For Enquiring Minds

A Cultural Study of Supermarket Tabloids

  • Author(s): Bird, S. Elizabeth
  • Series:
  • Imprint: Univ Tennessee Press
  • Publication Date: 1992-04-01
  • Status: Active

Millions of people read weekly supermarket tabloids. Yet little serious effort has been made to understand why so many Americans make a valued place for these papers in their lives. Instead, the tabloids are dismissed as the epitome of “trash”—sensational, gossipy, stereotyped, ephemeral. Libraries shun them. As the papers are “trashed” by critics, so by extension are their largely working-class readers, who are viewed as unworthy of consideration. This book, the first full-length analysis of the tabloids within their historical and cultural contexts, examines the interplay among tabloid writer, text, and audience.

Drawing on anthropology, communications, folklore, and literary theory, Elizabeth Bird argues that tabloids are successful because they build on and feed existing narrative traditions, much as folklore does. Men and women, to judge from letters and interviews, read the tabloids from different perspectives. And while people buy the papers for various reasons, readers tend to be alienated from some aspects of the dominant culture.

The tabloids are popular precisely for the reasons they are despised: formulaic yet titillating, they celebrate excess and ordinariness at the same time. After beckoning readers into a world where life is dangerous and exciting, the tabloids soothe them with assurances that, be it ever so humble, there is no place like home. Thus, while readers are active, playful consumers, we cannot assume that the papers offer a real opportunity to resist cultural subordination.

The Author: S. Elizabeth Bird is assistant professor of humanities and anthropology at the University of Minnesota, Duluth.