Ok, I’ll admit it: I love celebrity gossip. I’m a steadfast follower of the ‘Midweek Madness’ on Jezebel.com, I can’t stand in a grocery store line without flipping through a tabloid and E! Network’s ‘Fashion Police’ is one of my favorite guilty pleasures. I know I am not alone in this fascination; most people I’ve met, men and women both, know more about Kimye and the Real Housewives than they’d care to admit – at least before a glass of wine or two.
But why do we love to track the relationships and finances of people we don’t know and will likely never meet? What draws us to become emotionally invested in these strangers? To care about the color of their nursery walls and what they order at In & Out? For the majority of those I know, discussing such topics allows us to do something very taboo in our society – openly judge and talk about others. Indeed, studies suggest that our need to judge is hardwired in to us from our earliest times. Says Frank T. McAndrew in Scientific American, “…Our ancestors faced a number of consistent adaptive problems such as remembering who was a reliable exchange partner and who was a cheater, knowing who would be a reproductively valuable mate, and figuring out how to successfully manage friendships, alliances and family relationships…” In modern times, while you would never openly discuss your neighbors’ divorce or your co-worker’s money problems (nor should you if you want to stay on your street and at your desk!), being able to wonder what Brad Pritt was thinking or how Lindsay Lohan could be so broke gives us an outlet for this instinctive behavior.
Celebrity gossip also provides an immediate bond between those discussing it. Everyone knows that poor Selena Gomez deserves better and that Charlie Sheen is a train wreck, this knowledge gives us a generally acceptable truth upon which to agree, and a platform on which to build a friendly rapport. These discussions allow people to share their personal or moral convictions in a non-confrontational way and make it easier to engage in discussion about said beliefs because, realistically, none of us know the people being discussed. As Anne Peterson of the Huffington Post says, “If someone makes a choice we find unscrupulous or off-putting…we might talk about it as a way to explore whether or not we would make that same choice in that position…Celebrity gossip is a way to assess our values.” You do not have to own up to your personal secrets when judging a celebrity, something a little harder to pull off when doing so to someone who knows you well. People tend to feel guilty after discussing a friend or family member but discussing a celebrity is more like talking about being on Team Edward or Team Jacob – they feel almost fictional because they are so far away – and thus you don’t have to worry about getting a reputation as a Chatty Cathy for doing so.
But perhaps the most prevalent reason to gossip about celebrities is also the simplest one – they’re fascinating! They live in modern castles and name their children after cities, but they also fall down gala stairs and go to Taco Bell drunk. They’re just like and yet nothing like us. With millions of dollars at your disposal, what would you do? This question lies at the heart of most discussions I have about celebrities. Choruses of I would never act like him or I have more sense than to wear that allow us to play a grown-up game of pretend, something we all need for in our increasingly fast-paced and violent world.