HZ: A thousand or so years ago, the word ‘gossip’ meant something quite different: a family member. The word broke down to ‘god sibb’, like a godsibling, although then the ‘sibb’ wasn’t necessarily a sibling, was more general, could refer to anyone you were related to. And over the next few hundred years, more specifically, gossips were the close female family and friends who would attend to a woman during labour; she would be sequestered and maybe half a dozen gossips would gather in the room to take care of the mother and help deliver the baby and witness the birth for the purposes of the baby’s baptism - at which these gossips, godsibbs, would be the child’s sponsors. And during these confinements, the women would keep each other company and talk. So you can see how the word would evolve to mean the kind of confidential chat you’d have with someone you’re close to, but by the mid-16th century the word had taken on a bit of a disapproving tone, that the talk was trivial and maybe scurrilous - and female. And these associations persist to this day.
LAINEY LUI: One of my goals as a gossip crusader is to end the pejorative way it's presented in culture, that it's a thing that hens do all around, pecking at each other. It's highly feminized, which is why it's not taken as seriously, when in fact the research shows that we all gossip: it's a human way of communicating.
HZ: This is Lainey Lui. She’s a TV host and entertainment reporter, and around 2003 she created the gossip website Lainey Gossip.
LAINEY LUI: At that point I was just talking shit about celebrities. And then it occurred to me that in the conversations that we have about celebrities, we're sharing a lot more about ourselves. We're sharing what we believe in, what we don't believe in, what we judge. We are working out identity. We're creating boundaries. We're inviting people in. And so a couple years after I started Lainey Gossip I realized, well, I'm going to take this seriously so that other people can take it seriously. And I kind of adopted a crusade mode for gossip, that it is a valuable form of communication. And in fact there's science and research out there to support it. I feel like more and more anthropologists, sociologists, academics are advocating and confirming the value of gossip: that it's a tool for social communication. It's a tool for social understanding, and it may be in real time a documentation of cultural history.
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: I think that celebrity gossip is like a cultural key, in that it tells you so much about what a society at a given moment in time is feeling anxiety about or feeling excited about, or the way that we feel about class or race or women or any number of other things. To me it's a way to unlock so much.
HZ: Right, so the public mirror of private concerns?
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: Yeah, absolutely. There are things about gossip that allow us to speak about these larger issues in a way that is deflected from our own personal lives, so it might be really uncomfortable to talk about how you feel about sexuality in your own life, or in people like your friends or close intimate intimates, but it's much more easy - in good ways and bad - to extend those conversations when you're actually talking about these larger than life figures who are the celebrities that surround us.
I am Anne Helen Petersen and I am a senior culture writer at BuzzFeed News, but I also write books.
HZ: And you are a doctor.
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: I am. I never think of myself that way, but I am a doctor of celebrity gossip. Star theory, it's this general idea or way of looking at stars in which you can decipher and take apart their image as if it were any other text. So you can analyze it very similar to a book, and then also think about how different parts of their image were forwarded or emphasized in reaction to cultural needs and that sort of thing. When I first started reading about that, I was like "This is fascinating!"
HZ: So why, then, is gossip so often dismissed as spurious trash?
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: I think that women's opinions and voices are always discredited historically and continuing today. But I think that idea that it's just a domestic sort of chatter that doesn't have any real world or public sphere consequences is something that still clings to the word and also to publications that publish gossip.
LAINEY LUI: Also I think that there is this idea that gossip is always about celebrities, or gossip is like when you hate your friend or you're backstabbing her, and it's in the realm of the things that only women are interested in. Gossip isn't just restricted to celebrities and women. What they do in politics is essentially gossip. When you have CNN telling its audience that they have a source who told them that the president is upset or feeling this or that or angry or about to release a statement: that's gossip. Right? It came from a source. You worked on the source. It's a secret relationship. And the information got exchanged and then the information is disseminated.
HZ: So it's above board as long as it's about politics.
LAINEY LUI: As long as it's about politics, somehow it's not classified as like gossip in the way that celebrity news is characterized; but the process that I just laid out for you, about the source and the exchanging of information, is exactly the same.
HZ: And sport as well. Gossip that's okay for men to like.
LAINEY LUI: 100 percent sports. Like when you have a bunch of dudes sitting around, shitting on this player who doesn't work very hard and you heard it's because he's spends too much time doing this. Or when you're talking about the locker room and that these two players don't get along, or this player doesn't feel like he's getting enough ice time or court time or field time or whatever sport you happen to be talking about: that's gossip.
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: There's still this delineation between talking about celebrities or talking about other women is somehow gossip, when talking of men talking about other men is talking shop or networking, or talking about sports is just like sports conversation. That that it takes on a different place in the hierarchy of discourse. The amount of gossip about politicians that just is called political reporting, when it is just as speculative and intended to wound and formed in the discourse and all sorts of things. It is the exact same thing in just different clothes.
HZ: Furthermore, gossip has now become politics.
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: Gossip is there with everything to do with Trump; he is a figure made through the gossip press primarily in the 1980s, and whose image was the result of that press, plus what happened with the Apprentice, which was bolstered again by the gossip press.
