Sarah Churchwell: Gossip is what empowers the weak

We're fascinated by the prospect of sex bringing down the rich and mighty

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News of the Cheryl and Ashley Cole's separation has been met with a predictable mix of salaciousness, sanctimony, and scorn. The scorn isn’t merely directed at yet another alpha male who can’t keep his trousers on: as usual, we’re also loudly condemning scandal-mongering itself, even as we’re engaged in it. The Coles’ story isn’t just about sex, it’s about gossip—which have a way of coinciding, and then prompting jeremiads against the degeneration of public discourse from “proper” news to Hello magazine

In point of fact, gossip magazines are as old and venerable as "proper" newspapers. Exactly 300 years ago, between 1709 and 1711, Sir Richard Steele founded two magazines: The Spectator, and Tatler. Their titles now dignified by age, we may overlook the words' meanings: one promises voyeurism, the other tittle-tattle. The 18th century reveled in gossip of the most scurrilous—and libelous—kind. From the pages of The Spectator, Steele compiled The Ladies Library (which Google books has delightfully classified as "self-help"), a collection of aphoristic observations mixed with jocular misogyny, which includes an observation that could have been written today: "I believe there is hardly a Man living, who is the least conversant with Men or Things past and present, either in Life or in History, but will acknowledge that Detraction was never carry'd to such an Extravagance as it has been lately with us in England."

Doubtless we’re giving the 18th century a run for their money, in part because the internet has created a similar social revolution to magazines. But—pace Steele—gossip is nothing new; it’s our most ancient form of storytelling. The Odyssey is gossip, largely interested in whether Odysseus and Penelope are cheating on each other. From Sheridan's The School for Scandal to Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan and A Woman of No Importance, we've always been fascinated by the possibility of sexual scandal bringing down the rich and mighty: gossip is the weapon of the weak against the powerful.

It is also, by no coincidence, traditionally the province of women. The word "gossip" derives from godmothers, the female friends invited to a birth. Gossip is social news, rather than political; it enforces social codes, rather than legal ones.

Some anthropologists have gone so far as to argue that gossip makes us human; gossip defines and defends social categories and group allegiances. "Team Cheryl"—doubtless printing t-shirts as I write—are identifying with betrayed wives, rallying against unfaithful, powerful men. As Bill Clinton learned, gossip can topple presidencies, while the canard that Marie Antoinette declared "Let them eat cake" didn’t extend her life expectancy.

There's a reason why the 18th century called it "Detraction": they knew that "Fame is a Kind of Goods, which, when once taken away, can hardly be restored." Presumably Tiger Woods, John Terry, and Ashley Cole are all mastering this 18th-century meaning. Meanwhile Cheryl's ritualistic plea for privacy is being met by (equally ritualistic) rejoinders that she sold pictures of her wedding to Ok!, thus symbolically relinquishing all further claims to the privacy she bartered away. This may be sanctimonious, but gossip is judgmental; it deals in transgression as much as in vicarious participation. As Wilde wrote in Lady Windermere's Fan, "Gossip is charming. But scandal is gossip made tedious by morality."

Sarah Churchwell is Senior Lecturer in American Literature and Culture at the University of East Anglia

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