Last fall, on a sunny San Francisco morning, I reached a personal tipping point of sorts. A celebrity TMI tipping point, to be precise. I was poring over US Weekly (forgive me) when I read a quote by actress Olivia Wilde describing her sex life with then-boyfriend Jason Sudeikis. Apparently—just in case you were curious—they “have sex like Kenyan marathon runners." Wilde also revealed why she’d ended her 8-year marriage in 2011, saying, “Sometimes your vagina dies...Then you know it's time to go.”
Her remarks made me wonder —is Wilde-style TMI always too much? Can oversharing ever be (gasp) healthy? According to Robert J. Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, yep, it can—and we should prepare ourselves for the oversharing onslaught to continue. “This is part of a trend that’s gone back a long way, and not just among celebrities,” he explains.
In the overall scheme of things, Wilde’s aforementioned comments weren’t incredibly shocking or out-there. But her remarks unnerved me because, as Thompson noted, they weren’t made in a vacuum—Wilde was just the latest offender in what felt like an escalating cultural shit-storm of celebrities spitting up increasingly intimate (and unnecessary) details about their private lives.
In case you’ve been living in a cave (or, um, you’re sane enough to avoid celebrity gossip), for the past few years the celebrity TMI trend has been climbing like crazy, in large part due to social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram fuzzifying the barrier between civilians and celebrities. Remember the days when a star’s personal life was actually, well, PERSONAL—and they strove to keep it that way? We hardly do, either. Instead we’ve got John Mayer’s vile 2010 Rolling Stone interview (“I have masturbated myself out of serious problems in my life”); Katy Perry’s helpful tweet informing the world that she’d gotten her period (“You're gonna make me cry, maybe that's my period though. THAT'S RIGHT I'M BLEEDING”); and Enrique Iglesias’ discomfiting revelation that he has “the smallest penis in the world. I'm serious."
From where we sit, all this oversharing just might be taking the ubiquitous "stars: they're just like us!" thing to an unpleasant extreme. Do regular folks actually enjoy hearing such dirty details from the stars they’re supposed to idolize? According to Thompson, the answer is a resounding yes. "The more intimate information, the better," he says. And celebrity oversharing is on the rise not because stars are getting sluttier, but because American society as a whole has put a higher premium on being confessional and super-honest —letting it all hang out.
According to Thompson, we’ve been creeping toward this hyper-disclosure mode since the advent of psychotherapy in the 1950s —and the TMI trend isn’t just occurring among celebs, but with regular people, too. (Our Facebook feeds can vouch for that.) “Nowadays, people write their diaries on the Internet and then brag about how many people are [reading] them,” Thompson notes.
Despite his assertions that folks appreciate hearing about the baser elements of celebrities’ lives, plenty of people I know are put off by hearing unnecessary details about a friend’s lunch, or a co-worker’s vacation, or a cousin’s new baby —even THAT can feel like information overload in this constantly connected new age. (I sympathize —if I have to see one more Instagram photo of a homemade breakfast smoothie or a stupid kale salad, I might scream.)
And though I doubt I’m alone in said “wanting to scream” reflex, I guess we should get used to it —maybe even try to embrace it, because Thompson believes all this oversharing (both celeb-driven and non) could actually be a sign of a healthier cultural attitude about sex. “The idea that people are more comfortable talking about [their sex lives] isn’t a bad thing,” he explains. And he’s got me there; talking about sex is, generally, healthy and positive. Just…not when it’s a Kardashian doing the talking, OK?
Laura Barcella is a writer in San Francisco. She’s the author of The End: 50 Apocalyptic Visions From Pop Culture That You Should Know About…Before It’s Too Late and the editor of Madonna & Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop. Follow her on Twitter.