Why we like what we like
Buzzfeed’s Anne Helen Petersen on popularity and what it tells us about ourselves
Anne Helen Petersen knows about popularity. Petersen, who has a Ph.D. in media studies from the University of Texas, first made her mark blogging about the gossip industry. Her series “Scandals of Classic Hollywood” offered a deep dive into the social motivations behind tabloid fodder. She explored not just the who and the what of celebrity, but the why and the how, tracing the lineage between the world’s biggest movie stars and the cultural forces that were manipulated to make them popular. Why are the rich and famous so famous? Which qualities draw us to them, make us want to read about the private lives of people we don’t actually know? And what does who we chose to celebrate say about us?
A few years ago, she made the jump from academia to full time journalism and is now a Senior Culture Writer at Buzzfeed. She’s also broadened the scope of her reporting; she still writes about the influence of celebrities, but also politicians, and cultural and social trends happening in the here and now. In the last two years she’s investigated Ivanka Trump’s influence over voters, the public reception of figures like Kellyanne Conway, and explored why we swipe the way we swipe.
Despite her background in academia, Petersen’s clear that her work deconstructing ideologies differs from the work done by social scientists. “It’s my job as a cultural journalist to extrapolate,” Petersen says, noting that she does her best to emulate the rigor that researchers bring to their work when she’s reporting on a trend or public perception. “You try the best you can, in a short amount of time, to get a sample size, and you extrapolate from there.”
dscout sat down with Petersen to chat about deconstructing why we like what we like, the time and place for jargon, and the role of empathy in reporting.
dscout: A lot of your work investigates what we can learn about ourselves by looking outward; what the people and things that we’re drawn to can tell us about our inner selves. When did you first become interested in that? Was there an early moment when you realized you could learn about people by looking at how they were responding to something?
Anne Helen Petersen: I think part of my obsession with ideology all really comes back to the fact that, as a kid, I was hyper, hyper-conscious of what other people thought of me. If I was in a public place with my parents, what do people think of my parents? How does that reflect on me? I remember being in France when I was in middle school, and being so concerned whether French people thought the Calvin Klein shirt I was wearing was cool. It’s not necessarily that I was good at reading people, it’s more that I was obsessing over what people thought. And that’s made me think a lot about how was I informed by these ideologies of what it meant to be a woman in conservative, small-town Idaho. Why did I think that a Calvin Klein shirt was so important? Why did I think that my mom wearing earrings, and a nice dress to a meeting at my school was so important? I was so subject to ideology, in such an incredible way. So there was that hyper-consciousness, and an obsessive desire to understand the social hierarchy. And then growing up in a working-class town made me attuned to how markers of class work, and how political markers work. All those things have transferred into both my attention to how celebrity and popularity works.
Your new book, “Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman,” talks about this idea that celebrities are the most visible evidence of our ideology. That they are a reflection of what we’re thinking, and what is popular, or what is unpopular at any given moment.
I think that it’s easy to dismiss celebrities as the most superficial manifestations of our ideology. We think, “People like Jennifer Lawrence because her look is popular. She’s blonde and she has a healthy body.” They don’t think about the way she acts in interviews, and the acting roles she’s taken, and the way she dresses, and her relationships, and all of that context in the question of why she’s popular, why we like her. My work looks at the cultural context of why we like the things we like, why we respond to celebrities the way we do, and what that tells us about ourselves and what we value as a society. That’s one thing I always try to make clear about my work, especially whenever people say “Why study celebrity? Celebrities are dumb, they’re the problem with society.” Celebrities are never going away. They are a fixture of civilization, essentially.
With that in mind, for this book I wanted to look at the last decade and feminism, and in particular these women society regards as “unruly,” but who negotiate that unruliness, who temper it. Because as much as there’s been this public re-embrace of feminism, none of the women I talk about in the book are radical feminists. They are all still pretty, or white, or straight, or enough of whatever it is that’s going to make them palatable to mainstream audiences.
