The Story of Gossip: Building on Fisher’s Narrative Paradigm

Laney Nissler

I dedicate this chapter to my peers, who taught me that no one likes to gossip, but everyone enjoys it. Through understanding the power words can hold and how to use them wisely, I have become a better rhetorician in my day-to-day life. I also dedicate this to my sister, who made me understand the importance of gossip as a lasting story. Without my peers or my sister, I would truly lack the understanding of the world that I have today.

Keywords: Gossip, Storytelling, Society, Narrative, Reality-TV, Merit

Which name stands out to you more- Janet Reno or Monica Lewinsky? Disregarding the chance of you being a Bill Clinton history buff, Janet Reno’s name likely won’t ring a bell. Janet Reno and Monica Lewinsky were two women relevant during the same short four-year time period. Both women were widely criticized for their actions. To many, Janet Reno is just another name on a list of female accomplishments, the first female attorney general. Monica Lewinksy was also just an intern at the White House for one year spanning 1995 to 1996. She has not published groundbreaking research or mobilized a social cause to create systemic change. She is a taboo figure that bruised many Americans’ sensibilities and caused turmoil for the 42nd president. In recent history, 45th President Donald was impeached twice, once more than Clinton, in 2020. But 26 years later, articles in mass publication still feature Lewinksy’s name, and a TV series is in the works about her life. In contrast, Janet Reno was noted for her nonprofit work and passed away from Parkinson’s disease in 2016 following her stint in the White House. Throughout this analysis, I underline what gossip is, how gossip connects to Fisher’s paradigm in a contextualized manner, and how gossip as storytelling is used as a societal rhetorical tool.

Gossip is a concept that can range from a children’s game to a weaponized tool of terror. Researchers define it as the potential yet deliberate spread of rumor and/or misinformation (Spacks 4). Gossip is meticulously regulated by those who spread it, often morphing events based on the narrator’s intentions in spreading typically personal or private information. The regulation of gossip occurs as it is passed through a community by storytelling, as individuals can choose to morph the stories further in a way that fits their agenda. The storytelling form of gossip has had a significant impact on public opinion, public narrative, and cultural norms. Monica Lewinsky was slandered internationally resulting in the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Janet Reno, on the other hand, moved on from her scandals and went on to begin her largely successful career. Their stories are both told by mainstream media platforms, but the difference is the intention behind the storytelling. By demarcating Lewinsky with gossip due to her relations with the most prominent political figure at the time, President Bill Clinton, the group of perpetrators was able to dent the political-cultural hegemony that existed (Apostolidis).

I argue that gossip is the most effective form of storytelling in impacting public opinion and shifting the societal narrative through tactical storylines. One of the primary points in the rhetorical concept of Fisher’s Narrative Paradigm is that storytelling is more powerful than arguments. In his paradigm, Fisher proposes that human beings are natural storytellers and that a good story is more convincing than a good argument (Fisher 1). The paradigm also supports the assumption that life is simply a collection of stories. One of the most prevalent critiques of Fisher’s paradigm is that his idea of good merit as justification only considers mainstream societal ideas and ignores how storytelling is a device for social change (Warnick 176). I have chosen to elaborate on Fisher’s Narrative Paradigm with the claim that forms of storytelling, such as gossip, that are not traditionally defined by good merit should also be analyzed as powerful devices for social change. Gossip is the most effective example regarding this particular aspect of Fisher’s Narrative Paradigm. In his search to define gossip, Robert Paine, states that “gossip is conceived as a property of the group; its use is regulated by the group in such a way that it serves to demarcate the group and, at the same time, helps to perpetuate it” (279). Similarly, when defining Fisher’s assumptions, author Mike Allan asserted that “[sometimes] these stories teach morals, sometimes they explain a preferred course of action, and sometimes they create identification between the storyteller and the audience” (575). Human beings create and recreate these stories throughout our lives (Hobart 91).

