Sarah Churchwell: Gossip is what empowers the weak

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

Share
Related Topics

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + uncapped commission: SThree: Do you have a passion...

Recruitment Genius: Hotel Receptionists - Poole

£12500 - £13520 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30,000

£14000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you seek a friendly workplac...

Ashdown Group: Business Analyst - Kent - up to £33,000

£30000 - £33000 per annum + bonus and pension: Ashdown Group: Business Analyst...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Yorkshire Terrier waits to be judged during the Toy and Utility day of the Crufts dog show at the NEC in Birmingham  

There are no winners at Crufts. Dogs deserve better than to suffer and die for a 'beauty' pageant

Mimi Bekhechi
 

Daily catch-up: how come Ed Miliband’s tuition fee ‘cut’ is so popular, then?

John Rentoul
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn