On the Subversive Power of Gossip

Maria Tatar Considers the Deep Cultural Work of Chatter

Chatter, chitchat, gossip, idle talk, and conversation have always done deep cultural work for us, and today they continue to serve as sources of knowledge, helping us make sense of the world, providing opportunities for social bonding, and shaping our ways of understanding the values of the world in which we live. For centuries, philosophers condemned “meaningless talk,” excluding from their consideration bodies of conversation that take up personal matters and local affairs rather than large-​scale public issues.

“Pay no attention to gossip,” Immanuel Kant warned, for it emerges from “shallow and malicious judgment” and is a “sign of weakness.” Yet a recent biography of the German philosopher suggests he routinely indulged in it at dinner parties he regularly hosted. Kierkegaard condemned gossip as trivial and ephemeral, contrasting it with “real talk” that takes up subjects of profound importance with a lasting influence. He worked hard to diminish the power of gossip, even as he understood its muscle and clout, for a local paper, much to his distress, was forever belittling his work and disparaging his physical appearance—​he looks like “Either/Or,” they wrote.

“Idle talk [Gerede] is something that anyone can rake up,” Heidegger intoned, condemning the egalitarian nature of gossip and its value for the socially marginalized even if conceding its pragmatic value. Being seen and being heard, Hannah Arendt tells us, are both possible only in the public arena, a space of organized remembrance. All else is ephemeral and unworthy of commemoration. High culture’s disdain for gossip is strategic, and it is symptomatic of deep anxieties about the subversive power of gabbing, trading stories, and engaging in the seemingly frivolous activity of small talk, malicious or benign.

It is something of a challenge to identify any culture that has not belittled and maligned women’s speech and branded it as gossipy. “The chattering, ranting, gossiping female, the tattle, the scold, the toothless crone, her mouth wind-​full of speech, is older than fairy-​tales,” one critic tells us, inadvertently connecting gossip with folklore and cementing the connection between gossip and elderly, deformed women. Juvenal describes women’s loquacity in cacophonous terms: “Her speech pours out in such a torrent that you would think that pots and bells were being banged together.”

The idea of loose talk spills over into the concept of loose morals, reminding us that the verbal and sexual freedom of women creates high anxiety and incites efforts to contain and police their liberties and especially any libertine behaviors. Is it necessary to add that those efforts are redoubled by those who deeply understand the attractions of the desires that they so vigorously seek to suppress?

The horror of the oral, of stories that lack the luster of the literary, stems in part from the link between old wives’ tales and gossip, or idle chatter. How could these trifles possibly be dignified with print? But gossip has value precisely because it creates opportunities for talking through the emotional entanglements of our social lives. Its participants jointly construct narratives from the stuff of everyday life, spicy plots charged with speculative glee. Gossip takes up a range of topics, among them scandal, which invites us to engage in talk about moral dilemmas and social conflicts. And, more important, it serves as a resource for those without access to other options for securing knowledge, operating as a licensed form of release that may not upend the order of things but still serves as an expressive outlet.

High culture’s disdain for gossip is strategic, and it is symptomatic of deep anxieties about the subversive power of gabbing.

What is gossip’s greatest sin? One possibility is that gossip knits women together to create networks of social interactions beyond patriarchal control and oversight. It can be seen as a counter-​discourse that operates against prevailing communal norms, a strategy for collecting talk in the form of compelling stories that can be parsed and analyzed to turn into useful sources of wisdom and knowledge. It becomes a storytelling resource built into a preexisting support system for those limited in their mobility and confined to the domestic sphere.

That there is something threatening about gossip becomes evident in the account of F. G. Bailey, a social anthropologist studying a village in the French Alps. He contrasted two groups, divided by gender. When men sit around, and the conversation turns gossipy, that is considered socially acceptable, for the exchanges are viewed as “light-​hearted, good-​natured, altruistic,” a way of gathering information and expressing opinions. When women are seen chatting, then it is an entirely different matter: “Very likely they are indulging in . . . ​gossip, malice, ‘character assassination.’” “Character assassination”: those are fighting words. Clearly there is the perception of something dangerous, dodgy, and malevolent in these women gossips and the stories they tell.

