COVERED IN MUD, AND LOVIN' IT
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Here's a confession for you: the more dangerous the world becomes, the more I like gossip.
For example, did you know that Tom Cruise is gay? People in the know say that he offered several young starlets big-time money to pose as his new "flame." Katie Holmes took him on for $5 million. Or was it $10 million?
This is gossip, pure and simple. Do I know if Tom Cruise is really gay? No. Is it any of my business? Also no. Do I even care? Not really. Tom Cruise would give me the creeps whether he was gay, straight or getting it sideways. And what would be wrong with him being gay anyway, except that he's pretending to be straight?
What's interesting is the lie and how it's used. Cruise and Katie are nothing more than today's version of snake oil salesmen, only instead of patent medicines, they're selling magazines, films and their own tacky images.
Gossip sells, and right now business is booming. Watching celebrity magazines slug it out is like watching mud wrestling, only dirtier. According to The New York Times, in the past six months InTouch magazine's circulation has gone up 49.7 percent to 1.12 million readers. U.S.Weekly is up 23.9 percent to 1.67 million. The Star is up 20.9 percent to 1.43 million. True, the same million people may be reading all three, or maybe the same million dentists' offices. But these are still big numbers.
Tabloids battle daily for our attention on the newsstands, while on-line we get political gossip (wonkette.com), the snarkiest of New York gossip (gawker.com, my personal favorite), and Hollywood trash talk (defamer.com) - all from the same media chain. There's even a journalists' gossip site called Romenesko, hosted by the elitist Poynter Institute.
Why are we consumed with gossip? Maybe, just maybe, when the death toll in Iraq climbs along with price of a barrel of oil, the Israelis appear to be on the verge of civil war, and even a Gold Star Mother like Cindy Sheehan can be slandered on television, people need relief. I know I certainly do.
When I was growing up, gossiping was considered evil - slander was the better word for it. It could hurt people and - gasp! - it might not even be true. Now no one cares. Recently, the media happily debated whether the Star invented a pregnancy for Demi Moore and then, when she remained rail thin, wiggled out of its lie by inventing a miscarriage.
Gossip has always been with us, according to Discovery News. In a recent article about ancient Egypt, a noted archeologist said, "Ancient Egyptians gossiped about a bald queen, royals who had affairs, missing bodies, homosexuality, harem intrigue and more... The findings suggest humans always have enjoyed chatting about personal or sensational information about others."
For example, the archeologist decoded a text from around 5,000 years ago that described a king's frequent visits to his general's house as night. The glyph repeated the phrase, "in whose home there was no wife." This suggested to the archeologist that the king was having a homosexual affair, and that the glyph-writers - "the earliest known gossip columnists" - painted it on the wall.
Maybe these guys resented being held to a standard of morality that the high and might were free to flaunt? That would remain true today. We like nothing better than seeing a fundamentalist preacher get caught in bed with his secretary, or a mean-spirited boss get caught with his hand in the till, or a president get caught in one lie after another.
Being "in" on the latest gossip can elevate your status. In the Doris Day years, for example, people who knew that Rock Hudson was never going take away her virginity could lord it over the more innocent women who swooned at the sight of him. Even more status accrued to those who knew Day had been a saloon singer before she became a movie star, and hence, probably didn't have too much virginity left to lose.
Gossip helps to promote general standards of morality that might otherwise be fraying. Take the recent Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie debacle. First the mags were screaming because Aniston and Pitt had not produced offspring - as though we still live in a world where first comes love, then comes marriage, and then damn well better come a baby carriage. Then Pitt dumped Aniston for Jolie on the cover of every magazine in the known world except for The Nation.
Suddenly, where you stood on the issue could define you. Aniston went on the cover of Vanity Fair to tell the world that she was recovering thanks to the self-help movement: "If you can find a way to see the glass half full, these are the moments when you learn the most," she sniffed. Jolie and Pitt, in the meantime, went around the world adopting babies, doing good for the UN, and probably having more amazing sex then you and I can ever dream of. Which side are you on?
To stay alive in perilous times, we have to be able to spot the lies and hypocrisy as soon as they come down the pike. Gossip gives us insight into people's behavior, and that's an edge we need. Otherwise, we might end up believing that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and then where would we be?
In the end, gossip is an ineffable part of human nature. Why should we think we're any better than the ancient Egyptians?
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes from
Dummerston about culture, politics, economics and travel. She can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.