Many of us are familiar with the guilty pleasure of reading celebrity gossip magazines and the curious glances we throw at headlines about weddings, break-ups and baby bumps. Almost as many of us have also told others that we would never buy these magazines, but merely read them when they are lying around. This mixture of pleasure, curiosity and guilt is what Reading Celebrity Gossip Magazines skilfully explores. Accessibly written and drawing on extensive research, it offers a compelling analysis of the subject.
Why do we read celebrity gossip magazines, even though we feel guilty about it? One point that should be made immediately, and Andrea McDonnell argues this very well, is to be careful not to dismiss the genre as trivial. Frequently it is women’s genres, such as soap operas and romance novels, that are distinguished from “high” culture and dismissed as frilly pastimes. Along with other feminist scholars, McDonnell asks us to take the genre of the “popular feminine” seriously and to engage with the pleasures that women (and men) experience when reading such publications.
But how can this pleasure be understood? As McDonnell shows, readers are often critical of celebrity gossip magazines’ content. They detest the ruthless scrutiny of women’s bodies and the unrealistically high standards of beauty conveyed therein. And yet millions of people read such titles because they offer an opportunity for expression, companionship and dissent. Many of the publications’ perennial subjects - body image, relationships, childbearing and rearing - are deeply felt. Reading about celebrity gossip, and discussing it with friends and colleagues, offers women a space to work through the highs and lows of their own lives, to understand contradictions and manage challenges.
I fully agree that female genres and pleasures should be seen as more than mindless indulgence. And I am convinced by McDonnell’s argument that women use these magazines to deal with personal issues and, far from taking their content at face value, actively challenge narrow representations of femininity. But I think she is over-optimistic about readers’ resistance to the magazines’ content. She does acknowledge that “savvy” readings do not lead to wider institutional changes, and this is a crucial point. The magazines address readers as empowered. They presume there will be a certain degree of resistance. Resistance, then, is part of the experience of reading celebrity gossip. But this form of resistance does not help us imagine a world where women are not constantly bombarded with narrow versions of femininity.
As a cultural studies scholar, I am skilled at deciphering the ideological messages of these magazines - and yet these magazines have an effect on me all the same. I would have to lie if I said I did not want to look beautiful. This is not to say that critique is useless, but on the contrary, to say that we must pose the tricky question of how liberating savvy readings can be when the genre presumes such readings. I value McDonnell’s arguments about the pleasure women take in reading celebrity gossip, and the impressive amount of research upon which her analysis is based. But I still want to call for forms of resistance that go beyond irony, knowingness and savviness.
Reading Celebrity Gossip Magazines
By Andrea McDonnell
Polity, 200pp, £50.00 and £15.99
ISBN 9780745682181 and 2198
Published 23 May 2014