Mamamia, maybe don't try cloaking Rebel Wilson click bait in moral garb

Friday, May 22, 2015


Who the hell cares how old Rebel Wilson is?

In recent days, online media began running strange stories — the exact relevance of which was unclear to anything but these site's Google analytics — claiming that Australian comic and actor Rebel Wilson was really in her mid-30s, not 29 as officially claimed.

One major site to “break” the story was Mamamia, the online “independent women's website” set up by Mia Freedman. The site, which despite being worth millions of dollars copped flack for refusing to pay writers until 2013, specialises in padding out its content with an infuriating type of click bait of which the Wilson story is a perfect example.

There is nothing special these days about click bait — with enticing headlines of the “You won't believe what happened next” variety and the ever-present “listicles” spreading out across the Internet like oil from the Plains All American Pipeline across southern California's shores. Click bait has not just made Buzzfeed the dominant, if irritating, online force it is. Mainstream media outlets are increasingly specialising in it as they compete for our hits.

But Mamamia stands out for the patently ridiculous rubbish it is liable to trot out to justify their click bait. Such as the patently ridiculous rubbish it trotted out to justify its click bait article “exposing” Wilson — a star of Hollywood films like Bridesmaids and Pitch Perfect — for lying about her age.

Hard-hitting journalism

Yes, in the hardest-hitting example of investigative journalism speaking truth to power since Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's exposure of the Watergate scandal, the site ran a May 18 piece by Alex Greig headlined “Rebel Wilson is not 29. And her name is not Rebel Wilson either.” (She is apparently a 35-year-old named Melanie Elisabeth Bowndes).

Complete with quotes from alleged former school friends and acquaintances to make the case Wilson was older than she claimed, the piece caused a lot of confusion on social media on the grounds of “who the hell gives a flying fuck how old Rebel Wilson is and why on Earth is Mamamia writing about it?”

Thus causing “Rebel Wilson” to start trending on social media and, no doubt, Mamamia's hits to rise exponentially as everyone started googling to figure out what the hell this was all about.

Accusing the media of a “tall poppy syndrome”, Wilson responded by tweeting, “OMG I'm actually a 100 year old mermaid formerly known as 'CC Chalice'”, and “Okay but all jokes aside now … my real name is Fat Patricia x”.

Of course, a self-proclaimed feminist site making a big deal about the precise age of a successful woman in Hollywood is bound to raise eyebrows, as it is hard to see how such an “exposure” advances the position of women in the entertainment industry.

In fact, it is hard to see the news value at all. It does not seem too hard to grasp that someone's age is their own business, stage names are extremely common and — in response to implications that Wilson's middle-class upbringing is at odds with her “bogan” persona — that Wilson is, at least to some degree, playing a role.

You would have thought that Wilson is not actually under any obligation to reveal anything about her real name, age or background than she is comfortable sharing.

Justified?

Mamamia's first attempt to justify the article was pretty feeble. Freedman said they decided to run the story because Wilson had said she was overlooked for a role in the Ghostbusters remake because the film makers opted for an “older group” of actors, whose ages are similar to what media reports say is Wilson's real age.

Well OK, maybe some very low-level hypocrisy there from Wilson, but such a minor complaint hardly justifies exposing her for claiming to be younger than she is. A cynic might suggest that, actually, Mamamia rushed to get the article out after Women's Day ran a similar piece themselves, so as not to miss out on their slice of the clicks pie.

Regardless, Mamamia used the opportunity of the confusion and even outrage caused by their original piece to run a follow up that defiantly claimed the high moral ground. The May 20 piece by Holly Wainwright, entitled “This is why it matters how old Rebel Wilson is”, began: “All week the country’s been talking about one woman’s age.”

Well, no. Actually, a fair chunk of the country has been talking about “who the hell gives a flying fuck how old Rebel Wilson is and why on Earth is Mamamia writing about it?”

There is a strange disconnect in Wainwright's piece, as though discussion about Wilson's age just happened to spontaneously arise, as opposed to it being the result of media reports, of which the original Mamamia piece was a major one.

Wainwright goes on to say: “And while yes, age is just a number and doesn’t really matter, the pressures that made her lie in the first place do matter. They should be talked about. They deserve to be.

“Because what matters is this — Rebel, an intensely smart and ambitious woman — felt she needed to lie about her age to make it in Hollywood.”

You see? Mamamia is actually just really concerned about the all the pressures on women in Hollywood to pretend to be younger than they are. How noble of Mamamia to take up this cause!

The article continues on the theme: “Hollywood’s bullshit ageism – that’s what matters. That being in your 30s is bad for your career – that’s what matters…

“Debunking the idea that an actress — or, think about it, a woman in any other profession — might be 'too old' to do her job over 30. Never mind over 40, 50 or beyond. That’s what matters.”

Really?

There is no question these things do matter. There is no question that discussing institutionalised sexism and discrimination against women in all fields, including entertainment, needs to be discussed.

But is that really what matters for Mamamia? Because in that case, why didn't Mamamia just run a piece that said that? Surely it would be possible for such a piece to raise the case of a well-known female actor in Hollywood who, to help her career, feels obliged to lie about her age without actually naming the actor.

If all Mamamia cared about was confronting Hollywood's institutionalised sexism, then it would have seen no reason to specifically expose Wilson by name.

In fact, it is very hard to imagine how exposing a female actor for lying helps, in any way, to confront sexism. It would seem to deepen the pressures on women in Hollywood by sending the message that, not only might they feel obligated to lie to advance their careers, but when they do, they will be publicly outed by cynics who justify the pursuit of cheap hits by pretending they hold the high moral ground.

In case there was any doubt, the Mamamia piece justifying the original story gave itself away comprehensively in its concluding line.

Just after the statement that “the fact that she felt she had to lie to get there matters a great deal”, its last line is an appeal for the reader to have their say, stating: “Do you think it’s important for public figures to own their age?”

There you have it. For all the rhetoric about this being about Hollywood's sexist discrimination policies, it remains about Rebel Wilson. And whether Wilson, or anyone else in her position, is obligated to tell the industry or public their real age.

It remains about policing and shaming Wilson for something that is actually no one else's business at all — no matter how many hits you might generate by pretending it is.

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