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In defence of gossip magazines

It is easy to despise certain gossip magazines. They build up celebrities before brutally tearing them down with make-up free close-ups; they prey on women’s body insecurities; and they are, perhaps, the original home of ‘alternative facts’.

I grew up with gossip magazines. My mother had subscriptions to Women’s Day, New Idea and The Australian Women’s Weekly. An intelligent women, dedicated teacher and avid reader of Capote, Flaubert and Carver, in her down time, she loved to pore over the glamorous photos of Princess Di, laugh at the antics of Kerri-Anne Kennerley and marvel at the failure of the latest celebrity ‘love match’.

Yesterday, I picked up the latest edition of one of these magazines, prepared to mock its ‘news’ and its ‘exclusives’. It did not disappoint. The cover highlights included the (apparently) long-running Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston saga that has enthralled readers for more than a decade. The magazine’s royal fascination continued, with irresistible photos of Princess Charlotte, echoing those of William seen decades ago, and there was even an article about Australian tv stalwart, Bert Newton. All of these stories are so familiar that I feel that I could have written them myself.

So, given the repetitive and predictable nature of these articles, and their shameless invasion of celebrities’ privacy, as well as their tenuous links to the truth, what is behind our enduring attraction to gossip magazines?

Perhaps the reason for their popularity, and that of the celebrity narrative itself, is less ridiculous and baffling than it seems. Could it be that gossip magazines fulfil our deep and very human desire for storytelling – a desire that unites people across time and place?

Far from being ‘idle’ or a sign of the moral corrosion of society, storytelling through talking about others, otherwise known as gossip, can provide ‘psychological comfort’, according to The Atlantic.

“Humans have been telling stories for thousands of years, sharing them orally even before the invention of writing. In one way or another, much of people’s lives are spent telling stories – often about other people.”

In an essay in The New York Times, Cynthia Ozick lists the dire consequences of a storytelling tradition bereft of gossip.

“In the absence of secrets revealed – in the absence of rumor and repute and misunderstanding and misdirection – no Chaucer, no Boccaccio, no Boswell, no Jane Austen, no Maupassant, no Proust, no Henry James! The instant Eve took in that awakening morsel of serpentine gossip, Literature in all its variegated forms was born.”

While it might be a step too far to liken gossip magazines to classic novels – sacrilege for some – the role of gossip in storytelling is clear.

Whether in high literature or gossip magazines, we want to know about the lives of others. We want to know about their weddings, their children, their glamorous holidays and their marital problems; the accompanying unflattering swimsuit photo is just a happy bonus. In a way, the truth doesn’t really matter, because we are prepared to suspend our disbelief in our desire for a good story of love, loss and redemption.

Far more accessible and less time-consuming than reading a novel, gossip magazines could be described as being picture books for adults, with villains, heroes and princesses as finely drawn as in any fairy tale. So, it doesn’t really matter how much truth lies in the “quotes from a close source”. It’s ok if the same people appear on the cover, year after year. In fact, all the better if the faces are as familiar as those in our extended families.

No truer example of the impact and significance of the celebrity narrative was in the response to the death of Princess Diana, when Australians joined the Brits (fellow gossip-lovers) in their sense of loss and grief. Few had met or even seen Diana in real life, yet many felt like they had lost a friend. After growing up among gossip magazines, I was no exception. I knew all about her, from her coquettish smile that introduced her to us, to her well-publicised marital struggles. Her entire family was familiar to me.

More recently, people have been just as fascinated by the story of Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie. And could there be a more intriguing story than this one? Over the years, the characters have grown with us, as watched Angelina’s striking metamorphosis from an edgy rebel to an earth mother, and Jen’s ‘struggles’ to become a mother. The knowledge that these characters really exist, and might be troubled by this breach of their privacy and habitual neglect of the truth, provides only a moment’s pause, before we read on, commiserating with them over their latest misfortune.

Unlike on Facebook, where our ‘friends’ can provide filtered versions of their lives, here the stories of celebrities are told in full glory, with cellulite and crow’s feet helpfully highlighted with by arrows and long lenses. Despite their wealth and beauty, in some ways, their stories are our own, their challenges universal.

So, next time you flick through the latest edition of your favourite gossip magazine, you might feel a little less bashful if you remember you are partaking in a storytelling tradition that stretches back centuries, helping us understand ourselves, others and the world around us. Now, excuse me while I read about what Schappelle did next.


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