The Sociology of Gossip Elaine Lui at TEDxVancouver

The Sociology of Gossip  Elaine Lui at TEDxVancouver


Thank you! I know it’s been a long day. You ready to
gossip? Little bit? Today at TED you’ve been inspired by life coaches and sociologists and
scientists and culinary entrepreneurs and marine biologists so you might think what
I do isn’t so distinguished or cerebral. You might think that what you’re about
to hear is a little bit dirty. Yeah. I gossip. I am a professional gossip. My name is
Laney and I talk shit for a living. So maybe my mother should have given
birth to a piece of barbecue pork. While some of today’s speakers were this week in the lab
dividing atoms, I spent my time investigating whether or not Kate
Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, is pregnant (not yet). I followed up on whether or not
Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel were getting married in Italy (they did). And oh, I watched Jennifer Aniston talk about her nipples in an interview about
her engagement and I also looked into whether or not Mariah Carey and Nicki
Minaj are still calling each other nasty names backstage at American Idol (yes, and
it’s totally awesome). Movie sets, movie premieres, the red carpet at the Oscars, the after party? That’s my workplace. That’s my lab and that’s where
I observe celebrities in their habitat. Think of modern celebrity as an
ecosystem. Let’s call him Tom. Tom the celebrity cannot exist in a vacuum. He needs a team
of people assisting him with his career. Publicist. Agents. Makeup artist. Hair
stylist. They’re there to help him with his career because talent is not enough
these days. Tom has to be likable. He’s gotta be
marketable. Tom is for sale to the movie studios and the TV networks so Team Tom
sells Tom by engaging the media and also the paparazzi. Yes, those paparazzi are a
vital part of this ecosystem too because they take the pictures and the
press delivers the pictures to the fan. That’s you. You are a critical part of
this ecosystem because you create the celebrity. The celebrity depends, Tom
depends, on you to secure his status as a celebrity. So you see, the fan, Tom, the
paparazzi, the publicist… all these components function together
concurrently like an ecosystem to support modern celebrity. You take one
element away and it all falls apart. So why is this ecosystem important? Why do we care about Tom? My job as a
professional gossip is to study the celebrity ecosystem the way a scientist
might study the marine ecosystem to understand how organisms react to one
another and how those relationships impact our environment. I study the
celebrity ecosystem to understand social culture. To understand social behavior. To
understand humanity. To understand ourselves. That is the function of gossip. Gossip
then, is good. Gossip is knowledge. Gossip is immortal. Gossip is historical. Egyptian
hieroglyphics are widely believed to be the oldest written language. You did not
expect me to go there. So researchers at California’s Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum
have been studying hieroglyphic content that they found to be remarkably similar
to what you might be reading at the newsstand waiting to pay for your
bananas at the grocery store. One five thousand year old text tells the
story of a king who would check in on one of his army generals in the middle of the
night quite often. They were not discussing military strategy. The text
specifies that the king resided in a home where, quote, “there was no wife” so
let me spell it out for you. The king and the army dude were
allegedly having sexual relations. You could sub in John Travolta and a Masseur
into that story and no one would know the difference. Another really juicy piece of ancient
gossip is found from the drawings around the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. Rumor has it the queen enjoyed an intimate
relationship with one of her advisers. Now, it was never confirmed whether or
not they were having an affair but hieroglyphics found in the servants’ area
of the archaeological site depicted a royal female engaged in unmistakable physical contact – erotic contact – with a non-royal male. So
it’s kind of like did Brad and Angelina have an affair on the set of Mr and Mrs
Smith? Ask the crew. The crew always knows. So you see, those old Egyptians? They
loved talking shit too. They loved talking shit so much they carved it in stone. And
this kind of ancient storytelling is everywhere. It’s in tablets, and old
scrolls, its on papyrus, and pyramid walls, and we learned about the ancient
Egyptians through their hieroglyphics. Many many years from now, our successors
will learn about us through our hieroglyphics: the tabloids. They too tell
a story. Celebrity gossip is storytelling and as
we’ve seen from the hieroglyphics those stories are valuable in providing
future generations with an understanding of who we are and with us with an
understanding of where we are right now. Okay. So then why are we so ashamed of gossip? Why are we so embarrased? Why does my friend tuck her copy of Us Weekly inside the New York Times? No one feels
