Most people are well aware of what they’ll find when they visit the Mail Online. Aside from the main news stories that take up three quarters of the homepage, the ‘Femail’ sidebar is an enormously popular section in its own right.
The stories that run within this section, also known as the ‘sidebar of shame’ fit squarely within the celebrity gossip arena, with a dose of sexism and fairly poor journalism thrown in for good measure. The stories are glossy, with pictures – lots of pictures – and the odd caption in case we can’t recognise the celebrity in question. Quantity is also the name of the game, with seemingly endless stories, as you scroll down the page.
For the uninitiated, these are the stories that tend to make the grade:
1) Celebrity gossip: who is dating whom, who is getting a divorce, who is displaying ‘wild child’ behaviour etc.
2) Celebrities bearing a lot of flesh: considered either good or bad, depending on the person in question, their age, their size etc.
3) Celebrities in their natural habitat: getting a milkshake, going to the gym, doing the school run etc.
The vernacular used throughout is one based purely on looks. Be it a relatively kind piece on a celebrity going to the gym, down to a mean dig at someone apparently looking frumpy – the starting point is always what are they wearing and if they should be considered hot or not.
The sidebar plays on the one thing that is guaranteed to drive most click-throughs: tantalising photos. Whether it’s because we see a celebrity and want to look like them (I’ll have Julianne Hough’s legs please), or we’re so intrigued by what Lindsay Lohan recently got up to in rehab – it all plays off the photo. And when combined with a clever headline; this is a potent combination.
Once inside, looks are still a top priority. The many photos are big and glossy. The stories that show celebrities looking great often also include quotes about their diet/exercise regime. It shows them on their trip to the gym, or quotes them talking about their diet of kale and steamed fish. It’s certainly enough to make this reader feel guilty. Granted celebrities have a fair bit of time to put into creating their body beautiful, but when all the language employed in stories about them is praising such a pursuit I’m sure it seeps into my consciousness. It’s not just the photos, or the written praise of looks that seems to say: ‘Reader, you’re not quite good enough as you are.’ At the bottom of the stories there is often a box offering readers the chance to ‘get the look’. No, you might not be Gwyneth, but you can get yourself an LBD like hers. All this guilt-inducing messaging makes me a little sad. It becomes glaringly obvious that (at least in the eyes of this website) I do not measure up. That I should do everything I can to emulate these women by following their diet plans and buying similar outfits. I am not enough.
Of course, it is so important to note that hypocrisy is frequently at play too ¬– sometimes the celebrities are considered too much. Too much flesh on show. Too much fake tan. Too frumpy. Even the celebrities can’t win, as they too are judged and either held up as someone for us to alternately admire or mock.
But here’s what I find fascinating; I know the site is news with a side of sexist tittle tattle. Yet still I find myself drawn there. A quick survey among my friends reveals a similar sense of ‘I know I shouldn’t go there, but I can’t help myself’. So what is it that is so compelling? Why do we visit time and again? And is it really all that shameful? Here are a few of my thoughts, speaking as a secret sidebar clicker…
“Shh – it’s a secret”
As someone who would never dream of buying the newspaper, the ability to click in secret means it is safe, hidden and subject to no judgement.
“What is she wearing?”
Are we all just mean girls? To be honest I don’t think I thrive on looking at dodgy photos of celebrities (sweat stains, tan lines and VPL, oh my!) – but we’ve all seen them and probably passed even a fleeting judgement. Is this just textbook ‘put people down to make myself feel better?’ Possibly.
“I wish I looked like that”
This is a trap I’m more likely to fall into. I see Jennifer Garner and her children on the school run. I envy her figure, clothes and cute children. Then I read another article about Gwyneth on holiday in Italy. I look down at my thighs and wish I could have hers instead. The list could (and often does) go on.
But is it really all that shameful? Well, yes, I think it is. Having visited the site every day for the past week or so (in the name of research, honest) I’ve noticed that while I am most definitely clued up on celebrity trivia, I feel slightly grubby. The more I read about marriages, break-ups and breakdowns the more I felt like I was overstepping the mark. This really isn’t news. These are real people, often hounded by paparazzi day in and day out. As I click my mouse, driving traffic to the site, am I silently saying I agree with the values conveyed on the site? The values that say it is all about what you look like and who you are seen with. Values that completely contradict the kingdom of God which speaks to our position in Christ and our identity in him, rather than our looks, status or wealth.
So should I banish the sidebar to the scrapheap? I know what scripture would encourage me to do: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things (Philippians 4:8). This is probably easier said than done, but I’m going to give it a try. Fancy joining me?