Celebrity Schadenfreude: What Us Weekly Says About Us
Schadenfreude is a deliciously German word which means ‘taking pleasure in the misfortune of others’, of which, surprisingly, there is no English translation. This is truly surprising given the amount of time we Americans spend taking great pleasure in all the pitfalls of our anointed celebrities. Picture Britney Spears: we grin sadistically when the pictures of her bald meltdown surface, even though it was our original interest in her pop career that made her millions.
This is what Us Weekly was made for. It was created for our own entertainment at the expense of those who unfairly take up so much of our headspace. That, and escapist fantasies of the rich and famous. Strangely, a while ago someone signed me up for a free subscription to Us Weekly, Shape, and Glamour. I have no idea who it was, but I suspect my sister or my mom. They pour out of my mailbox and fill me with revulsion with their baby pics, teen trends, and beach bodies. I pull them out of the mail pile and throw them face down on the floor like I am going to catch a disease from them. Dumbness disease. This whole time I’ve been receiving the Us Weeklys for free, I have never actually read one. I worry mostly about my attention-span and my list of things to do. Us Weekly has been designed to keep you utterly enthralled in idiotic un-news from cover-to-cover, and then has the audacity to show up every week in your mailbox, retraining your brain to think of the things you’ve just mentally encrypted as interesting into yesterday’s news, and you start the whole obsessive process over again.
While I have flipped through a few pages before, as I attempt to really examine my first issue, I thought we might take this uncharted journey into celebrity hate-love-love-to-hate of Us Weekly together, and try to study this specimen as dedicated explorers to see just what these pages really say about us as a culture.
My god, the cover is a real juicy one. Kim K and her enormous boobs just overflowing out of that spandex dress, (that you later learn is loaned from the fat sister), and the tiny British princess, Kate, eaking out her pregnancy ever-so-daintily and covered in plaid like a tartan doily. The main headline is in yellow all caps (a sign of serious importance): BABY WEIGHT BATTLES, second line: TOO THIN? TOO FAT? It makes you immediately wonder if they are battling each other. Then you think, “Yeah, baby battle! Fight, you fame-hungry whores!” Then the subtext grabs at your empathy: “Both six months pregnant, Kate & Kim are constantly bullied and judged. Inside their support systems and how they fight back.” Just who is actually bullying them and advertising their weight “problems”? If pictures like these weren’t published, neither of them would be “fighting back!” The magazine is simultaneously broadcasting their shame and tsking that darn media for creating these dramas. But then…if it wasn’t news to you, the magazine wouldn’t exist because they wouldn’t sell any issues, so inadvertently, we are to blame. Crap!
The next part is “Who Wore it Best?” with the percentages tallied of a vote which supposedly happened regarding two similar ensembles on different celebrities. My hunch says it’s unhappy teens and moms on sudafed who are doing the voting online. Examining the winner and loser of the same-outfit-OMG-I-wanna-die contest says a lot more about our expectations of our fantasies than it does about who really looked better. Let’s take the easy one: Kris Jenner, (easily 50s +, Kim K’s mom, mega-millionaire media hound), vs Blake Lively, (known on-screen as the super stylish babe on Gossip Girl, young and hot, hasn’t done anything scarring to her image in recent memory). The answer: 10% for Kris, 90% for Blake. Duh! This tells us about the avatars we live vicariously through as we look at famous people: We are a youth-obsessed culture, being thin and trim is an important sign of youth, and WE want to be likable- not media hungry and desperate. We love to hate the media hungry and desperate. What I mean is that when we favor one of them, it’s because they embody something we wish we were, not because they looked ‘better.’
And what do I mean by ‘we’ anyway? I don’t mean absolutely everybody- not your dad unless he’s reading it in the bathroom. Let’s examine the demographic of the magazine by looking at the ads and who they are targeting. That is the ‘we,’ and you and I are in it because somehow we picked up this copy. There are ads for quintessentially mainstream foods like Ritz crackers, Orbit gum, and Lunchables. This, plus the Honda and pet food ads, means they are targeting middle income families. And while people in places like San Francisco might find themselves eating Ritz crackers on accident, most over-educated foodie jerks in cities are making their own wheat thins rather than buying anything processed. (More on that in another post). So the ‘we’ are women in suburban neighborhoods with enough time, boredom and dispensable income on their hands to flip through the fantasy lives of others on a whim.