One of the women you devote a chapter to is Melissa McCarthy. You argue that her public image is actually very calculated, and that she tempers the roles that she plays on-screen, an unruly Bridesmaids character or an aggressive Sean Spicer, by doing interviews or participating in magazine features that highlight the domestic, homemaker side of her.
It’s funny, because I’m not trying to say that Melissa McCarthy isn’t a boring mom at home. I think she, like most celebrities, probably is. But that aspect of her personality is amplified in profiles, in interviews, in the way she’s shot for photos, in the fact that she’s featured again and again in Good Housekeeping and Redbook. If she wasn’t that type of woman, they wouldn’t put her on the cover again and again. Roseanne Barr, for instance, was not a hugely popular Redbook feature girl. But doing that, putting her in these domestic features, takes this woman who is almost kind of scary in her portrayals in film—an out-of-control, unruly woman—and makes her so, so broadly accessible. I know people from every single corner of the political spectrum, of the religious spectrum, all over the place who love Melissa McCarthy, and I think a lot of that has to do with the way that she has reassured audiences that she is not who she is on screen.
What does it say about us as a society that she has to do that?
I think that actually, truly radical and unruly women are still very threatening, and very scary to us. These moments of “unruliness,” as I call them, I think they introduce different ways of being. And in the book I really try to trace how each of these women has been made “palatable.”
Last fall you published a piece for Buzzfeed, a week or so before the election, called “Meet the Ivanka Voter.” It painted a pretty vivid portrait of a non-stereotypical Trump voter. You write:
“[The Ivanka Voter] doesn’t have a Trump sign in her yard, either because it would get egged or she doesn’t want to fight with the neighbors. She knows all about Ivanka’s clothing line and brand, and thinks she would be great in the White House, because she’s classy and sophisticated, polished and well-spoken, all the things her father is not. She’s very clear that there are things that Trump says that she doesn’t agree with. She does not think of herself as racist. She describes herself as ‘socially moderate.’ But she’s voting for him.”
This actually plays into one of the huge tension points of research, quantitative versus qualitative. In late October, the quantitative data seemed to be pretty definitively saying there was no way that Trump was going to be elected. Yet here was this window into what was actually happening, and what you can learn when you get on the ground and talk to people. So where did the idea for that piece come from? Were you just noticing a certain type of woman at Trump rallies and thinking, “I have to dig into this more”? Because, and you delve into this pretty explicitly in the piece, many of these women did not necessarily want to be found, or outed as Trump voters.
Like many journalists, I became frustrated with the trope of a certain type of Trump voter that started to become a visual shorthand for Trump’s base over the course of the election. There was actually a lot of polling out there that was suggesting it wasn’t just working-class white voters who were supporting him. I have this very vivid memory of the first Trump rally I covered, right after the “Access Hollywood” tape came out, and talking to the women who were there. Some of them fit that more typical profile of the Trump voter. This was in Cincinnati, Ohio. A lot of the women I talked to looked like women from the suburbs. There was one group that had commissioned these shirts, white with pink writing, that said “Deplorablettes.” They had come as a group for a fun outing, and told me they were going to go get wine afterwards. There weren’t a ton of them, but obviously I saw those shirts and thought, “Huh.” Then, at another rally outside of Detroit, I started talking to two other women, and I was curious how they felt about Ivanka, or Melania. So I asked them “What do you think about Ivanka?” And they said “Oh my gosh, we love her clothes. I’m wearing her boots right now.” One of these women had been a Democrat before, had voted for Democrats for many years. The other said, “I don’t love everything about Donald Trump, but he made Ivanka so he can’t be that bad.” That was the general sentiment. They told me there were a lot of women like them that they knew, who had never come to a rally, who maybe would never even put a poster up, but who were supporting Trump.
