I Graduated from the Faculty of Celebrity Studies

Last night I had a dream that I lived in a world where gossip was a felony crime, and being caught with gossip rags or thinking about celebrities was a dangerous act of rebellion. My first thought was, “Wow, what a shitty world to live in.” My second thought, close on its heels was, “Oops, I never did write that post about going to Elaine’s lecture.”

A few years ago, a good friend of mine introduced me to Lainey Gossip. “It’s different,” she said. “Just read.” Indeed, without Belen’s timely intervention and shameless wielding of “I’m coming from really far away just to see you!” we might have not even gotten an invitation to the Faculty of Celebrity Studies.

Since we’re both camera shy dorks, have a representative graphic of the evening:

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Belen’s the one in the teal dress with the curly brown hair. i’m the one in the lighter teal dress with the shorter brown hair.

FCS was held in London (ON, not UK), at my alma mater UWO. Compared to the other stops on the tour (Vancouver, Edmonton, Halifax), London was a small and strange detour – save the fact it was also Lainey’s old college. So, under the stern and paternalistic eyes of the presidents, Lainey presented her lecture & discussion on elements of what it means to gossip, images of celebrity motherhood, gender biases in advertising and expectations of privacy in a social media world. Don’t be fooled – this wasn’t a two-and-a-half hour session on who’s dating who, where and the literal ins-and-outs – Lainey is canny and pointed, and doesn’t hesitate to use her years of experience in the celebrity studies world to call people’s assumptions into question.

On privacy: What right do we have to expect it, especially when we’re constantly updating our Facebooks or our Twitter accounts? When we use those mediums to further other agendas? (For example, the tweet I’ll make about this post when I’m done.) Most of all, why do we do it? For one student, it was simple. She has a lifestyle blog. Using Facebook and Twitter, she devises ways to connect with her audience in a seemingly personal manner, so they’ll be intrigued and look at her blog, thus earning her money. Lainey: “So, you believe your lifestyle is aspirational, which is why you share it with the world?” “No, but I think people are interested in the places I eat, or the wines I drink.” It’s conceit, but none of us want to call it that. For me, personally, privacy is a weird duck. I expect it; as a person, I’m entitled to it. But neither am I surprised when my illusion of privacy is broken. I mean, before the internet, I had a little unicorn diary with a rinky-dink gold key and lock, and I don’t even think then I expected my thoughts to remain especially private.  The internet only serves to disseminate that violated privacy far and wide.  It’s not my fault either, for not buying a bigger lock for my diary, or stronger privacy settings on my Facebook account. It’s the fault of the snooper, the boyfriend who shares illicitly gotten sex pictures, the corporations mining social media for consumer data.  Anita Sarkeesian didn’t stop putting herself out there after she was targeted for daring to criticize video games from a feminist standpoint; she just disabled the comments. (Angering tons of men who wanted to call her awful names, which indicates she’s doing the right thing in both cases.)  We don’t need to hound the targeted – we need to make targeting far less valuable than it is.

Celebrity motherhood was another hot topic, leading eventually to what I had to call “the incident” (but I’ll get to that). We went through slideshows of celebrity moms and sometimes dad out and about, just living their lives despite the beleaguering mobs of paparazzi. “Paparazzi aren’t that lucky,” Lainey said, “They’re not just going out for Starbucks and lucking into getting a few shots of Thor holding a baby burrito. They know ahead of time, either because the agents, or the celebs themselves call them.” Jessica Alba hasn’t made a movie in years, yet she remains consistently photographed. Her films aren’t her brand anymore; motherhood is. (Literally.)

Hear that stony grinding sound? That’s me, and Belen, wearing our teeth down to nubs as audience member after audience member praises the mothering lifestyle. On the other hand, they were careful to note that ‘real’ mothers don’t have housekeepers, or nannies, or nurses, like Jessica or Gwyneth.  Thus hoisted by their own petard of choice feminism, the conversation wandered in unusual and ugly circles for about half an hour with regards to motherhood and choice and careers, despite Lainey’s best efforts to herd it back. (“Why do you think they’re so often white?” she desperately asked a group of 40-50 middle class white women.)  Finally, I end up cutting into a woman’s rambling story about how her 4-year-old son loves their law-school babysitter so much, he wants to “take care of her when they’re married.”

“It’s not a choice, not really. How can it be, when we’re raised from birth to supposedly want to mother children and keep house? How can we say, ‘I chose this’, when the media is carefully self-selecting women who are moving away from acting careers, not into scriptwriting or directing but motherhood?” That was the gist of it, I think, drowning as I was in bellinis and confusion. In a way, it was good because when the shouting died down (one woman asked me from across the room, “Do you have children?”), we got to take a five minute break.  A few women spoke to me during the break, and I got a cool celeb head-rush when Duana told me to keep on trucking. But I felt painfully aware of the consequences of a difference kind of privacy – feminist yelling on the internet in the privacy of your home is so much different than doing it in a physical space. To me, the room felt stifling and awkward. Then felt awkward. Belen patted my hand and told me she was proud of me.

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The evening wrapped up with an audience free for all: Is Vin Diesel a dick? (Yes. There was wailing and gnashing of teeth over that one. From like, two of us. Okay, from me and Belen.) Are a bunch of different people gay? (“What is everyone’s obsession with who’s gay?” – Lainey) Was meeting Gwyneth exciting? (Very, even though they couldn’t shake hands because Gwen just had her nails done.)  Is Mariah Carey a diva? (Second-hand story but yes, and brilliant about it.)  My one regret is that the event happened too early for the Star Trek: Into Darkness junkets to really get going because I am dying to pick someone’s brain about John Cho being just plain excellent.

It was probably one of the most interesting lectures I’ve ever attended on Western’s main campus (sorry but I’m an affiliate kid through and through) but I couldn’t help wondering how different the audiences and interactions were in other cities. London is a medium sized town, bursting with some pretty serious issues with racial ghettoization and class privilege.  I was disappointed, though not surprised, how heavily it affected the conversation.  Especially when Elaine states pretty baldly how her experiences shape the ways she interacts with gossip:

“When I’m writing, I quite often infuse celebrity reporting with my own experiences. I see celeb gossip through the prism of my life,” she says. (UWO alumni gazette)

That’s true for all of us; however we interact with the concept of celebrity, we do so through our own lenses. The reason why Elaine’s site is so compelling is that it’s a fresh lens, poignant and sharp and witty, skewering our expectations of gossip and often subtly lampshading or turning the tables on the reader to consider the broader social understandings that we draw from, and corporations and media infuse into, celebrity culture.

Are you a gossip girl? Trash talker? Smuthound? Give us the deets.