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Anne Helen Petersen on ‘Scandals of Classic Hollywood’

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A lot of hullaballoo has been made about the fact that we’re experiencing a golden age of television in culture right now — everybody knows that.

But what gets overlooked is that we’re also experiencing a golden age of celebrity gossip thanks to people like Anne Helen Petersen. Petersen is part of a larger trend of writers who are puzzling out the lives of today’s stars and what our obsession with them tells us about ourselves. Petersen, holds a PhD from the University of Texas’s department of radio, television, and film, and she specializes in something called Star Studies.

Basically, Petersen has a PhD in celebrity gossip.

She joined the staff of Buzzfeed in May, after she was unable to find another job in academia. Previously, Petersen taught a class at Whitman College called Mad Men: Gender & Historiography. She’s already made a splash with dispatches such as “Jennifer Lawrence and the History of the Cool Girl,” and “The Down and Dirty History of TMZ.” You may recognize the name — we’ve referenced her work before in this space.

Her book, “Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Sex, Deviance, and Drama from the Golden Age of American Cinema,” comes out today.

The Washington Post spoke with Petersen about celebrity scandals old and new in an interview we’re publishing in two parts.

Washington Post: When you were teaching, you had a class that was exclusively about “Mad Men.” What was it that drew you to that particular show?

Anne Helen Petersen: The way that you make it work is you use that show to talk about all sorts of other things. So, the subtitle for my “Mad Men” class was “Mad Men: Gender, Historiography, Media.” The way that we looked at it was in terms of how “Mad Men” worked with gender. I think out of all of those golden age-quality TV shows of the early-to-mid 2000s, “Mad Men” is the one doing the most fascinating things with gender and feminism and has the strongest female characters and so, not coincidentally, the only one with a lot of women in the writers’ room. To watch the development of this kind of pre-feminist movement, these pre-feminist movement characters into the self-actualizing characters through the course of the seasons is really fascinating, and the show does really well with nuance. It isn’t super hackneyed and didactic about it.

We immersed ourselves in the texts that they would have been reading at the time, both in terms of fiction — so things like “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” and “Best of Everything,” which was this great novel about being an enterprising secretary in the 1950s and ’60s, very much how Peggy would have been doing at the time — and then also things like the “Feminine Mystique” and “Sex and the Single Girl.” That was half of the reading, and then the other half was things that were more contemporary. There’s this great book called “The Conquest of Cool,” which is all about how advertising culture really warped and changed in the 1950s and ’60s. So a mix of primary texts and secondary texts commenting on them, and then we watched “Mad Men.”

Only one of them had watched any of it when we started the class. It’s a harder show for that age of student to get into. It’s kind of slow and it’s not the thing that when you come home from school you want to watch, but by the end of the class, they were so addicted and having really interesting conversations. It taught them how to talk about TV and how to talk about how TV mediates history.

WP: Do you see a difference in the way people discuss television and movies and pop culture now than even 10 years ago?

AHP: Yes — I actually just wrote this piece about how the New York Times television criticism got so bad. Much of that is saying that the New York Times criticism section is still stuck in the very old-fashioned way of talking about television while all of the rest of the Internet has really accelerated and sophisticated the way they talk about television. Part of that is that television has gotten better, and that the better the TV gets, the better the criticism gets. It’s this cyclical process. You have showrunners on TV who are engaging in these conversations and engaging with fans. I think reading that criticism makes us as viewers into more insightful and thoughtful viewers. It just teaches you how to watch television in a different way, in a much more active way than the way television audiences have traditionally been perceived, which is as these passive couch potatoes.

WP: Okay, let’s talk about your book. Is each chapter a different scandal?

AHP: It’s divided into — I call them volumes, essentially different movements in Hollywood history. The first one deals with this cluster of really early silent film star scandals like Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Fatty Arbuckle and Wallace Reid, and the second one is all about Rudolph Valentino and Clara Bow. It’s about sexuality, both ethnic sexuality and female sexuality. People went crazy for these stars, but people also soured on them pretty quickly.

