Tilting at Spin Mills

As the world's axis tilts towards war, and as the spectre of terror looms most everywhere, some of Hollywood's biggest names have reassuringly banded together to fight ... gossip.

Never to be accused of self-absorption, the likes of Tom Cruise, Goldie Hawn, Susan Sarandon, Rene Russo and even Florence Henderson are the flag-bearers for a new group called Words Can Heal, founded and headed by a New York rabbi, Irwin Katsof.

Cruise, whose lawyer a year ago trumpeted a defamation judge's ruling that the actor was not gay, and whose earlier split with Nicole Kidman also set tongues wagging, has become the poster child of the group, which invites people to "take the pledge" on their website and leave gossip behind forever.

In New York's swish St Regis Hotel in late 2002, Rabbi Katsof gathered the faithful for a $1000-a-plate fundraising dinner, amid an American flag and banners declaring "no gossip" and "gossip-free zone."

"The first step is for people to acknowledge that gossip and verbal abuse cause real pain," says Katsof. "Once people admit they have a problem with gossip, they can take steps to improve their lives and the lives of the people they love."

Words Can Heal is a blend of patriotism, evangelicalism and Hollywood worship that has been likened to a Hollywood-influenced Army of God, erecting billboards, encouraging people to spread "nice" news (banners on its website show people whispering, "The new kid is nice, pass it on"), and distributing kits on how you and the whole family can change your gossiping habits.

This could all reassuringly be just an American phenomenon. While Cruise is prone to calling the lawyers, his Australian ex-wife is more circumspect in responding to rumors.

"They've said I'm gay, they've said everyone's gay," Nicole Kidman philosophizes in the December Vanity Fair. "I personally don't believe in doing huge lawsuits about that stuff. Tom does. That's what he wants to do, that's what he's going to do. You do not tell Tom what to do. That's it. Simple."

And if you're still in doubt, you can join an online "gay celebrity gossip club" in Cruise's name to discuss the matter, underscoring the good sense of Kidman's personal view: in the world of the Internet, gossip is unstoppable. It's a growth industry.

Do Katsof, Cruise et al. stand a chance of consigning gossip to the last millennium?

"No," confirms Illinois psychology professor Frank McAndrew. "You might as well ask people to stop breathing."

McAndrew and his team from Knox College, Illinois have studied the phenomenon of celebrity gossip. They gave more than 100 participants a series of articles about celebrities--ranging from Frank Sinatra (Mafia-ties gossip), Robert Downey, Jr (drug abuse gossip), and Courtney Cox (eating disorder gossip). The participants were asked to nominate which articles most interested them.

The conclusion? We're most interested in gossip about stars we perceive to be similar to ourselves, says McAndrew.

The professor says gossip serves a useful social purpose: it functions "in the evolutionary interest of individuals, as a means of enhancing individual status." He makes no distinction between gossip about people we know and people we watch on screen.

"The fact that we know so much about celebrities tricks us into being interested in them, because anyone we know so much about automatically qualifies as important people in our lives," McAndrew says. "Remember that our predisposition to be interested in gossip evolved in a world in which there were no celebrities.

"When I speak about 'enhancing individual status', I am referring specifically to acquiring social information that might ultimately improve our chances for social success in our group.

"Even though we know that, at some level the celebrity is not part of our social circle, our drive to acquire information about them is irresistible," he continues "Access to information about them is irresistible. Access to social information about others equals access to social power."

Our desire to know more about celebrities has led to the proliferation of untold numbers of fan websites that are breathlessly updated by the biggest followers of stars. B-list actors such as Florence Henderson even answers fans' personal questions on her website flohome.com; but fans are reminded that it is a "family site," much like the Brady home. Censorship looms and Henderson wants to deal with the gossip her way, so, for instance, there is no mention on her website of her onscreen husband Robert Reed's death from AIDS, or that he really was secretly gay.

Elsewhere on the net, Henderson can be found plugging Words Can Heal's latest tome: "Gossip -- we've all done it! Read this book and find out why it's so important not to. It will help you in all your relationships."

Goldie Hawn even took the Words Can Heal message to America's National Press Club. "There's many ways to look at this," said the star of "The Banger Sisters." "One is that you're just a gerbil running in a cage with that little roundy roundy toy and going nowhere ... talking about people. Or you can have fun. You can actually talk about real stuff."

Hawn's "Banger Sisters" co-star, Susan Sarandon--self-described as "boring" in the personal gossip stakes--is also a patron. She told a television audience: "Words Can Heal is a group that's trying to make people realise the power of words, both to heal and to hurt."

Challenged by other actors to nominate what people should discuss apart from other people, Sarandon cited current events and humanitarian issues. She has even offered to help Russell Crowe deal with the demons of the gossip press.

McAndrew is more inclined to the view that celebrities are fair game. "Fair or not, celebrities need to understand that fame is a double-edged sword, and they cannot expect to reap all of the benefits without paying the costs," he says.

And so far as talking about mere mortals who do not walk Oscar's red carpet, is that good gossip, or bad? "Whether gossip is a healthy or destructive thing is in the eye of the beholder," says McAndrew. "Gossip that serves the interests of the group by keeping people in line may be 'good gossip.'

"But most people would think of gossip that serves the selfish interest of individuals as 'bad gossip.' Of course, the person whose interests are being served may not share that perspective."

Steve Dow lives in Sydney, Australia. He writes for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald and is the author of "GAY," a collection of journalism on contemporary gay and lesbian issues. This piece originally appeared on his Web site.

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