Language has, of course, always been the one resource available to those who have been subordinated, disenfranchised, or dispossessed. Unless you are gagged and bound or your tongue is cut out (as we have seen, one of many unimaginably cruel forms of torture and punishment invented by humans), you can still speak. The words may be limited but speech is still possible.

The African American writer Audre Lorde once wrote that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” implying that language, shaped by the masters, cannot be deployed to undermine them and can never bring about “genuine victory.” All that can be gained through language is partial and provisional, without lasting effect. Still, gossip can create a liberating sense of solidarity for those without a voice. It can become an effective weapon in the hands of the subordinated, as it modulates from idle talk into something more potent, especially if it can leave home in some surreptitious way to enter the public sphere.

The etymological history of “gossip” is complex. The word started out meaning “god-​related,” then modulated, as a noun, into a term used to designate a godparent. Gradually it was extended to include the social circle of all possible godparents and was applied to kinfolk and friends in general. Only later did the term take a negative turn, used to designate a mode of conversation defined by the OED as “idle talk, trifling or groundless rumour; tittle-​tattle.” The swerve into the trivial and mendacious suggests a steady devaluation of what is talked about, among intimates and friends, in the domestic sphere.

Once degraded, gossip transformed itself from a form of social support and bonding into social sabotage. “Gossip” began to signal not only idle, vindictive talk (is there anything worse than being a gossip columnist?) but also its source, and “a gossip” is almost exclusively gendered female in most languages. In German-​speaking regions, male gossips (Klatschvater is the term) may exist, but they are outnumbered by their female counterparts (Klatsche, Klatschweib, Klatschlotte, Klatschtrine, Klatschlise, and so on). Anthropologists have studied gossip in places ranging from the Antilles island of Saint Vincent to student dorms at an American university. Despite evidence that women gossip only marginally more than men, anecdotes, proverbs, folktales, jokelore, and conventional wisdom all conspire to turn gossip into a female form of communication and bonding, one boiling over with malice more than anything else.

Folklorists and anthropologists tell us that when gossip turns into story—​when it becomes a hybrid of truth and fiction, a kind of confabulation—​it helps us address collective social anxieties and cultural contradictions. Folktales enable us to process feelings, giving a name to our fears and challenges, turning them into “a representative and recognizable symbolic form.” A made-​up story might have its origins in the real-​life account of, say, a woman’s dread of marriage or of another woman’s resentment of a stepchild, but it will also disguise those accounts by depersonalizing their content, projecting them into an imaginary world, and exaggerating and enlarging their stakes.

Here is one example of the kind of story that begins as news, turns into a legend, and ends as a fairy tale. It is a Native American tale, told by the Salishan people living in the northwest United States and southwest regions of Canada:

Once some people were camped on the hills near Lytton, and among them were two girls who were fond of playing far away from the camp. Their father warned them against the giants, who had infested the country.

One day they rambled off, playing as usual, and two giants saw them. They put them under their arms and ran off with them to their house on an island far away. They treated them kindly and gave them plenty of game to eat.

For four days the girls were almost overcome by the smell of the giants, but gradually they became used to it. For four years they lived with the giants, who would carry them across the river to dig roots and gather berries which did not grow on the island.

Language has, of course, always been the one resource available to those who have been subordinated, disenfranchised, or dispossessed.

One summer the giants took them to a place where huckleberries were plentiful. They knew that the girls liked huckleberries very much. They left them to gather berries, and said they would go hunting and come back in a few days. The elder sister recognized the place as not many days’ travel from their people’s home, and they ran away.

The giants returned, and, when they found the girls gone, they followed their tracks. The girls saw that they were about to be overtaken, and they climbed to the top of a large spruce-​tree, where they could not be seen. They tied themselves with their tumplines. The giants thought they must be in the tree and tried to find them. They walked all around the tree but could not see them. They shook the tree many times and pushed and pulled against it, but the tree did not break, and the girls did not fall down. And so the giants left.

