More than just gossip

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Q & A with Summer Scholar Alyssa Howard-Tripp ’13:

What’s the title of your research?

“Spoken Stories, Muted Messengers: Reassessing Celebrity Gossip and the Feminine Voice.”

Jill Gillespie, Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies, on her advisee:

This is my second summer working with Alyssa on a Summer Scholar project. In my teaching career, I’ve met only a few other students who could match Alyssa’s intellectual curiosity, deep engagement in the research process, and originality in the kinds of questions her research strives to answer.

Alyssa’s interdisciplinary research on celebrity magazines intersects with my ongoing teaching and research on the ethical and social issues residing beneath the surface of popular culture. Alyssa’s research not only has the potential to contribute to future scholarly conversations about the social, political, and cultural impact of mass media in the United States, but also directly harmonizes with my current scholarship—exploring the function of popular narrative and storytelling as lenses through which we can perceive our own lives.

How are you approaching the topic?

My project started when I noticed a similarity between claims made by both popular culture scholars (specifically involving celebrity gossip) and fairy tale scholars. Both argue that what they study serves the important function of helping ease social anxieties. For example, both gossip magazines and fairy tales commonly talk about childbirth because there is a fear of it in our culture that is taboo to discuss openly. Through the vehicles of fairy tale and gossip, however, we can have this dialogue without breaking the taboo.

As my research progressed, however, I noticed that, more important than a shared function, these two forms of communication have a shared quality: they are both dismissed as trivial by our society at large. My research turned, then, to examining how and why gossip and fairy tales have come to be seen as unimportant, when, in fact, they exist for a variety of important reasons.

I easily found multiple sources redeeming the feminine in fairy tales, particularly the work of Karen E. Rowe and Marina Warner. Gossip scholars, however, seem much more reluctant to defend gossip from a feminist standpoint. In my final paper, I am attempting to do just that.

What’s the personal draw for you?

I did research with Dr. Gillespie last summer on a project that I ended up presenting in April at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference in Texas. I found it rewarding to share my work with so many people, and it gave me the opportunity to see how far a research project could take me. I simply couldn’t pass up the chance to repeat the experience.

What’s the most interesting or unexpected thing you’ve learned?

I really enjoyed reading Jennifer Frost’s book Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism (2011). Frost, a historian at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, tells the story of Hedda Hopper, an actress from the silent film era who became one of the biggest names in celebrity gossip in the middle of the last century. Hopper, through writing a nationally syndicated celebrity gossip column, had huge political influence across the country. She managed to turn the stories that most people would dismiss as trivial or idle entertainment into examples of the issues she found vital to the political debates of the day. I found her to be a fascinating, although at times contradictory, example of the way a form of communication usually dismissed due to its association with femininity could have so much impact for the masculine sphere politics.

Alyssa Howard-Tripp is a junior sociology/anthropology and women’s studies major from Pittsburgh. Her summer research was funded by the Laura C. Harris Endowed Fund.

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