A scandal doesn’t just happen – it has to be carefully manufactured to make it as spicy as possible, almost like a pickle that adds a kick to our bland, everyday news cycle.
And to become a best-selling pickle, a scandal has to have these three basic elements: first, a base ingredient, second, some preservatives, and third, a market of hungry consumers.
So, what is the recipe for a scandal?
The base ingredient is the very act that puts someone in a pickle – when they have done something morally wrong or when they have been accused of doing something wrong, meaning doing something which goes against middle class propriety.
This can be a scintillating murder like the Naval Commander Nanavati killing his wife’s lover, and then being legally pardoned for doing so, or a massive financial fraud like the alleged 2G spectrum scam, or a wild indiscretion, like a reckless celebrity poaching endangered blackbucks.
And if this mix has the ‘spicy’ ingredient of sex in it, people find it all the more intriguing.
Something like a ‘leaked’ sex tape, for example, the one that shot Kim Kardashian to fame, or it could be transcripts of a racy phone call between Prince Charles and his partner, Camilla Parker Bowles. Because people’s sex lives are usually private, scandals that publicly expose these sex lives have a higher shock value.
Once this mixture is ready, in goes the second element – a dash of preservative that makes sure that it doesn’t expire, and stays in people’s minds for long time. And this is where the media comes in. For centuries now, media outlets have been profiting off spreading salacious news about the rich and famous. Scholars trace the origin of such outlets, all the way to 15th century Europe when mass printing first began.
And today, tabloid journalism is a full-fledged industry that dominates print, broadcast, and of course, social media. When a scandal is taking shape, tabloid media outlets step in analysing every detail about a scandal to get the clicks they need.
In times of desperation, publications even go out of their way to stage events or to spread bizarre misinformation – like tabloids offering actor Simon Rex $70,000 to say that he had slept with Meghan Markle, when he hadn’t, (or) Indian news portals accusing actresses of ‘black magic.’ Sometimes, if a scandal proves to be clickable enough in tabloid media, it even gets converted into movies and TV shows (example – Scam 1992, Rustom, The Verdict etc.) which adds to its shelf life in popular culture.
This is why researchers often argue that the media not only reports on scandals, but also produces them, by deciding what kinds of stories are worth spreading.
Once these two elements are ready, it’s time for the third element – a market or consumer base that willingly buys into every single detail of the scandal. Who are these people, and where does their love for scandal come from?
Cultural critic Laura Kipnis says that our love for scandals has a lot to do with human psychology. In her book, ‘How to Become a Scandal’, Kipnis calls scandals ‘social purity rituals’ because by blowing up other people’s wrongdoings, they help us feel that our own misdeeds are small or irrelevant.
A scandal then becomes a convenient way to let ourselves off the hook, and pretend that that small bribe we gave to the traffic police officer is nothing compared to what Nirav Modi had given to the Punjab National Bank.
Being able to vilify others especially those who are more rich, powerful, and famous than us, feeds into our collective superego. But what of those who are stuck in the middle of a scandal? Who survives a scandal anyway? Not everyone can survive a scandal. It is after-all a game of images and exaggerated stories, in which one party emerges as a victim, and another, the perpetrator. And who we blame for a scandal or mistake says a lot about our biases.
Before the MeToo movement in 2018, most scandals about sexual harassment were rarely viewed as harassment, but only as ‘sex scandals’ in which the victims themselves were portrayed as ‘seducers’. In the famous Bill Clinton – Monica Lewinsky case, Monica Lewinsky and Hillary Clinton were held far more accountable than the then American President was, for abusing his power over an intern.
Closer home, we can see the way Rhea Chakraborty was unjustly subjected to a harsh media glare for allegedly stealing money from her late partner, or steering him into drugs. Or we have Tanushree Dutta, who was forced out of films for calling out Nana Patekar’s harassment.
All this clearly reveals a gendered pattern in who pays the price for getting caught in a scandal. But many factors beyond gender, such as social capital, economic wealth, political connections, and even media reach can play a huge role in shielding people who get caught in scandals.
And so, a scandal may be hugely entertaining. But it can also be unsettling because it reflects our own injustices and biases back at us. They play on our psychology, our fear and our gullibility to make a spectacle out of someone else’s life – is that really worth our attention? – A question I leave you to overthink.
[Images from different sources]
Mahabahu.com is an Online Magazine with collection of premium Assamese and English articles and posts with cultural base and modern thinking. You can send your articles to firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.com ( For Assamese article, Unicode font is necessary)