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?

Reading the Romance

March 6, 2007 at 4:56 am | Posted in genre fiction, pop culture, romance | Leave a comment

Radway. J. A. (1984). Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill,NC:Univ.of North Carolina Press.

Berger, A.A. (1992) Popular Culture Genres: Theories and Texts. NY: Sage Press.  

radway_reading.jpgWhy do women read romantic fiction?

How is the romance narrative structure defined ?

What makes a romance a success or a “garbage dump” candidate?flame-and-flower.jpg

Professor Radway (Faculty, UNC and Duke ) explored these questions in a  provocative 1984 field study of reading “motives, habits, rewards”  for 42 Midwestern romance readers. Radway approached the research first as an  ethnography of reading: how different communities interpret text. However, Radway soon realized that it was necessary to examine the text’s meaning within the context of the reader’s response to the event or behavior of reading. Her approach reflects a multi-disciplinary approach combining social science methodology with anthropology as well as literary and sociocultural analysis. Radway’s research attempts to address both feminist and psychoanalytic interpretations of romance’s lure. 

Reader Motives: Most of Radway’s subjects  expended significant energy nurturing their families, receiving minimal appreciation in return.  For these self-sacrificing souls, romance reading provided a critical outlet for escape, relaxation and security (p 60-61). “We read books so we won’t cry” is how one subject explained her habit. These women viewed the solitary, deliberate act of reading as a “declaration of independence” –It is my time. In the context of 1970-90s popular culture, this sentiment is summed up by the bath salts ad: “Calgon take me away!”   

While Radway’s interviewees stressed they were happily married, their comments revealed that romance novels fulfilled needs and desires their bona fide male partner did not. I was fascinated by Radway’s interpretation of romance readers’ drive as an “ongoing search for the mother” as feelings of  love, acceptance and security are vicariously consummated in the man-woman relationship. I remain skeptical concerningRadway’s application of Chodorow’s feminist interpretation (Chapter 3) with her contention that romance novels help women resolve their ambivalence and fear of male/paternal dominance. 

Narrative Structure Radway (p 67) summarizes  reader feedback on the 3 most important ingredients in romance. The narrative begins with tension created of clashing, binary  character traits between the heroine and hero. The classic heroine is virginal, unconcerned/unaware of her beauty, intelligent and yearning for love and commitment. In contrast, the classic romantic hero is sexually experienced, emotionally detached, and aware of his devastating good looks.

Radway’s discussion of binary traits  (p 132) echoes Berger’s (1992) discussion of bipolarity in popular culture genres, such as the battle of “good vs. evil” in Dr. No.  Moreover, Radway employs a variant of Propp’s analytical method by determining that the ideal  romances follows a  13 narrative structure (p 134)  from 1) destruction of heroine’s social identity (loss, poverty, disgrace,,,) through antagonism to physical separation of protagonists to 12) heroine responds  emotionally, physically and 13) heroine’s identity is restored.   

Ideal vs Failed Romance A true romance focuses on the one man-one woman relationship. If there is a rape scene, it arises from the hero’s misunderstanding about the heroine’s past and results in aggrieved repentance and hero reformation. There must be a happy ending, culminating in a committed relationship if not a marriage.  

Once these narrative guidelines were revealed in reader responses, one can readily discern the “failed romances”. Readers rejected romances that emphasized sex and physical attraction divorced from love (p 74). Equally unacceptable were novels with promiscuious heroines juggling more than one love interest or narratives containing physical violence and brutality against the main characters. While many of the failures proferred a “happy ending”, readers felt the ending lacked credibility because no true resolution and character bonding had occurred prior to the afterthought ending.

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