Transcript: The Sociology of Gossip by Elaine Lui

Today at TED, you’ve been inspired by life coaches, sociologists, scientists, culinary entrepreneurs, marine biologists, so you might think that 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 Lainey and I talk shit for a living. So maybe my mother should’ve given birth to a piece of barbecued pork.

Well some of today 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), oh and I watched Jennifer Aniston talked 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 in American Idol (yes and it’s totally awesome). Movie sets, movie premieres, the red carpet, at the Oscars and at Cannes, 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 exists in a vacuum. He needs a team of people assisting him with his career; publicists, agents, make-up artists, stylists — they’re there to help him with his career because talent is not enough these days. Tom has to be likeable so he’s marketable, Tom is for sale to the movie studios and the tv networks. 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 publicists — all this components function concurrently, like any 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 organism react to one another and how those relationship impact our environment: I study the celebrity ecosystem to understand social culture, to understand social behaviour, 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 believe to be the oldest written language… you did not expect me to go there. So researchers at California’s Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum has 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 5,000 year old text tells the story of a king who would check in on one of the army generals in the middle of the night, quite often. They were not discussing military strategy. The text specify that the king resided in a home where, quote, ‘there was no wives’. So let me spell it out for you; the king and the army dude were allegedly having sexual relation. 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. Rumour has it, the Queen enjoyed an intimate relationship with one of her advisors. Now, it was never confirmed whether or not they’re having an affair but hieroglyphics found in the servant area of the archeological site depicted a royal female engaged in unmistakable physical contact, erotic contact, with a non-royal male. So it’s kinda 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, all those Egyptians, they love talking shit too. They love talking shit so much, they carved it in stone. This kind of ancient story telling is everywhere; it’s in tablets, in old scrolls, it’s on papyrus, on pyramid walls. We learn about the ancient Egyptian through their hieroglyphics: many, many years from now, our successors will learn about us through our hieroglyphics — the tabloids. They too tells a story.

Celebrity gossip is story telling and as we’ve seen from the hieroglyphics those story 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. So then why are we so ashamed of gossip? Why are we so embarrassed? Why does my friend tucked her copy of US Weekly inside The New York Times? No one feel shamed when they’re watching a hockey game. No one feels embarrassed when they’re reading up on football statistics. But gossip, celebrity gossip is 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 mores and ethics of that time. And right now, the gossip conversation is like any conversation — it is an information exchange.

Here’s a really interesting thing about gossip. You can’t consumed it without bias. You can’t consumed gossip without filtering it through the prism of your own experience. In filtering gossip through the prism of your own experience, what inevitable 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 behavioural code to others. Gossip allows us to set a standard of conduct.

Lets take a closer look. One of the biggest gossip story of 2012 was the Kristen Stewart cheating scandal. Quick background cos I know you guys don’t know anything about that. Kristen Stewart is the star of a mega movie franchise call Twilight. She plays a teenage girl call Bella who finds the perfect man. He’s a vampire and he’s 100 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 that they were so obsessed that they transferred their attachment to the real life actors playing these parts; Robert Pattinson played Edward and in the classic case of life imitates art, Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart fall 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 her other movie.

This was the cover of the New York Daily News when the news 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 flagrante — he’d 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 was a blonde, it was a hot tub, it was in San Diego. 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 watch show 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 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 raise 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, the everyday girl 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 betray that fantasy, how dare she turn 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 view on marriage and fidelity 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 website for People magazine had the following headline — ‘Drew Barrymore Can’t Wait to Meet Her Baby’. It was as if no pregnant women was ever excited to meet her baby. It was as if Drew Barrymore had the exclusive on pre-natal 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 had 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 section on them oftentimes are of the celebrity babies 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 the dance floor on a dance club — she’s a new Madonna, floating on a cloud of hair spray and self-tanner.

Motherhood is the ultimate whitewash. Motherhood in the celebrity ecosystem right now is a grand slam. It is the most news worthy and often redeeming accomplishment a woman can achieve. So, is this new, this reproductive system thing or what? No, but for some reason we seemed to be fixated on celebrities becoming moms, doing something that women have been doing forever. Now, is this just gossip or is it a reflection of greater social trend? Outside of Hollywood, mommy-hood 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 attitude about women in our society? What does say about the roles that we’re most comfortable seeing women occupy in our society?

And what does it 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 under cover 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 abuse them. Rihanna 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, neighbours, nephews, they’re people you live with in your community, they’re people you raised — they are us.

So in five hundred years, that we turn this into this, will we be judged  as a society that celebrates a guy who beats a girl or will we be celebrated as a society that forgives a guy who beats a girl? And if we are a society that forgives a guy who beats a girl, do we have the same level of compassion for a guy who secretly wants to have sex with another guy?

Lets 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 therapist. This is Vinny Barbarino, this is Danny Zuko, this is Tony Manero, this is the badass criminal in Pulp Fiction, Vincent Vega. He shoots gun, he flies plane, 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 role. So is this really about John Travolta? Or is it 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 than of a man if he would rather sleep with a man? Would we rather a man put a fists to girl’s face than his mouth to another man’s mouth?

To gossip about John Travolta is to search for the answers for these questions. And the way that you answers 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 considered academic? Gossip is anthropology. Celebrity gossip is the conversation that exposes who we are. Celebrity gossip is a reflection of modern human behaviour in culture. It’s a reflection of 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 were 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.

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Transcript: The Sociology of Gossip by Elaine Lui

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