shame when they’re watching a hockey game. No one feels embarrassed when
they’re reading up on football statistics, but gossip? Celebrity
gossip? It’s regarded as a distraction for degenerates. A frivolous preoccupation
that has no merit when perhaps it’s more important to the study of our social
culture than any sport because at the heart of it celebrity gossip isn’t just about
celebrities. As we saw from those hieroglyphics, they were a reflection of
popular morals and ethics of that time and right now the gossip conversation is
like any conversation. It is an information exchange. Here’s the really interesting
thing about gossip. You can’t consume it without bias. You can’t consume gossip
without filtering it through the prism of your own experience. In filtering gossip through the prism of
your own experience, what inevitably comes out the other side is a pretty
definitive declaration about what we believe, what we expect, what we reject,
and how we process. Gossip allows us to communicate a behavioral code to others. Gossip allows us to set a standard of
conduct. Let’s take a closer look. One of the
biggest gossip stories of 2012 was the Kristen Stewart cheating scandal. Quick
background because I know you guys know anything about that. Kristen Stewart is
the star of a mega movie franchise called Twilight. She plays a teenage
girl called Bella who finds the perfect man. He’s a vampire and he’s a hundred
years old. He’s rich, he’s hot, he’s chaste, he says the right things and Bella gives
up her life to be with him. People were possessed by this story. So much so, they were so obsessed,
that they transferred their attachment to the real-life actors playing these
parts. Robert Pattinson played Edward and in a
classic case of life imitates art, Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart
fell in love, making the story of Bella and Edward even more real. Until
Kristen Stewart was caught cheating on him with the married director of one of
her other movies. This was the cover of the New York Daily News when the story broke. Trampire! Stewart was compelled to offer a
public apology for a private decision. She was subsequently slut shamed across
the internet, she went into hiding for awhile and she
reportedly lost a few movie roles. Meanwhile, that director with whom she was
caught in flagranti? He not only kept his job, he was offered even more film
opportunities. So does infidelity carry a double standard? Last year Ashton Kutcher
was caught cheating on his then wife Demi Moore on the eve of their sixth
wedding anniversary. There is a blonde, it was a hot tub, it was in San Diego. In the
aftermath, in the aftermath Kutcher was offered a contract extension on the show Two and a
Half Men, making him the highest paid actor on television. Two and a Half Men consistently ranks as
one of the most watched TV shows on television. So, you’re watching. People
are watching. Do we reward a cheater if he’s male and punish her if she’s female?
To further explore the relationship between fidelity and gender, Stewart’s
biggest crime may not have been that she cheated on her boyfriend but that she
violated a female code of conduct and in doing so broke the dream of girls who
are raised since birth not to aspire to the White House, but to find the perfect guy.
Isn’t that the story of Twilight? She got the fantasy guy Bella did. Every girl that
got the fantasy guy got him to fall in love with her and that was the dream.
Really, for people watching that movie, that’s the dream of millions of women
everywhere. So, Kristen Stewart, how dare she betrayed
that fantasy? How dare she turned her back on that dream. When we were
gossiping about Kristen Stewart then, we were not just talking about an actress
cheating on her boyfriend. Participants of that gossip conversation were
sharing with each other their moralistic views on marriage and
fidelity and and the social expectation of females in
relationships. What else can gossip tell us about the social expectation of the
female in a relationship? Recently, one of the most read stories on the web site
for People Magazine had the following headline: “Drew Barrymore Can’t Wait to
Meet Her Baby.” It was as if no pregnant woman was ever excited to meet her baby. It was as if Drew Barrymore had the exclusive on prenatal excitement. I mean don’t get
me wrong. Motherhood is enriching and rewarding
but I think it’s not a new thing, right? I’m pretty sure pregnant women have been
excited before Drew Barrymore to meet their kid, but for some reason women
cannot get enough of other women having babies. Celebrity websites… the most
popular sections on them oftentimes are the celebrity baby section. It’s the same
reason why Jennifer Aniston has already been pregnant eight times this year. Being a mother of a baby has never been more
interesting. Jessica Alba has a baby and suddenly she’s an authority on baby food.
A c-list reality show celebrity has a baby and everybody wants to interview
her. Snooki from the Jersey Shore has a baby and suddenly she’s not the girl who
peed on a dance floor in a dance club, she’s a new Madonna floating on a cloud
