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Pop Gossip and Bloated Self Esteem

13 February 2008
In a culture consumed with celebrity gossip and reality TV, what is the impact on the people for whom the celebrity spotlight never wavers? And do the rest of us share responsibility for their fates when the attention goes too far?

Erma Bombeck was a genius. Whenever I am seeking a wise bon mot – particularly as it relates to popular culture – I turn to her. I did so today, and as usual, I found what I was looking for.

"Some say our national pastime is baseball. Not me. It's gossip."

There was a time when famous people were famous for doing something (New York society columns notwithstanding). Now we have K-Fed and Paris Hilton – both of whose entire claim to fame rests on their ability to generate gossip. The Hollywood gossip trade is big business. Just yesterday I heard my six-year-old say – with no small measure of authority – that Jennifer Lopez was having twins. Our neighbor down the street is pregnant, and I'm pretty sure our little one hasn't even noticed. But she knows about J-Lo. And her television time is limited to 30 minutes each day!

My 22-year-old was sitting at the computer and said, "Good grief. Why don't they just leave Britney alone? Can't they see she's going to kill herself if they keep this up?" I walked over and looked at the computer monitor, and sure enough, People Magazine's web-site was loaded, delivering the by-the-minute Britney news they make so much money on.

I know it was kind of harsh, but I had to make a point. I said, "Yes, but it's your fault."

"What?" She started laughing, shaking her head. Just another crazy weird thing for mom to say.

"No, I mean it. It's your fault."

"Right. And I assume you're going to explain how it could possibly be my fault."

"Because you clicked on that headline. And everyone who clicks on that headline tells People Magazine they want more news about that poor girl."

"But there are millions of us looking at Britney news!"

My point. What a strange place for a culture to be. Our compulsion for bad news fuels an entire industry made up of photographers, print magazines, cable magazines, and internet sites. Any overly aggressive photographer with a camera and no need for sleep can earn upwards of $300,000 per year taking pictures of pop stars leaving Vons with their weekly groceries. When did America notice that the writers were on strike? Not until the strike undermined the awards shows and all those great pictures of stars on the red carpet wearing designer gowns. Why didn't America notice? Because we're so busy watching reality TV, which doesn't require writers (at least most don't). Why are we watching reality TV? Because it gives us a chance to watch other people behave badly and become stars in direct proportion to the gossip they generate.

Maybe we are so absorbed in these shows because we can picture ourselves as one of the regular people on a reality program, but not as Julia Roberts. Lucky children have parents who tell them how special they are. Somehow, the meaning gets distorted. We are a nation of people who believe they would make a great novelist (82% of adults polled) but who don't actually write them (2% of adults). We are a nation of people who believe we could be a rock star if we could just get a lucky break, despite the evidence viewed on American Idol each week. So perhaps reality TV and celebrity gossip feed the flicker of hope buried in each not-so-special adult breast.

Or maybe it's what Britney's erstwhile husband said – that people feel good watching two celebrities (well, one celebrity and one pre-nup) go through a rough divorce, because it make the average folks feel more normal.

My daughter closed the People Magazine website window, and I doubt she'll open it for Britney news again. Is it strange to think that one person's choices could make the difference in that poor pop-star's life? Not at all. We have huge social issues before us, and the only way we'll make a dent in any of them is one click at a time.

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