From there I decided I was going to talk to other people. I started asking at rallies: “Who do you know who’s voting for Trump who wouldn’t be at this rally?” I didn’t say, “Do you know white suburban women who aren’t here?” That wasn’t the implication. I was just trying to figure out who was missing. I think it was after four rallies that I decided I was going to try to write the piece and see what came out. When I published it, there were definitely people who said “Nah. Women aren’t going to vote for him.” But since then, a lot of people have pointed to it as one of the pieces that foreshadowed this major pushback, these women who hated Hillary, who didn’t necessarily love Trump, but are that good old, “Me and mine.” They are looking out for them and theirs, and Trump was going to better their lives.
Did you end up talking to people for the piece that didn’t want to be named?
Most of them. Some of them were okay with full names, and a lot of them told me I could just use their first names. Oftentimes I took pictures of them, and they were okay with their pictures being used. That was really interesting to me.
In thinking about trends, one of the major differences between journalism and a more structured social science approach is the sample size of people that you talk to. As a journalist, you can sort of decide how big that sample size is, and a lot of it is based off of instinct. So how do you bring a sense of rigor to that aspect of what you do? How do you decide, “I’ve talked to enough people, I’ve heard this enough that it’s not just a random occurrence”? For the Ivanka piece, for example, how did you decide you’d met enough people that it really was a trend?
It’s my job as a cultural journalist to extrapolate. You try the best you can, in a short amount of time, to get a sample size, and you extrapolate from there. In some ways, with the Ivanka piece, it was a structured absence that I had heard about a lot at these rallies, either they’re from the few women who looked like they were wealthy women from the suburbs but stuck out because of that, or from other people who were like, “Here are the people who aren’t here.”
It’s empirical research, actually talking to people. A lot of academic research, of course, is about talking to people. Granted, they are more methodical in selecting who they’re talking to, but I try to emulate that where I can. When I go somewhere to report on a story, I’m not thinking “Who can I talk to who is going to confirm my thesis?” I’m trying to talk to every type of person. At a Trump rally, I’ll go in saying: “I want to talk to the two people of color who are here. I want to talk to a young person. I want to talk to an old person. I want to talk to a disabled person. I want to talk to a person who looks like a Trump voter. I want to talk to a person who doesn’t look like a Trump voter, or stereotypical Trump voter.”
Those unique insights that come from being on the ground, that’s certainly an area of overlap between human-centered research and journalism. It’s also one of the big arguments for local journalism, maybe because there’s an implied sense of empathy or understanding that goes along with being local. You’ve said that telling people you’re from Idaho has helped you in your reporting in the area, that it’s almost like a passcode.
Absolutely. Being able to say, “Oh, I’m from Idaho,” when I was at rallies, that would oftentimes make people a little bit more comfortable with talking to me. One thing I say over and over again is I’m sick of Idaho getting misrepresented or caricatured in the press, and I ask people to help me in telling a more nuanced story. They’re on board for that. Even if they don’t like Buzzfeed, this is the thing that people don’t understand about how most reporters are received in the field. I might have a slightly different experience, because I am white and a woman in her 30s, but no one has expressed animus to me as a journalist, even when they know that I’m from Buzzfeed. It’s saying, “I’m one of you,” you know? People can get behind it. Getting behind an idea is much harder than getting behind an action. As much as they might yell “fake news” at the CNN truck, it’s different when they are face to face with someone who is saying, “I can tell your story.”
Anne Helen Petersen
Getting behind an idea is much harder than getting behind an action.
Was that surprising?
No. I think that I knew, growing up where I did, the way on the coast, sometimes people talked about Trump voters like, “Oh my God, they’re the worst people. Could you even imagine?” I grew up with these people. They’re not aliens. I went to church with them, I graduated from high school with them, I am Facebook friends with them. I always think about this when I’m reporting on something to do with the church, which is also something I do a lot of. I can speak Trump voter, in some way, and I can speak church. If you can speak to them in a language that signals to them, “I don’t think you’re an alien,” then they’re much more likely to talk to you.
One of the other articles you’ve done in the last few years that’s gotten a really huge response was “How I Rebuilt Tinder and Discovered the Shameful Secret of Attraction,” where you reconstructed Tinder and asked people to give feedback on how they would swipe. One of the conclusions that you come to is that we swipe because of semiotics, and that class is a major factor in the decisions people make when online dating. It’s this whole idea that, in some ways, it’s like shopping.
