The Enquiring Minds of Tabloid Readers

April 25, 2007 at 12:57 pm | Posted in celebrity, pop culture, romance, tabloids | 1 Comment

180px-sunpict.jpgBird,S. Elizabeth (1992). For Enquiring Minds: A Cultural Study of Supermarket Tabloids. Knoxville, TN:University of Tennessee Press.  

Radway, Janice (1984) Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill,N.C.:Univ. of North Carolina Press

 Here’s a front page shocker– Why do more than 50 million weekly readers pay big money ($3.29 + cover)for tabloids, when free online information on everything is available 24/7?

For more than a century, tabloids have been maligned as publishing’s seamy underbelly. They’ve been universally panned as national-examiner.gifjournalistic sleaze–sensational claptrap calculated to pander to our baser instincts. Yet, tabloids are not only holding their own in 2007, but one could argue that their “cult of celebrity” approach has moved from street cred to legitimacy in popular culture. Skeptical? Over the next week, count how many more entertainment than “hard news” stories are served up on the average TV and radio news show. While the CBS News doesn’t share the Enquirer’s obsession with Brangelina, they too have gone over to the dark side-the age of infotainment. 

 As Professor Bird (1992) observed, “The tabloids clearly offer millions of Americans something they don’t find in other media”. Bird explored tabloids’ enduring appeal by interviewing this genre’s readers and writers, as well as analyzing the thematic content of major American tabloids.  

200px-batchild.jpgWhy do people read tabloids ? There are those, like Agent K from Men in Black(1997) who claim they abe-lincoln-world-news.jpgoffer the “best damn investigative reporting on the planet” (especially on celebrity shapeshifters). Despite the quip’s absurdity, it resonates with those who feel disenfranchised and suspicious of social institutions.  For these readers, it is an act of defiance. They affirm their individuality by embracing what the popular culture rejects as trash. For others, it is an act of play, to revel in tabloids’ preposterous excess. The Weekly World News offers the most “amazing oddities” stories of the “Ripley’s Believe or Not” tradition. It is also an acknowledged parody publication (http://www.weeklyworldnews.com/bat_boy/ ).

Most of Bird’s readers don’t literally believe what they see in tabloids.globe-tabloid.jpg They selectively filter content into credible stories (celebrity gossip), inspirational stories (rags to riches, heroic pets..)and fun stories (lose a ton overnight).  

Bird’s tabloid readers enjoy their genre for many of the reasons expressed by romance readers( Radway,1984)  For both, the act of reading was empowering and exhilarating. It was one part of their lives that they could control, and this realization filled them with a guilty pleasure. Tabloids and romances offer the allure of escape–to experience vicariously fame, glamour and an exotic life. They’re both reassuring, but for different reasons. Since 80%+ of tabloid stories stress the downside of celebrity (Bird, 1992), it makes us feel a whole lot better about being anonymous and financially-challenged. For romance the reassurance is that love will find you and conquer all.  

 enqirer-5.jpgBoth genres are populist, upbeat and express traditional, family-centered values. They have strict conventions and a “horizon of expectation” but are not religiously conservative overall. Romance values the monogamous, committed relationship. The role of tabloids is to judge and punish the corrupt (-homewreckers, liars and thieves) by public exposure of their evil. Tabloids have expanded their tolerance for diversity since Bird reported their homophobic, white, lower middle class tendencies in 1992. In April 2007, two cover National Enquirer stories were about a secret gay lover and about a fired black Grey’s Anatomy actor. While tabloids and star.jpgtraditional newspapers are both moving to the popular culture center, tabloids are no impartial forum for political and social commentary. How can they be, as long as they pay informants for exclusives?

Both create an intimacy or rapport with their readers. Tabloids achieve this intimacy through shared secrets interwoven with heart-warming human interest stories. Finally, romance and tabloid reader expressed embarrassment about being seen publicly with their genre.  After all, if what they’re reading is trash, then does that make the readers trash too?

What is popular culture?

January 25, 2007 at 11:40 am | Posted in celebrity, John Storey, pop culture, social networking | 2 Comments

pop.jpgJohn Storey, in his 1998 critical treatise, An Introduction to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, presents six definitions of popular culture. Storey’s definitions span the landscape of philosophical concepts from structuralism to hegemony to mass appeal.          

 My “pop culture” definition includes objects, persons ,events and practices  with commercial appeal and broad visibility among “the masses”. It is culture which is light, transient, disposable. In contrast, “high culture” is intellectually challenging and therefore exclusive. Storey suggests that pop culture should be viewed in context, as residual or other culture: what’s left after legitimate culture stakes the high ground. I disagree. With contemporary American culture’s focus on sound bites and “dumbing down” information , it is “high culture” that is becoming the marginalized,other culture.     

The hectic pace of life today blurs distinctions between home and work, community and individual to cope with information overload. This tendency to synthesize and simplify has made “pop culture”  more important to everyday life in my opinion. Pop culture offers a touchstone–a communication shorthand– for connecting with others. Take a quick look at the postings on  social networking sites like Myspace. How often do members define their identity in terms of their pop culture likes and dislikes?

In this era of infotainment, popular culture has expanded to include these areas:

  • Entertainment (movies, music, TV/cable shows, art),
  • Information (TV news, books, magazines, newspapers)
  • Advertising
  • Celebrity  (who’s hot/not)
  • Personal Technology (internet, videogames, cell phones)
  • Appearance (Beauty, fashion and décor)
  • Leisure/ Lifestyle (sports and hobbies)
  • Celebrations and social practices (holidays, traditions)    

   While pop culture, by its frothy nature, is apolitical, it can embrace normative social views. Two examples which spring to mind are the “reduce/reuse/recycle” mantra and the pressure for “politically correct” language and behavior.  What should we conclude about American society today that equates popular culture with trivia and game show savvy?

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