, Vince Vaughn, or Pitt. Everytime one of her exes appears in public with a new love, SHE DIES A LITTLE INSIDE.
5.) Last month, Jennifer Aniston told Elle that she was “the emblem for ‘This is what it looks like to be the lonely girl getting on with her life’”
6.) Renee Zellweger’s most notable past romances were with Jack White and country star Kenny Chesney. Zellweger and Chesney were married Julia-Roberts/Lyle-Lovett style, only this time on his private Caribbean beach — completely to the surprise of most. Yet their marriage was annulled just months later. According to my sources, she sued for annulment due to ‘fraud ‘ — e.g., Chesney is gay; reportedly ‘the biggest bottom in Nashville.’ Who knows whether or not this is true — what matters is its circulation, and the fact that it has labeled Zellweger as a practiced ‘beard.’
7.) Jennifer Aniston is 40; Renee Zellweger is 40; Bradley Cooper is 34 .
The Industrial Facts:
1.) US Weekly hates Jennifer Aniston. Hates her. As Lainey points out, they dedicated an entire issue to documenting ‘Jen’s lies.’ They hate her because she refuses to cooperate, and because they can. They’re the anti-People, and People loves some Jennifer Aniston. Thus the barely masked vitriol for Aniston, citing unnamed sources who claim “Jennifer won’t date a normal guy. She goes after the hottest thing of the moment, what she knows will get her the most time in the spotlight.” Interestingly, the cover positions ‘Jen’ as an object of pity — but once inside, she becomes the joke.
2.) Renee Zellweger is FIGHTING LIKE CRAZY to salvage her rapidly sinking career.
Have you seen a good Zellweger film lately? Scratch that, have you seen New in Town? Because if you have (like me) then you realize how far her career has fallen. She’s pushing really hard for THIS WEEK’S film, My One and Only, to succeed: it’s currently on FOUR screens, but needs to do ridiculously well to go wider and avoid what would amount to a straight-to-DVD release. Anne Thompson has a surprisingly good break-down of her star, the state of her career, and what she needs to do to cover — I recommend giving it a glance here. I love that she points to the fact that she’s ‘wrecked her face and never eats anymore.’ Importantly, her worth has sank to the degree that both New in Town and My One and Only had to seek foreign funding, and the latter has independent distribution. BAD BAD SIGN. What I am suggesting, then, is that the public nature of this romance — along with Us Weekly‘s convenient coverage of it — was orchestrated by Zellweger’s people.
3.) Jen probably dislikes the tone of the press, but she has little to worry about.
She’s been filming with Gerald Butler and doing little to quash rumors of a possible romance. That’s Aniston’s game: let people get pictures of her being romantic on-set; let them speculate. As Lainey Gossip points out, Butler has stake in such rumors as well, as his new film The Gamer opens next weekend. Marley & Me and She’s Not That Into You were huge hits; she’s up for an Emmy nomination for her guest appearance on 30 Rock. If anything, the press is a good thing, as it keeps the sympathy of the minivan majority on her side, while Zellweger looks like a smarmy snot.
4.) Bradley Cooper is just a place holder.
I mean seriously. What’s interesting about this guy? He’s certainly no Brad Pitt, who made Jennifer Aniston look like a place holder. He and Zellweger have a small movie coming out sometime this Fall — Case 39, looks to be a melodramatic stinker; they met on the set — and he surely realizes the sort of buzz that this romance will generate. Dude is psyched with his post-Hangover success, but his agent probably realizes that he needs a romance — both to neutralize swirling rumors that he’s maybe-gaybe (hmmmm…..see Zellweger’s past romance) and to cultivate interest in his personal life, which, as we know, is what will make him into a true star, as opposed to the guy from The Hangover.
The Concluding Facts:
1.) Zellweger’s film is going to tank, despite the press. I dare you to take a look at the trailer and tell me otherwise.
2.) US Weekly‘s manufactured feud is yet another example of what Angela McRobbie terms ‘romantic individualism’ — the way that media (and female-addressed media in particular) pits women against one another (usually in the pursuit of a man) as a means of dividing an otherwise powerful (political, cultural) group.
