One of my favorite songs is “Candle in the Wind” by Elton John. I can sing the entire 4-minute saga by heart—and I’m not the kind of person who memorizes songs all the time. I use the word “saga” on purpose: the song is more like a eulogy set to music, with the first-person narrator (presumably John himself) lamenting the bold, tragic, and iconic life of Marilyn Monroe. One of my favorite lyrics goes like this: “Even when you died | Oh the press still hounded you | All the papers had to say | Was that Marilyn was found in the nude.”
As specific as “Candle in the Wind” is about saying goodbye to Norma Jean (a.k.a. Marilyn, before Hollywood made her change her name), perhaps the reason it remains such a cultural touchstone is because the lyrics hold true. Regardless of how up to minute one stays with celebrity culture, it’s hard to miss the fact that we love nothing more than a woman in a crisis.
Girls, Forever Interrupted
Case point: Towards the end of last year, actress Amanda Bynes quietly re-emerged into the public eye on the cover of Paper magazine. Dressed in a blazer and jeans, with her signature blonde hair parted to the side, Bynes looks confident and mature-- in other words, a far cry from the paparazzi photos that plastered tabloids and the Internet in 2012/3, during Bynes’ very-public breakdown. The news outlets reporting on the piece, however, insisted on discussing the cover as Bynes’ “comeback”-- a term that sounds empowering, but creates the image of an apologetic dog shuffling home with its tail between its leg.
I am too young to have grown up with Amanda Bynes as a regular on my television screen; as a result, I know almost more about her breakdown then I do about her career. I remember the play-by-plays of her Twitter rants and the photos of her walking around Manhattan in an crooked unicorn wig. Most of all, I remember the damning headlines that delighted in Bynes’ obvious struggle; when she finally entered psychiatric treatment, the press coverage only grew more snide. A picture is worth a thousand words, but in this case a few click-bait taglines did the trick: By the time Bynes’ name faded from the limelight, her image had been reduced to that of a grovelling, incoherent has-been.
Amanda Bynes is not the only female celebrity to face the vitriol of the public eye and emerge from the other end. “If Britney Spears can survive 2007, you can survive this” memes are the creme-de-la-creme of Internet culture; Britney herself, now in her late-30s, has sustained her relevance in the shadow of her own shaved head. The breakdowns of these famous women took unique turns, but both women are perhaps the strongest examples of society’s obsession with watching successful women plummet from on high.
The Profit Of of Women’s Failures
As Elton John alludes to in “Candle,” female celebrities have long been treated like wards of society. Hounded by cameras and hangers-on, they are asked to justify every decision they make for their careers and personal lives. We track them like meerkats in an Animal Planet documentary, and take it upon ourselves to be gratified or offended by what they do. More than anything, entire industries function on the promise that another starlet will stumble out of her apartment in a stupor or book a room at the Betty Ford Clinic. Between January 2006 and July 2007, for example, tabloids made $360 million on stories about Britney Spears and her troubles.
The amount of venom that is spewed at women who lose their footing as stylites to society’s concept of female perfection--that is, impenetrable poise and effortless beauty, a.k.a. no wigs or shaved heads allowed--is compounded by the double standard between these women and their male counterparts. When Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt announced their divorce, for instance, Jolie was instantly vilified as a monster, while Pitt played the part of a heartbroken Romeo. More recently, Ariana Grande faced backlash for the beginning and end of her relationship with Pete Davidson; Davidson’s own cryptic social media messages were embraced as cries for help. Long story short, if you let the media guide you, you’ll think that there’s a crazy woman behind every corner.
The Legacy We Have to Grapple With
While society’s scrutiny of women celebrities’ mental health is more quantifiable, this treatment is not limited to the rich and famous. How many times have you heard gossip about the woman around the corner, who maybe shows up to PTA meetings looking more haggard than is normally acceptable? What about the girl at school who people snicker at when they whisper about her “problems?” Spend some time sorting through history, and you’ll find dozens of examples of society’s fear of the crazy woman among us resulting in a major event. From the Salem witch trials to the treatment of suffragettes, every woman in the 21st century has inherited a legacy of accusation and shame, subjugating every one of us to the same surveillance and toxic scrutiny as female celebrities.
We obviously cannot turn back time and erase the thousands of articles and images that played a role in the public executions of Amanda, Britney, & Co. Perhaps the bigger tragedy is that these women cannot reclaim those periods of their lives-- not only because time passes, but because the media refuses to remove them from the Land of Misfit Starlets. By both vilifying these less-than-perfect women and then continuing to stoke the flames of their humiliation, we are only perpetuating the patriarchal cycle of building women up only to tear them down.
In my junior year of high school, my health class read “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The woman in the story is kept in an attic by her husband, who insists that she is sick, and is haunted by visions of a woman trapped in her wallpaper. The reader follows the woman’s slow descent into madness and is eventually left with a nagging doubt: Is the narrator disturbed? Is her husband evil? Is it his fault? Is it all in her head? Those kinds of questions are imperfect, but represent the kind of sympathy we continually deny famous women. To borrow a metaphor from Elton John, let’s propose that we stop snuffing the candle out for dripping wax like all the rest.