of hairspray and South Tanner. Motherhood is the ultimate whitewash. Motherhood in the
celebrity ecosystem right now is a grand slam. It is the most newsworthy and often
redeeming accomplishment a woman can achieve. So, like is this new, this
reproductive system thing or what? No. But for some reason, we seem to be
fixated on celebrities having moms – becoming moms. Doing something that women
have been doing forever. Now is this just gossip? Or is it a reflection of a greater
social trend? Outside of Hollywood, mommyhood has never been more popular.
The mommy blogger is an actual profession now. So when we gossip about
celebrities becoming moms and when we reward them for becoming moms, what does
that say about the attitudes about women in our society? What does that say about
the roles that we’re most comfortable seeing women occupy in our society? And
what does that say about our society that the guy who did this? He went on to
top the Billboard charts. That’s sales. And win a Grammy this year and get his
girlfriend back. It’s been three years since Chris Brown assaulted Rihanna. Apparently
they’re hooking up undercover and thinking about reconciling and coming
out in public again. It’s a big story. Is this just a gossip story, their reconciliation?
Or is this reconciliation of theirs a reflection of society’s attitude about
violence towards women? Many women go back to the men who abused them. Rihanna’s story is not unique, and Rihanna is not the only person who’s forgiven Chris Brown.
The recording industry has forgiven Chris Brown. He just won a Grammy. The fans
are supporting Chris Brown. He’s selling records, they’re seeing his shows,
they’re watching his videos, they’ve elevated him to a level of fame that he’s never
had before. Who are they, these fans? You know them. They’re your sons and daughters and granddaughters,
neighbors, nephews… They’re people you live with in your
community, they’re people you raise… they are us. So in five hundred years when they see
that we turned this into this, will we be judged as the society that celebrates a
guy who beats a girl or will we be celebrated as a society that forgives
the guy who beat a girl? And if we are a society that forgives a guy who beat a
girl, do we have the same level of compassion for a guy who secretly wants
to have sex with another guy? Let’s go back to that five thousand year old text and the story about the Pharaoh and his army general and their midnight visits. The
modern equivalent? Magazine cover after magazine cover this year alleging that
John Travolta for years was hitting on male massage therapists. this is Vinnie
Barbarino. This is Danny Zuko. This is Tony Manero. This is the badass criminal
in Pulp Fiction, Vincent Vega. He shoots guns, he flies planes, he swaggers. John
Travolta has made a career out of conventionally masculine roles and the
fear in Hollywood is that for actors like Travolta who fit traditional male
stereotype… should they come out as homosexual? We the audience would have a
harder time believing them in their roles. Is this really about John Travolta or is
this about us and our definition of masculinity as it relates to sexual
orientation? Is a male actor less convincing as an action hero if he’s not
sharing a bed with a woman? Is a man less of a man if he would rather sleep with a
man? Would we rather a man put a fist to a girl’s face that his mouth to another
man’s mouth? To gossip about John Travolta is to search for the answers to these
questions. And the way that you answer these questions tells me more about you than it does
about John Travolta. In the last 15 minutes we’ve talked about marital
convention, fidelity, feminist regression or progression, social violence, and
sexual orientation. We just got real, yo. And all within the context of celebrity
gossip. How then can gossip not be considered academic? Gossip is
anthropology. Celebrity gossip is the conversation that exposes who we are. Celebrity gossip is a reflection of
modern human behavior in culture. It is a reflection of a current standard of
morality and in observing the changing nature of morality, gossip is the
play-by-play of our social evolution, just like the hieroglyphics where a play
by play into an ancient world. That’s why I crusade for gossip. That’s why I’m here
today to tell you that the next time you want to talk about Tom Cruise and
whether or not scientology brainwashed him, or if you leave here and you say to
yourself, “that bitch does that for a living?” Great! Go! Gossip about that. Know that you are carrying on a human
convention that’s been around for thousands of years and will continue for
even more in providing valuable insight into who we are and where we’re going. Go
forth and gossip. thank you

1 Comment

  • Tee Dee says:

    Even hearing and/or seeing the word ’Gossip makes me cringe. That said, if it meant that I could listen to Mrs. ‘Lainey’ Lui (*by far* the most attractive woman on Canadian television) discuss the so-called ‘merits’ of it on the daily, then I am all in & then some.

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