3.) It really does suck to be 40 in Hollywood. Because whether you’re Aniston and succeeding and Zellweger and flailing, every move you make is attributed either to a.) a desire to land a man and have children (both of which are cited in the US Weekly article) or b.) efforts to prove that you’re still ’40 and fabulous,’ either through plastic surgery (Lainey calls Zellweger ‘snapface’), obsessive dieting regimes, or perpetual exercise.
Neither one of these stars are bad actresses. But they’re both attempting to keep themselves relevant. And in today’s celebrity gossip culture, relevance is generally linked to dating, feuding, and scandal. Unfortunately, relevance is only sporadically linked to box office success, as the careers of Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and, now, Renee Zellweger make abundantly clear.
E!’s Declaration of the Speidi-Free Zone
Last Wednesday, E! gave their viewers a very specific sort of power. Like other channels, websites, and shows that rely on viewer feedback to determine programming, E! decided to let its users decide a very important question — should they continue to cover the self-aggrandizing, obvious fame-mongering, preposterous posturing that is Heidi and Spencer Pratt?
[Side note: For those of you whose eyes do not wander to the US Weekly in the grocery store lane, Heidi and Spencer Pratt hail from MTV reality show The Hills -- Heidi was friends with the show's 'star' Lauren Conrad; her boyfriend insinuated himself into the show; they quickly developed 'villain' personalities on the supposedly non-scripted show; after Spencer/Heidi became Lauren's arch enemies, the show and the gossip rags exploited the rivalry Jennifer-Angelina style, spawning a long series of covers (rivaled only by the recent slew of Jon and Kate Plus 8 covers) that rendered the quasi-pseudo-feud into 'real' gossip news. In other words, the mags/gossip sites turned it into a story, most likely because there was little else going on at the time.]
Heidi and Spencer got engaged, de-engaged, plastic-surgeried, re-engaged, faux-married, real-married, and here they are — hungry to exploit themselves for profit in whatever way possible. (And Us Weekly has been eager to pay them to tell their ‘real story’ — and once one of the major magazines covers it, that means the rest of the outlets must as well. Once the story has been ‘made,’ it must be covered.)
In recent weeks, Heidi and Spencer, or ‘Speidi,’ as they’re now known, have been in the news again — this time for their destructive, supposedly traumatic participation with NBC reality show I’m a Celebrity….Get Me Out of Here! I don’t want to go too far into the details, but suffice to say that it’s a show where they try to make pampered celebrities feel less pampered (in this case, they were in the middle of nowhere in Costa Rica). Spencer and Heidi made huge scenes (on in particular over shampoo); they very loudly invoked Jesus; they were baptized by one of the Baldwin brothers in a Costa Rica river. All very obvious ploys at media coverage — similar to their appearance a few months back on the beach with Swine-Flu masks. (Hey Heidi, you know how we can make sure the paparazzi take a picture of us? Wear swine flu masks to the beach.)
Fame-Whoring, Communicable-Disease Style
Now, for whatever reason, this seemed to serve as a breaking point. Audiences found this particular scene — and the coverage that resulted from it — to a be a new brand of repugnant. In the video below, you can see the usually kindly Al Roker take a hatchet to their rhetoric. It’s like Jon Stewart vs. Jim Cramer…only Roker looks much sillier and Speidi has nothing to say. (Note that Heidi later claimed that Roker made her cry.)
All this points to a case of “celebrity fatigue,” and Speidi may or may not regret the scene that they made — or they may power through the fatigue and emerge just as self-exploitative on the other side. Due to the hoopla over Jon and Kate, the scene garnered only a sidebar in the recent issue of Us Weekly…but the cover was still given over to Spencer’s sister’s supposed battle with bulemia, incited by the ‘mean skinny girls’ on the show.
For example, see E!’s recent poll on whether users would like to make the channel a ‘Speidi-Free Zone.” In their words:
Have you had enough?
We’re referring, of course, to Spencer and Heidi Pratt, the reality show retreads who will go to any length—from swine flu photo ops to claims of South American torture—to get a little attention. OK, all your attention.
Now’s your chance to make Speidi go away.
Beginning today through Sunday, we are putting it to the fans to decide whether to banish Heidi and Spencer from E! forever, or at least until they do something truly newsworthy. Or let us know if you want to see their every move documented. Vote in our online poll to declare E! a Speidi-free zone. Results will be announced on E! News Monday at 7 p.m. ET/PT.
