I have written a guest blog for the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association (FWSA). This blog was originally published on 14th August 2013, on http://fwsablog.org.uk/2013/08/14/death-watch-the-gender-politics-of-a-celebrity-breakdown/
The crass and vitriolic ‘celebrity death watch’, loved by internet press and trolls alike, follows troubled stars as they negotiate tricky paths of fame, fortune, and destructive substances. Lindsay Lohan was tracked during her (alleged) issues with drugs, alcohol and multiple driving offences; mocked as her health slowly deteriorated and her career nose-dived (see, for instance, the comment on this thread- “so, how long until she joins Winehouse and Whitney?”)
The level of interest surrounding Lohan, and other troubled female stars such as Britney Spears, Amy Winehouse and, most recently, Amanda Bynes, is verging on frenzy. Spears had the most public meltdown in 2007, after shaving her own head in a hair salon in front of paparazzi, and then later attacking a photographer’s car with an umbrella. After Amanda Bynes recently tweeted about shaving her own head following issues with hair extensions, one online site wrote how she had “pulled a Britney Spears”. It’s these sorts of comments which trivializes serious mental health issues- and their lives become a sort of pantomime.
Su Holmes and Diane Negra recognise societal trends for enjoying “’trainwreck’ narrative[s]” (2008:15), whereby we watch vicariously as celebrity’s lives deteriorate and their behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. Imogen Tyler and Bruce Bennett link this phenomenon to Michel Foucault’s “’theatres of punishment’… such as the scaffold, chain-gang and public torture” (2010:380). It is a form of entertainment: a “baying mob” (ibid) intimidating its subjects.
However, I think this sort of obsession is particularly targeted towards female celebrities. Therese Rebeck agrees: “we like to see pretty girls screw up, we’re positively obsessed by it” (2008), and Milly Williamson writes “the widespread scorn and derision directed at celebrities is aimed predominantly at a particular kind of female celebrity” (2010:118).
When Heath Ledger tragically died in 2008, some web users expressed shock and surprise that it was he who had died, over his female counterparts whose actions featured daily on TMZ and co. “Heath before Britney? Something is seriously wrong with the world”, one wrote (in Holmes and Negra, 2011:1). Spears was somehow more deserving of death than Ledger, even though he had also had personal problems before his death.
Look at the way, for instance, Pete Doherty is treated. His drug problems have been incredibly widely documented, he’s probably more famous for that than he is for his music career in some circles. Yet he’s practically a God to NME and other music publications. He almost became more famous, his music more popular, because of his drug issues. Yet when his then-girlfriend Kate Moss was filmed taking cocaine in his recording studio, she was dropped from high-profile advertising campaigns with H&M, Chanel and Burberry. Five months later, Doherty won ‘Sexist Male’ at the NME awards.
Think of all the rock bands over the years whose careers were practically based on what stock their drug dealer had at the time. The Rolling Stones, Nirvana, The Beatles, David Bowie, Guns N Roses. If a man lives a life ruled by sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, it’s hedonistic, fashionable or artistic. If a female does the same, they’re troubled, out of control, mad. They are, most interestingly, ‘unfeminine’. Female bodies are so rooted in the need for ‘regulation’ and control; anyone demonstrating lack of control cannot be feminine. Their bodies are unruly and ‘grotesque’ (see Bakhtin’s work): by doing this they are defying their gender rules. It is as though they have somehow ‘failed’ at being a woman.
Perhaps that’s why people are so fascinated by it. It’s more of a spectacle for a female to be having personal issues simply because they’re female. They’re actively rebelling against socially inscribed rules of control: they are being anti-social. And, just like when someone starts yelling in the street, everyone turns, stares and points. It just so happens for these women millions of people around the world are pointing. When Spears went to rehab there were paparazzi hanging round all day, every day. It was reported in the newspaper, on the television, all over the Internet. The day she shaved her head, she made the front page. Yet did you even know Gerard Butler had been to rehab in early 2012? Jonathan Rhys Myers in 2009? Robin Williams in 2006?
Once we get bored with one story (Lindsay Lohan mysteriously melted into the background once her court cases ended), we move onto another. At the moment, it’s poor Amanda Bynes. Her story is remarkably similar to Lohan’s: starting on kids’ television shows and moving to teen movies, such as She’s the Man (2006) and Hairspray (2007). At 27 years old, she’s been arrested several times for vehicular crimes and marijuana possession, placed under involuntary psychiatric hold, and her parents have now filed for conservatorship. Last week she was arrested for allegedly starting a fire on a private driveway and dousing her dog in gasoline. And the press can’t get enough of it. She has 3 million followers on Twitter and her every move is tracked by paparazzi. Yet fellow child star Macaulay Culkin (of Home Alone fame) is also allegedly struggling with drug addiction with friends saying their “fears are growing” for him, yet he remains almost entirely out of the spotlight.
The gender inequality in these cases cannot be ignored. When Whitney Houston was tragically found dead after taking cocaine in a hotel room in Beverly Hills in 2012, the media frenzy was immense. Her family, including her daughter, were hounded for months. When Glee star Cory Monteith tragically died last month in a hotel room in Vancouver after taking heroin, the media attention has been noticeably less intense. No doubt his family have been disturbed, but even his girlfriend Lea Michelle, in the public eye herself, was completely un-photographed for two weeks following his death. She was granted private grief; Houston’s family weren’t left alone for a second.
According to much of the media, there’s just something more ‘entertaining’ about a female celebrity’s breakdown. Female stars, in general, seem to be more entertaining. They face criticism about their weight, their pregnancy (or, sometimes, lack of), their choice in clothes, whether they’re married or not, their age… none of which seem to be applicable to male celebrities. It’s a kind of “sado-entertainment” (Watkins Fisher in Holmes and Negra, 2011:316): people enjoying watching someone slowly fall apart, just like Foucault’s ‘theatres of punishment’. And the more media attention they get, the worse their situation seems to become. It’s not just a ‘celebrity problem’, it’s a gender problem too, and another sad reminder of the inequality women face daily.
Holmes, Su; and Negra, Diane (eds.) (2008). ‘GOING CHEAP? Female Celebrity in Reality, Tabloid and Scandal Genres’. Genders Special Issue, Issue 48.
Holmes, Su; and Negra, Diane (eds.) (2011). In the Limelight and Under the Microscope: Forms and Functions of Female Celebrity. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group
Rebeck, Theresa (2008). ‘Why the media will hound the girls – but leave the boys alone’. Guardian [online] 24 February. Available at < http://www.guardian.co.uk/theobserver/2008/feb/24/pressandpublishing.gender> [Accessed 04 April 2013]
Tyler, Imogen; and Bennett, Bruce (2010). ‘’Celebrity Chav’: Fame, femininity and social class. European Journal of Cultural Studies, Vol. 13 (No. 3), pp. 375-393
Williamson, Milly (2010). ‘Female celebrities and the media: the gendered denigration of the ‘ordinary’ celebrity’. Celebrity Studies, Vol. 1, (No. 1), pp. 118-120