You know what else is advertised to death in this magazine? Baby products. Holy hell, there must be millions of moms just dying to dare to dream of having that immaculate Cuban romance that Jay Z just whisked Beyonce away on, (we even learn what the two ate for dinner), while they are lugging around screaming brats.
Every other ad is for a diaper, or in one case, permanent birth control! Moms are the real demographic here, or why else would we care at all about all these mundane baby pics. My god! Who cares that Hilary Duff thinks her one-year-old is “so funny”? Moms who think their babies are “so hilarious,” too- that’s who.
Or worse, we’re supposed to care enough about stars’ pets to be able to name them in a quiz? Really!? What this says is that we are rewarded by subscribing so devoutly to this deluge of “interesting” tidbits that readers can actually gratuitously pat themselves on the back for knowing the stars so well. It’s almost like you are one! OMG!
Let’s talk about the fat thing. Yes, by comparison, actors and fashion models make us feel fat and so we hate them. Yet we wouldn’t accept anything less than perfection from them. Picture the humiliation of Kirsty Alley as she grew bigger and bigger and couldn’t get roles in anything anymore except for her own self-depricating show, Fat Actress and then that tanked, too. Oh Kirsty. We don’t want to see a fat woman in the lead romantic role. That is, again, where our fantasy selves go, and our fantasy selves are hot. As impossible as the standards we set for celebrities are, the more eagerly we live to see their defeat because the window we gave them is too small on purpose. Jessica Simpson’s chipmunk cheeks: Oh, the horror! And the glee!
So when we look at articles like, “4 Ways to Spring Clean Your Workout: Wipe the slate and steal stars’ fitness tips!”, we are gently manipulated into falling into our own small window of hotness parameters we gave the stars. “Yeah! I’ll steal your secrets and be just as hot and then I’ll laugh even harder when you fail as an actress someday!” We’re encouraged to plan a girls’ trip like Reese Witherspoon, Drew Barrymore, and Cameron Diaz did at Bikini Bootcamp. First of all, even though Reese and Drew might look a little round, it’s only the photo comparisons to rock hard athletes like Diaz who make us even see them that way. Second, they have trainers, year round, plus money for a meal-planner and personal chef. Then there’s the fact that they have to look good or they will get fired. If you were going to get fired for having a muffin top, you’d lose it real quick. You can squeeze your thighs in and out as you read this and buy the yoga outfit the stars all wear to make yourself feel better about the fact that YOU are essentially the one who would be firing them by not seeing their movies.
Oh geez, we just hit the tip of the iceberg but it’s time to end our explorer mission for the day. I could write an entire column about this magazine. One last thing we must talk about: A red circle splashed on the page with all-caps letters again: “STARS- THEY’RE JUST LIKE US!” This is like the Cadillac of Us Weekly pages because it is at once so ridiculous and yet the most consuming. Why? Why do we want them to be like us? Is it so that we feel more on the same level with the mega-human we created and by that token have just elevated our own status? Or is it the reverse- “If Tom Cruise can drink a Guinness he’s really no better than my drunk uncle Charlie”?
And everything has so many exclamation points! “They Tie Their Laces!” We know these are pictures from sub-human cretin paparazzi photographers, and are one of two things: promotional shots for stars’ businesses, or embarrassing moments snared into digital cameras for our future glee. Gerard Depardieu: barely a notable figure in American stardom but fleeing a D.U.I. charge! Golden schadenfreude moment in the subtext below he “rides in a minivan cab!” just like us!!!
I can’t help but feel someone is condescending to me as I read this page. I’m sure it’s tongue-in-cheek, and perhaps the whole magazine is, really. It’s not made by one person in their living room, after all. This is a mega-business, run by an entire crack team of people to steal your attention and take your money, capitalizing on your desire for runination. But remember what I said before, it’s not really the magazine’s fault for being so stupid. It’s our own, for wanting it to be this way and forking out $4.49 for new un-news every week.