Al Roker was joking when he said he’d “hit them with Mace and tie them up.” We obviously don’t condone that craziness at all, but if you can irritate the unflappable Roker that much, well, you’ve got to be pretty annoying. And since you voted Spencer Most Awful celeb, you may just agree.
So let’s settle this like adults: Have you had enough Speidi or would you like some more? We’ll do as you wish.
The choice is yours.
An overwhelming 94% voted online for the change, underscoring the fatigue. But perhaps we should think about this move, both on the part of E! and its viewers, a bit more. In typical Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style fashion, I’ll make a list:
1.) The “Speidi-Free” Zone Decision will likely attract just as much attention to the pair as they would’ve received on E!. Obviously I found out about it — via feminist-skewing Gawker publication Jezebal — which means that it’s being picked up outside of the purely-gossip world. In essence, E! is making publicity for itself by helping ban someone else.
2.) What’s the purpose of refusing to cover a particular type of story? It’s all part of branding. Lainey Gossip refuses to cover what she terms ‘sad smut’: suicide attempts, the Rhianna/Chris Brown affair, etc. She also stays away from reality celebrities as a general rule — Jon and Kate, Speidi, Lauren Conrad, none of them have a place on her blog. It’s product differentiation: you go to her for gossip about ‘real’ stars. E! is trying to make itself appear both responsive to the whims of its users and savvy enough to know that they were reaching the point of fatigue.
3.) There’s something very loaded about ‘hating’ celebrities. As you see above, Spencer was labeled the ‘most hated celebrity.’ Obviously he’s loathsome: if you’ve seen the show, everything about him is repellent. But The Hills, like the celebrity game in general, is cast with good guys and bad guys — and Spencer has adeptly taken up the role assigned to him. In fact, he has taken it up as if it were a late 19th century melodrama, coming to embody ‘pure evil.’
But it’s not that he’s the embodiment of ‘bad masculinity’ — he’s become a nexus of ‘bad celebrity.’ He’s everything that’s wrong about the pseudo-celebrity (aka the celebrity who’s famous for being famous) — he exploits everyone in his life for fame, behaves badly, isn’t good looking, has no redeeming qualities….he is the ugly, unfortunate, embarrassing by-product of our fascination with fame. His very existence shames us. He is like a celebrity-magazine Frankenstein: he are his maker.
And that, at least in my opinion, is why we hate him – the same way that John Wayne hates his doppelganger in The Searchers (sorry, esoteric film studies reference). Indeed, when Al Roker lashes out at the pair, don’t you think it’s rooted in the shame he feels for his network (NBC) for airing I’m a Celebrity in the first place?
94% percent of E! users voted to ban him from the channel because each and every one wants to forget the consumption habits that made him a star in the first place. It’s an attempt to effectively bury a particular section of one’s curious, celebrity-hungry psychology. And it’s not going to work. There will always be another Speidi: banishing them from E! will only create a bigger, even more shameful monster.
I’m a bit late to the game — this week’s US Weekly has THE MOST BRILLIANT COVER OF ALL TIME. (Spencer Pratt’s sister claims THE HILLS MADE ME BULIMIC. Genius. If you’d like to write a post on this, please let me know, because I’d absolutely love to see it on the site.) But last week’s cover (the sixth and final in the Jon/Kate series…for now) completely switched tactics — moving from an attack on the consumption habits of Kate to a complete exoneration of her and demonization of her ne’er-do-well husband, Jon.
As I detailed in my last post on Jon and Kate Plus Eight, the tone of the discourse — especially in the gossip rags — has been to demonize the monstrous feminine that is Kate: she’s a bad mother, a horrible wife, a monstrous, irresponsible, indulgent consumer.
But this last week’s issue took an about-face: suddenly, Kate is the absolute victim, while Jon is the unforgivable philanderer. Indeed, the very title — JON CHEATED ON HER BIRTHDAY — calls for female sympathy and solidarity. Instead of detailing Kate’s various expenditures (tanning, plastic surgery) the article points to Jon’s brazen and public displays of affection with what the magazine labels his ‘mistress’ — he is a “Dad gone wild.” While Kate spent her birthday with her eight children, Jon flew to Park City, Utah, ostensibly to help disabled children to learn to ski (again, why?) while in fact ‘canoodling,’ smoking pot, getting drunk, and hanging out with his 23-year-old female friend.
