Drama is the Cure for Gossip: Television’s Turn to Theatricality in a Time of Media Transition

Drama is the Cure for Gossip: Television’s Turn to Theatricality in a Time of Media Transition

Modern Drama, Volume 53, Number 3, Fall 2010, pp. 370-389 (Article)

Published by University of Toronto Press DOI: 10.1353/mdr.2010.0003

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Drama is the Cure for Gossip: Television’s Turn to Theatricality in

a Time of Media Transition

abigail de kosnik

INTRODUCTION

Theatricality as a plot element and narrative device is appearing with some

frequency on prime-time television. On a number of contemporary TV

dramas and comedies, including Gossip Girl, Mad Men, and Glee, charac-

ters repeatedly put on performances that closely resemble stage and

street theatre. They spontaneously dance in burlesque shows, play-act

using made-up identities in public, sing solo and in choruses onstage,

and declaim their innermost secrets to strangers via intense monologues

in stylized settings.

Not only do TV characters engage in theatrical performance regularly,

but when they perform, they also transform themselves. That is, prime-

time television programs of the past few years have been rife with instances

of individuals achieving self-realization (“finding themselves”) through

acting, singing, and/or dancing in front of audiences – not just for televi-

sion audiences at home, who watch their antics from a distance, but for

audiences who exist within the narratives of the show and who are the per-

formers’ immediate witnesses. In other words, these (fictional) people con-

sciously make spectacles of themselves in the eyes of others, and by

exposing themselves in this way, they realize and reveal core truths about

themselves.

This article will not argue that there exists a “real” or “authentic” inner

self that precedes and can be uncovered by the performing self; following

post-modern theorists such as Judith Butler, I posit that there is no “auth-

entic” self, only the subject constructed in speech and actions. Rather, this

article is concerned with the question of why it has recently become a pri-

ority for U.S. television to depict the existence of a “true” self, which is, for

the most part, hidden or concealed (sometimes even from the characters

themselves), a self that is then exposed through theatrical performance.

370 Modern Drama, 53:3 (Fall 2010) doi:10.3138/md.53.3.370

Why has TV begun to make use of theatricality as a Foucauldian “tech-

nology of the self”? What motivates present-day television producers and

writers to populate their fictions with scenarios in which stage- and street

theatre enable individuals to find out and/or display who they “really

are”? This article will propose that a significant reason for TV’s interest

in theatrical performance is the rise of Internet gossip culture. Because

the World Wide Web now allows independent users collectively to

build, and destroy, individuals’ reputations, the postmodern crisis of

identity, the question, “Who am I?” that is so problematic in a fluid,

mobile, and constantly shifting society, has become largely a crisis of

network technology: originators and disseminators of the information

and rumours that help or harm specific people’s reputations can be

anonymous and so remote from those they discuss that “Who am I?”

becomes a question whose answer is not entirely, or even mostly,

within the individual’s control. Rather, individual identity is constructed

in, and by, the network. Television’s present turn to theatricality offers

media consumers the fantasy that they have a chance of finding out

who they really are, that, indeed, there is a true, authentic self that

remains somewhat stable beneath all their permutations and adaptations

and that live dramatic performance (the operational opposite of net-

worked technologies, which, by and large, render users anonymous and

interactions untraceable) can offer them an opportunity to connect

with this authentic self. In a time when Web-based social media define

who we are by constructing (and potentially destroying) our reputations

and public personae, television attempts to reassure us that we each

have a “real self” that we can access and communicate to others by enga-

ging in dramatic performance. In television narratives today, drama is the

cure for gossip.

The first part of this article analyses several contemporary TV dramas

and comedies (Gossip Girl, Mad Men, In Treatment, and Glee) to illustrate

how such programs treat performance in front of live audiences as a tool

of self-realization, what Michel Foucault would call a “technology of the

self” and Jerzy Grotowski might describe as finding the truth in art. The

second section references the work of Ronald Burt, Judith Donath, and

Daniel Solove to discuss how Web-based social media determine reputa-

tions. The third section builds on the writings of Lynn Spigel and Mimi

White to suggest why contemporary television might be using theatricality

as a curative for the “gossip culture” of the Internet. The final part of the

article argues that postmodern society’s pervasive uncertainty about iden-

tity has been exacerbated by online social media and that television is

attempting to establish its ongoing relevance in a time of media transition

by depicting stories of individuals who are able to authenticate their iden-

tities by performing live. TV seems to be aligning itself with the positive

Modern Drama, 53:3 (Fall 2010) 371

Drama and Gossip: Television’s Turn to Theatricality

attributes of theatre in an effort to strengthen its ability to compete with the

Internet as a mode of entertainment.

THEATRICALITY AS SELF-DISCOVERY IN GOSSIP GIRL, MAD MEN,

IN TREATMENT, AND GLEE

The CW series Gossip Girl (2007–present) concerns a specific sliver of high

society, a group of super-rich youths in Manhattan’s Upper East Side

(UES), who plot and scheme with and against one another as they struggle

with issues of family, friendship, sex, school success, and social standing. In

a plot device that recurs in each episode, the title character, Gossip Girl, an

anonymous blogger who operates as a clearing house for all the rumours

that swirl around the UES crowd, posts blog entries and sends out

mobile device “blasts” that make public the characters’ secrets and

expose any falsehoods they have constructed. Despite all of the money

and power wielded by Gossip Girl’s privileged characters, therefore,

gossip is the most important currency in their world: the UES teens who

artfully deceive adults and peers alike in order to further their own interests

can be brought low instantly by a Gossip Girl blast; they can also ruin one

another by sending Gossip Girl some insider information.