The giants were still looking for the girls, and they soon saw them in the distance. They pursued them, and when the girls saw that they were about to be caught, they crawled into a large hollow log. They covered the openings with branches. The giants pulled at the branches but they did not move. They tried to roll the log downhill, but it was too heavy. After a while, they gave up.

Once they were gone, the girls started running and finally reached a camp of their own people in the mountains. Their moccasins were worn out, and their clothes were torn. They told the people how the giants lived and behaved. They were asked if the giants had any names, and they said they were called Stosomu’lamux and TsekEtinu’s.

“This is the essence of play,” the celebrated folklorist Roger Abrahams tells us, “objectifying . . . ​anxiety situations, allowing the free expenditure of energies without fear of social consequences.” Suddenly there is no need for seclusion and secrecy, two distinctive features of idle chatter and gossip. The story can now be broadcast, told in public without fear of payback. It is also “under control,” in ways that are never the case in real life. Encapsulating a high-​stakes conflict, it locates the problem in the long ago and far away of “once upon a time,” turning the protagonists into figures with generic names or descriptors and magnifying the monstrousness of the villains, who are now giants, dragons, stepmothers, and ogres.

And suddenly the story has become “harmless,” mere entertainment, just a fairy tale or a myth. But it continues to haunt us, working its magic by pushing us to talk through all the conflicts it puts on display, magnifying them to create a sensation.

For a vivid sense of how news, rumor, and gossip can modulate into myth, we can turn to anthropological observations from Melville J. Herskovits and Frances S. Herskovits, a couple who studied and documented the storytelling protocols of villagers on the island of Trinidad: “Old and young delight in telling, and hearing told, all the little incidents that go on in the village. To the outside the speed with which news spreads never ceased to be a source of amazement. Equally amazing was the celerity with which the story acquired a texture that made of the commonplace a thing of meaningful or ironic sequences.”

Texture: that is what is added to the story to turn it from the banal, trivial, and ordinary to something of mythical weight. And that texture comes through conversational exchange, with responses from listeners that put in motion a “weaving backwards and forwards in time of tales of supernatural deeds, and of retribution.” In sum, the ancestral wisdom captured in the folklore of the past enriches and narrativizes gossip, producing new stories that will, in turn, be passed on to the next generation. Suddenly we move from the particularities of everyday life to the broad, general strokes and higher truths of mythical thinking.

The Herskovitses witnessed how villagers in Trinidad turned life into art, or what Clifford Geertz called a “cultural form.” And cultural forms are not merely “reflections of a pre-​existing sensibility” but also “positive agents in the creation and maintenance of such a sensibility.” Geertz’s famous analysis of the Balinese cockfight reveals how symbolic forms operate: “It is this kind of bringing of assorted experiences of everyday life to focus that the cockfight, set aside from that life as ‘only a game’ and reconnected to it as ‘more than a game,’ accomplishes, and so creates what, better than typical or universal, could be called a paradigmatic human event.”

“Only a game” and “more than a game” captures how story is both low stakes and high stakes, commanding our attention and allowing us to play and be in turn entertained. Operatic and melodramatic, stories told in a communal setting capture lightning in a bottle and put it on display for all to contemplate, wonder at, and begin the hard work of speculation—​in short, to philosophize, to engage in an activity that humans do supremely well.

Geertz does not, I think, pay sufficient attention to how interpretive work done in the storytelling arena can disrupt the status quo. Storytelling is a way of creating an alternative discourse, one that may deviate from and contest what is heard in political and public speech. As we have seen, the power of gossip and storytelling to challenge prevailing norms has been vibrantly enacted in the United States by the #MeToo movement. And the real-​life stories told by that movement have seeped into our entertainments—​Apple’s 2020 streaming series The Morning Show recycled the scandal that rocked NBC’s Today show. Entertainments like that one and like others give us much to talk about as we watch how art processes life and enlarges it.

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Excerpted from The Heroine with 1001 Faces. Copyright (c) 2021 by Maria Tatar. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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Maria Tatar
Maria Tatar is the John L. Loeb Research Professor and a Senior Fellow at Harvard University. The editor of the Norton Critical Edition of The Classic Fairy Tales and The Annotated Brothers Grimm, she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.





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