Last week, like every week, several celebrity scandals spread across the internet. The coverage of Rob Kardashian and Blac Chyna and a Brooklyn dog shelter, Lamby and Lena Dunham was particularly robust. As a self-proclaimed fan of what I generously call “pop culture news,” I followed both. It might have been gossip, but the topics were serious: revenge porn, restraining orders and allegations of animal abuse.
The sagas were covered by traditional gossip rags, but also by outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time. Of Dunham’s Instagram response to the hullaballoo, which went viral and further catalyzed the story, the Times said: “It was, in hindsight, the perfect recipe for outrage on social media: Start with a cute dog made famous by his celebrity owner, throw in a claim of animal abuse and then add an animal shelter worker in Brooklyn with a bone to pick.” What followed was a play-by-play of the drama, as documented by political writer Jacey Fortin. And the story continues; yesterday, news broke that the dog’s new owner had issued a statement.
Whether genuine, ironic or begrudged, the interest in this sort of celebrity coverage feels more ubiquitous and unapologetic than ever. These stories trend on Twitter for days. But to sweep it all under the umbrella of “celebrity trash” doesn’t feel right; plenty of media outlets weighing in are offering thoughtful discourse. Take Teen Vogue’s coverage of the Kardashian-Chyna story, which was really a piece on slut shaming: “The attack highlights various stereotypes that are often used to discredit women, especially black women, and the Internet immediately jumped at the chance to demonstrate precisely why this kind of character assassination is so dangerous.”
According to evolutionary biologist Daniel Kruger, there is a scientific explanation for our interest in the goings-on of famous people. “Our desire to know about the activities of high-status individuals is a trait we share with other primates,” Kruger told LiveScience, “and that it’s due to an evolutionary tactic that may have helped us live through the years.” He explains such an interesting may have aided (and continues to aid) us in learning how to navigate society.
Our interest in bad news specifically — celebrity wrongdoings and misfortunes — isn’t just a nasty case of schadenfreude. It’s believed to be somewhat biological. “Our inclination toward bad news is also sometimes termed ‘negative bias,'” explains Medical Daily. “We all possess it to some degree, and it’s actually helpful, as it’s a possible side effect of the fight-or-flight response.” According to a paper written by researchers Amanda Hinnant and Elizabeth Hendrickson, negative celebrity gossip is also effective at bringing public attention and awareness to serious medical and social concerns, perhaps more so than Public Service Announcements.
Is engaging with celebrity gossip okay? Do people still consider it a guilty pleasure? And if celebrity interest stories are outgrowing their grocery-aisle reputation of yore, would that be so bad? I asked six smart people who read and participate in celeb culture to tell me why they do so. Read what they said and then give me your take, too.
Pandora Sykes, writer, stylist, contributing MR editor
“I think the idea that you cannot be riveted by celebrity culture and also be an intelligent being is defunct. Look at Vanity Fair (who ran a story on the paparazzi in Paris when Kim Kardashian was robbed) or the critical writings of Camille Paglia. Celebrities are the lens through which we digest society and culture. Celebrities have the ability to change institutions — see Gwyneth and Chris giving divorce a new spin with their conscious uncoupling. To deny them their cultural potency is not just stingy, it’s totally misguided.
One of my favorite books is Celebrity, Inc. by Jo Piazza. I’m obsessed with the effect of celebrity culture on society, and we have more access and exposure to it today than we ever have. I don’t read gossip because I’m invested in said individuals’ lives (although I do get sad when people break up, because I’m soft), I read it because it provides insight into real issues we face today. When Rob Kardashian shared explicit pictures of Blac Chyna, it told us a lot about how the misogynistic tendency to shame women using their own bodies is still alive today.”
Leslie Price, MR editorial director
“I like (and value) seeing how people react to celebrity life choices and actions. That is really what it boils down to. When another 20-something Quiverfull couple’s baby announcement runs on People, I ALWAYS read the story and all the comments. When this Rob Kardashian-Blac Chyna stuff started roiling, I read a bunch of think pieces about it. Everyone — the commenters, the writers — brings their own experience and perspective. I guess it’s an interest in the collective id or something that draws me to it. It’s like having a finger on the pulse of what people really think about issues like religion or race.
I do think in a lot of ways it’s an escape — something to talk about and bond over that isn’t terrifying like politics, the environment, health care, money, etc. The interest doesn’t seem to wax or wane, it seems to be ever-present.”
Claire Carusillo, beauty columnist and author of That Wet Look
“Celebrity news is the reason I’m a writer in the first place. I was lucky enough to come of age alongside the internet and media outlets like Best Week Ever, D-Listed, ONTD and Gawker. My first real introduction to celebrity news in early high school showed me that funny, smart people were allowed to like celebrities, which I always did. I remember Michelle Collins, who is everywhere now, was one of the OG Best Week Ever bloggers, and I remember wanting her job. Now, I kind of have that job, at least sometimes.
I’ve been watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Real Housewives for eight years, and I’ve been reading Us Weekly (before it became a Trump-controlled propaganda rag last month) for even longer. I’m also in a fairly grueling writing program to earn an MFA in fiction writing. They’re not mutually exclusive. Knowing about celebrities makes me a better writer with better frames of reference. I don’t even want to have to justify what I consume! Only smart girls get shit for liking celebrities; if smart boys like them, then they’re well-rounded.
Haley Scott, non-profit communications director
“I read celebrity gossip on Twitter because it’s a fun form of escapism. I work in veterans advocacy and the work I do on a day-to-day basis is heavy. Mostly, I follow journalists on Twitter who write on war, foreign policy and issues facing veterans. That is not fun Twitter. I balance it by also consuming every piece of gossip on the Kardashians, on Britney Spears’ incredible at-home runway shows, on what The Real Housewives of New York are up to (I have never even watched the show), etc.
It’s wildly distracting but a critical part of my daily news consumption. It’s fun in the same way that gossiping about people you know is fun, but without the guilt associated with talking behind someone’s back who you actually know. It’s essentially a sugar rush, yes, but in the overall grand scheme of things, I think it’s pretty harmless.”
Daniel Nelson, construction worker
“I rejected celebrity gossip as an adolescent. It seemed pathetic or hollow. I was extremely judgmental. But as I got older, I allowed myself more freedom to explore conversations, cultural phenomena, my own thoughts, etc. The world became more of a gradient of context-based ethics as opposed to a diametric one.
Consider talking about the weather — anyone who thinks that’s boring is lying to themselves. The weather is a constantly changing environment that must be perpetually navigated using culturally agreed-upon methods. I’m interested in if it’s going to rain the same way I’m interested in whether or not Kylie Jenner got a boob job. Because she, as a relevant cultural icon, represents an ideological weathervane. To engage with celebrity culture is to explore, reflect, add to and co-construct what already exists around us. Celebrity is representative of something that, no matter how vapid, is undeniably potent.”
Alyssa Norwin, reporter at Hollywood Life
“As someone who used to rip posters out of Popstar and Tiger Beat, having a career in celebrity news is like a dream come true. I’ve always found celebrities’ lives to be compelling. At one point or another, everyone in my life — even those who claim they have NO interest in celebrity gossip — has asked me what’s going on with a famous person. I think we find them fascinating because they’re just people who go through the same human problems everyone goes through. It’s comforting to put our problems aside to focus on theirs.
As someone working inside the industry, there’s also a lot of drama to it that can be addicting: When there’s a divorce or restraining order filed, there are court documents to read through; when there’s breaking news, getting the story out in a timely matter feels as urgent as in any ‘regular’ newsroom. I think that urgency disseminates to audiences too. The need to know is insatiable.”