You had the idea for the piece when you were at a bar, and saw a friend using the app, and feeling like it was very far removed from the idea of romance.
I think even more to the point, what I felt myself doing was making judgments about class, and about what conversations people could or couldn’t have based on photos. It made me think: “Oh, this person is a fireman in the profile. We probably don’t have anything to talk about.” Which is just ridiculous. Maybe we don’t have the same educational background, but at the same time, you don’t know what a fireman knows. That’s what drove me to think more about how semiotics were working in Tinder. Close to 1,000 people participated in the survey I built, over the space of the weekend. I could have had many more people participate, but I had to wade through the data myself, which is hard.
How did you go about constructing the exercise, coming up with the sample profiles, culling through the data?
I met with Buzzfeed’s head data scientist, a guy named Jeremy Singer-Vine. We had a nascent data science team then; they’re now incredibly robust and part of the investigations team. He helped me craft some of the questions, and then once the data was in, I used Google Forms, which is pretty great at that sort of thing. Jeremy helped me parse a lot of the conclusions. That’s one of the nice things about being in an organization like Buzzfeed, that has this huge network of people doing different things. The article has inspired a lot of feedback, a lot of people asking if they can have the data set, and it’s not a clean data set. It was snowball crowdsourced, which in ethnography means that I shared it with some friends, who then shared it with other friends, and sharing it that way and through BuzzFeed means you get a particularly skewed conclusion. I wasn’t necessarily trying to make a scientific conclusion, so much as I wanted to use the survey to talk about some of the things I personally observed. It was more like using the beginnings of science to talk about a cultural observation.
It’s interesting, you start to think about other people as a commodity, and you also start to realize that other people are thinking about you as a commodity. You become the product, which ties back to that idea of celebrity. In some ways, people on online dating sites are crowdsourcing themselves to be the best possible product that they can be. The ones that do it really well are the ones that are the most popular.
Something you’ve done very successfully is to make your work more accessible and less “jargony.” Within academia or a field that can be especially difficult, because you’re trained to write a certain way.
There’s a premium on jargon.
Why is it important to make work more broadly accessible? And how do you go about training yourself to write differently?
I think within a discipline there should be two modes of writing. One is very jargon-y, when you’re using terms known within that discipline. A subculture’s vernacular. Those kind of nitty-gritty, peer reviewed articles actually allow those people to better their work, to move the discipline forward. Those conversations are inward facing. The problem is that a lot of people don’t write for an outward-facing audience, where they take whatever they’ve gleaned from their research and show it to the world at large, and say “what we do is super important,” and use it to educate people. I think we need to be better at training people how to think about that outward-facing component.
How do you learn that, mid-career? What do you say to someone to help them understand how to communicate to a wider audience?
I’d always think of it as, “Can you sit down and write a long email that you would send to your brother, and your aunt, and your seventh-grade teacher, explaining what you’re doing?” There’s a bit of intimacy there, and a presumption of, you have the knowledge in this field. But at the same time, they want to know what you’re doing, so how can you tell it to them in a way that will make sense and keep their attention?
It seems to come back to storytelling, which is this huge other component that you have to understand really well to communicate what you’re working on, but also something that there really isn’t formal training for.
Totally. Take the concept of a “lede”, which I didn’t know the name for until I got into journalism. I called it a hook, but everyone knows what it is, because it basically determines whether or not you’re going to write the story. If you say to someone, you know the thing that grabs you right at the beginning of the article? And it’s usually a weird story, or an incredible quote, or something like that? What is that for your research? People love to talk about their research but oftentimes they don’t know what the most interesting part is. Sometimes, I think it’s as easy as getting in the conversation with them, and then they’ll tell you some crazy story about their research, and you realize, that’s the story of their research. I think a lot of times, people aren’t used to people outside of their field thinking what they do is interesting.