Communication Currents

Celebrity Gossip Magazines: Guilty Pleasure at the Airport

February 1, 2016
Mass Communication

Do you find yourself reaching for celebrity gossip magazines at the airport? In her most recent study, Andrea McDonnell of Emmanuel College examines why travelers may be more likely to purchase and read gossip magazines while waiting for their next flight. 

“I have been interested in celebrity gossip magazines for the past 10 years,” says McDonnell, “first as a reader and fan and then as a scholar. I often noticed people reading the magazines at the airport and during other forms of travel, and this struck me for a couple reasons.” First, she wondered why people continued to buy hard copies of these magazines during travel, even as we have become more and more invested in digital reading. She also noticed people read these “trashy” magazines in public only in certain places: the airport and other places such as the beach or the doctor’s office. 

In these places, “we experience a sense of in-betweenness, and it is in these spaces that we feel free to read [this kind of material],” she said. 

Past research shows that when people are in these in-between or liminal spaces—such as the airport—where they are neither here nor there, both coming and going, they are better able to see themselves and their normative assumptions in a new light. 

McDonnell’s research tests her assumptions through interviews with 15 female and three male readers between the ages of 18 and 24. 

Guilty Pleasure   

“I know that some of it is really trashy but I’m going to read it anyway,” said Catherine. “I don’t care. I do feel like it’s a guilty pleasure. Usually I … try to read part of it and then go do something productive.” 

Like Catherine, most study participants (16 out of 18) described reading celebrity gossip magazines in their everyday lives as a “guilty pleasure.” Participants said the content of the magazines was “silly” and mostly untrue, but they still found pleasure in reading them. 

When asked for other reasons the celebrity gossip magazine readers felt guilty, they cited the cost and noted the availability of free online celebrity news. Yet readers reported having different feelings about buying these magazines at the airport. McDonnell found that those who did not regularly read the magazines in their everyday lives felt better about reading them at the airport for three reasons: built-in wait time, anonymity of the airport space, and the freedom of leisure time. 

“I feel like the airport is the place where it’s most accepted [to read gossip] because a lot of people are trying to pass the time. That’s what they’re selling at the airport and that’s what people plan on,” said Rachel about the built-in wait time. 

Anonymity plays a part in allowing us to indulge in this guilty pleasure at the airport. One participant, Sarah, likened the experience of buying a gossip magazine to having a drink at the airport bar. 

“Recently, it was my first time being 21 in an airport. I thought, ‘I have to get a drink at a bar and see what that’s like.’ I definitely thought for a sec, ‘No one at this bar knows who on Earth I am or what I am.’ So that makes it easier to indulge in a little pleasure, something that I shouldn’t be doing.”

“I would totally indulge in [a magazine] as a treat. The anonymity…would increase the likelihood of doing things I wouldn’t normally do because no one here knows who I am.” 

That sense of anonymity helped explain why female readers did not feel ashamed or embarrassed about reading “trashy” magazines at the airport in spite of the very public nature of sitting in a terminal. 

Finally, being at the airport invokes feelings of freedom from the constraints of work, school, and responsibility. 

“The idea of vacation is the idea of leisure, so it’s a different type of experience [than reading at home]. I’m treating myself. I’m going to go out of my way to buy some magazines. I’m going to sit and read [them]. It’s going to be nice,” said Amanda. 

Embracing the pleasure of reading during leisure time mitigated feelings of guilt with feelings of satisfaction. At the airport, participants felt it was okay to “kick back.”   

Gender Differences 

McDonnell found that men didn’t experience the same mitigation of guilt when reading gossip magazines at the airport. In fact, reading celebrity gossip at the airport worsened their feelings of guilt. Ernie, one of the male study participants, said:

“Every time I’m at the airport I go into the gift shop where they sell all the magazines. I don’t buy gossip magazines, but I’ll just maybe open the magazine really quick and shut it. After, I’m like, ‘Ok I hope nobody saw that.’ Then I will pick up some sort of men’s magazine so it’s not like, ‘Oh, he just came here to pick up a women’s magazine and left.’ I will usually end with reading a men’s magazine or just looking at it. I have more guilt at the airport because I don’t want to [read] for the fear of being judged … When I’m in my spare time and I’m by myself, it’s much more enjoyable because I can look at what I want in the magazine.”

“The airport’s public space, which provides a sense of anonymity for women, may cause men to feel a heightened sense of scrutiny from others based upon the negative, feminized nature of celebrity gossip magazines,” writes McDonnell. 

After the Trip Is Over 

None of the participants reported a lasting change in their attitudes toward gossip magazines upon returning from their trip in spite of their airport reading experience. Once the plane touches down and the trip is over, readers go back to their normal social roles and feel guilty about reading celebrity gossip magazines.

One of the more important takeaways from this study is that everyone, male or female, has deeply engrained assumptions about the value of female-oriented texts and what the author calls “feminized pleasures.” McDonnell says, “Both male and female readers are acutely aware of the negative associations attached to gendered texts and seek out opportunities for engagement in spaces where they will not feel judged.” This calls for a reevaluation of the gender value judgments that society places on media directed at female audiences. 

About the author (s)

Andrea McDonnell

Emmanuel College

Assistant Professor