Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


The Big Screen

paparazzi

(Photo: bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock)

How the No-Kids Paparazzi Policy Could Change Celebrity Gossip

• April 02, 2014 • 7:00 AM

(Photo: bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock)

New rules at People and other leading gossip outlets could be the first step back to a classic Hollywood system, where celebrities have complete control over their image. The problem? Tabloids, by mapping our anxieties onto celebrity bodies and making the unspeakable speakable, serve an important purpose.

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.

confidential-magazinePeople 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.

Anne Helen Petersen
Anne Helen Petersen teaches media studies at Whitman College, writes for Dear Television, and is responsible for Scandals of Classic Hollywood. Follow her on Twitter @annehelen.

More From Anne Helen Petersen

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 22 • 6:00 AM

Politicians Gonna Politic

Is there something to the idea that a politician who no longer faces re-election is free to pursue new policy solutions without needing to kowtow to special interests?


December 22 • 4:00 AM

Keep That E-Reader Out of Bed and You’ll Feel Better in the Morning

New research finds e-readers, like other light-emitting electronic devices, can disrupt normal sleep patterns.


December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.