Friday, February 03, 2006

Celebrity Gossip and Feminism: An Abstract and Link-a-thon

This is a huge and sprawling topic -- one that I've sort of been working on all along here at FD -- but I think it's time to try to map out the contours of a gossip/ feminism map. It goes without saying that the major forums for celeb gossip -- print tabloids, gossip blogs, and cable channels like E! and VH1 -- are loaded with potent, hyper-graphic images of women. It's a visual field in which the female body is both plastic and multiple -- like a chain of paper dolls or a form infinitely reflected in a set of mirrors.

And yet celebrity gossip is basically embroidered with it's own contradictions. Highly manufactured and illusory -- slick and disposable and redundant -- and yet seemingly connected to something deeper in it's tendency toward certain types of narratives and archetypes. As an organism, it's sprawl is dark and gothic. It's at once frivolous and disturbing, erratic and predictable, fawning and defamatory.

For all of its obsessions with surfaces and temporality, gossip tells the same stories about women and uses the same tropes and characters over and over -- from the "forbidden fruit" of the old testament to the "bad girl / good girl" morality tales of the 1950s (this list would also include tropes like the "other woman," "the scorned woman," and "the diva" to name a few). And yet gossip also tells us stories of women who do not fit this mold: Angelina pre-Brad, Madonna, Courtney Love, Mary-Kate . . . The thing is that these roles are also fluid. And for as much as certain celebrities may represent the ideal "all American" or "white picket fence family" in the movies, there is a sense that at any second their personal lives could begin to read like science fiction (sonogram machines, anyone?).

And gossip -- in it's cocktail of rumor, speculation, "secret sources," and facts -- is collectively authored. Like a game of telephone, the stories gossip lover's consume range from the incidental and hardly debatable ("Britney gives birth!," "Pairs shops at Kitson") to the hardly provable ("Britney was a man!"). How these stories reflect or absorb larger cultural trends, or how these stories can provide us with some barometer for mainstream attitudes toward women is a compelling question.

So I'm sort of curating a little on-line museum as a way to begin thinking about the ways celebrity gossip depicts and involves women. Here's what I've come up with so far.

Exhibit A: Anxiety about the female body and fascist standards of beauty

This type of story, devoted entirely to whether or not Tyra Banks armpit looks like a vagina. Or this type of story, in which speculation over whether or not Katie's baby bump is real enters Warholian territory. Or this type of story in which people are horrified by the idea that Mischa Barton might actually menstruate. Or this type of story in which rumors of K-Fed mocking Britney for her weight (WTF?), illustrate a tendency to continue to judge viciously those women who are rich and powerful but who no longer adhere to some media-code of beauty (interestingly, most readers side with Britney, and are quick to condemn K-Fed. So is there some radical potential in this last story?)

Exhibit B: Feminity and Propriety

And then there's this type of story in which Kirsten Dunst, described as "skanky," is purportedly mistaken for a stripper. Or this story of Lindsay scrawling in the ladies' room: "Scarlett is a bloody cunt"( I find it fascinating the way Lilo's potty-mouth proclamation also suggests menstruation). On the same night she and Kate Moss are reported to have made their own attempts at stripping, and of course this is no case of mistaken identity, but a trying on of the stripper's role. What are we to make of this?

Exhibit C: Women and Privacy / Women and Secrecy

This type of story about swiped diaries. The diary is indeed a associated with femininity and "secrets." And in the post-stolen sidekick era, almost seems quaint. Like the diary of Laura Palmer, these are the MacGuffin's of celebrity gossip. Though they are reportedly "stolen," they seem just as likely to have been strategically lost. (Tinkerbell, anyone?) Compare this to Britney's "desperate" fight for privacy following the weeks just after her son's birth. And check out these pictures of papparazi stalking Christina's wedding.

These following exhibits have no links (sorry, I'm getting tired. I may update though).

Exhibit D: Women and "wild" or "loose" or "naughty" behavior ("raunch culture"?) *related to women and propriety; the distinction I would make is mostly one of presentation. But there is more to flesh out here, and I invite you to pipe in if you have ideas.

The lady is a tramp: Tara Reid is drunk (again). Courtney Love is f-ed up (again). Any sex tape story. Any dancing on table story. Jessica Simpson's "walk of shame."

Exhibit E: Women and domesticity / Women and Monogamy / Women and Motherhood

I'm lumping these together because they often overlap: Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillipe, Jen Garner and Ben Affleck, Gwenyth Paltrow and Chris Martin, Angelina and Brad. Seem to act out "perfect family" fantasy. Interestingly, men are much more likely to be fawned over if they are seen spending time with their children, almost always eliciting an "awww, cute!" response from everyone. Double-standard.

Exhibit F: The Woman Who Can Do No Wrong

Jennifer Aniston

Exhibit G: Women and Sexuality

Everything from Ellen and Portia, Angelina's ex-lesbian lover, and pictures of Paris making out with other girls. This last area seems to showcase a range of attitudes, from the vaguely progressive embrace of out, committed lesbian couples, to the vaguely conservative fascination with "hot girl on girl action."

As you can see, I've limited the scope to stories in which women are the subjects. No Collin Farell stories though those reveal interesting attitudes toward women as well. But I'm starting here. And as I said earlier, it's just a start. And of course there are other "problems" here -- the whole construction of "celebrity" and the "right to privacy." And that whole history of the Hollywood Babylon.

What do you think, reader? We want to know.

Relataed posts: Skellywood, Preggers Celebbers, Tracking the "it" Girl, Gossip Girl and James Frey, and "They Want a Baby!"


Emma said...

Great post!

I think a key part of Exhibit A are all of those dreadful stories about female celebrities' weight. To wit: Mariah Carey is "too fat" and Nicole Ritchie is "too thin".

Weight stories have reached fever pitch in the UK. At a newsstand yesterday I counted a raft of front page stories about Posh Spice and Nicole Ritchie being a "concerning" size 4 (our sizes are slightly smaller than yours, I think).

Heat, Britain's premier celebrity trash weekly, has been advertising for weeks issues that express oleaginous faux-concern about celebrity weight loss and/or (the two) celebrities who are too heavy to be "healthy" and/or on super diets.

Mickle said...

Unfortunately, I think the readers side with Brittany only because she so recently gave birth and because people already despise K-Fed for being a trophy husband.

Jenny said...

Nicole Kidman could go into the Jennifer Aniston category.

I'm starting to sense a backlash against Jennifer Aniston. I suppose you could say that Angelina is winning people over with her whole charitable mother act. But I'm not being won over. I still hate her.

I guess I am guilty of the whole "awww-ing" over cute guys with babies. I can't help it!

Sandy said...

For an interesting look at the whole cult of the celebrity mom, check out Susan Douglas & Meredith Michaels book - The Mommy Myth. Very interesting, especially since it just seems to be burgeoning. Pun intended.