What’s wrong with a bit of harmless gossip? So what if I use the odd half-truth to spice up a bit of conversation? Or pass on an unsubstantiated rumour? Isn’t it important that I know what’s going on, or what might be going on, or what could in theory in some alternative universe be going on? And that you know it too?
Laura Barton ponders these issues after seeing Lillian Helman’s 1934 play The Children’s Hour, that deals with the fall-out from a malicious accusation made against two teachers in a girls’ boarding school in New England.
‘Gossip,” the grande dame of rumourmongers, Liz Smith, once noted, “is just news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress.”
Few of us are immune to the lure of celebrity gossip. Like many women I know, I find even a casual visit to the Daily Mail website is akin to falling down a rabbit-hole: hours lost in the trials and tribulations of the Kardashian sisters, or the wardrobe choices of Kelly Brook, or in riveting accounts of Britney Spears paying an afternoon visit to Starbucks. And my conclusion is that the mud does stick: I can tell you with some accuracy, for example, the romantic history of Shia LaBoeuf, or the fitness regime of weather-girl Claire Nasir, and I have a working knowledge of the US television series Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, without ever once having seen it.
Gossip has always been deemed a largely female preserve, and there have been numerous studies of women’s relationships with hearsay and tattle, of the way it builds our social networks, cements our relationships, of the way we revel in its endless narrative – the weight gained, lost and gained once again; the bikini shots; the red-carpet outfits; the marriages; the births; the infidelities – in much the same way that many men (and, yes, women too) relish the rise and fall of a football team and its players.
But these days gossip seems to have outdone itself: its magazines (chiefly aimed at a female audience) flourish in a flagging market, while websites such as TMZ broadcast endless videos of Lindsey Lohan buying shoes or Justin Bieber inspecting his nails, and with this increased exposure we have come to believe these are things we have a right to know…
And this is what I fear we are in danger of forgetting: that gossip is harmful. And it is harmful not just to those who are gossiped about; it is harmful, too, to those of us who relentlessly consume it.
Nearly 50 years ago, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, in which she spoke of the widespread unhappiness and lack of fulfilment of women in the 50s and 60s. “The problem that has no name” was what she called it, and she defined it as “simply the fact that American women are kept from growing to their full human capacities”. It was, she said, “taking a far greater toll on the physical and mental health of our country than any known disease”.
Times are different now. Women have greater access to education, to careers, to intellectual fulfilment than ever before. And yet now we choose to dumb ourselves down, to subdue our own minds by sedating ourselves with online visits to the Daily Mail and buying gossip weeklies at the newsstand. “The feminine mystique has succeeded in burying millions of American women alive,” Friedan wrote in 1963, and there are times when I fear we are doing no better – burying ourselves alive in a mire of half-true tales about Sienna Miller.
We need to nourish our minds, we need to recognise that if we continue to feed ourselves with this bilge, this drivel, then we are imprisoning ourselves. Isn’t it time we became less about the red satin dress and more about the news?
Is it really predominantly a ‘women’s issue’? And if so – why?