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Whether it interests you or not, celebrity news and gossip infiltrates our day to day lives via sources such as Twitter, blogs, television, and magazines. Are Bey and J getting divorced? Did you see what Kim K was wearing last Tuesday? How does this emphasis on celebrity culture affect us? Andrea McDonnell, assistant professor of Communication and Media Studies here at Emmanuel explores celebrity gossip magazines and their impacts in her new book Reading Celebrity Gossip Magazines.
McDonnell received a B.A. in American Culture from Vassar College and a Ph.D. in Communication Studies from the University of Michigan. McDonnell began researching celebrity magazines in 2006, while earning her doctoral degree. Her work focuses on the production, content, and audience reception of popular cultural texts that are produced for and consumed mostly by women.
“Around that time, I was working for a museum where my coworkers would bring copies of the magazines in to read at lunch and during breaks. I really enjoyed reading the magazines and, most of all, discussing them with my friends and coworkers”, said McDonnell.
“Initially, I was interested in representations of pregnancy in celebrity gossip magazines. I had noticed that pregnant celebrities seemed to be treated differently than “ordinary” female stars. As soon as a celeb would announce her pregnancy, she was either lauded or condemned by the tabloids. I was intrigued by why this was and what impact these narratives might have on readers,” said McDonnell.
McDonnell decided it would be important to understand not only the text of the magazines themselves, but also the production process and the response of audiences. As part of her research process, she began speaking to magazine editors as well as female readers in order to understand why it is that celebrity gossip magazines are so popular with women today.
“If someone were to pick up one of these magazines and simply look at the treatment of women in them, they would find some pretty negative images. The so-called-norms of femininity that they traffic in are extreme. Plastic surgery. Intensive mothering. Weight management. Not to mention the fact that most of the stars who are featured are white, heterosexual, and insanely wealthy. So in a purely textual sense the representations here could very well have a negative impact on women (and men),” said McDonnell.
However McDonnell does not believe that young women are careless in their media consumption.
“I don’t assume that people who read these magazines are fools. I read them. My friends read them. So why do smart, thoughtful young women, even women who call themselves feminists, read and purchase these magazines by the millions each week?”
Through her research McDonnell found that readers are very aware that celebrity magazines send a negative message, but that they often take pleasure in dissecting and disagreeing with these messages, especially in conversation with other women.
When asked if celebrity gossip magazines were seen as a positive feminine text McDonnell said “I don’t believe that any text is positive or negative in its own right. Of course, there may be features of the text that contain a negative message. But it is how the audience makes meaning from the text that ultimately determines whether its impact is positive or negative. All the readers that I spoke with enjoy celebrity gossip magazines and, while they may find certain elements of the magazines to be negative, the overall pleasure that they get from reading and talking about celebrity gossip generally overshadows the negative.”
Even though gossip magazines come under fire for how they portray women, there may be some benefit to these magazines after all. “The main affordance that I’ve found in speaking to readers is the opportunity for bonding, conversation, and debate amongst women. When women read or talk about celebrity gossip together, they use it as a way of connecting to one another and of expressing their ideas and opinions. While these discussions may center around celebrity relationships, or body image, or fashion, in actuality, they are often, at their core, about serious personal issues that women don’t have the opportunity to discuss in everyday life, said McDonnell”.
If the overall impact of reading these publications is positive or negative, it is yet to be seen. It may be safe to argue that with the influx of the digital age, celebrity gossip will stick around. “I think we will always be fascinated by famous figures. They collectivize our ideas about the world. McDonnell said they give us something to talk about.
When asked about her celebrity guilty pleasure McDonnell replied, “I love Joan Rivers but I don’t feel guilty about that.”
Professor Andrea McDonnell will be reading and discussing her book this Thursday night (9/25) at Porter Square Books starting at 7 pm. Free and open to the public! 25 White Street Cambridge, MA 02140
Kyla Burke is the Week’s End Editor as well as a staff writer.