Date: May 03 2012
'Showing Seal,'' reads the Daily Mail headline, ''what he's missing!'' The ''what'' is the body of model Heidi Klum, in a cosmetics advertisement, in which she is wearing nothing but paint. Klum recently divorced her husband, Seal, with whom she has four children. In light of this, the Daily Mail's headline is odd.
For years these two human beings have shared a bed, and the duties of child-raising; have no doubt suffered illness and anxiety; have wept, guffawed and sneezed with one another. They have, in short, had a life together, with all the intimacy this suggests.
But Seal needs a two-dimensional, digitally-altered advertisement to show him his loss? All the ambiguity and ambivalence of marriage reduced to the display of a professional model's skin, and how her ex-husband feels about it (or doesn't)?
As I said: odd.
It is standard celebrity news and magazine fare - equally at home in Australia's newsagent and supermarket aisles. Flirtations, seductions, romances, marriages, break-ups - they are the stories that sell countless glossies, and provide clicks for countless newspaper websites and blogs. But what is the appeal?
One of the arguments for gossip news is that it enables readers to reflect upon their own lives: the thrill of a flirtation, the comfort of a familiar love, the pain of break-up. But as with Seal and Klum, these stories are little aid to reflection whatsoever - they are far too simplistic for that. Nor do they have the nuance or vitality of a good novel or biography: stories that reveal how complicated a shared life can be. Gossip news makes private life public - or purports to - but it fails to express it with any subtlety, elegance or wit. Often the message is downright Hobbesian: selfish atoms, warring for dominance. There is also the impression that many of the stories are inaccurate at best, or just invented at worst.
As Stephen Glover put it in The Independent earlier this year, ''[it] is indeed wondrous how Look and other women's magazines know the inner private thoughts of celebrities without having had to go to the bother of hacking their phones.''
In other words, this is not just fiction - it is bad fiction. And if readers are looking for enriching, clarifying or moving stories of love, hatred or grief, they are looking in the wrong pages - better Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Hemingway's Snows of Kilimanjaro or Susan Johnson's My Life in Seven Mistakes than the Daily Mail or Hello!.
Another argument is that gossip is simply a harmless distraction. Well, it certainly is a distraction. But is it harmless?
However some may leverage their privacy for dollars and spotlights, it is certainly hurtful, insulting or frustrating to celebrities. As Stuart Littlemore once said of gossip magazines: ''[If] it's not an invasion of privacy, they're not interested in it.''
But gossip news can also be harmful to the reader: it distorts one's view of human intimacy.
No doubt many readers treat the stories as vapid entertainment, and simply enjoy the photos and outrageous claims - a diversion at the supermarket checkout, for example. Yet there are still many readers who care about these celebrity snippets; who discuss celebrities as if they were their confidants or intimate companions. Many cultivate a cynical or naïve idea of others' lives, which are either irrelevant to intimate life, or detrimental to it.
In other words, the problem with the gossip industry is not our curiosity about others; our fascination with other human beings, and their private shenanigans. We are, after all, social animals, and we only become full individuals among others. The problem is that gossip magazines are too narrow and shallow to help us achieve this. They are ambitious - but only fiscally, not psychologically, sociologically.
If you want the best of gossip, read Virginia Woolf's diaries and biographical essays. If you want private appetite and friction laid bare, go to the National Gallery of Australia and view Brett Whiteley's paintings.
None of this matters if readers have other sources of edification or illumination, of course - everyone needs a little cerebral popcorn: light, moreish, cheap. But if gossip mags or celebrity sections are all one's consuming, it's like living on fast food: easy, addictive, but not very healthy. Devotees of pap and paparazzo may be missing a great deal more than Seal is.
Dr Young is a philosopher, and the author of Distraction: A Philosopher's Guide to Being Free (Melbourne University Publishing).
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