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What Do You Do with a PhD in Celebrity Gossip?

The academic Anne Helen Petersen has become internet famous and critically acclaimed for her examinations of the gossip industry and the way we talk about stars.

Photo courtesy of Plume

Thanks to the endless coverage of Justin Bieber’s Segway trips it can seem like our society has reached the nadir of celebrity obsession, but gossiping about stars has been a vibrant pastime since at least the early 20th century. For the last several years, academic Anne Helen Petersen has been opening the history books (and vintage issues of US Weekly), analyzing the gossip industry, and arguing that celebrities illuminate important aspects of American culture.


After Petersen finished her dissertation on the history of gossip and received her PhD from University of Texas, Austin, in 2011, she spent several years teaching. In between classes, she updated her personal blog Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style and wrote a column on the Hairpin called Scandals of Classic Hollywood that explored old celebrity gossip through an academic lens. Earlier this year, her online writing became so popular that BuzzFeed offered her a full-time job. She accepted the position, making her one of the few academics to ever write articles millions of people enjoy reading. (I mean that as a very big compliment.)

Plume recently released Petersen's new book (also called Scandals of Classic Hollywood), which features essays about stars like Judy Garland, Clara Bow, and Fatty Arbuckle. After I finished the addictive, engrossing, and illuminating book, I called Petersen to discuss her unique approach to writing, Judy Garland's suicide attempts, and the state of today’s gossip magazines.

VICE: What’s the difference between reading a tabloid for fun and reading gossip as an academic?
Anne Helen Petersen: A lot of times people, whatever their education level, will read celebrity gossip as they would any other kind of pop culture mode of entertainment, like watching reality television or going to blockbuster movies, and know that it's enjoyable. But they don’t necessarily understand why they like it, or want to understand how these images are made or why we find them compelling or why we want to hear stories about people we otherwise don’t know at all. I saw that lots of people really want to think at a deeper level about celebrity gossip the same way that people want to read film criticism or television recaps. An academic approach to gossip asks how celebrity images are made, how they function ideologically, and how they point to things that matter in our society.


How is your new book different than other books about Hollywood?
Most books about Hollywood stars are very flattering. They’re either hagiographies in which the star is essentially sainted, or they use a lot of testimony from people many decades after the fact who say that they know something, like, “I am the person who can tell you that Cary Grant was gay. I know someone who slept with Cary Grant, and that is the truth.” They’re really trying to arrive at what is the truth of what happened, and for me, it’s always a matter less of what the truth is and more about how information about [the star] was mediated.

The other type of coverage is scandal-mongering coverage. People love to believe the worst, and the far end of of the spectrum is where people say, “The stars were almost disgusting in their hedonism.” The problem with that for me is that—especially for women—these narratives become the narratives of the star. Until very recently the Wikipedia page for Clara Bow perpetuated the story that she slept with the entire USC football team. It’s not telling the truth, and its not fair to the way that she’s remembered.

Clara Bow. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Your book discusses how the star system controlled young actors’ lives. Is there an analogy to be made between the studio system and Disney and Nickelodeon’s child star factories?
Totally. I think that Nickelodeon and especially Disney are the new version of the star system, and even some of the companies that seek out YouTube stars and then contract them control [the YouTube stars'] behavior.


When I read the Judy Garland chapter I thought, Oh my god, this is like Britney Spears.  
The difference in Britney’s case—with legal intervention and the way that her parents functioned differently—she didn’t go down the complete spiral that Garland went down, but I think it really easily could have gone that way. So many people are struck by the Garland chapter because of how publicly she was called an “ugly duckling” and ridiculed for her weight gain, but also the public knowledge of her suicide attempts and the anger directed towards her studio—which really played out in a visible way that we don’t usually think of in the 1950s. People knew that she attempted suicide, but the gossip columnists also blamed MGM for what they had done to her.

Judy Garland. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Knowing what you know about classic Hollywood stars like Garland, do you look at today’s stars and think, I see what you’re doing, I can see through your shtick?
Yes. Part of that is just publicity and trying to create a coherent image is always going to be the same, no matter if the star is from the 1930s or 2010s. The difference is really that the means of producing that image are different. Beyonce is producing an image using Tumblr and Instagram, which obviously stars in the 30s didn’t have, but she’s still trying to create a very specific understanding of the type of woman that she is. She’s trying to also make it seem like there isn’t a publicity campaign and that she’s not doing that, which was also done in the 1930s.

As society progresses, does the gossip industry improve, or do tabloids and blogs remain as bad as ever?
I think that gossip is most often—even when we gossip about our friends—used as a way of socially policing behaviors, to see if someone is adhering to the status quo or not. I think that that line [defining the] status quo is always changing, so there are different ways that we police someone. In the 1930s, if someone was accused of being too sexual on screen by showing too much of her thighs, that was a certain sort of policing of female sexuality. Today it’s not so much a question of nudity, but [a question of] if someone is linked with too many men, or if they’re bisexual instead of declaring themselves as gay or straight in that very strict delineation, or if they don’t have kids. There are all sorts of behaviors that are still policed.

Why should we take the gossip industry more seriously?
I think that, at any given point in history, you can look at the people who were the main stars and celebrities and extrapolate so much about what American society valued or was feeling anxiety about at that time. If you take that lens and use it historically, but also on the way that we talk about celebrities now, it’s very illuminating.

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