LAINEY LUI: To really understand this president, you do have to understand how gossip works. Like at the beginning a lot of outlets - ‘proper news’ outlets - were covering him the way they used to cover other people and they were finding that it wasn't working; they just couldn't get to the story. And more and more, they were like, well shit, it's because he's a celebrity, and he spins stories the way celebrities used to spin stories. And I think that that brings us to what the downside can be, which is the way celebrities often spin stories is to their advantage. Number one, they'll discredit the gossip: "That's just gossip. That's not true about us." Straight up denials that are essentially lies coming out of their mouths. That's been like a tried and true celebrity tactic forever. And there just unfortunately hasn't been enough sophistication of understanding how gossip works and filtering through what gossip is trying to tell us for us to be able to get like a really good hold on it. But even if you go back as far as the Clinton era: the gossip was that he was a philanderer. And what he would do is use the word gossip to dismiss it. “That's just gossip.” But as we know now, it was true, the gossip was true: he cheated on his wife, he pursued Monica Lewinsky. It was gossip and it was fact and the two don't have to be mutually exclusive. Gossip can be factual. And he attacked those stories by leaning into the fact that people don't trust gossip. Well, fuck: maybe we should.
HZ: Of course, people don’t just gossip about celebrities; they often talk about people they know in their own lives. And that can be useful. ‘Whisper network’ is a term I only learned when the Me Too movement gathered force in late 2017.
LAINEY LUI: And there always has been a whisper network - we just haven't called it that or didn't have a formal name, but where women will do each other a solid and be like, "Hey, watch out for that guy at the party," or "This is the guy at work you don't want to get close to." The whisper networks were in place because there was no other way to protect each other because these are very powerful people. And so you aren't able to use, for example, the usual routes of protection which is law enforcement and the courts, because as we've seen sometimes law enforcement and the courts don't work in the way of victims. So their best defense was to gossip and to share information with each other so at the very least, someone might think twice before being lured and trapped into a situation that they were incapable and powerless to get out of.
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: Gossip is a way that women have protected themselves against all manner of things: if we can't change laws, if we can't actually prosecute for things like that, you can warn other women about predators, about skeevy situations; that is one of the powers of gossip for sure.
LAINEY LUI: That whisper network and that exchange of information, women talking to other women, has protected women for probably since forever. And if you think about who benefits from women not talking to each other, it's often the status quo.
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: If women talk with enough with each other then somehow they will either band together right and overthrow their captor - for lack of a better term - or that they will realize that it doesn't have to be this way. It's a consciousness raising thing. And I think that there is a reason why women were discouraged from reading, women were discouraged from going to school; there's all sorts of reasons why women have not been allowed to have access to the same sort of knowledge as men, and gossip is one of them. But I actually think that gossip is a way that women worked around those prohibitions to actually share knowledge.
HZ: Anne Helen Petersen is senior culture writer at Buzzfeed News. She has a newsletter, which always contains lots of great stuff to read; and she is the author of books including Too Fat, Too Slutty Too Loud, and Scandals of Classic Hollywood. And you’ll hear a little more from her in just a moment.
Lainey Lui is the founder of the gossip website Lainey Gossip.com, which you should read if you’re interested in the machinations of media. And she cohosts two podcasts: Show Your Work, and What’s Your Drama.
HZ: In today’s Minillusionist, Anne Helen Petersen talks about how the gossip media industry developed in the age of classic Hollywood.
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: I's a combination of the gossip magazines, they were called movie magazines really, that were started in the early teens like the 19-teens. And a lot of them had not very much about stars' private lives, originally; like a lot of it was just recounting the summary of movies, like they were more akin to Entertainment Weekly. But they slowly transitioned into focusing much more on the stars' private lives as those lives became available for consumption. There was a period in very early cinema where people didn't even know the stars' names, they would be like 'the girl with the curls'. And part of that was the studios recognizing - this is very savvy of them and exploitative - but they recognized that like once you give this star a name and you create a bond between audience members and that star, then that star becomes more valuable and the star can then advocate for more pay. So they were like, "Well, if we don't name them then we'll keep them as like indentured servitude." But that transition to over the course of the 19-teens. And at the same time so you had tons of gossip magazines. So there were ones that were much cheaper, that were like a nickel, and then the higher end ones that would go up to a dime or a quarter, and then in New York you had the more traditional gossip columnists who are more concerned with New York society, but then would gradually shift their attention if stars were in New York to talk about them as well. And then you had the gossip columnists this is like a separate realm but these women - Hedda Hopper and Luella Parsons were kind of these old biddies of gossip and they had columns that were syndicated nationally in newspapers.
HZ: And what appeared in gossip publications was usually pretty tightly controlled by the studios.
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: For the first half of classic Hollywood, all of the gossip columnists were kind of in the pocket or operating symbiotically with the studios themselves. So like these magazines like Photo Play it was one of the most famous. So Photo Play would get access to the stars, would get like the most glamorous new photos of them. Then the studios would also pay for a lot of advertising for their new films in these magazines. But then as a result, the magazines toed this very fine line of not actually printing in what was happening in these stars' private lives but printing stories, profiles, interviews that sort of thing that matched up with the image of each of the stars that the studio had decided that it would be. So they decided - they redid Clark Gable’s image at one point. Originally he was going to be like a dapper man about town and then they're like actually what if he's like a lumberjack guy. So they redid that image and the fan magazines, they shifted their coverage in the types of photos in the headlines and the way that they wrote about him. they shifted that accordingly.
HZ: And it worked?
ANNE HELEN PETERSEN: Yeah. Yeah absolutely. I think then as now, there are some readers who love to believe everything that they read, and there are some who read it knowing that it is part of publicity fabrication, and there are some people who read it really against the grain thinking like "Everything here is a lie. So this is just fun for me to read these lies." And that's true just as much today as it was then; just because they didn't have the internet didn't mean that they were stupid readers.
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This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with music by Martin Austwick. Find all of his songs, including a brand new album, at palebirdmusic.com.
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