Royal Gossip: Meaningless, Or Historically Necessary?

Ever found yourself flicking guiltily through the “entertainment” tab on twitter, or desperately trying to conceal how much of your TikTok feed is full of the latest Sophie Turner/Joe Jonas gossip? Ever feel embarrassed by how much you know about Meghan and Harry’s love life, or reluctant to admit you can name all of Taylor Swift’s rumoured boyfriends? It’s time to relax. Gossip just became a thing of historical significance. Yes, that’s right. Mary Beard, the world-renowned professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, has just declared that gossiping, specifically about royalty, serves an important function. 

‘I’ve been reading that they are going to get a divorce,’ the classicist says in an interview with The Times. Promoting her new book Emperor of Rome, which explores, in part, the wild and rumour-filled lives of Ancient Roman rulers, she declares that speculation about the marital status of Meghan and Harry is ‘very much the same sort of gossip.’ Clarifying her position, she then adds: ‘Before anyone thinks I’m trivialising it, gossip is very important… from a historical point of view.’

Beard is not the only one to make this claim. French enlightenment philosopher Voltaire also categorised gossip in the same, if slightly crueller, light: ‘Historians,’ for him, were ‘gossips who tease the dead’. Beard’s claim suggests that such gossip can also be fairly applied to the living as today’s rumours fuel tomorrow’s papers which, believe it or not, one day, may be referred back to by royal historians keen to find the quote that will clinch the final point in their research paper. But what about Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce? Can non-royal gossip serve any other useful purpose?

Israeli academic, Yuval Noah Harari, argued in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind that gossip has played an essential part in evolutionary human survival. “Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bisons,” he writes. “It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest and who is a cheat.” Gossip was a way for early humans to make allies, learn who could be trusted and who was best to avoid. Gossiping is a fundamental part of human connection, and just as early men and women used it to form tribes, today, it can used as a bonding factor in friendships.

Gossiping did not always have negative or frivolous connotations it has today. Etymologically speaking, the word itself is rooted in the Old English godsibb meaning ‘godfather, godmother,’ or ‘baptismal sponsor’. The noun itself has a completely different, and much more pious, meaning than the verb too, as a “gossip” was considered to be someone ‘who has contracted spiritual affinity with another by acting as a sponsor at a baptism’ (OED). The verb, on the other hand, meaning ‘to talk idly, mostly about other people’s affairs’ only found its footing in the 17th century though some trace it back to the mid-1500s.

We also have to consider the positives that can come out of celebrity gossip. The latest rumours surrounding the turbulence in the marriage of Sophie Turner and Joe Jonas were on one level invasive and troubling for both parties. On another level, the conversation around the rumour-fuelled speculation prompted conversations online that were long overdue. Questions around mother-shaming and the way the media has treated celebrity parents arose. Twitter users and journalists cried misogyny on a story that, ten years ago, would have seen Sophie Turner villainised.

On a more basic level, the coverage of Taylor Swift’s appearance at Travis Kelce’s NFL game has provoked questions about how much the NFL features celebrities at their games. Ariana Grande’s confession to getting botox and lip fillers brought about debates around celebrity transparency and unrealistic beauty standards. Pamela Anderson’s makeup free look empowered women to reconsider questions around ageing and glamour. Meghan and Harry’s exit from the royal family has resulted in a wealth of debate and about race, media misogyny and the value of a British constitutional monarchy. 

There is no denying that gossip can be vicious, used for cruel purposes with little thought for the subject involved. It can be the source of bullying in high school, workplaces and online. In a way, it’s hardly surprising that in 2019, the Philippine mayor Ramon Guico III banned gossip for those living in Binalonan. Nevertheless, we should also be able to see the efficacy of gossip and what it can bring about it our societies. Whether it’s the part it plays in evolution, or the essential conversations it provokes, gossiping can certainly lead to things fruitful as well as sour. The key is to approach it from a place of thoughtful, and sometimes playful, curiosity. In all our whispering, we should try not to forget our compassion.