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I spent the past several months working for the entertainment department of one of the most widely read news websites in the world, a sprawling behemoth with over 100 million users. When I accepted the position, I had lofty ambitions of doing my own interviews, attending events, and maybe even breaking some exclusives. Instead, I found myself chronicling Britney Spears’s daily trips to Starbucks and the volatility of Miley Cyrus’s engagement to Liam Hemsworth.
Having spent the past five years in Los Angeles, I’m more than familiar with entertainment writing. It’s been an easy way to build a portfolio, especially for a pop culture fanatic with a penchant for reality television. Which is why in February, I didn’t think twice about applying to a solicitation for entertainment journalists to write for a major news publication.
Two days after I sent in my portfolio, a 30-ish deputy editor named Dan called me into the company’s office to write a few test articles. The process was remarkably simple. Dan set me up on a freelancer’s computer, emailed me a photo of Lady Gaga in a wheelchair, and asked me to write 15 lines of text to accompany the image. I submitted my copy in under an hour and was hired on the spot after an interview in the parking lot.
I couldn’t believe my luck. Dan’s full offer included a generous salary, access to a pension plan, and health and dental benefits. Finally, no more unpaid internships!
My official title was Showbusiness Reporter, a dubious label for someone whose main responsibility was describing what was happening in paparazzi photos. The company purchased full sets -– most of which were incredibly dull –- from a handful of agencies. I then was responsible for choosing the best shots from those sets, writing corresponding copy, and inputting everything into a content management system. Sometimes I was instructed to write a story about a single photo or comment a celebrity had posted to Twitter or Instagram (my supervisors spent a lot of time monitoring the Kardashians’ social media channels for this reason), or about an item already broken by a competitor like TMZ or E! News.
An overwhelming majority of the articles I posted were about women. But rarely were these articles about their professional accomplishments. Or anything other than their appearances, their romances, and their personal failures.
See, the company used specific formulas to sell its stories. If you read tabloids often, you’ll probably recognize them. I learned them quickly. If the subject had gained or lost weight, worn a bikini, or suffered a wardrobe malfunction, I wrote about it. If she’d dyed or cut her hair, broken up with a boyfriend, or stepped out with a mystery man, I wrote about it.
Even better if she’d gotten pregnant, gone to rehab, or been arrested. Because they exhibit so many of these familiar trademarks, women like Kim Kardashian, Amanda Bynes, and Rihanna are currency for online tabloid outlets. Their names alone elicit major page clicks and hundreds of comments per article.
Another big seller? Women who are photographed with their children. I preferred not to use pictures of celebrities’ kids in my articles, and was usually chastised for my insubordination. One day I came back from a lunch break to an angry email from a supervisor scolding me for not including more photos of Alessandra Ambrosio’s four-year-old daughter in a story about the model wearing a pair of Daisy Dukes that exposed the most miniscule patch of -– gasp! -– cellulite. It was times like those I wondered what exactly I was doing with my life.
What originated as apathy grew into a sort of rebellious resentment. I couldn’t stand taking direction from my supervisors, and I’ve never been the kind of person to have problems with authority. In particular, I consistently wanted to oppose Dan.
“Is that a nipple in the third photo? The one of her bending down to sign an autograph?” he asked one day, after I submitted a article about an award-winning actress with a new haircut.
I bristled, knowing what I was about to hear next.
“You need to re-sell your story if that’s a nipple. Have the headline include something along the lines of “debuts a bleached pixie…and a nipple,” he shouted from across the room.
I fantasized about storming out of the office, but for a while I couldn’t pinpoint the exact reason I felt so compelled to leave the company. I could, however, understand the one reason I felt compelled to stay. I was being paid more than most of my peers, and I worried that if I bailed, I’d never find another job that paid equally as well.
After spending the past four years working in low-paying customer service jobs, I dreaded the thought of returning to being a guest services representative or a cashier or a server. Retrospectively, I can say with certainty that there is more dignity involved in doing those jobs.
Since it wasn’t only the job I hated –- I hated myself because of the writing I was producing. My writing -– which I’d once considered a tool -– wasn’t helping or informing anyone. Instead, it was utterly pointless. I’d become the enemy: an unnecessary critic.
I decided I’d stick it out for a few more weeks while scoping out my options in the meantime. But within days, Dan asked me to write the one article that tipped my internal scale away from the company’s favor. He directed me to a set of photos of an Australian soap star that’d recently broken up with her boyfriend, a C-list actor from a major U.S. franchise. She was wearing a bikini and was obviously slender, but Dan insisted that I frame the article around her “shockingly thin” frame in the wake of their break-up.
“You know, like she’s on the heartbreak diet or something,” he pushed.
I immediately felt uncomfortable, and attempted to write the article as gently as possible. After Googling the actress, I realized her thinness wasn’t a recent development -– even as a child model, she’d been petite. It felt incredibly wrong to insinuate something as grave as an eating disorder. After finishing the piece, I stepped outside to reflect on how shitty I felt about what I’d just done.
But another email was waiting when I returned. Dan had taken the liberty of tweaking my story. Why?
“You called her beautiful in the copy you submitted. I went in and removed all mentions of that because you can’t conflate extreme thinness with beauty,” he wrote. He’d also changed the headline to include a mention of the actress’s bulging collarbone.
I’m naturally scrawny –- a friend once told me that hugging me felt like hugging a wooden plank. But like most women, I’ve dealt with my fair share of body image and weight issues. I had a rough adolescence that I’m relieved I’ll never have to revisit. Only recently have I learned to be okay with myself.
Writing the article –- and allowing Dan to revise it the way he had –- felt like the ultimate betrayal not only to women, but also to my own progress. I no longer wanted to exacerbate other people’s insecurities with my writing. I stayed silent for the rest of the afternoon, but quit the next day –- and I’m sure as hell glad I left before bikini season.
I used to devour tabloids. Since exiting the company, I haven’t done more than glance at their covers while waiting in line at the grocery store. Writing for a tabloid destroyed my motivation to read any of them. Maybe because it feels more personal now.
I understand the purpose of tabloids, the reason why they exist –- they’re pointless entertainment, but make a lot of people a lot of money. But in the process, they degrade both their subjects and their readers.