It goes through the rest of Hollywood history in those pairings or trios of scandals. The next is Mae West, Jean Harlow — again this very menacing female sexuality. And then [Humphrey] Bogart and [Lauren] Bacall and Clark Gable and Carole Lombard and how both of those scandals — which should have been scandals — were not scandals in part because they had the help of the studios to paper over what would have otherwise been scandalous relationships [the relationships between Bogart and Bacall and Gable and Lombard both began as affairs].

WP: Why do you think stars fizzle out? Why do you think the public is willing to look past some things, while other people, we discard?

AHP: The most overarching answer to that question, and the one that works most broadly, is that a star is their image. They have to match what we think the way we think a man should be, or a woman should be or a person of color should be. Someone like Joan Crawford was able to maintain her stardom for four decades because her image changed dramatically from decade to decade. You can trace it — she’s like a chameleon — she understood very early on the way ensure longevity in Hollywood. She was a flapper in the 20s, in the 30s, she was a beautiful, glamorous woman who was also self-sacrificing as a mother, and then she was a noir heroine in the 1940s. She changes both the way that she talks about her private life and the roles that she plays. Bette Davis is pretty similar, and Barbara Stanwyck.

The ones who are easy to turn on are when their images don’t change with the times.

WP: Do you have a favorite scandal?

AHP: Mae West is my stock answer here because she was so smart and savvy and funny. [West starred in a Broadway show called “Sex," which was raided by New York police in 1927 at the behest of acting mayor Joseph McKee. She and the rest of the show’s actors were jailed. When she refused to close the show, a grand jury called it “obscene, indecent, immoral, and impure." West spent eight days in jail, and she showed up in a limo and told the press she was wearing silk underwear. Once sprung, Liberty magazine paid her $1,000 for an interview. West used the money to fund the Mae West Memorial Library for female prisoners.]

Even after her fans turned on her — she wasn’t as popular in the late 1930s — because she had been a star on Broadway and had her own show a long time before she came to Hollywood, she was just so enterprising, she figured out how to live her fabulous life even without Hollywood. Her story, unlike so many other women in the book, isn’t tragic. She lived on her own terms, whereas almost every other female star either died or went crazy.

The people who get away with things are white men who aren’t fat. I say that because Fatty Arbuckle — his weight really feminized him and made it easy to demonize him and his scandal. With Rudolph Valentino, it was easy to fetishize him [because he was Italian] and then turn on him because of how ethnicized he was.

WP: Why do people like to compare Debbie Reynolds, Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor to Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie?

AHP: Oh, it’s perfect! Obviously, the specifics aren’t exactly the same, but it doesn’t actually matter what happened in their real lives. The way that the media played those scandal was that you have the dark, sexual vixen and you have the all-American girl next door who is victimized by the dark sexual vixen. The man just becomes uncontroversial. What it becomes is two visions of femininity warring out. That’s the reason why, even though there’s no reason to think that Jennifer Aniston gives a s— about what’s going on in Brad Pitt’s and Angelina Jolie’s life, there’s endless coverage of that, because what that is about it these two visions of femininity. It’s not about Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston.

[Take a moment to think about those characterizations and how both women have capitalized on them in their movie roles — Jolie in “Maleficent" and Aniston in “We’re the Millers" or “Wanderlust."]

WP: Do you think the media should be held more accountable for perpetuating these limiting ideas about femininity?

AHP: This is all self-perpetuating. If the media prints a story and it resonates with how people feel, there’s no one party that’s responsible. The advice that I always give to people as fans and as readers and as people who want to be feminist in the way that they gossip, or to be progressive, is instead of believing everything that they read, see it as how is this a mediation of an image? See gossip as part of an image and part of a strategy. Once you can take that step back, you can be really mindful about the way you think about these stars.

For example, Kim Kardashian and Kate Middleton’s pregnancies. The coverage of those was so  — they tried to contrast them. Kim’s body was always out of control, and she was popping out of her dresses, this unruly woman. And Kate Middleton was perfect, in-control femininity. If you can see that for what it is and how the press exacerbates that comparison, and what might be at stake there, I think that’s a much smarter and empathetic way to think about celebrity.

We’ll post part two of the interview with Petersen tomorrow. She’ll be talking about the Fappening, FKA Twigs, and how Jennifer Lawrence is like Angelina Jolie.