June 30, 2008

The Facination with Celebrity Women in Crisis

Are women celebs in peril treated differently than male celebs? I don't think I really need to answer that question. Our culture, especially women, are obsessed with celebrity and when these women are in crisis, our interest is only heightened. So the question is, why are we continuously so interested in Britney, Lindsay, Paris, Nicole, Amy etc.? Don't you think we've had enough?

We can lay some of the blame at the foot of Bonnie Fuller who after working at YM and Cosmopolitan went and remade US Weekly and then the Star. I remember the days when the Star was just supermarket trash like the National Enquirer. By making it into a glossy and including tons of pictures of celebrities she made it into a "reputable" magazine like People, except for the fact that it is all celebrity focused. She was profiled in this Sunday's NY Times the 101 Secrets (and 9 Lives) of a Magazine Star as she embarks a creating a new media brand that will, in no doubt, continue to feed our celebrity centric diet. As writer David Carr says in the piece: "celebrities have always been with us, but not quite in the way they are now since Ms. Fuller rethought them as familiars, our fake friends whom we can slag or praise, depending on the moment."

This past week a couple of English professors -- Prof Diane Negra and Dr Susan Holmes -- from University of East Anglia in England, put together a conference that focused on whether female celebs are getting a raw deal. The conference was called Going Cheap? Female Celebrity in the Tabloid, Reality and Scandal Genres and included panels like Britney's Tears: The Abject Female Celebrity in Postemotional Society and Hooker, Victim and/or Doormat: Lindsay Lohan and the Culture of Celebrity Notoriety. Other topics discussed included: Mother of the Year: Dina Lohan, Lynn Spears and the Discourse of Bad Motherhood; Toxic: Perez Hilton, Gossip Blogging and the Spectacle of Female “Train Wreck” Celebrity; and ‘She has it all’—Style, Iconicity, and Celebrity Motherhood in the Sarah Jessica Parker Brand.

The goal of the conference was to study why women celebrities are treated in a more punitive way when in peril than their male peers, why we get pleasure out of seeing these "train wrecks" and as Professor Negra says our "pleasure in seeing women brought low."

Dr. Su Holmes gave a little perspective on the topic for Women & Hollywood.

Women & Hollywood: Why are we so obsessed with these young women in peril and what does that say about us as a culture?

Dr. Su Holmes: First, it reflects on the wider desire to see celebrities ‘stripped bare’ – as ‘damaged’, more ‘ordinary’, and in some ways, apparently more ‘real’. This might be cast as a kind of democratisation of the relationship between audience and celebrity, or at least a means of venting public frustration with inequalities in wealth, privilege etc.

However, in looking at the different treatment of male and female celebrities – especially with respect to young women – it is clear that this is far from a ‘democratic’ culture, as often sexist and misogynist discourses are still in play. Female celebrities are often treated far more punitively – and judged more harshly for their actions – by the media/ public. One of the reasons for this may be a cultural anxiety around gender roles in a post-feminist context.

Seeing Britney Spears ‘fail’ as a mother, or young women lurching in and out of ‘re-hab’, might be seen as ‘proof’ of the fact that women can’t ‘have it all’ (work, career, family, love life) and be successful. This is then seen as essentially ‘reassuring’ in terms of traditional gender boundaries. We might also point to the fact that women, and especially young women, are often positioned as epitomizing a decline in the cultural value of fame (‘famous for being famous’). The fact that women are more likely to be conceived as ‘trivial’ celebrities reflects the fact that women’s work (in terms of career) has always been less valued than men’s.
W&H: What can we (as women) do to not be complicit in this vicious cycle?
SH: In terms of existing debate in the media, it has regularly been claimed that the punitive treatment of young female celebrities is effectively perpetuated by female audiences. After all, the dominant explanation for what was seen as an explosive interest in the female celebrity as ‘trainwreck’ narrative was that the answer was rooted less in ‘sexism, [than]… the demographics of the [celebrity] audience’ (Williams, 2008).

In other words, at least with respect to the celebrity magazine market, it is the desires of the female audience which are posited as driving the interest in these representations (Rebeck, 2008). We are informed that: ‘women readers actually like to see pretty girls screw up, we're positively obsessed by it, to the degree that we want them to do drugs and get into drink-driving accidents and act like total freaks and end up in rehab or worse’ (Rebeck, 2008). Whilst relying on sexist ideologies in itself (women are seen here as innately ‘competitive, jealous and individualist), this certainly suggests that women are complicit in these representations. Yet what ‘drives’ media coverage is clearly a complex issue, and there is also very little research into how ‘female celebrity damage’ is used/ interpreted by audiences.

In other words – do we know that women are ‘all’ complicit? Maybe these images are read critically – and not just by academics? If the audience – whether male or female – stopped consuming such images of celebrity culture, it would cease to be profitable and thus produced, but this doesn’t seem like a likely outcome!
FYI- the Rebeck referred to in Dr. Holmes' second answer is Theresa Rebeck the playwright and novelist who has just written a cautionary tale about the celebrity culture, Three Girls and Their Brother. Here's the Guardian piece:
Why the media will hound the girls - but leave the boys alone

Professor Negra also had some good thoughts.
But Negra said the coverage of women is more judgmental, casting wayward female celebrities as "cautionary tales." She said coverage of female celebrities is less likely to celebrate a troubled star's triumphant comeback, the way Downey has been lauded for "Iron Man," or Owen Wilson has been shown returning to work after a reported suicide attempt.
"We seem to have a lot more fixed ideas about what women's lives should be like than we do of men," she said.

"When we use female celebrities this way, we see them failing and struggling, they serve as proof that for women the work-life balance is impossible. Can you have it all? The answer these stories give again and again is 'absolutely not.'

Experts debate lure of 'train-wreck' female celebs (AP via CNN)
Why are we obsessed with female celebs? (Evening News 24)