Okay, fine, who knows what is actually going on — but what’s actually fascinating is this about face on the part of Us Weekly. How does it manage to completely shift its perspective on the entire situation in course of a week? Do viewers sense a disconnect — or just that it’s chosen to take the opposite side of the story?
Jon en route to….being a bastard?
While I’m certainly opposed to the covert misogyny manifested in the earlier articles, I do wonder what prompted this shift in tone — did Us realize that they could appease the other half of their readership that felt sympathy towards Kate? Or, with this new information (and exclusive paparazzi shots of Jon in Park City), did they realize that they would be forced to shift their discursive sympathy to the woman wrangling the eight kids back home? When I read this particular article, it’s incredibly persuasive — this guy is painted as a huge bastard, getting drunk with friends, dancing at a club (he is, after all, but 32) and hanging out with this recent college grad, all while his wife deals with the show and the various pressures of raising eight children. But didn’t it manipulate me just as strongly in the opposite direction but a week ago? Detailing the ways in which Kate had neglected her ‘natural’ motherly duties…with Jon the picture of fatherly perfection?
I suppose I’m curious how the majority of readers assimilate this shift in tone — do they have a pre-established opinion of the pair (and the situation) that won’t be shifted, no matter the tone of discourse? Or does a shift in tone in Us Weekly substantiate a shift in public opinion?
Again, I”m not interested in watching the show, or even in them, so much as the way that the mags have handled this particular situation. According to the TLC teasers, the couple have a HUGE ANNOUNCEMENT to make on this week’s show — which might pop them right back on the cover. We can only wait and see.
A small sampling of the Jon/Kate tabloid fever
Six weeks ago, I had never heard of Jon, Kate, or their Eight. But after receiving five (yes, FIVE) Us Weeklys emblazoned with their saga, I certainly know who they are now — and so does the rest of America, apparently, as the season premiere garnered over 10 million viewers — more than the season finale of Lost.
So what’s going on here? I still haven’t watched the show, but the handling of the couple — and popular reaction to it — seems to indicate a few things about our current culture of celebrity. So here are some initial observations/thoughts on the phenomena — feel free to contribute your own.
1.) It’s a dry gossip season.
Summer is filled with movies and premieres, but little else. Cannes is over, the television season is over, the Costume Gala is over. There’s also no major and/or interesting star developing star romances or pregnancies — I absolutely guarantee that if Brangelina or TomKat or Jennifer Aniston had any major (substantiated) rumors going on, they’d be on the cover. (Star and Life & Style have been trying to sell Brad and Angelina as over, but all of the photos from Cannes made them look ridiculous.) If this were the first time that Heidi and Spencer (of The Hills) were getting married, they’d have covered that.
Us Weekly breaks the story
2.) US Weekly loves a saga.
Sagas make for a sort of ‘serial gossip’ form — you’re pulled into the drama the same way that I’m pulled into, say, The Wire. (Nice comparison, I know.) Note that Us was the first to break the scandal on April 28th — People and the cheaper mags have followed suit, but have no doubt, this was carefully orchestrated — US knew that if they generated interest, they could keep feeding it with subsequent covers. They effectively created the demand — and have since exploited that demand in a way that People can only ape.
3.) There’s a strong chance that the entire story is fake.
It is NOT A COINCIDENCE that the stories broke in the weeks leading up to the season premiere. The Gosselins have certainly been paid to publicize what may or may not be authentic problems with their marriage. Each has had a tell-all cover with People — which probably paid anywhere between five and six figures.
These two may appear deranged or neurotic, but they’re obviously very savvy. They first parlayed their sextuplets into a reality show deal and massive make-overs for themselves and their homes. But they were firmly reality celebrity. Now, with the help of a scandal, they’ve become bona fide celebrities, and their worth — both to TLC and to the gossip mags — has gone up exponentially. The recent beach trip to North Carolina, with TLC cameras and paparazzi following along…not a coincidence.
4.) Jon and Kate = ‘idols of consumption.’