When gossip has good coherence, it gives the storyteller a false sense of fidelity, aligning it with the set assumption of good merit, despite having none. Good merit is the idea that individuals use “good” reasons in their decision-making, which ultimately impacts the story (Fisher, 1984). The two testable qualities of good merit are narrative coherence and narrative fidelity. The level of probability is used to determine narrative coherence, or how likely it is to happen. Narrative fidelity is a closed question. It tests whether listeners/participants accept a story. This can be evaluated by looking at the story internally or structurally (Fisher, 2). These qualities are tested through Fisher’s Narrative Paradigm on an a priori basis by analysis to label a story as good or bad. Good reasons are further decided by history, biography, culture, and character, or in other words, the context of past and present stories shaping individuals’ lives and culture. Primarily, the perceived and subjective moral good of a decision decide good merit. Convincing gossip has a grain of the truth, or even a large part of the truth, which makes it seem reliable in the eyes of the listener. So, despite naturally occurring unreliability, gossip is a good model of social change through storytelling as it can effectively convince society, despite its truthfulness and accuracy.

Popular culture exemplifies this, as gossip is a powerful plot tool used to suggest ideas to viewers and motivate more stimulating plotlines. Recent research regarding Fisher’s Narrative Paradigm has focused on the topic of reality TV shows. On reality TV, the everyday life of real people is condensed into an exciting storyline. One such reality TV show is Big Brother. Big Brother is an international reality competition television series. Contestants are isolated from the real world fighting for a cash prize and are slowly voted out of the house. With this voting process comes a large amount of gossip, both inside and outside the house. Most importantly, however, the gossip in the house regarding who will be staying and leaving creates relevant plot lines as powerful devices for changing the public narrative. Despite being a reality show, Big Brother has inspired a societal push for accurate cultural representation in media internationally. International adaptations have used the mode of gossip to make points on race relations (South Africa), sexual standards (Italy), cultural relations (Turkey), and more (Mathijs and Jones 253). Storytelling as gossip is used as a plot tool to shift the public narrative. Gossip with good narrative coherence gives the storytellers and listeners a false sense of fidelity as it is not perceived as too outlandish but is riveting enough for the audience to accept. A recent study found that narrative coherence and narrative fidelity were created and sustained throughout the show, aligning with the principles of good merit assumed by Fisher (Eaves). If one of the show’s main plot furthering devices for its storyline is gossip, gossip is logically concluded by the level of public interest and societal impact to have good merit.

If good merit is the use of “good” reasons in the decision-making involved in a storyline, the effectiveness, and memorability of the storyline, in turn, constitute gossip to be of good merit in its pervasiveness due to narrative coherence. A similar story can be seen through the lens of The Girls Next Door, a vastly different TV show in the genre of reality television. The Girls Next Door is a series revolving around the dubbed “playmates” living full time in Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion. This series is vastly different than Big Brother. In Big Brother, most of the gossip revolves around the challenge rivalry and the potential elimination of contestants. The Girls Next Door revolves simply around the daily lives of the highly privileged women living in the mansion. The story is primarily narrated by Hefner’s 3 live-in “playmates” Holly Madison, Bridget Marquart, and Kendra Wilkinson, who comment on their daily lives and interactions. Badly reasoned storylines include drama and gossip between women over trivial issues such as who is allowed to sleep with Hugh Hefner or who gets to wear what costume. However, these stories drew in an audience, as well as lifted viewer ratings. Often, “the girls look directly into the camera and explain exactly what they are thinking and feeling about their life.” (Bratberg 60). This full frontal view of 3 prominent women’s everyday life and interactions with other prominent Hollywood figures led to the spread of gossip not only in the women’s interviews on the show but in the public media sphere as well.

