A lament to moronic entertainment magazines

Most weeks, when we’re out grocery shopping, my wife and I amuse ourselves in the checkout queue by reading the covers of certain magazines and lampooning the headlines.

It’s fun. And a lot like shooting fish in a barrel.

"Hmmn...books. New fangled rubbish. They'll never replace scrolls, you know".
“Hmmn…how do I get people to read this stuff? Oh, I know. “Monastery’s Shock Gruel Kitchen Scandal”.

These magazines are ostensibly about real people – all of whom we are supposed to recognise by first name. And these magazines reveal chaotic lives filled with all the shallow melodrama and emotional roller-coaster of a poorly written soap opera.

Famous women lurch from  marriage ultimatum to separation drama to diet crises to baby bodies to bikini bodies and back to baby bodies again on a weekly cycle. They obsess with babies, wedding plans, divorce plans and diets. They have secrets known only to us – when we read the story of that ‘secret’ in the magazine.

The men these erratic and unstable celebrities associate with are impulsive and shallow, showering their women with ultimatums, having affairs, betrayals, and fighting battles with the bottle. Then reconciling. All of it on whispered account from ‘close-placed’ sources, all played out to the same hectic weekly schedule.

I might be forgiven for supposing that the famous have the emotional maturity of an eight year old and suffer from borderline personality disorder.

Of course they’re not. This is what sells. It’s managed at editorial level. Editors need a new scandal every week. And the pressure any editor comes under with any periodical is intense – I know; I wrote a fortnightly newspaper column in the 1990s and for a few years edited a fortnightly periodical.

Car: 1930. Building: 1932. Photo: 2012.
Not 1930s Hollywood at all. This is a photo I took. Car: 1930. Building: 1932. Photo: 2012.

Lest we mistake these things for anything but product, they’re also copy-edited for style – typically, the right adverbs. People don’t eat meals, they have to eat ‘nourishing meals’. Ordinary events become ‘shocking developments’ or ‘surprise announcements’. We are told, every time, what the verb means.  It’s not subtle.

What’s more, as a society we’ve been conditioned into this vicariousness.  Back in the 1920s studio heads began deliberately selling their stars’ private lives –  manufacturing an image of movie star life for plebians to gawp at, as a marketing tool for the films. And it was, deliberately, manufactured. Today’s is so much a part of the industry we don’t give it a second thought; and it’s spread to all celebrities.

The disturbing part, for me, is what this really tells us about our society. Is western culture that shallow, that easily entertained? I doubt it. But I wonder. There is a dissonance. Individually we’re smart – and yet, en masse, things slip. As individuals, we are cynical about these magazines – and yet, they sell. It’s the old story of individual vs mass. Part of the human condition? Of course.

I have readers of this blog from Australia to South Africa, UK, the Netherlands, the US and Canada – I know it’s going to be pretty much the same over there.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013


13 thoughts on “A lament to moronic entertainment magazines

  1. I think some people like to read about celebrity lives — true or not — as an escapist romp. I work at a major nonprofit where celebs occasionally come to volunteer and they tend to be much friendlier and more drama free in real life than these magazines let on.

    1. Yes, absolutely.There was a small scandal here in NZ when a journalist who’d worked for one of the magazines spilled the beans on a story that was largely fabricated.

  2. Hasn’t the news itself become merely a form of entertainment? Television reporters are employed based on attractiveness rather than reporting skills and even newspapers are starting to make the style choices you find in celeb magazines (and I’m not just talking about the tabloids. And the only people who seem to object are the ones being reported about; the rest of us are grabbing our popcorn and 3D glasses. (The current media circus in SA regarding both Mandela’s hospitalisation and Obama’s visit is a case in point.)

    Christi makes a good point. It might be an overgeneralization, but my theory is that the people who obsess about celebs are often those who are in some way dissatisfied with their own lives and find some voyeuristic excitement in the lives of the rich and famous. It could also be a case of, “How decadent! We’re so much better than these people.” Of course, those of us who don’t obsess about celebs feel pretty much the same about those who do.

    1. I think you’re right; a lot of it is escapism – and vouyeristic. And yet…somehow…it’s the nature of that escapism that worries me.

