Several leading providers of celebrity gossip—Entertainment Tonight, People magazine, gossip blog Just Jared, and the E! Network—have vowed to stop printing paparazzi photos of celebrity children. The less demand for these photos, the less paparazzi will invade these children’s lives—or so the logic goes. It’s hard to think of this arrangement as anything other than a positive development: Few would argue for continued harassment of celebrity children, the vast majority of whom have never been given the choice about whether to live their lives in public.
But the new policy could also have a significant, if largely invisible, effect on the way celebrity is manufactured and consumed. Taken to its logical conclusion, the policy could mean a return to heavily edited publicity of Classic Hollywood, when the studios and the gossip press collaborated to produce squeaky clean, highly palatable images for every star.
No one wants a world of predatory paparazzi, but highly curated and regulated celebrity isn’t just boring—it turns us away from the complexities of everyday life.
To figure out what Hollywood publicity might become, however, we need to go back to January of this year, when Hollywood star Kristen Bell, best known for Veronica Mars, and her husband, comedian Dax Shepard, took to Twitter with a specific agenda: mobilize their two million followers to boycott celebrity publications that print paparazzi photos of children. Bell had given birth to a daughter in March 2013, and the two had been plagued by paparazzi ever since.
Bell tweeted “I won’t do interviews 4 entities that pay photogs to take pictures of my baby anymore. I care more about my integrity & my values than my career,” while Shepard announced, “Children shouldn’t be stalked. #boycottusweekly #boycottstar #boycottpeople #boycottintouch #boycottboycottboycott.” On January 30, Shepard wrote an editorial for The Huffington Post further outlining the strategy:
So as long as people pay good money to buy magazines featuring famous people’s children, there will be men popping out of bushes and lurking around playgrounds to get those pics. Those are just the facts. The consumer is the only one who can put an end to this. They are the only ones with real power.
Bell and Shepherd’s boycott attracted significant press coverage, but it seemed, at least for the time, that nothing would change. Yet on February 20, Entertainment Tonight announced that after meeting in person with Bell, they would no longer air paparazzi footage of children, declaring, “It is our sincere hope that having ET take a leadership position on this issue sends a clear message to the photographers taking these shots that this behavior will not be tolerated or supported.” By the end of the next week, People, Just Jared, and E! had all followed suit.
This shouldn’t be surprising. If we think of celebrity gossip as a spectrum, with outlets tearing down celebrity images on one end and outlets propping them up on the other, then People and Entertainment Tonight have always been located on the latter extreme. They cooperate with publicists; they refuse to print unsubstantiated gossip. There’s a reason, in other words, that Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Sandra Bullock, and The Obamas all went to People instead of Us Weekly or the other gossip weeklies for their exclusives: People plays nice, and makes more than $1 billion in annual revenue on the assumption that consumers like to read nice things about the celebrities that fascinate them.
And they’re right: Most gossip consumers just want to look at pictures and read interviews that confirm that celebrities are exactly who we think they are. Images of Angelina Jolie being simultaneously beautiful and motherly, interviews with Ellen DeGeneres about “love, life, and what I’ve learned.” Totally tame, usually banal, incredibly profitable, and almost always in line with the images proffered by celebrities and their publicity teams.
People et. al. operate as the contemporary extension of the classic Hollywood fan magazine, which functioned symbiotically with the studios to make and sustain the images of the most enduring Hollywood idols. Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant—they gave great performances, sure, but their star images were the product of the sustained and meticulous collaboration between their studio publicity departments, fan magazine editors, and compliant gossip columnists.
But these “friendly” magazines only make up part of the gossip market. The other half is filled with what’s traditionally been referred to as the tabloid press—a tradition that spreads back to the penny papers of the late 19th century and branches to include Hearst’s yellow journalism, The National Enquirer, much of Us Weekly, TMZ, Gawker, and dozens of other gossip blogs. Many of today’s publications are modeled, subconsciously or not, after Confidential Magazine, an upstart, pulpy publication that wreaked havoc in Hollywood for much of the 1950s.
Confidential’s premise, codified on the cover of every magazine, was simple: tell the facts and name the names. To do so, it relied on a massive network of tipsters, prostitutes, cops, and bell-boys for information about the untold private lives of popular figures. Confidential’s rise coincided with the slow unraveling of the studio system, during which hundreds of stars, formerly governed by strict studio contracts, went “freelance,” hiring their own agents and press agents to do the work formerly performed by their studio. In theory, this scenario meant greater freedom for the star; in practice, it meant greater vulnerability. Confidential always cloaked its revelations in puns and suggestive language (most famously, “Why Liberace’s Theme Song Should Be ‘Mad About the Boy’”) but it was nonetheless a reality check: The stars could no longer run wild—or, at the very least, pretend that they didn’t.
