Sunday, August 28, 2011

Teen Sex Scandal! Fuck The Fame Away - hot pics inside

This year the tabloids have been making news. Not in the way that they usually do - by patching stories around blurry photographs and the testimony of unnamed insiders - rather they have become the expose, revealing decades of phone tapping, hacking emails, breaching privacy and perverting justice.

It didn't exactly come as a shock. We may remember the stop-at-nothing news man cliché from such classics as 1937's screwball comedy take on the Chicago news machine Nothing Sacred and Carry Grant's ruthless reporter in His Girl Friday to modern screenplays from State of Play to Thank you for smoking. What was surprising about the News Of The World scandal was its magnitude and its blatantness. Breaking the law appeared to be a commonly accepted part of protocol in one of the world's largest media conglomerates; an organisation that never considered themselves culpable, even when lives were damaged and police investigations compromised.

And in their defence? All they could come up with was finger pointing and an equally cinematic 'everything I've done was for you', appeal to our sympathies. Anything, it seems, is permissible in the service of the news. And the news is anything that we read - a definition which conveniently places blame on the consumer of 'news' or the victim of 'reportage', each of whom are accused of 'asking for it'.

While I don't think that a practice of ethical fandom is a bad idea, I would hate for its theorizing to be underpinned by any acceptance of blame by consumers. There are ways to titillate readers without stalking and hacking phones. Just because I looked at Paris Hilton's snatch doesn't mean I needed to see it.

I mean it wasn't, like, 'news'.

Increasingly, gossip and its brutal impact is a political issue. Police send officers into schools to talk about cyber bullying. Blogs and websites allow any nasty power-fiend with a PC to publish slander and expose classmates or town pariahs with frightening efficiency.

In the 80s, when you got labelled school slut, dissemination of your moniker tended to be restricted to toilet-door gazetteering and bus stop broadcast. These days, it can have a hashtag.

Just watch Gossip Girl for a fully product-placed timeline of web documentation techniques. In season one everyone is texting the show's bitchy narrator and blog host Gossip Girl with the latest eye witness accounts. Then it's photos, then videos and by season four a GPS function which allows interested parties to log on to the site and track Serena Van der Woodsen or Chuck Bass in their fucking and fashion motivated movements around the Upper East Side.

Gossip Girl is genius TV. It's a mash-up of technologically enhanced kids mystery genres like Secret Seven or Nancy Drew, the revenge driven soap-opera ala Days of our Lives and Melrose Place and the kind of high fashion branding and on the pulse references which link it to our consumption of celebrity culture and the desire it enflames.

As an aside, I am so fucking glad I am not a teenage girl anymore. Along with the aforementioned slut-tweeting, Facebook is a disturbing concrete representation to the ethereal concept of popularity and the massive increase in popularity of celebrity gossip magazines and sponsored TV shows increases the pressure to consume high ticket items that never crossed my radar during adolescence.

But it's not just shoes and bags that Gossip Girl is selling. It is also the notion of the 'tabloid self,' a marketable and represented image which you have to both promote and defend. The tabloid self is a strategic selfhood to be utilized both to get what you want and to discredit The Other who stands in your way. While this might seem like a fantasy to adult viewers, teenagers today already have at least five years experience in their own 'brand management'. Today's 18 year-old has probably watched their image develop across platforms from LiveJournal to Friendster, Myspace, Facebook and Twitter. They know 'what works as web content'. They know how to get hits and present exactly the 'me' they want to be. The 18 year old of the future will have even more experience, having to devise methods for eliminating any social damage done by their Gen Y parents uploading kiddy pictures of them to the web before anyone thought about the ethics of the idea.

In Gossip Girl, the tabloid self is constantly challenged to reinvent itself into a new, better person. This reinvention, however, is always underpinned by a fervent belief in an essential self which, belying any attempt to change will reveal itself as the 'true' identity. Caught in a loop the characters degenerate into a dichotomous vacillation between good and bad, old and new, prude and slut, sober and heading for an early grave. Ultimately though, the message is that like every guilt ridden Proddy that came before, you are a no good sinner, no matter what leaf you turn over. It is this sinful self that friends and family are called to love. The show's message of redemption relies on a cycle of confession and forgiveness, with the characters absolving each other with 'love' like stand-ins for God himself.

