We’re fascinated by Britney’s meltdown, Lindsay’s drink and drug arrests, Amy’s rehab struggles.
Should that make us uncomfortable? Do the media and the public like giving women a hard time?
Some academics think we do, and dozens of them met to discuss society’s fascination with what they termed “train-wreck” female celebrities such as Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Amy Winehouse.
The topics for the one-day symposium Wednesday at the University of East Anglia mixed tabloid talk and academic argot. Papers included “Britney’s Tears: the Abject Female Celebrity in Postemotional Society”; “Hooker, Victim and/or Doormat: Lindsay Lohan and the Culture of Celebrity Notoriety”; and “Just Too Much? Heather Mills and Celebrity Transgression.”
Diane Negra, one of the organizers, said the participants wanted to study why we take “pleasure in seeing women brought low.”
“The massive coverage these women draw is only a little bit about themselves,” said Negra, a professor of film and television at the host university in Norwich, 115 miles northeast of London. “These women operate as lightning rods for a lot of other concerns.”
Creating a whirlwind
There’s nothing new in our fascination with celebrities. But the Internet and the spread of “tabloid” culture into the mainstream have created a whirlwind in which rumor, claim and rebuttal swirl and feed off one another.
There are plenty of male celebrities, from Pete Doherty to Robert Downey Jr., whose personal and legal difficulties also make headlines.
But Negra said the coverage of women is more judgmental, casting wayward female celebrities as “cautionary tales.” She said coverage of female celebs 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.”’
‘It makes people feel good’
Unsurprisingly, celebrity journalists disagree. Gordon Smart, who edits The Sun newspaper’s celebrity pages, said the preponderance of troubled female stars in the news was a coincidence.
Cary Cooper, a professor of psychology and health at Lancaster University in England, said negative celebrity coverage is not the media’s fault — readers and viewers want to watch celebrities struggle.
“It makes people feel good,” Cooper said. Celebrities “look like they lead a golden life, and yet it doesn’t make them happy. So in a way it justifies our humdrum existence.”
Negra suggested the negative tone of much coverage reflects public concern about the growing number of celebrities who are famous simply for being famous, like Paris Hilton or the stars of reality TV shows. The criticism is a way of addressing troubling questions about the link between talent and fame.
“Do we expect people who are famous to be talented?” she said. “How do we deal with the ubiquity of reality TV?”
Veteran celebrity publicist Max Clifford doesn’t believe women get a harder time from the media. He thinks the knives are out for all celebrities.
“The media don’t mind whether it’s a male or a female — if they can assassinate them and sell newspapers, they will,” Clifford said. “The sad thing is, bad news is news and good news isn’t.
“When I started out in the business in 1962, it was all about promotion. Now most of my job is about protection — protecting celebrities from an ever-more vicious media.”