A journey to the grocery-store cashier often involves a trip down the celebrity magazine hall of shame. Whether you enjoy it or can't believe the hype, you are showered with sensational headlines about the most intimate details of celebrities' lives.
Susan Douglas, author and professor at the University of Michigan, discussed this at the University of Washington on Feb. 15 in a special lecture entitled, "Starstruck: The explosion of celebrity journalism and corrosion of the nightly news since 9/11."
"Beginning in the 1990s and accelerating wildly in the first decade of the 21st century, celebrity culture has moved from the margins of the mass media, into its
--Professor David Domke, UW Department of Communication chair
oracles and ventricles," Douglas said, contrasting it with the decline in international news content.
Douglas said one reason celebrity culture became popular is because, after 9/11, women were not celebrated in the world of politics, but their opinions and presence were valuable in celebrity gossip culture. She cited examples of photos of George W Bush cutting brush in a cowboy hat and the "Mission Accomplished" moment when Bush wore a pilot suit, as well as a lot of fighting language coming from the administration as examples of hyper-masculinity.
"Despite the showroom presences of Condoleezza Rice and Karen Hughes, girls and women were especially and utterly irrelevant," Douglas said. "We had no role in judging or influencing what the government did.
"But we are still part of the nation," she added, "and common-shared stories about which we have strong opinions, are part of the glue that binds us together."
While celebrity journalism provided universal stories for women to discuss their values, Douglas feels the vast majority of what is communicated to women in celebrity journalism is negative. On the screen she presented many magazine covers with strict messages about how women should be judged.
"Women are to be judged first and foremost by their appearances," Douglas said. "The corporately defined standards of beauty remain very narrow, very white, and impossible to achieve.
"[T]he line between being too thin and too fat is razor thin," Douglas continued, "a policing and disciplining regime of body surveillance [...] has utterly naturalized in celebrity journalism."
Many readers consume celebrity content with a grain of salt, but the messages are very strong. For example, she said, these magazines prescribe that all female celebrities, and therefore women in general, should base their happiness on having a husband and children.
"No woman is treated as complete without a guy," Douglas said. "Losing your man is a big tragedy, but remaining childless is a gigantic atomic disaster.
"Julia Roberts was constantly hounded about having kids until her twins arrived," Douglas explained. "George Clooney, by contrast, is not hounded about when he will reproduce."
Douglas' talk focused on an era when social media were not yet popular; after the lecture a Q-and-A session led by Professor David Domke, chair of the UW Department of Communication, focused on celebrity culture and social media.
"I've seen a number of people comment on how they felt more connected to Whitney Houston's death through their Facebook communities than any kind of traditional media environment," Domke said. "So it seems that there is a relational capital with celebrities, that's greater than it's ever been, because everyone can quickly post something that is about that person."
With celebrity news more dominant, Douglas said, there has been a decrease in international news.
"The great irony of our time," Douglas said, "is that just when a globe-encircling grid of communications technology systems, satellites, light-weight digital cameras, and the like indeed make it possible for Americans to see and learn more than ever before about the rest of the world, Americans have been rendered more isolated and less informed about global politics by our media institutions."
Randal Beam, UW communication professor, asked Douglas: "I'm sort of wondering if the impression you're getting about the availability of international news has more to do with what you looked at as potential sources than what's actually out there," mentioning that sources like (English-language) Al-Jazeera are available to most people now.
Douglas responded by saying she is more interested, rightly or wrongly, in common experiences that people share through the media, and that what we have today with the web is much different than when Americans watched three TV stations and heard a common story.
Our common story, according to Douglas, covers in much more detail in the lives of celebrities than international events, and this trend is detrimental to American society.
To learn more about Susan Douglas, check out her website here
Sean Duncan is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.