Arts & Culture

The Ira Glass Infatuation Post/ This American Life Review: Gossip

In Gossip, the girls are in charge, and we’ll pretend not to notice any feminist qualms that may arise from that statement. Read More

By / August 31, 2011
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In Gossip, the girls are in charge, and we’ll pretend not to notice any feminist qualms that may arise from that statement.

I remember talking to a Chicago rabbi while getting paid to learn about Maimonides. Over dinner at his house over kosher Chinese from Devon Avenue, the most striking lesson I gleaned was on gossip as one of the greatest sins an innocent person could commit. Most importantly was that the onus fell, not only on the gossiper, but also the gossipee. Menschy? No. But as this week’s host Sarah Koenig conveys, “Gossip carries an erotic power in that there’s something erotic about having access to information and having the power to pass information on to someone else.” This dichotomy of gossip—the good and the bad—is usually trumped by the ugly, but entertainingly so.

Act 1: He died of AIDS because he didn’t ask us.

Common knowledge saves lives—I can’t tell you how many times Wikipedia and WebMD clued me into what everyone already knew.

Sarah says: “Sex as any gossiper knows is the mother of gossip.” In Malawi, gossip is a different species of chitchat. A bulletin board on a college campus, also taking the form of a campus newspaper, airs out student sexual exploits. Strange, especially picturing this on, say, the Michigan State’s campus, outing the sexting teens for the ho’s they embrace themselves to be. But in Malawi, this kind of public airing serves a social purpose, where AIDS is rampant and it behooves one to know who has it, affecting more than lovelives. Speaking to Hazel Namandingo, we find that “AIDS was a constant topic with her friends,” decisions about hookups drawing heavily from hints about suitor’s health profiles from everyday interactions. Of her peers, she said that if a girl looks a little bit fat (a good thing among Africans, as with Jews) or has good skin, she is suspect of using retroviral drugs. Thus in this gossip and AIDS-riddled terrain, ugly girls are safer mates. In addition to the risk of crashing and burning from gossip in other environments, under these Malawian circumstances, it has the possibility of benefiting individuals and their society by bringing AIDS and sex out in public dialogue, a trend widely unknown in the AIDS research community.

In this vain, reading gossip as a sociologist reveals cultural trends that are important for allocating funds. Superstar sociologist Susan Watkins elaborates on sex trends that incorporate gossip, affecting AIDS prevention waves. “If you lie together you die together” could instill fear but also blurs truth and instills a blasé attitude. “Like eating sweets in a wrapper,” condoms are unsexy. She shows that, despite what outside funders believe about secrecy around AIDS, people are already talking about it. Thus, assumptions that ignore gossip equals mismanaged money. Another piece of ignored common knowledge: the wealthiest and most educated men are spreading AIDS the most. “It’s seen as men’s nature, so it’s better to try to train women to negotiate condom use and to protect themselves than it is to pay any attention to the men.”

Act 2: At least 90% of his blood is in his face now

We have no Ira this week, but we do have fellow Chicagoan Rebecca Makkai. It’s our favorite forum of gossip, the reality show. Makkai’s portrayal of the faux Starving Artists has me dreaming of being a contestant and wishing that it was not a fiction story at all. The gossip in this environment is an opportunity to take care of the publicity. The narrator instigates gossip: “The others we try to get drunk…if necessary we feed them lines.” The feelings of Christine convey the moral issues behind the outsider who vicariously talks about that which she is not involved in.

One of the narrator’s final lines about the sleazy tricks behind her job on reality shows reveals something important about gossip too: “It’s sick and it’s soulless, but it’s one of the things I love about my job. “ It is the human gain that is important, as Julie’s husband put it in the intro when conveying why he spread gossip so blatently not his to share at a party, “The more I told them the more interested they were in me, the more they were enjoying me.”

Come back, Ira, before we start spreading rumors of your whereabouts.