Confidential didn’t use paparazzi photos—the paparazzi didn’t exist, or at least how we understand it, until the 1960s—but its tremendous success stratified the gossip press. Since the mid-1920s, star images had been the construct of a single, univocal stream of information, controlled, from the top down, by the studios. Now, there were other voices challenging those images, threatening to undercut them. These voices whispered of homosexuality, interracial romance, adultery, and other forms of “sexual deviance.” They suggested that some stars weren’t perfect mothers, others weren’t faithful husbands, and, most importantly, that the star images had been exactly that: images.
Confidential was eventually defanged by a string of libel claims, but its legacy remains. Even in the late ’50s and early ’60s, its prominence forced the formerly benign fan magazines to take up many of their tactics, from sensational headlines to photo decoupage, in hopes of competing with its monthly revelations. Today, we see Confidential’s influence most clearly in TMZ, manifest in everything from the primary color scheme to the site’s own web of informants that make it, somewhat ironically, one of the most reliable sources in entertainment “news.”
Here’s where we return to the paparazzi boycott. At its most basic level, the boycott aims to protect the children of celebrity. But there’s a larger endgame concerning celebrities’ ability to control their images—an ability that’s been rapidly eroding since the days of Confidential and accelerated by the rise of new media technologies (digital cameras, high-speed Internet, gossip blogs). Indeed, the reason so many celebrities now use Twitter to post their own intimate photos is, in the words of Ashton Kutcher, to “take back their own paparazzi.”
What the boycott does, then, is allow celebrities a modicum of control over the way their children are presented and, by extension, affect their images. These celebrities may still allow photos (rights to new baby photos currently net celebrities millions of dollars), they’ll just be on the celebrity’s terms. In this way, the boycott suggests just how dependent many of these outlets have become on celebrity cooperation: ET, People, Just Jared, and E! may have had some measure of altruistic intentions, but the real fear is losing access to not only Bell and Shepherd, but the phalanx of celebrities, with and without children, who support them.
To these outlets, celebrities aren’t people, per se, but content sources—and without them, they lose the thing that distinguishes them not only from TMZ and Us Weekly, but the ever-proliferating number of (free) options for celebrity content online. Put simply, these publications need to maintain relationships at whatever cost. Right now, that cost is slight. But it’s easy to see the demands accumulating: Five years from now, the boycott might be against all paparazzi photographs.
What, some people might ask, would that hurt? Wouldn’t a world without paparazzi be a better one? It’d certainly be a more sanitized one. I spend a lot of time looking at classic fan magazines, and the stars within are so unwaveringly pleasing: Everyone always looks beautiful, and blissful, and grateful. They were paragons of masculinity and femininity, perfect condensations of the American Dream.
Those images were ideologically airtight—but Confidential, the paparazzi, TMZ, and similar outlets puncture those creations, again and again. Of course, these publications were, and are, garish and trashy, framing revelations of sexual preference and partner as “scandal.” But scandal functions as an ideological wedge, compromising and interrogating our understandings of what it means to be “good” or “bad,” happy or married or sexual. By providing a way to map our anxieties onto celebrity bodies, this type of gossip can make the unspeakable speakable—an avenue, in other words, for us to talk about how we feel about gender performance, same-sex marriage, and dozens of other difficult topics. Sometimes that talk is regressive, homophobic, and reactionary, but it can also provide a way of thinking through what a different way of being in the world might actually look like.
I don’t think we’re going to go back to the studio system days of publicity—at least, in the era of the citizen paparazzi, not in the near future. I’m not even suggesting that we should celebrate the paparazzi, or ensure their long-term survival. I’m glad celebrity children won’t be harassed and will, for the most part, get to make their own decisions about whether or not to live their lives in public.
Maybe the current ban is, in fact, a fitting compromise: It protects the most vulnerable while still allowing for the continual interrogation of our celebrities, their meaning, and, by extension, our ideals. For as much as I love the stars of classic Hollywood, and the simple meanings their images conveyed, those images were also fiercely limiting, especially for women, people of color, and anyone who wasn’t straight.
No one wants a world of predatory paparazzi, but highly curated and regulated celebrity isn’t just boring—it turns us away from the complexities of everyday life. The world is complicated, messy, imperfect, and contradictory, and if we want our celebrities to function as progressive forces, then they must be as well.