The logic of Gossip Girl is tabloid logic. A photograph presents a whole person. A single incident symbolizes descent from or return to worthiness. In the real tabloids though, it is the reader who stands in for God, bestowing love and forgiveness. And the characters are real people.

The life and death of Amy Winehouse fits in here, sadly, as an illustration of the kind of damage tabloid logic can do. Like an episode of Gossip Girl, Winehouse's bio is full of double crosses - videos of her smoking what someone alleges to be crack passed anonymously to the police by vengeful rivals or story provoking paparazzi, her own Father leaking doctor's warnings about lung deterioration causing the going price for pictures of Amy with a ciggie to skyrocket. To defend his actions Mitch Winehouse claimed that using the media was the only way to get through to his daughter. Following tabloid logic - he was doing it for her own good. The media representation is the only way to communicate. Forget talking to you family. A picture or, say, a published STD test, tells a thousand words.

For half a decade, after each fall from grace reports surfaced about Amy's treatment program. Tabloids love rehab. 'Rehab' is the Mecca of tabloid logic, a perfect narrative symbol for the rise and fall of a tabloid self. A glistening fountain of youth, rehab promises to remake a person while at the same time much of its seduction rests on the inevitable defeat always already built into its structure. An alcoholic (the sinful self) is always an alcoholic and never anything else no matter how dry they are. This is the myth that tabloid muckrakers sort to perpetuate by hacking Winehouse's phone and bribing their way into her medical records. Looking at rehab like this, there is an ironic prophecy in Winehouse's hit song. She refuses to go to rehab, because being 'black' is part of the journey to coming 'back'. In other words, when you suffer from depression, you try to learn to incorporate the dark times, they are part of you.

Conceptually, rehab is well adapted to a consumer identity in which one immediately becomes what one is - it is simply a matter of a decision (don't drink, put your faith in a higher power) or a purchase ( new shoes, eyeliner) which facilitates the affirmation of the new self. On Gossip Girl, being photographed at the library might be proof of a new educational diligence, while later that day, being photographed at a bar disproves any change and shows us what we knew - that a drunk dog still turns old tricks. The characters even doubt themselves in the face of tabloid assertions. When Serena sees uploaded pictures of herself snorting coke she assumes, despite her sobriety, that she must be guilty and promptly checks herself into rehab for a new start.

While most of us have plenty of time to nut out, in private, what kind of standards we will set for ourselves and when breaking them is okay, for the tabloid self, worth relies on repentance, amens and forgiveness. The tabloid self is completely dependant on the opinions of others, whether they are your friends or your public. For Amy, adding youth, drugs and booze to the mix heightened her need for acceptance. When the world is hostile and blurry and you might have disgraced yourself before it the night before, you hide close to those who offer redemption. All this makes fertile grounds for a Grade A co-dependent relationships, just like the one between Amy and Blake Civil which has been wiped across the tabloids for almost half a decade.

It took me the best part of my twenties and at least two co-dependent relationships to attend to decisions without first considering what other people's perspectives might be. However, free from scrutiny by gossip websites, tabloid magazines or even Facebook, I was left alone to discover that one can study in the morning and get pissed in the afternoon without doing irreparable damage to core identity.

An idea of self which emphasises sin and atonement conflicts with any notion of personal development which encompasses gradual learning. It negates the value of mistakes and changes of heart. It runs contra to the inevitable trajectory of a conscious human being who is never fully formed but constantly changing in relationship to its psychological, social and physical environment. It encourages people to make decisions about each other's capabilities based on superficial reputations and networks. It creates a guilty psyche, constantly craving flagellation for falling off the wagon.

Amy Winehouse's music was full of this kind of conflict. It's part of the reason it resonates so well. Her second album, Back to Black is dark with co-dependency, disappointment and the rhetoric of rehab culture, of 'playing yourself' and being 'your own worst enemy'. But it is also super sophisticated, full of the kind of cool irony which allows you to shake the ash from your hair in the morning, wear you beer soaked shirt well and move on with wry perspective.

It's tragic that Winehouse didn't survive to shrug against another day. Courtney Love, another talented, volatile trash-bag of note, whose portrait, pregnant and smoking, came to be used against her in a state custody case, has shown us all that it is possible to have a life beyond the news stands. This is not to say that the pressure hasn't affected her. And of course tabloids still wait for that 'inevitable' overdose disgrace. But Courtney at least managed to escape the fate of being badgered to death.

