The Gossip Surrounding Female Celebrities Proves We Still Have So Much Work To Do

As one of the most disputed figures in popular culture, it’s no surprise that Kim Kardashian West’s name was yet again slashed across the internet in the last few weeks. The reason Kim’s name is once again tabloid fodder is not due to a nude bathroom selfie, or an outlandish outfit at the Met Ball. Instead, the press have attacked Kardashian West over the behaviour of her seemingly unhinged husband.

Her husband, Kanye West, who has been open about his diagnosis of Bipolar disorder in the past, appeared at his first presidential campaign rally in South Carolina on the 20th July. The speech is far from the reserved and highly starched presidential performances we have seen from candidates in the past. Kanye’s offering feels more like a madcap smattering of dreamed up facts and personal anecdotes. His speech peaks in peculiarity when the teary eyed rapper proclaims that his father desired to abort him in his mother’s womb.

Videos of the speech, taken by seemingly befuddled observers, began to circulate around the internet within an hour, ripe for consumption across numerous platforms. Possibly the most disturbing element of these videos are who I assume to be Kanye’s ‘handlers’ standing mute in the background as his emotions froth and bubble, like a forgotten sauce pan on the hob.

The internet responded predictably, and blamed Kim. One publication criticised Kim for continuing to “(flaunt) her surgically-enhanced curves”, whilst her husband “loses his mind out in the desert”. Piers Morgan, who has attacked Kardashian in the past, spouted equally as harsh words on Good Morning Britain. Piers stated that “Kim Kardashian must do something that she has so far in her life shown zero desire or ability to do: take a family crisis back behind closed doors and save her husband from himself” (Morgan, 2020). This vilification of Kim’s inability to rectify her Husband’s outburst is not only cruel and insensitive, but is symptomatic of the major gender discrepancies that continue to operate within modern society.

Whatever your opinion of Kardashian and her image-focused empire, it is my belief that analysing the discourse surrounding female celebrities is crucial to understanding how gender norms are disseminated in mainstream media. Celebrities act as a kind of anchorage that we can attach our own idea of self to. The popular question of ‘Who would play you in the movie of your life?’ seems emblematic of this.

Phillip David Marshall observes this notion in his article ‘The promotion and presentation of the self’, where he suggests that celebrity gossip is frequently used to demonstrate what behaviour is considered to be acceptable in modern society: “Because of celebrity’s centrality in what can be defined as self-production, the elaborate celebrity gossip can be seen as providing a continuity of discourse around the presentation of the self for public consumption” (Marshall, 2010).

The damnation of female celebrities is indicative of what kind of behaviour and representation of ones self is du rigour in contemporary society. Suggesting that Kim ‘take a family crisis behind closed doors’ suggests that it is a woman’s job to take care of the domestic sphere, catapulting us right back to the 1950s, or the 1920s for that matter. Female celebrities during the golden era of Hollywood were frequently framed as having achieved a kind of domestic bliss in celebrity magazines, just to reassure readers that their domestic lives were still very much a priority. Anne Helen Peterson writes, in the article ‘Those glorious fan magazines’: “There were images that aligned female stars with domesticity, just in case you were worried that they were actually forsaking traditional gender roles while making hundreds of thousands of dollars” (Peterson, 2013).

Photoplay Magazine, 1952

In 2018, Pop singer Ariana Grande experienced similar treatment to Kardashian West after the death of her ex-boyfriend rapper Mac Miller. Grande suffered a myriad of abuse online from Miller’s fans that accused her of enabling his destructive behaviour. Many placed outright blame on Grande for Miller’s death, and a landslide of accusatory comments and jibes were posted on Twitter. Grande responded to comments prior to Miller’s death, professing that the relationship was toxic in nature. This discourse suggests that Grande, despite being a successful artist in her own right, is somehow deplorable for not managing to save a man with severe addictive tendencies. Furthermore, this discourse maintains that all women must adhere to a patriarchal notion of femininity and display passive, naturally domestic and maternal attributes. Why, in 2020, are we still aligning women’s worth with the nature of their domestic relationships?

This kind of blame on female celebrities is deeply troubling, and no doubt devastating for the women that find themselves in the cross-fire. There is a distinct lack of discussion of the grey areas of certain subjects in mainstream media. We are consistently presented with notions of what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘evil’. The issue of blame is constantly up for discussion, instead of recognising the complexity of the human experience and focusing on more pressing issues such as de-stigmatising mental illness. This is because placing rigid notions of what is and isn’t acceptable within society upholds dominant ideologies, such as patriarchy, gender norms and encourages concepts such as competition and individual success.

Equally, the conversation surrounding Kanye’s struggle, or lack their of, demonstrates how far we have yet to go when discussing men’s mental health. Kanye’s distressing behaviour, as a man who is open about his mental health issues, is frequently served up by media publications as entertainment. By suggesting that this kind of behaviour is only acceptable behind closed doors, we are pushing the discussion surrounding men’s mental health further under the rug. To suggest that overt displays of mental distress are not suitable in public spaces, is not cohesive to creating a society in which those who struggle can feel heard and supported.

To propose a total contradiction, it’s telling that as soon as a man displays emotion in public, we are so quick to suggest that there must be something wrong with his brain. Must there be a fault in your internal wiring in order to break down with emotion? Why do we automatically suggest that a man is unstable when they display emotions that don’t quite equate with traditional concepts of masculinity?

When a man’s emotional armour shatters in front of the eyes of the world, mainstream media explodes into hysteria like a pack of hyenas. This is demonstrated by the reaction to Will Smith’s tearful exchange with wife Jada Pinkett Smith during their ‘Red Table Talk’ discussion in June. Smith’s tearful face was soon turned into a series of memes that was shared with fervour across social media platforms.

All of this proves that we still have so much work to do as a society, that we are still so hungry for blame instead of recognising the nuances of human behaviour. We are still so eager to Magic Wand away any kind of behaviour that might suggest that we are flawed creatures. Perhaps we must also stop putting so much importance on the behaviour of celebrities and recognise that public life is performative in so many aspects. Even though celebrity gossip does serve as a distraction from much more difficult realities, we must remember that the conversations we are having about public figures is very telling of the standards we are setting for those more immediate to us.

Writer, Film Festival Programmer. First Class Honors in Film and Screen Studies

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