Viewers are asked to identify with the UESers who are the series’ main

focus, and what we learn, episode after episode, is that they are not reduci-

ble to their intrigues. The gossip that circulates about them does not tell the

complete story of any of them. Gossip Girl illustrates a predicament increas-

ingly common today: people who have online reputations find that, while

Internet rumours circulated about them tell some portion of the truth, it

is never the whole truth. Celebrities are closely analysed on various

Hollywood Web sites (TMZ.com, justjared.buzznet.com, People.com, or

EW.com, among others), university instructors are reviewed on

RateMyProfessors.com and various review sites, and managers at all levels

are ranked in a wide range of employment-related Internet forums. While

readers of the gossip posted on these sites have a sense that they are

privy to many facts about the people discussed, they do not really know

them. A superfluity of online rumours can coalesce around almost

anyone, with the result that all of us need to be watchful custodians of

our reputations. If we do not craft our online personae carefully, we risk

allowing Internet gossip to define “who we are.”

Using theatrical performance as a plot device, Gossip Girl dramatizes the

conundrum of how to establish who one “really is” in a gossip-saturated

society. In fact, the characters never successfully combat Gossip Girl’s

rumour mill or win the right to define their public reputations, but their

consolation is that, through the show’s narrative, they can at least discover

their true selves for their own sakes. On the one hand, the main characters

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ABIGAIL DE KOSNIK

on the show are constantly engaged in performance: their machinations

typically involve a great deal of artful dissembling. On the other hand,

these planned performances generally end in disappointment or crisis, as

Gossip Girl, drawing on the surveillance of anonymous tipsters who track

every movement of the UESers, uncovers all of their ploys. But the main

characters also put on different kinds of performances, which are wholly

improvised and through which they surprise even themselves.

The most prominent examples of improvised drama leading to a charac-

ter’s self-discovery involve Blair Waldorf, who is equal parts heroine and

villainess in the Gossip Girl universe. Blair, the queen bee who reigns

over the social scene of her elite private high school, strives for excellence

in all of her activities and plans out in great detail most of her life’s major

events. Her own deflowering is no exception. In the series’ early episodes,

Blair sets up several scenarios that she thinks will encourage her long-time

boyfriend, Nathaniel (Nate) Archibald, to finally seduce her, but Nate (who

is secretly in love with Blair’s best friend) balks at each of these carefully

orchestrated productions and leaves Blair untouched.

In episode “Victor, Victrola,” Blair finally accepts that Nate does not love

her and breaks up with him. Her first stop after the break-up is the burl-

esque club Victrola, owned by Nate’s best friend, the debauched and

rakish Chuck Bass. There, on a dare from Chuck, Blair takes the stage along-

side the scantily clad burlesque dancers and spontaneously performs with

them. She sways seductively to the music as she strips down to her slip.

“Who is that girl?” a waiter asks Chuck, gesturing at Blair on the stage,

who is earning cheers and catcalls from the mesmerized club-goers. “I

have no idea,” Chuck replies, a look of awe on his face, as he stands and

raises his champagne glass in a toast to Blair.

Later that night, Blair loses her virginity to Chuck in the back seat of his

limousine. Blair’s “first time” is completely unplanned (unlike all of the

“first times” she tried to coordinate with Nate). That she should choose

Chuck as her partner and that he should desire her comes as a great sur-

prise to both of them. What Blair’s impromptu performance on the

Victrola stage has revealed to both is herself, the core of personality,

which is far more daring, sensual, and risk-taking than her rigid, carefully

controlled façade would suggest. Until the moment that Blair literally and

metaphorically strips off her outer covering, Chuck “has no idea” who

she is. Chuck falls hard for the Blair who suddenly reveals herself to him,

and the night in the limousine is the start of a tumultuous affair that con-

tinues to be Gossip Girl’s central love story into the show’s third season.

When Blair performs spontaneously on Victrola’s stage, she finds not

only her true self but also her true love.

Blair also finds her innermost self via performance in other episodes. In

“Bad News Blair,” for instance, Blair’s mother, a famous fashion designer,

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Drama and Gossip: Television’s Turn to Theatricality

fires Blair as the model for her new collection’s ad campaign and attempts

to replace her with her best friend, Serena. In retaliation for Blair’s mother’s

cruelty, Blair and Serena abscond with the clothing collection and wear the

stolen dresses in the streets of New York City, taking photos of each other in

dramatic poses. In effect, the teen girls stage their own impromptu fashion

shoot, mugging for the camera and using exaggerated expressions and ges-

tures that draw the stares of passers-by. Their parody of a fashion shoot,

performed in front of bewildered onlookers, can be regarded as street

theatre. Blair, who in previous episodes is shown to suffer greatly from

her mother’s inattention and disapproval, realizes through acting-out in

public that she is capable of shrugging off her mother’s harsh judgements.

She discovers that she is her own person, independent of her mother and

willing to oppose her if necessary.

Gossip Girl is not the only TV show currently airing that uses improvised

performance to facilitate characters’ self-knowledge. On AMC’s Mad Men

(2007–present), Don Draper and his wife Betty put on a show every day

for each other and the world. The “show” that Betty enacts is meant to

be representative of the falseness of many American housewives’ lives

during the 1960s: Betty fakes happiness; she costumes herself in beautiful

clothes and takes great care with her hair in order to maintain her worth

in her husband’s eyes (“As far as I’m concerned, as long as men look at

me that way, I’m earning my keep,” she tells a neighbour in “Red in the

Face”); and she pretends to all outsiders that she and Don have a perfect

marriage, while in private, she is full of rage and despair. The “show”

that Don habitually puts on is much more complex, for unbeknownst to

Betty, Don is an imposter: born into poverty with the name Dick

Whitman, he took on another man’s (Don Draper’s) identity following

his stint in the army during the Korean War, and he used the freedom

from his past that change allowed to create a new, successful, and prosper-

ous life for himself in New York. So both Don and Betty are constantly

acting in their daily lives. But a few times in the course of the show, both

characters perform spontaneously rather than in their usual, routine

ways, and these improvisations force both of them to confront buried

truths.

In “My Old Kentucky Home,” Don flees from a stifling garden party into

an empty country club bar, where he meets an elderly gentleman who, like

him, is looking for a drink. In the absence of a barman, Don hops behind

the bar and begins to mix two Old Fashioneds, and as he does so, the

older man begins to speak of his humble beginnings, from which he has

evidently ascended to great wealth. In response to the man’s story, Don

delivers an impromptu monologue. The subject of this monologue is

Don’s own origins, the misery and deprivation in which he was raised.

This is quite remarkable, as Don never discusses his past with his wife or

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colleagues for fear of being found out to be a fraud. Framed by the long

wooden bar and by the large mirror behind the bar, performed with a bit

of stage business (mixing drinks) that all theatre actors know to be one of

the greatest challenges of live performance as he gives away details of his

fiercely guarded past to a complete stranger, Don’s speech can be inter-

preted as a theatrical performance, but one that is unplanned, unlike all

of the crafted performances he gives every day at home and at his office.

While the acting that Don does habitually helps him keep his real self

buried, the monologue he delivers to the stranger at the country club bar

(who turns out to be hotel magnate Conrad Hilton) connects Don to his

true identity. His spontaneous performance leads him to remember who

he really is; not Don Draper at all, but a poor farmer’s son named Dick

Whitman. This incident of improvisation at the bar sets the stage, as it

were, for Don’s secret past finally to be revealed to his wife in later epi-

sodes; and when that secret emerges in “The Color Blue,” Don and

Betty’s apparently perfect marriage crumbles, although it is hinted that

Don feels as much relief as pain when the charade of his relationship to

Betty comes to an end.

Another moment in the slow tearing-down of the illusion of the Drapers’

ideal union comes in “Souvenir,” when Betty accompanies Don to Rome on

a business trip (to visit one of Hilton’s hotels). One evening, Betty dresses

herself in Italian high fashion, so that she looks more like a star in a Fellini

film than an American beauty. While waiting for Don at an outdoor bar, she

attracts the flirtatious attention of two Roman men, and because she had

spent some time modelling in Italy in her youth, she is capable of conver-

sing with the men in Italian. When Don shows up to take her to dinner, he

realizes that the Romans are trying to pick up his wife, and he and Betty

pretend to be strangers to one another. Betty easily falls into the role of

the alluring and mysterious object of several men’s desires, a cool sex

goddess who has the power to pick and choose from among her suitors.

In the end, Betty chooses Don, as if she truly had a choice to make. The

two Italian men moan their disappointment when Betty walks off with

the handsome American. But after Betty and Don return from Rome and

Betty drops back into her stifling housewife role, she realizes that the

witty and cosmopolitan woman in Rome that she had spontaneously pre-

tended to be was much closer to the truth of who she is than the contented

wife and mother that she pretends to be in her New York life. The

unplanned performance that Betty gives in Italy forces her to become con-

scious that her authentic self is very different from the part that she plays

every day. And after the return from Italy, and her discovery of Don’s real

identity, Betty ends her marriage to Don.

HBO’s In Treatment (2008–present) similarly shows people entering into

performance without premeditation and discovering who they really are.

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Drama and Gossip: Television’s Turn to Theatricality

The series features a psychotherapist, Paul Weston, in sessions with his

patients and in sessions with his own therapist. With very few exceptions,

each episode takes place in a single room (either the living room where

Paul delivers treatment or his therapist’s living room where he is treated)

and consists of non-stop dialogue among two or three people. Numerous

critics have remarked upon the close kinship between In Treatment and

theatre, calling it “a television show that [feels] . . . more like a stage play”

(Harrison), “a series of one-act two-handers – stage plays where just a

pair of actors face off” (Wertz), “essentially a chain of two-person, one-

act plays without action, sets or pop-music cues” (Stanley), and “like a

two-character play pared down into one critical scene [in each episode]”

(Buckley). Although the formal qualities of In Treatment prompt compari-

sons of the episodes with theatre plays, within the diegesis of the television

show, every performance given by the characters is unscripted. Paul plays

out scenes with his patients in which he only knows the questions and

can’t predict the answers, and the patients themselves certainly cannot

foresee the responses they will give to Paul or the effects that their replies

will have on their own thinking. The narrative pattern of In Treatment con-

sists of the patients’ repeatedly putting on dramatic, emotionally charged,

wholly improvised performances in their therapy sessions through which

they become aware of deep truths about themselves and the personal his-

tories that they have repressed. In Treatment is not a documentary of psy-

chotherapy by any means, so it is important to note that depicting therapy

as theatricality was the creative choice of the series producers. Real-life

therapy does not usually resemble unrehearsed, unscripted “one-act two-

handers,” replete with dialogues and monologues that peak at dramatic cli-

maxes where patients are struck with sudden, clear insights into their own

subconscious minds.

The FOX musical comedy series Glee (2009–present) similarly equates

stage performance with self-realization. Glee operates on the premise

that, when an individual performs before a live audience, she is exposing

her truest self to the world. The high school students in the universe of

Glee can be either misfits on the lowest rung of the social ladder or the

rulers of school society, but when they perform as members of the glee-

club, the overlooked coolness of the pariahs is revealed and the often sup-

pressed egalitarianism and open-mindedness of the football players and

cheerleaders come to the surface. The message of Glee is that, no matter

how awkward or cynical you may appear in everyday life, you can slough

off your outer skin – your social persona – and show off how smart, fair,

kind, brave, and talented you are if only you dare to sing show tunes in

front of witnesses.

Glee also showcases theatrical performance as a means by which its gay

and disabled characters can express their innermost selves, which are often

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invisible in everyday social settings. One member of the glee-club, Kurt,

blatantly marks himself as queer whenever he sings and dances, but (at

least, for the show’s first few episodes) must conceal his homosexuality

from his father and make excuses when his father catches him practising

routines. Another glee-club member, Artie, is confined to a wheel-chair

and is a social outcast in the high school; however, in glee-club, Artie is

able to dance (by performing choreographed, energetic moves in his

wheel-chair), sing, and play instruments, revealing to audiences his extro-

verted nature. In the halls of the school, Artie’s charisma and talents go

unseen; onstage, Artie’s virtuoso movements and musicality are often the

focus of attention.

ART AS TRUTH IN FOUCAULT AND GROTOWSKI

Television’s current trend of privileging theatricality recalls Foucault’s

concept of “technologies of the self.” Television today depicts escape

from routine as a move towards authenticity and self-realization, a move

accomplished through a particular type of action: dramatic performance.

Performing is, therefore, a kind of work that individuals must do in order

either to attain self-knowledge or to communicate successfully to others

who they “really are.”

Foucault points out that the ancient Greek injunction, “Know yourself”

[gnothi sauton], “was always associated with the other principle of having

to take care of yourself” [epimelesthai sautou] (19–20). Caring for oneself

can mean acquiring self-knowledge (it is not a given that each of us has

a secure and thorough knowledge of ourselves), and it can also mean enga-

ging in acts that keep us true to our innermost authentic selves. Greeks and

Romans who accepted these principles engaged in numerous activities in

order to arrive at self-knowing and align their actions with their truest

selves; these activities were what Foucault calls technologies or techniques

of the self (18–20). Foucault enumerates several techniques of the self

employed by Stoic philosophers: letter-writing (in order to disclose one’s

secrets to another person), examination of one’s conscience (in order to

compare what one did to what one should have done), meditatio [medita-

tion] and gymnasia [to train oneself ] (34–37). While many techniques of

self are purely mental exercises, gymnasia “is training in a real situation,

even if it’s been artificially induced” (37). Foucault points to “rituals of

purification” as instances of gymnasia.

In contemporary TV narratives, theatrical performance seems to func-

tion as this last type of technology of self, as gymnasia. Some television

characters apparently engage in live performance as a ritual of purification,

a means by which they can “know” themselves; as Foucault, interpreting

Plato, puts it: “[O]ne must discover the truth that is within one” (35). For

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Drama and Gossip: Television’s Turn to Theatricality

Gossip Girl’s Blair and the patients on In Treatment, theatricality serves as

gymnasia in the sense that they do not know their authentic selves intui-

tively; they must discover the truths within them by actively doing some-

thing, by acting in a heightened manner that allows them to escape

momentarily the social roles they inhabit in their everyday lives.

Performance is a technology of self in a slightly different way for Mad

Men’s Don and Betty and the high school students of Glee, who improvise

performances as a means of manifesting in the real world who they feel

themselves to be on the inside – their latent, unrealized potential – and

as a means of communicating the truth of themselves to others. In Glee’s

early episodes, Kurt allows his sexual orientation to “come out” when he

performs for audiences to a much greater extent than he allows when he

is at home with his father; on Mad Men, Betty’s almost-forgotten sexual

power and self-confidence emerge when she adopts a fictional persona

for strangers. Mad Men’s Don and Betty and Glee’s Artie know who they

are on the inside, but they generally refuse, or have no opportunity, to

show their inner selves in public. Performing allows these characters to

reveal the repressed aspects (which are the most authentic, core aspects)

of their personalities. The artificiality, the constructedness, of theatrical situ-

ations somehow works as gymnasia and allows these characters to expose

their hidden, authentic selves. Performance is a technology of self-care in

such a case just as psychoanalysis is a “talking cure” for troubled psyches.

One of the core tenets of psychoanalysis is that disturbed individuals can

heal by expressing, in the constructed situation of therapy, their secrets.

The idea that art leads to truth can be found in the writings of many phi-

losophers and artists, such as Martin Heidegger (2000), Victor Shklovsky

(1965), and Grotowski (1968). Heidegger claims that the primary operation

of the work of art is to reveal, or to “unconceal,” truth (88). Shklovsky argues

that art’s primary purpose is “defamiliarization” (13), for too much of life

becomes habitual to the point of being meaningless to most people, and

we need art to wake us up from our dull familiarity with what makes up

our existence. Applying Shklovsky’s perspective to television today, one

might say that TV characters must participate in art making, in the form

of live performance, in order to defamiliarize their very identities.

Grotowski, the renowned philosopher of acting, takes a Shklovskian

approach to the dramatic arts. He writes,

Why do we sacrifice so much energy to our art? . . . [T]o free ourselves from the lies

about ourselves which we manufacture daily for ourselves and for others . . . We fight

then to discover, to experience the truth about ourselves, to tear away the masks

behind which we hide daily . . . Theatre only has a meaning if it allows us to . . .

experience what is real and, having already given up all daily escapes and pretences,

in a state of complete defencelessness unveil, give, discover ourselves. (48)

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In Grotowski’s view, acting allows us to access what is real inside us by

“tearing away the masks behind which we hide daily.” This uncovering of

our true selves is the point of theatre. Grotowski’s approach to acting

maps precisely onto television’s current approach to theatricality: in con-

temporary television, the individual performs before an audience in order

to “experience what is real” and “unveil, give, discover” himself. There

may be other ways to know oneself, but for Grotowski, theatrical perform-

ance is the highest and most effective technology of the self.

INTERNET GOSSIP CULTURE

Why does contemporary TV so frequently offer a Grotowskian take on thea-

tricality and show characters discovering who they “really are” through per-

forming live in front of audiences?

One possible reason is television’s desire to respond to the Internet,

which is regarded in some corners of the television industry as a formidable

threat to TV as it competes for media consumers’ attention and advertisers’

dollars. Recent research indicates that increasing use of the Internet has

not, in fact, decreased television viewing (Nielsen), and television and the

Internet do converge at points: TV fans participate in fan communities

online; increasingly, TV viewers watch TV at the same time as they surf

the Web; many people watch television content on Web sites such as

Hulu and Fancast; and most TV networks produce Internet-specific

content, such as supplementary “webisodes” or interviews with actors

and writers of popular shows. Nevertheless, even as the TV industry

strives to expand its consumer base and revenue through the Internet, tele-

vision and the Internet are undeniably rivals on at least one level: for five

decades (from the 1950s through the 1990s), television was what Philip

Auslander calls “the cultural dominant” (xii), and since the millennium,

it has appeared increasingly likely that the Internet will supplant TV in

that role. At present, Auslander states, “[T]here is an ongoing, unresolved

struggle for dominance among television, telecommunications, and the

Internet. The principal players behind each of these would like nothing

better than to be your primary source of news, entertainment, art, conver-

sation, and other forms of engagement with the world” (xii). The television

industry may partner with the Internet in many ways, but it also struggles

to prove that TV offers media audiences benefits that the Internet does not

and that TV will continue to be relevant to mass society even if the Internet

displaces it as the cultural dominant.

In light of this rivalrous, or at least complex, relationship between

contemporary TV and the Internet, we can interpret television’s persistent

equation of theatricality with self-authentication as a serious critique

of Internet culture. One common criticism of the Internet is that the

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Drama and Gossip: Television’s Turn to Theatricality

anonymity of online communications enables people to be uncivil and

dishonest, far more so than they would be in face-to-face interactions,

and that, as a result, Internet culture is largely gossip culture. Solove

writes,

[A]nonymity can make lying easier . . . Anonymity also facilitates deception . . . As

sociologist Robert Putnam observes: “Anonymity and fluidity in the virtual world

encourage ‘easy in, easy out’ ‘drive-by’ relationships . . . If entry and exit are too

easy, commitment, trustworthiness, and reciprocity will not develop.” In other

words, anonymity inhibits the process by which reputations are formed, which

can have both good and bad consequences. Not having accountability for our

speech can be liberating and allow us to speak more candidly; but it can also allow

us to harm other people without being accountable for it. (141)

The Internet, whose content is largely user-generated, facilitates rumour-

mongering far more than television does, as it is a one-way broadcasting

medium and is hence closed to viewer contribution or participation. A

great deal of what the Internet offers media consumers as entertainment

is gossip, primarily concerning celebrities but also concerning average

people, whose colleagues, students, family members, and acquaintances

can post gossip about them on review sites, blogs, and message boards

without encountering any negative consequences.

Somebody you’ve never met can snap your photo and post it on the Internet. Or

somebody that you know very well can share your cherished secrets with the entire

planet. Your friends and coworkers might be posting rumors about you on their

blogs . . . You could find photos and information about yourself spreading around

the Internet like a virus. (Solove 2)

Internet gossip culture can build up or ruin individuals’ public reputations.

People who have online reputations, which is anyone whose name has been

mentioned on any Web site and who can, therefore, be “Googled” or

looked up on Internet search engines, must take care to defend those

reputations, which can be difficult, given how vulnerable they are to anon-

ymous users in the network. “Few things are more valuable than

reputation, or more consequential for the success of new ventures,” Burt

writes. “[R]eputations emerge not from what we do, but from people

talking about what we do. It is the positive and negative stories exchanged

about you, the gossip about you, that defines your reputation” (1).

Human societies have probably always given rise to fears about possible

differences between individuals’ public and private identities, and the ques-

tion of how to ascertain the nature of one’s true self has been a problem for

philosophers, as we have seen, ever since at least ancient Greek times, but

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the Internet may be generating new levels of anxiety about personal iden-

tity. If anonymous others can define my public reputation, and if my public

self seems foreign to me, if I am often confused with my online double but

do not feel identical to that persona, who exists only as a collection of bits

of fact and rumour, then how do I determine who I “really” am? Who is the

“real me”? And how do I connect with that person? When, where and how

can my identity be firmly within my control, and mine alone, rather than

subject to shaping in and by the network?

Constructing and safeguarding one’s online reputation depends on a

multitude of performances. Donath calls the actions that one takes in

order to communicate one’s identity to another “signalling,” and she enu-

merates several costs of signalling, including “production costs” (“some

energy must be expended in the production [of the signal] and some

other activity could have been pursued in that time”), “predation or risk

costs” (“being observed by an unintended third party” who might use the

information you communicate to your disadvantage), and “efficacy costs”

(“the costs needed to make the signal perceptible”) (12). We might also

call these signals technologies of the self: in the case of tending to one’s

online reputation, “technologies” can be taken quite literally, as social

media sites and Internet forums become the technological means for

“being concerned with oneself” and “taking care of oneself.” We must

exert ourselves in order to define who we are to others. Human beings

have always had to perform, signal, or work in this way, but the amount

of identity signaling required by each of us today is greater than before,

and there is a higher risk of failure, for, in addition to safeguarding our

real-life identities, we must do the same for our online identities, and

those identities are susceptible to sudden, anonymous attacks.

Responding to this climate of anxiety around identity, contemporary

television offers viewers the fantasy of not having to work to construct

themselves. Characters on fictional television shows, as they engage in dra-

matic action, breaking away from their ordinary routines in order to

perform before a “live” audience, appear on viewers’ TV screens as instan-

taneous and seemingly effortless, or at least “natural.” Getting up on a stage

to perform reads on these shows as a kind of doing-without-thinking, and

the connection with self that results is produced automatically, without

conscious effort on the part of the performer. Don and Betty Draper,

who so painstakingly craft their personae in everyday life, seem to fall

into performing their “real selves” in the scenes described above without

any difficulty: Don reels off his life story (which he has carefully kept

buried, even from his wife) to a stranger without forethought, and Betty

inhabits the role of worldly temptress in Rome without a moment’s hesita-

tion. For Paul Weston’s patients in In Treatment, the act of uncovering one’s

authentic self is effortless, for the show presents psychotherapy as working

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Drama and Gossip: Television’s Turn to Theatricality

by making patients speak before they can think. The patients hear Paul’s

probing inquiries and reply quickly, talking even if they resist Paul’s line

of questioning, and before they know it, they have spoken aloud their

deepest, most secret truths. Even the Glee students, who might be sus-

pected of practising their performances more intensively than any other

characters referenced here, often break out into their routines spon-

taneously, as if their innate talents allow them intuitively to perform elab-

orate choreography and pitch-perfect harmonies without rehearsals.

Thus, television shows today acknowledge the substantial costs of our

having to produce/perform/signal our identities online, under threat of

being undermined by the gossip culture that is endemic to the Internet,

and present media users with a fantasy of easy identity. In television narra-

tives, one does not have to create one’s identity, for one’s most real and true

self is buried deep inside; one does not have to work hard to communicate

one’s identity to others, for they are present in the room at the moment of

one’s greatest self-revelation; and one does not have to labour at deciding

or shaping one’s identity because, even if the “true self” seems difficult

to reach, one need only be willing to make a sudden departure from

one’s usual routine. That departure is portrayed as literally and affectively

dramatic – happening in an instant, requiring no planning, frictionless

and spontaneous and simple, and coded as theatrical performance. After

engaging in these dramatics, the individual has self-knowledge: she is in

full possession of her identity.

Of the television series discussed above, Gossip Girl gives the fullest illus-

tration of the juxtaposition of online identity performance (laborious, requir-

ing attention, prone to failure) and improvised identity performance (easy,

requiring no thought or planning, wildly successful). Blair Waldorf performs

every day of her life as queen bee and as a deceiver and manipulator, and she

tries to keep her darker acts from pinging Gossip Girl’s radar, but she never

succeeds at staying out of the constant stream of online rumours. However,

when she dances for Chuck Bass onstage at his burlesque club, she naturally

and easily manifests her authentic self. In that performance, she shows the

real Blair; in her everyday life, she is a dissembler and pretender, she

works hard to keep her reputation safe, and still has to suffer its being con-

stantly demolished through Gossip Girl’s blasts.

THE PROMISE OF GOSSIP VERSUS THE PROMISE OF AUTHENTICITY

In addition, the Internet’s entertainment value for mass users resides

largely in its consistent and voluminous provision of gossip. As I have

argued elsewhere (De Kosnik), insofar as the Internet is a medium that pro-

vides entertainment (and not just utility), much of its entertainment

content consists of celebrity gossip sites and Web sites that encourage

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participants to post gossip about acquaintances, relatives, neighbours, and

colleagues.

Gossip on the Internet, while diverting to many, is not without real-

world ramifications. On opinion sites like Yelp, users post detailed

reviews of service providers, such as doctors, dentists, shopkeepers, and

therapists, that influence the client base of those business owners and

affect their revenues. In January 2008, a chiropractor filed a lawsuit

against a former patient who had posted a negative review of him on

Yelp; the patient’s attorney claimed that the patient’s posting was “clear

opinion that falls squarely within constitutionally protected speech,” and

the chiropractor’s attorney claimed that “if someone, even on Yelp or the

Internet, publishes a false statement of fact as opposed to an opinion,

then that person can and should be held responsible for their words”

(Mills). A waiter at a Beverly Hills restaurant who wrote about his inter-

actions (both positive and negative) with famous actors on his Twitter

account was fired in 2009. The Los Angeles Times’s “Brand X” blog reported

that the waiter “doesn’t believe what he was doing was wrong. It was more

documentation than slander, he asserted.” However, the waiter conceded,

“[I]f I didn’t write anything, I would still have a job” (qtd. in Milian).

Celebrity gossip Web sites were correct in their reporting on Tiger

Woods’s numerous affairs but wrong about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s

supposed break-up; in early 2010, Pitt and Jolie sued a British tabloid for

initiating “false and intrusive” claims that were “widely republished by

mainstream news outlets,” such as latimes.com (Gaskell).

Whether or not Internet gossip is true or false, it complicates people’s

professional and personal lives in ways that are difficult to predict. Just as

it takes time, energy, and thought to maintain one’s online reputation

and safeguard one’s online identity, it takes a similar amount of effort to

recognize and navigate the grey zones of Internet gossip. What counts as

entertainment, and what might be slander, defamation, or indiscretion

that damages oneself or others, are complicated questions. The Internet

promises a form of entertainment, therefore, that, while enjoyable for its

participatory and collaborative aspects, also has the potential for real-life

negative consequences, often unintended. Writing Internet gossip,

however pleasurable, can be dangerous, not only for the individuals who

are the subject matter, but also for the writer. Reading Internet gossip,

although fun, is often confusing, in that discerning fact from fiction can

be nearly impossible and one’s consumer behaviour, voting habits, and

employment can be the subject of rumours that may or may not be true.

Television dramas and comedies today offer fantasies not only of easy

identity but also of absolute certainty. The concepts promoted by these

TV shows – that each of us has a core self that we can know, be completely

sure of, and effectively display to others and that exposing that self yields

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Drama and Gossip: Television’s Turn to Theatricality

only happy outcomes (all of the characters mentioned in this article derive

fantastic benefits from revealing their inner selves) – may currently have

mass appeal because of the confusions, complexities, and even dangers

inherent in Internet gossip. Television characters know, for sure, what con-

stitutes their “real selves,” and they meet with positive results every time

they express this certain knowledge. Internet users rarely know what

gossip is real and can never be certain of the ramifications of their

writing or reading online rumours. As the Internet has established itself

as the provider of entertainment comprised of gossip, television has

become increasingly a provider of entertainment comprised of fantasies

of authenticity and security.

TELEVISION’S HISTORICAL TIES TO THEATRE AND THERAPY

So far, I have explored the possibility that television is currently fore-

grounding self-discovery through improvised performance as a way of

critiquing the Internet for giving rise to great anxieties and confusions

over identity and veracity. I have suggested that TV shows today offer

viewers the fantasy of “finding themselves” through a type of performing

that is quick, simple, and effective, unlike the constant, repetitive, and

often ineffective signaling that Internet culture requires. One might say

that, in this fantasy, TV privileges theatre and face-to-face interactions

that are, in several ways (historically and affectively), the opposite of com-

puter-mediated communications. But this does not entirely explain televi-

sion’s choice of theatricality as the centre-piece for its fantasy of

authenticating the self in the real world rather than constructing one’s

identity online.

In fact, television has a long history of aligning itself with theatre. As

Brian G. Rose, Auslander, and Spigel note, the earliest TV programs bor-

rowed both their formats and their mode of presentation from theatre.

Variety TV shows were modelled on vaudeville, burlesque, and nightclub

comedy, while anthology dramas were based on stage plays (Rose

192–99; Auslander 11–24; Spigel 136–39). The first generation of TV execu-

tives, stars, and journalists emphasized television’s ability to broadcast live

events and performances in order to draw attention to TV’s resemblance to

theatre. A 1951 TV-production manual states that television variety shows

“possibly owe their success . . . to the feeling they give the home viewer of

having a front row seat among the members of a theater audience at a

Broadway show. That’s a good feeling to have in Hinterland, Iowa or

Suburbia, New Jersey” (qtd. in Spigel 139). Spigel links the traits that

have become closely associated with television – intimacy, immediacy,

spontaneity, liveness, presence – with television’s explicitly framing itself

to consumers as a form of theatre; that is, theatre brought into people’s

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homes electronically. “You are there” is the promise made by television to

its consumers (136–42), as if TV, by the act of transmitting pictures and

sounds from performance halls into living rooms, were, in actuality, trans-

porting people from their living rooms into performance halls.

Thus, early in its existence as an entertainment medium, television

located much of its value in its ability to amplify theatre. In contemporary

television narratives of self-realization through theatricality, it seems that

TV is harkening back to its initial self-definition as a medium that can

bring theatre’s benefits to mass audiences. One of theatre’s great advan-

tages, if one shares Grotowski’s outlook on acting, is its ability to make

the self present to the self, to facilitate self-discovery. TV, which has

always presented itself to consumers as a technology of presence, can

make present to today’s viewers this feature of theatre: the live performer’s

becoming present to himself. In calling on its historical affiliation with

theatre and its oldest definitions of its own features, television may be

attempting to instil in audiences a sense of TV’s specialness and worth. A

medium that can bring live theatrical performance into the home and

that can display live performances of the most important of intimacies –

the character’s intimacy with her truest self – has value even among

today’s rapidly proliferating options for media consumption. Theatre has

always provided television with ways to sell itself, and theatre is once

again helping TV articulate its relevance in the media marketplace today,

a marketplace that is increasingly dominated by the digital.

Besides theatre, there is an additional genre of performance with which

television has long allied itself: therapy. As White explains, nearly every tel-

evision program can be regarded as reproducing a therapeutic model:

I understand confession and therapy to be privileged and prominent discourses in

contemporary television, engaged by a variety of modes and genres. Problems and

their solutions are narrativized in terms of confessional relations. Material prizes

and personal advice are sought and won by those who demonstrate a willingness

to confess on camera, in public . . . [T]he private exchange between two

individuals – in a church or a doctor’s office, for example – is reconfigured as

a public event, staged by the technological and signifying conventions of the

television apparatus. (8–9)

In White’s view, the most common television narrative, whether in fictional

or non-fictional programs, is the individual who confesses some truth

about himself in public. The confession is assumed to be therapeutic to

the individual and to help to heal his psychic wounds; but, at the same

time, a scenario in which an expert listens to the confession of a person

and advises him, a scenario that might be regarded as therapy-like (or

resembling a Catholic confessional) and that would normally take place

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Drama and Gossip: Television’s Turn to Theatricality

in private, now takes place, instead, in the public eye; that is, in the eye of

the television camera.

White’s description of the function of therapy and confession on TV

matches closely the fantasy of self-authentication through theatricality so

popular on television shows today, which I have been investigating in

this article. In all of the shows discussed previously, the protagonist

exposes his or her most private self, the core of his or her being, to an audi-

ence. This act of self-exposure takes the form of a verbal confession, in

some cases, but in other cases it is a dance, or a song, or a performance

of an invented role. Although spoken language is not always involved, all

of these acts can be interpreted as confessions, for they all are personal rev-

elations. They are also therapeutic, in the sense that all of the individuals in

these TV narratives are able to improve themselves and their lives dramati-

cally by connecting with their innermost selves through performing. Of all

the shows discussed, In Treatment, of course, dramatizes the therapeutic

nature of confession most literally. In Treatment illustrates White’s claim

that television puts on public display the most sacrosanct forms of one-

on-one counselling.

White’s writing dates to the early 1990s, but she traces the history of tele-

vision’s structuring its narratives as therapeutic discourse to television’s

beginning. Advertisements and soap operas, especially, emphasized the

healing benefits of confessing, of unveiling one’s deepest secrets to a

watching public. Just as television has always classified itself as similar to

theatre, but better than theatre, because TV brings theatre to so many

more people than could fit into a theatre space; so, too, has television

always presented itself as resembling the confessional and the therapy

session, but better than therapy, because TV shows the viewer many

more intimate self-disclosures than the viewer could ever encounter on

his own, in that way feeding his hunger for gossip about strangers while

simultaneously modelling for him what “healthy” behaviour is (telling

the truth, or displaying the truth, to others). The gossip promoted by tele-

vision is, therefore, nobler than that offered up by the Internet because

watching television confessions may spur one to begin a self-help/self-

improvement project.

The television industry has attempted for decades to convince audiences

that watching TV is, itself, a form of therapy. White mentions a number of

articles published in TV Guide during the 1980s that promote “the idea that

television functions therapeutically within a familial and interpersonal

context. Watching television can help or hinder your relationship with

your spouse and children. Television can speak a therapeutic discourse”

(25). She quotes one TV Guide author who writes, “TV can provide

current information on common problems. It can, while respecting

privacy, encourage the discussion of feelings” (29). All of the equivalences

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ABIGAIL DE KOSNIK

to therapy that belonged to TV in the past – the structuring of the television

narrative as a confession, the making public (televising) of the therapist’s

interaction with patients, the theory that the act of watching TV can lead

one to undergo therapy – are seemingly combined in the theatricality-as-

authenticity convention that recurs on various TV shows currently.

What contemporary television producers appear to be aiming at, then, in

highlighting TV’s closeness to both theatre and therapy and in making

theatre-as-therapy a central trope in their narratives, is a link to TV’s his-

torically successful value propositions. Television is currently in a highly

transitional phase of its evolution. If it does not want to disappear as a

business and lose its mass appeal, then it needs to prove to media consu-

mers that it has worth that cannot be duplicated by the Internet. In depict-

ing theatricality as a technology of the self, the TV industry falls back on its

kinship to theatre (television’s ability to make present what appears to be

distant, its evocation of intimacy and liveness and immediacy) and on its

kinship to therapy (television’s capacity to show viewers the most personal

selves of its characters, their most private moments of confessing and

receiving counsel, and television’s potential for inspiring viewers to experi-

ence for themselves the benefits of confessing and therapy).

Television, which was the cultural dominant for fifty years, finds itself, in

the twenty-first century, in the position of having to defend its relevance,

having to rally and broadcast the reasons why it still matters. To this end,

TV is calling up arguments that it has used since the 1950s, arguments

that add up to the fact that television is theatre and therapy all at once.

Television narratives display people’s most intimate journeys – their

inward journeys, their diving into their innermost core to discover their

authentic selves – as public performances, and this is simultaneously a cri-

tique of anonymous Internet gossip culture, with its lack of intimacy and

cool distance from its subjects, and an attempt to proffer much better

gossip than the Internet can, in the form of high personal drama.

Ultimately, television uses drama, a technology of the self, as both a cure

for Internet gossip culture and as a serious competitor to it.

TV PROGRAMS CITED

“Bad News Blair.” Gossip Girl 1.04. 10 Oct. 2007. CW.

“Victor, Victrola.” Gossip Girl 1.07. 7 Nov. 2007. CW.

“Red in the Face.” Mad Men 1.07. 30 Aug. 2007. AMC.

“My Old Kentucky Home.” Mad Men 3.03. 30 Aug. 2007. AMC.

“Souvenir.” Mad Men 3.08. 4 Oct. 2009. AMC.

“The Color Blue.” Mad Men 3.10. 18 Oct. 2009. AMC.

Glee. Musical comedy series. 2009–present. FOX.

In Treatment. 2008–present. HBO.

Modern Drama, 53:3 (Fall 2010) 387

Drama and Gossip: Television’s Turn to Theatricality

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Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1988. 16–49.

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ABSTRACT: This article examines a number of currently airing television dramas and

comedies (Gossip Girl, Mad Men, In Treatment, and Glee) that depict theatricality – live

performance – as a means by which characters achieve self-realization and authenticity.

Television today may be interested in presenting theatricality as what Michel Foucault

calls a “technology of the self” as a way to distinguish TV from the Internet. The

Internet is largely comprised of gossip, and social media demand that all of us carefully

safeguard our online reputations, lest we fall victim to unfounded rumours posted by

anonymous users. Contemporary television narratives offer the fantasy of “easy identity,”

as characters spontaneously discover their “real selves” by engaging in theatrical perform-

ances and clearly communicate who they “really are” to others, with only positive results.

Television thus uses theatricality as a means of establishing its ongoing appeal in an

Internet era.

KEYWORDS: gossip, theatricality, technologies of self, authenticity, Gossip Girl, Mad Men,

In Treatment, Glee

Modern Drama, 53:3 (Fall 2010) 389

Drama and Gossip: Television’s Turn to Theatricality


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