Many years ago, Leo Lowenthal, an old fogie Marxist critic and proto-star scholar, performed an analysis of all of the magazine stories/features between 1900 and 1940. Looking at the results, he theorized that America had transitioned from a society with ‘idols of production’ to ‘idols of consumption.’ From 1900 to 1920, magazine and newspaper profiles focused on ‘idols of production’ — men who made things, and succeeded at making them. The ‘robber barons’ (Carnegie, Vanderbilt, etc.), of course, but also self-made entrepreneurs/Horatio Alger stories like Henry Ford. Our culture idolized them for their ability to make things — be innovative, creative, industrious, etc. From 1920-1940, cultural fascination shifted to ‘idols of consumption’ — put bluntly, people who bought things and performed ‘conspicuous consumption.’ This move was epitomized by the early silent movie stars (Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson, Pola Negri) — whose profiles emphasized lifes of sheer excess (champagne, caviar, dripping jewels, 20 pools, etc. etc.) Even during the Depression, people wanted to see (and read about) their idols consuming the things that they couldn’t have.
Film stars continue this trend (especially in weddings and expensive purses), but consumption on the part of reality celebrities is a bit of a different situation. These men and women (Kate and Jon included) aren’t super beautiful or super talented — they just have some distinguishing factor (8 cute kids) that warrants a low budget cable reality television show. Their consumption, however, is the focal point of the show — and mentioned again and again in the articles detailing their lives. US breaks down ‘How much does it cost to be Kate?’
- Shoes: The mom sports $355 heels by designer Stuart Weitzman
- Cosmetic Procedures: Besides her free teeth whitening and tummy tuck (a $500 and $8000 value, respectively) a source says, she also had a boob job, which can cost $10,000.
- Tanning: Twenty tans at Closer to the Sun, where Kate is a regular, cost $95.
- Nails: She goes every week to Planet Nails and Tan for $30 manicures.
The article also highlights how she can “shop for free at Gymboree, which is featured on the show,” her monthly spa trips, and her 1.1 million home, which rests on 36 acres.
But as these expenses make clear, these idols practice relatively modern consumption. Their consumption patterns (the type of vacations they take, the clothes they wear, what they buy for their children) are ‘average’ — just mildly inflated. Many women go tanning, get their nails done, go to the spa, buy clothes for their children — but Kate gets to go every week, and she gets to buy all the clothes she wants. Which helps explain why….
5.) Women love to hate Kate.
There’s some complex psychology behind this. You only have to look at the titles of the numerous articles to get a jist of this:
- “Mom of 8 refuses to touch bleeding son during press event: fighting, name-calling, no-respect,”
- “INSIDE JON’S PRISON: $5 per day allowance from Kate; banned from seeing brothers after dad’s funeral; her taunts over hair loss and weight,”
- “Kate Gosselin: MOM TO MONSTER: Fired 40 staffers in 3 months; stayed out at dinner while son went to emergency room; sick obsession with money, freebies, and her appearance”
- “Kate Minus Jon: MOMMY, YOU ARE MEAN! Pulls kids from school for TV show vacation, investigated for child labor violations, ‘hissy fit’ at gym, ignores kids at pool.’
You don’t have to read the articles to see what’s going on here. The criticism against Kate centers on three factors: she’s a bad mother, she’s a bad wife, and the reason she’s both of these things is her obsession with fame. (When you think about it, it’s quite ironic that US Weekly is fueling her celebrity at the same time that it criticized what it does to her roles as mother and wife….but celebrity gossip often knows no irony.) As I mention above, the expenses and activities of Kate are not all that glamorous — just ‘ordinary’ luxuries pumped up a bit.
In this way, she becomes the perfect target for jealousy and anger. True stars — Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Aniston — are stars because they can reconcile the ordinary and the extraordinary. They’re ‘just like us’ and other-wordly — they wear jeans and eat hamburgers (just like us!) but those jeans are truly designer and that hamburger cost $50. Kate is no star — she’s a celebrity, and she’s ‘just like us’ without the extraordinariness.
In other words, she’s the woman down the street with a bit more money, more fame, and more impetus to show it off. Every woman knows who this woman is within their neighborhood, work, or friend group — and everyone loves to hate her. Kate represents that woman — and that’s why this story has sold like gangbusters. She may or may not be a bad mother or wife. Who knows. It doesn’t really matter. What matters, as always, is that she’s become a very convenient locus for the anger and jealousy that afflicts those in times of financial woe, when ‘everyday’ women are cutting back on their own luxuries in order to pay for mortgages, school clothes, etc.
I’d love to hear your own thoughts — comment away!