Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style

A conversation with RTF alumna and gossip scholar Anne Helen Petersen

Anne Helen Petersen knows gossip. An alumna of the media studies program in the Moody College of Communication, she earned a Ph.D. in 2011 researching the subject extensively and has built a career as a respected media critic since departing the Department of Radio-Television-Film. Her dissertation focused on the relationship between Hollywood, the production and cultivation of stardom and how it relates to celebrity gossip.

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Anne-Helen-Petersen

In addition to Buzzfeed, Petersen’s work has appeared in The Believer,
The Awl, The Hairpin, Laptham’s Quarterly, The Baffler, Pacific Standard,
The Guardian, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Virginia Quarterly Review.

Petersen has taught classes at The Putney School in Putney, Vermont, and at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, including a course titled, “Mad Men: Gender & Historiography.” She’s written for numerous publications and now writes long-form feature pieces full-time for BuzzFeed along with her homepage blog, Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style.

Her 304-page book, “Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Sex, Deviance, and Drama from the Golden Age of American Cinema,” was released in September 2014.

What did you study in the RTF program?
The industrial history of gossip was my dissertation topic, but I also spent a lot of time studying feminist theory, the politics of preservation, and media industries/conglomeration. 

What professors/courses influenced you the most?
Tom Schatz, whose style of writing and scholarship I try to emulate most closely. Janet Staiger, my dissertation advisor, was just an incredible mentor and role model. Caroline Frick really opened my eyes to an entirely different way of approaching media through the archives, and the politics thereof. 

I don't think gossip needs 'classing up,' because gossip itself is always already loaded with those discussions of race, class, gender, etc.

Are you still open to the idea of returning to academia?
Well, I don't think academia will take me back, at least in a traditional way, meaning on the tenure track. I'm not publishing or teaching or doing any of the other things that make someone a good tenure track candidate. I do hope to teach a class or two on the side here in New York at some point as many journalists do that. 

How do you think having a Ph.D. in “celebrity gossip” separates you from other gossip columnists?
I'm not a gossip columnist. Someone like Lainey Gossip is a gossip columnist. I write about the cultural value of stars and the gossip about them, and I think that having a historical eye for the way that stars were “made” and talked about is incredibly valuable for talking about them today. 

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Radio-Television-Film alumna Anne
Helen Petersen’s critical book on
celebrity gossip was published by
Plume in the fallof 2014. The book
covers scandals ranging from the
smear campaign against Clara Bow
started by her best friend to why
Mae West was arrested and jailed
for indecency charges.

How did you develop your voice as a writer?
Mostly just writing a lot. My time blogging—which I started while I was a Ph.D. student—also just gave me an incredible amount of practice, which is so much of the process of honing a scholarly voice. 

Do you analyze the conversations surrounding ideas of critical feminism/masculinity and other subjects to “class up” gossip?

I don't think gossip needs “classing up,” because gossip itself is always already loaded with those discussions of race, class, gender, etc. Basically all we need to do is think a bit more about how we talk about celebrities so as to see that how we talk about, say, Angelina Jolie, is actually incredibly reflective of the things you or I value. 

How can some stars keep their status through decades and others fall off so easily or have the public turn on them?
It's all about image management, and making sure that an image continues to mean something coherent that resonates with the things society values at a given moment in time. 

Is there anything worth watching on television or in the movies right now?
Always! I personally really like “Jane the Virgin,” which is a really heartfelt and charming show that's much better than the title makes it sound. “Transparent,” which is available via Amazon, is my favorite show of the year. 

Do you have any plans for a follow-up book?
In the works, and will focus on celebrities from the ‘80s and today.

Marc Speir