THE BACK PAGES

THE TABS: NO MEN ALLOWED

Why do the gossip rags only feature women when there are so many stories of male stars behaving badly?

JAIME J. WEINMAN November 12 2007
THE BACK PAGES

THE TABS: NO MEN ALLOWED

Why do the gossip rags only feature women when there are so many stories of male stars behaving badly?

JAIME J. WEINMAN November 12 2007

Is there a double standard in celebrity gossip? If not, why do gossip publications mostly go after women? Even though most of the biggest movie stars are men, when you’re leafing through In Touch or Star or the dozens of other celebrity dish sources, you mostly read about the tribulations of living women like Lindsay Lohan, or dead ones like Princess Diana.

Bonnie Fuller, editor of the popular tabloid Star magazine, says they don’t yet have “a big male star who’s going to have crossover appeal to both sexes.” What gives a star the broadest appeal, apparently, is being a woman and being in trouble. Though you’ll read

about celebrity couples in gossip magazinesFuller says that Brad Pitt is “integral to the dynamic” of the beloved Brangelina cover stories—you’ll rarely read about men getting into trouble. At least not without women like Angelina Jolie or Jennifer Aniston to get them into that trouble. 

SORORITY SISTERS: Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Nicole Richie leave little room for Matthew McConaughey

Of course, sometimes a male star goes so spectacularly wrong that the gossip magazines have no choice but to feature him. But they seem to do it almost grudgingly. When Owen Wilson attempted suicide in August, TMZ.com which started up in 2005 and almost instantly became the leader in lurid celebrity-stalking sagas, gave remarkably little attention to the story, even though it was one of the first sites to break it in the first place. After reporting on the basic facts of the case, TMZ and its founder and editor, Harvey Levin, started moving on to other subjects, doing very little to investigate the reasons for Wilson’s depression. Gawker.com, a site that covers the world of gossip coverage, pointed out how different this was from TMZ’s literally 24-hour coverage of Lindsay Lohan and her arrest for cocaine possession. “Why aren’t they updating us on his every move?” wrote Doree Shafrir at Gawker. com. “Why haven’t they talked to ‘friends’ and his brothers and anyone who ever took a crap within a 12-mile radius of him?”

The gossip-mongers themselves are unwittingly offering some hard statistical evidence that they just don’t care about men. TMZ.com has a list on its website of various celebrities and the number of times they’ve been the main focus of a post. As of Oct. 25,2007, Britney Spears led the way with 791 mentions, followed by Paris Hilton at 757, Anna Nicole Smith at 449 (even though she’s been dead for a large portion of TMZ’s existence), and Lindsay Lohan at 427. But among males, Mel Gibson leads, with only 67 mentions.

Even celebrity columnists themselves are starting to mutter a little bit about a possible imbalance in their own coverage. Liz Smith, the veteran gossip columnist, pointed out in print that photos of Matthew McConaughey falling down drunk were being treated with indulgence and even amusement, whereas the same photos would have caused a Lindsay Lohan to be “branded an out-of-control tramp.” In an interview with Maclean’s, Smith adds that there are other male celebrities who aren’t getting a rough enough ride from her profession. “When Robert Downey Jr. was arrested for drugs, over and over, and eventually went to jail, his problems did not receive one-tenth of the heat and light that has been rained down on Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Nicole Richie and Britney Spears for their drunk-driving and drug addictions.”

It’s not as if this has always been the way of the gossip world; only a decade ago, celebrity dirt was a little more evenly spread around. Charlie Sheen was a major gossip star back in the ’90s, when he admitted to having patronized the establishment of “Hollywood Madam” Heidi Fleiss. Now he’s a bigger star than he was then, and the writers of his hit sitcom Two and a Half Men told the New York Post that they base their episodes on Sheen’s debauched lifestyle, but he’s no longer a source of tabloid stories. Tom Cruise was once able to make the covers of tabloids on his own, when questions arose about his sex life or Scientology; now, in keeping with Fuller’s statement about the dominance of couples, he only gets written about as part of a couple, “Tom and Katie.” As if his weird behaviour would be less weird if he weren’t married to the girl from Dawson’s Creek.

Why don’t gossip publications focus on men? One reason may be simply that most readers of gossip (in print and online) are women, and gossip writers think that women prefer to read about other women. “Fundamentally, the tabloid industry is geared toward women,” says Rebecca Aronauer of jossip.com. “If someone like George Clooney is a hard partier, and I’m not saying he is, it ruins the fantasy of him. Women who read these magazines, at least subconsciously, imagine themselves as part of this world. They want the men to be Prince Charmings, and the women to be evil stepsisters.” Fuller makes a similar point, insisting that Star's coverage is driven by the fact that women “have an innate interest in other women,” particularly young and famous ones.

Robert Downey Jr.


And though Fuller says that “I can assure you if something happened with Brad Pitt or George Clooney, it would get a lot of attention,” in practice, Star and other publications are usually hungry for information about minor stars, as long as they’re women. Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie haven’t achieved any success beyond a mildly popular reality show; Spears was once a big star but isn’t anymore; even Lohan hasn’t been able to make a movie a hit on her own.

So one thing that drives the negative coverage of female celebrities is that the readers of these tabloids just love women more than they love male stars—meaning that they’re disappointed yet fascinated to see them fall from grace. “Britney was just an icon for so many women,” Fuller says. “She was the epitome of what girls wanted to grow up to be and what parents wanted their daughters to be.” The same thing happened with Lindsay Lohan, Fuller explains: “She was a role model for young women, and the fact that her life took such a dramatic turn into a number of troubles merited a lot of attention.” Owen Wilson’s fall doesn’t affect Fuller’s readers as directly or personally: “They like him, he’s been in a lot of movies, but he’s not someone who’s been on the covers a lot.”

And yet this raises the question of why Owen Wilson, a hard-living celebrity in his own right, wasn’t on the covers a lot, and why his recent collapse came as a complete surprise. Lindsay Lohan, on the other hand, was a tabloid story even before her problems spun out of control; Fuller says that Lohan has been a cover star ever since “she had an eating disorder, which a lot of young women relate to.” The tabloids will cover a man’s decline and fall after it happens; with women, their readers want to see that decline as it happens, and speculate about who will be the next woman to meet Lindsay or Britney’s fate.

Does that mean that men can never become tabloid villains? Yes, they can—but unlike women, they can’t become villains for living too hard or too fast; they have to display racism or bigotry to get on the front pages.

TMZ managed to wreck Michael Richards’ career with one blurry cellphone video. Few people were interested in Mel Gibson’s drunk driving, but when he made anti-Semitic comments while being arrested, that was enough to make it a major story. Maybe TMZ would have paid more attention to Kiefer Sutherland if he had said something about minority groups; instead, all he did was go to prison for drunk driving, so no one cares.

OWEN WILSON became a story after his suicide attempt


Put it all together, and you can see a strange pattern emerging: the purpose of tabloid gossip, it seems, is to punish celebrities for bad behaviour. It’s just that the definition of bad behaviour is different for men than for women, and not just in gossip columns. Emily Gould, a writer for Gawker.com, explains that the tabloids simply reflect the traditional double standards: “A guy who stays out late and parties a lot is a player, and a girl who does the same thing is torn to shreds. Nothing’s changed.” So while women are still supposed to be clean-living, the tabloids share our boys-will-be-boys attitude to men— although they’ll punish an Isaiah Washington for being insensitive or intolerant. In a world without a lot of moral authority, maybe the tabloids are playing the role that religion or tradition used to fill: enforcing what they view as the rules, no matter how misogynistic those rules might be.

Which means that while male stars aren’t allowed to do anything they want, they do have a lot more leeway than women when it comes to the things that paparazzi usually cover, like sex and booze. It’s still more of a taboo-breaker when women do these things, as Smith admits: “I am so old-fashioned myself, having been born back in 1923, that I find even I am more shocked by films or photographs of women misbehaving than by men.”

Fuller is hopeful that there will be more guy-related news for the cover, but she notes that “there really hasn’t been a major new male star who can drive men and women to the box office or the TV screen. The closest there is is Zac Efron.” But of course, it wasn’t Zac Efron who was the big tabloid story recently; it was his High School Musical co-star, Vanessa Hudgens, for the release of a nude photo. That’s what gossip readers want to know about: which women are misbehaving today.