      Over here in NZ, the state TV basically replaced all their old (and very experienced and capable) newsreaders and journalists in favour of young and ostensibly attractive ones. With it came a dumbing down of the whole reporting angle – and only in part because these people were not so experienced. Part of it was a deliberate re-pitching of news as entertainment and reporters as celebrities. Old-school investigative journalism – which gave the world such things as Watergate – seems to be fading. Alas.

      1. And along with that the very role of the fourth estate in our society. One could almost argue that this is more threatening to democracy than the restriction of freedom of speech. Who worries about freedom of speech if those speaking only speak nonsense?

  3. Is Western society really that shallow? Yes. I’m sorry to say it is, or at least that’s the conclusion I’ve been reluctantly forced to reach in the past few years. That being said, when I go to the hairdresser, and he gets my thoroughly foiled head under the heater, I tell him, “Bring me the trashiest thing you’ve got.” Life is so stressful it’s good to go back to middle school now and then.

    1. Yeah, I guess those mags have their place 🙂 That aside, though, the shallowness of society (as a whole) worries me… and it’s getting shallower all the time. I think the west in general has been suffering a ‘dumbing down’ in the past generation across a wide range of media. And the internet – alas – is adding to the problem by teaching us to reduce our attention spans. The reduction of news to entertainment – which simply cannot convey the complexities of issues actually facing us – is but one symptom. I recall reading, quite recently, an old newspaper from 1972 in which our PM of that day was on interview. They quoted his arguments – complex, sophisticated and savvy – regarding New Zealand’s efforts to access the European Common Market.

      Today? We’d be lucky to get a glib sound bite that said nothing, before the news switched to some shouted advertisement for cheap sports gear. Sigh.

  4. And ALL the mags are the same: first dozen pages about foreign celebs; then some pages about local celebs; next dozen pages about ordinary people with health issues or who are associated with current news stores; then a few pages of a skinny model posing in latest fashion clothes; a page or two of close-up pics of useless things to buy; then the cooking pages, followed by the wine and restaurant review; then the house and garden pages; a travel location story; now the horoscope, agony column and puzzles; some excerpts from vacuous and gushy readers’ letters; some more pics of celebs; and finally a supposedly funny or quirky last page.

    Nearly every magazine (and not just the women’s ones) follows the same format, right down to the page order.

    What I really hate is when I go to the fish-and-chip shop or the doctor, and the only magazines available to browse through are these type. Where’s ‘Time’, ‘The Listener’ or ‘National Geographic’ for those bored witless by the same old mag rehashed over and over?

    1. And they haven’t changed in years. It’s about 20 years since one of them covered what happened to my cousin. He’d done all sorts of interesting things in his twenties – travelled to what was then Soviet Union and did the Trans Siberian Railway and such like. This when Kiwis usually only went to London. Later he married and he and his wife went to a whole lot of other very interesting places.

      Then they were involved in a car accident and badly injured.- some idiot ran into them head on. Story got picked up by one of these magazines. Did they go into the interesting travel adventures? Oh no. It was the ‘medical horror adventure’ involved in their recovery. But of course. Dreadful example of shock-gutter journalism.

      I used to write for the Listener 🙂

  5. It’s escapist for certain. I agree. At the same time, they’ve always struck me as sad. There are many ways to escape and to me escaping with such flimsy, manufactured “journalism” points to people who have given up, who see their own lives as hopeless and so they live through celebrities. Of course, there may be some who buy the publications because they see humor in the material.

    1. I agree – it IS sad to think that there is a vicariousness in the way people read them. But positively, it is also escapist – a chance to switch off the mind for a while, as Piper pointed out a couple of comments up.

      I never thought of these mags from the humourist angle – I guess if we look on them as parody they make a lot of sense!

  6. Oh yes for sure the same over here. And I use to read over there, no different. At least it avoids culture shock, something you can rely on to be the same 😉

  7. It appears to me that the magazines you speak of as well as main stream news is actually just subset of the historical fiction genre doled out is smaller bites. A reporter or columnist takes one or maybe two small facts and creates a story. It doesn’t seem to matter that most of what they write or say is pure speculation. As long as they have one “un-named source”, its okay to spew forth their story as the gospel. It has actually rolled into the weather side of news as well. We have begun calling weather reporters, “Weather terrorists”, They no longer report on the weather. They instead, scare the hell out the public by making half-assed guesses and predicting disasters where there are none. But I digress… 🙂

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