The Gothic Drama of Tabloid Celebrities

Felicity Jones in "Northanger Abbey"

I’ve been talking about the gothic novel this past week as I teach Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, so it was nice to see a fine New York Times article exploring the contemporary fascination with the genre.

I’ve written in the past how young people turn to gothics to process a confusing and threatening reality (see here and here), and the New York Times extends the idea to today’s tabloid culture. Author Carina Chocano writes that tormented celebrities like Brittany Spears, Lindsay Lohan, and Paris Hilton are living lives that resemble classic gothics:

When people talk about a contemporary gothic revival, they’re usually talking about Romantic fictions like Twilight and True Blood. But it’s in the so-called real world of the tabloids, Internet gossip sites and reality TV that the genre is truly thriving. With their troubled heroines, haunted castles (or bad-vibe hotels), fakes and counterfeits, long-buried secrets, madwomen, controlling patriarchs, damsels in distress, reckless cads, depravity and the looming threat of financial ruin, these stories are striking for their endlessly recurring themes of excess, addiction, decadence and madness. And like the pursued heroines of 18th-century novels, the waifs of the tabloid stories seem at once abject — doomed to wander the wilderness while being poked at by the villagers wielding sticks and telephoto lenses — and trapped: sealed off in the glass dungeons of their fame.

Chocano compares the modern starlets to Emily St. Aubert, heroine of The Mysteries of Udolpho (the novel that Austen’s own heroine is reading). Drawing on the scholarship of David Durant, Chocano talks about Emily’s ordeal in ways that will sound familiar to tabloid readers:

[the] heroine suffers enormous losses and endures terrible ordeals before reclaiming her inheritance and reuniting with her true love — and yet she remains essentially unchanged by her experiences.

Chocano notes that, in what she calls “the new gossip economy,” some of our celebrities appear willing to play the doomed gothic heroine roles for us. After all, it’s a way to stay famous. Or as Chocano puts it, they are

the ghostly, gothic embodiments of our shared anxieties: about privacy, identity, social decay and the increasingly blurred line between reality and fantasy. They’ve willingly become the tragic heroes and doomed heroines in our collective tales of terror, abjection and ridicule. And in the eternal return of the Internet, they come back to haunt us as they themselves are haunted, sometimes more than 30 times a day.

Put another way, to understand the gothic is to understand tabloid celebrity culture.

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  • http://yvettecandraw.blogspot.com/ Yvette

    I don’t know that I agree with this take, Robin. After all, to my mind, the best gothics have happy endings. I don’t think any of these so-called ‘waif’ celebrities are destined for any real happiness. But I could be wrong.

    And of course, some gothics did NOT have happy endings, i.e. WUTHERING HEIGHTS and the like. But I admit I only read gothics that wind up giving me ‘happily ever after’. There’s enough sadness in the real world.

  • Robin Bates

    Yvette, the Chocano article points to two kinds of gothic stories: horror as morality tale and horror as decadent spectacle. I’m with you in preferring the first, which includes Jane Eyre (which I know you like). But I like that you mention Wuthering Heights, which focuses more on the madness than on the salvation. The second Catherine may get her happy ending but much of the book’s force seems to lie with the first Catherine, Catherine Earnshaw, who does indeed end up like these waif celebrities: she’s overwhelmed by her frustrated passions and goes mad. This in spite of the efforts of her decent husband, who represents conventional society and who is out of his depth. The first Catherine is beyond “saving” and doesn’t even think in terms of happiness. Most of my students prefer Jane Eyre for the reasons you do, but every once in a while I will have one that experiences the full force of Wuthering Heights. It captures what she sees (it’s almost always a she) as the reality of the world. Such students feel consoled that someone understands what they are going through, sad or not.


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