While the tool of gossip is not primarily used with good intentions, it is powerful in introducing fresh public narrative in the way any good storyline would. Unbiased speculation is a phenomenon used in the celebrity news media sphere, which all three women are part of, as a primary attention grabber. However, direct parallels can be made between the prominent unbiased speculation seen in celebrity news and gossip, as the spread of the speculated information is done intentionally and meticulously regulated. In this respect, a large amount of media produced in regards to celebrities can be considered as gossip if not proven factual. The media is in turn consumed by the public and held as factual and impactful in the lens of cultural norms. In analysis, The Girls Next Door was found to have both coherence and fidelity, as also seen in Big Brother (Bratberg 34). This plot point of gossip throughout the show boosted the women’s prominence and led to their further success after the show and upheld relevance to this day. The Girls Next Door storyline was one to remember despite not being defined to have good merit according to Fisher’s paradigm- a taboo topic with inadequately reasoned storytelling littered throughout (Bratberg 3). However, the presentation of taboo topics such as sex and nudity through gossip as storytelling, in turn, made the discussion and presentation of those topics more accepted as a cultural norm. While gossip is defined to have good merit, it still does not have good reason. However, as The Girls Next Door demonstrates, just because a taboo topic

is not accepted by society as a whole does not mean it should be ignored as a powerful form of storytelling that impacts people over time. For example, a 1985 study showed that gossip resulted in a lower turnover rate when used to help new employees adjust to their new office jobs (Kelly 55). When considering gossip as a tool to spread cultural norms in the convincing form of storytelling, it creates a compelling argument, good reason withstanding.

So why do we remember Monica Lewinsky’s name so much more vibrantly than Janet Reno’s? Why are reality shows still receiving high viewership and influencing society’s trends? Storytelling is powerful in politics, as seen through Bill Clinton’s impeachment, but also in all aspects of moving society. Holly Madison, despite being known for a career laced with gossip, started popular societal clothing and lifestyle trends, just as her successors Kim Kardashian, Joanna Krupa, and others continue to create a narrative for the public eye. The implications that gossip had on a whole political system, as well as societal trends, help further delineate and build on Fisher’s principle of good merit in storytelling. Gossip is the most effective form of storytelling in impacting public opinion, the public narrative, and cultural norms. Stories are deeply entangled with our truth but also the future of civilization. If society is unable to readjust its perception of storytelling as a rhetorical tool, the idea of good merit will cloud history and avoid “bad” reasons of storytelling that have produced prominent social change.

Works Cited

Allen, Mike, ed. The SAGE Encyclopedia of Communication Research Methods. Sage Publications, 2017.

Apostolidis, Paul. “Why Monica Still Matters.” Theory & Event 6.4 (2003).
Bratberg, Amanda. The Girls next door and advertainment: narratives in season one. MS thesis. 2011.

Eaves, Michael H., and Michael Savoie. “Big Brother: Merging Reality and Fiction: An Application of the Narrative Paradigm.” Texas Speech Communication Journal 29.2 (2005).

Fisher, Walter R. “Narration as a human communication paradigm: The case of public moral argument.” Communications Monographs 51.1 (1984): 1-22.

Fisher, Walter R. “Clarifying the narrative paradigm.” Communications Monographs 56.1 (1989): 55-58.

Fisher, Walter R. “The narrative paradigm: An elaboration.” Communications Monographs 52.4 (1985): 347-367.

Hobart, Melissa. “My Best Friend’s Brother’s Cousin Knew This Guy Who…: Hoaxes, Legends, Warnings, and Fisher’s Narrative Paradigm.” Communication Teacher 27.2 (2013): 90-93.

Kelly, Jan W. “Storytelling in high tech organizations: A medium for sharing culture.” Journal of Applied Communication Research 13.1 (1985): 45-58.

Mathijs, Ernest, and Janet Jones, eds. “Big Brother International: Formats, Critics and Publics.” Wallflower Press, 2004.

Paine, Robert. “What is gossip about? An alternative hypothesis.” Man 2.2 (1967): 278-285.

Reno, Janet. Ishmael alone survived. Associated University Press, 1990.
Spacks, Patricia Meyer. Gossip. Knopf, 2012.

Warnick, Barbara. “The Narrative Paradigm: Another story.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 73.2 (1987): 172-182.


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Feeling Rhetoric Copyright © 2022 by Laney Nissler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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