After Amy's death, the 'reap what you sew', moralising attitudes of tabloid logic have become insidiously implicit. Sentimental homage and the first ever flattering photos of Winehouse are printed in the same pages that used to berate her for being out of control, a junky, an anorexic, the worst dressed, the most hated, the least likely to live to thirty.

Another interesting text which explores the psychology of the sleazy press is the new Errol Morris documentary, Tabloid. The film tells the story of Joyce McKinney, 1970s true crime tabloid star and protagonist in the infamous 'Case of the Manacled Mormon'. McKinney is perfect tabloid fodder; pretty and bubbly with a dark past which finds her embroiled in a sleazy love-story-cum-stakeout-cum-kidnapping incident complete with cult mind control. She could be a wronged romantic heroine, a small town princess, a southern belle, a devious femme fatale and a whore with a heart of gold, depending on the mood of the writer and the conceivable photographic subtext.

Errol is typically gentle in exposing the edifice of tabloid reportage. Through interviews with the journalists and cuts to text from articles of the time, Tabloid highlights the way that reporters twist the story, give it sensational taglines and edge, guide its direction. Although McKinney, for the most part, had a pretty good time at the hands of the press, it gets out of hand, as it seems inevitably to do, and her post-celebrity life is characterized by depression, anxiety and agoraphobia she attributes to her traumatic experience by their hands. Lulled and sated by Morris's gift for teasing out the story and keeping the flourishes minimal and well targeted, I laughed all the way through Tabloid, until I wasn't laughing anymore and a deep, complicit sadness set in.

McKinney's story is a kitschy, camp version of most tabloid tragedies. Journalists may have a point when they criticize her for being quite happy to embrace the press until she realizes the risks. But don't the press have a responsibility not to breach privacy or print something which could ruin lives, careers or relationships without benefiting anyone with more than disposable entertainment? The phrase 'the public interest' as justification should not apply to fans who give a shit about what celebrities are wearing. Printing pictures of drunken it girls is not a community service, and while we are likely to look, we could just as easily be looking the other way.

On the small screen, Gossip Girl perpetuates the idea that tabloid harassment is the inevitable price of living the high life. Although website 'blasts' often destroy the lives of characters, they still see their author as a friend, and will sometimes work with her to bring down a common enemy. We the consumer are happy to accept this Stockholm Syndrome reasoning as it is important for us to perceive that there is, in fact, a price of fame and fortune. Amy Winehouse too, despite taking restraining orders against news organizations and paparazzi agencies, has paraphrased the cliché 'all news is good news' to which we should add, posthumously, the equally misquoted caveat 'until someone loses an I'.

Tacit acceptance and toleration of tabloid harassment by the entertainment industry has been pushed to the limits. Even the mainstay permissiveness of celebrity culture is not enough freedom for 'news' mercenaries. This suggests something to me about the insider culture in the media, there is still that cliché sense of the individual getting carried away, going as far as they can for a story, but now it is backed by what can best be described as an organised crime ring with money for the best technology an info-crim could desire.

The notion that those who 'court the tabloids' enter a Faustian bargain and deserve to loose their right to privacy imbues the media with the false characteristic of unaccountable, biblical evil. This is massive hyper-inflation. The media is just a bunch of common, garden variety megalomaniacs and bullies. We need to be very careful to ignore all arguments that attribute blame to particular individuals, usually the victims and ignore the responsibility of organisations and institutions.

After all, similar ill/logic is utilized by blood thirsty right wingers when they say that gay men deserve aids, provocatively dressed women want to be raped and drug users are begging for death.

There is nothing 'good' about tabloids. Gossip is jammed up next to ads for seven hundred dollar sweat shop handbags and self-esteem crippling celebrity diet plans. Yet still they jump off the rack at us. They are seductive because tabloid logic is a big part of our own logic. It speaks to the simplifying part of us which thinks only in binaries and yearns to be reborn fully formed and forgiven in a single moment. On an infinite red carpet we stand, a better, kinder, thinner, richer, more famous self, teetering on the edge of a precipice of guilt and desire. And then, with privilege comparable to living on the Upper East Side, we close the magazine, toss it onto the rack with the sugar free gum and chocolate bars, move forward in the grocery queue and on with our lives, complicated and unseen.



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