As a 10-year-old in northern Idaho, Anne Helen Petersen was fascinated by celebrity culture. She’d tear through gossip magazines, giving ratings to different issues. Fast-forward 20 years, and she’s turned her obsession into a career reporting on media, writing about everything from the role of the paparazzi to Jennifer Lawrence’s “cool girl” image to the women in True Detective. Her forthcoming book, Scandals of a Classic Hollywood, was borne out of a series of essays for The Hairpin.
Petersen also teaches film and media studies at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington—her courses cover subjects from celebrity gossip to Mad Men to Hollywood stardom. She spoke with me about her approach to teaching media studies and why she’s leaving academia to write features for Buzzfeed. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
How has media studies, as a field, evolved? Did it start with film studies?
Film studies was borne out of English, and we’re kind of the bastard-child of English. There’s a lot of work done in film studies to articulate our difference from them, even though we’re clearly a descendant. Our national organization of media studies scholars is now called “The Society for Cinema and Media Studies,” but until 2002 it used to be called “The Society for Cinema Studies.” To think of our field as not just exclusively film studies—it took the institution until the early 2000s to enact that change. Over the last 15 years, there have been a ton of different departments that have changed their name from things that were more film-centric to more media-centric. My department at the University of Texas has been called “Radio-Television-Film” for a long time, but that’s even outdated because a lot of the work that’s going on is media studies—looking at the internet and other forms of media. Now, it’s passé just to study film exclusively and to only look at what’s going on in the narrative. What I do is “media industries,” which is a subgenre of media studies, and it’s grown so fast. It’s people who look at how films are produced, and the connections between the different industries that produce media.