What history can teach us about the future of gossip

Gossip week: Alex Casey speaks with Associate Professor Jennifer Frost, who has spent decades studying the function of gossip from Hedda Hopper to Donald Trump.

Throughout the week, The Spinoff delves into the role of gossip in Aotearoa’s past, present and future – learn more about what’s on Gossip Week here.

The sex scandals and secret pregnancies of Hollywood’s golden age may not seem like typical academic fodder, but, for Associate Professor Jennifer Frost, the gossip story has kept her busy for more than a year. decade at the University of Auckland. Defining gossip as “private conversations” – discussing the personal lives of people who are not present – US-born Frost didn’t just write the gossip book, she did it twice .

His first book, Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood: celebrity gossip and American conservatism, is about to turn 10 years old. The second, When Private Conversations Become Public: Gossip in U.S. History, is an anthology of essays edited by Frost covering everything from the Salem Witch Trials to the birth of People magazine. In short, there might be no one better in the world to chat with about gossip at the end of gossip week. So that’s exactly what I did.

How did you first get interested in gossip at this serious academic level?

I remember going to the grocery store in America and seeing all those really horrible tabloid headlines yelling at us while we were in line. This was around the time Mike Tyson was charged with domestic violence against his wife Robin Givens, and the woman in front of me started talking about the headlines. We ended up having this really long conversation about who was involved and after I left I couldn’t help but think about the value of the exchange.

She was a woman I had never met before, knew nothing about and will probably never see again, having this great conversation with a lot of shared values. We talked about domestic violence, marriage, and it was at a time when we didn’t talk about it very much. It was considered a personal problem, but we now know that it is a societal problem, a political problem, and something that should not be hidden in “private life”. The exchange really showed me how gossip can have an important and necessary function in society.

What was the reaction when you decided to study something as controversial as gossip? Sounds like something people could dismiss very easily.

People thought I was crazy, I can’t tell you how many conversations I had trying to convince academics that gossip was a legitimate topic. I started to think about how nobody talks about the positive side of gossip, we always talk about the negative. It was at this point that I became interested in trying to find a historical subject that would allow me to think about the gossip of the past. Then I ran into Hedda Hopper, who was a famous Hollywood gossip columnist from the Hollywood golden age of the late 1930s to early 1960s.

Working on her really helped me learn more about gossip and sharpen my perspective. Hopper posted the gossip that we would consider “good gossip” – sharing news in the community, having the opportunity to chat and exchange – as well as what we would call “bad gossip” where she would say things for the better. damage, injure and damage the reputation of people personally and publicly. It helped my case that with Hopper she was very well recognized as powerful, I mean, she was on the cover of Time in 1947.

What was interesting else was that Hopper was very political. She was a conservative Republican, so her gossip revolved around both the entertainment world and the political world. It’s actually the 10th anniversary of my book on her, and there has been a series of articles reflecting the book’s conclusions in the aftermath of Trump. Gossip was so important to his political rise and his political career, that now people are reconsidering a subject that even 10 years ago seemed a little shaky.

Former US President Donald Trump (Photo by Win McNamee / Getty Images)

Can you explain how gossip played such a key role in creating Trump?

By combining gossip with entertainment and politics, Hedda Hopper really laid the groundwork for how you might be successful in making a Trump-like figure succeed. He had no political training, he was a reality TV star, and he was able to take this intersection of entertainment and politics as President. The other interesting thing is that he built his career in the 70s and it was exactly around this time that the gossip became mainstream. In the early 1970s, the National Inquirer tabloid went national and People magazine started in 1974.

It was a pivotal moment as it was the first time that an entire magazine had traded personality journalism. It’s about people’s personal lives, not always negative but always private in nature. Trump recognized early on how important this kind of gossip is. He fed the news to the New York daily, he covered People several times, he realized that aspects of his private life – his money, his women, his so-called sexual prowess – were important. to become famous. Public. That’s what he did, and he did it very well.

The other thing about gossip, both celebrity and interpersonal gossip, is that it builds relationships between the people who participate in it. That’s another thing Trump did well: he built this amazing fan base, where people thought they knew him personally. We still see that loyalty and intimacy playing out today – if people think they know him, then they trust him. Finally, he took to Twitter to gossip, commenting on Ted Cruz’s wife being ugly or Mario Rubio being little. It had nothing to do with their politics or what they stood for, and it helped him gain the presidency.

What do you think of the MeToo movement as an example of meaningful gossip?

What we are seeing now with MeToo actually has a very, very long history. One of the great arguments made about gossip is that it can be used as a weapon by the weak. It can be used by people without power in a society, to criticize the powerful or to rally around them. An example from the UK would be the role of servants. If you even think of Downton Abbey, we already associate those kinds of roles with gossip. For the maids, gossip was a way of warning others about an abusive master. It goes back a long way – MeToo just brings this same function to the present day.

What about the future of gossip? What will you keep your eye on in the age of social media and misinformation?

Social media has revolutionized gossip, because now we have everyone gossiping about themselves talking about their privacy through Facebook posts. One of the cool things about modern gossip now is that it’s mostly about pictures rather than words. If you think of things like leaked nudes and other forms of vengeful pornography, this is an example of modern gossip that is much more dangerous and damning, even more so with what we know about photoshop and manipulation. . In that regard, I can see the gossip becoming even more dangerous around this time.

I am also very interested in how we are combating the rumors of Covid-19. For example, last year only 50% of Americans said they would get vaccinated. It is now up to 70%. Why has it increased? Because people have seen people they know and trust get vaccinated. It reminds us that a rumor on social media that scares people about the vaccine can be overcome by personal information shared in a circle of people who trust each other. We need to focus on this. I know we need to fight disinformation, but where we can all fight back is in our face-to-face communities, relationships, neighborhoods and workplaces.

A final word for people who call gossip thoughtless gossip?

Listen – if you don’t like gossip, more power for you. But that doesn’t change the fact that it shapes our privacy, our social life, and our political life. I still think it’s always better to have an understanding of something so that you can change it, than to be helpless in the face of it.

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