Grown women are being treated like naughty children
When Charlie Sheen unceremoniously burst onto centre stage earlier this year, his star went stratospheric. Sheen’s eccentricity - his delusional aggressiveness and outrageously arrogant, quasi-spiritual belief in himself, generated a mixture of astonishment and veneration in the public.
Sheen’s very public and often substance-induced misdemeanours (he was involved in a string of assaults, threatened to behead his wife, wrote off cars, locked strippers up, lost custody of his children and was hospitalized) became a light talking-point when the 45 year-old actor participated in a series of ramshackle interviews explaining himself to the world.
His appearance on these in February and March this year, when he spiralled out of control in the most public way possible, became legendary. It took no time for his boldest and most bizarre statements to become popular quotes on internet forums all over the world. He described himself variously as a ‘Vatican assassin warlock’, an ‘F-18’ and a ‘freakin’ rock star from Mars’. No ordinary man, he was composed of ‘tiger blood’ and ‘Adonis DNA’. His belief in his own powers was blinding. When he was asked by Andrea Canning of ABC News why he was not worried that he might relapse he seemed surprised, ‘Because I blinked and I cured my brain’.
Sheen was not embarrassed about his taste for Herculean amounts of drugs either. If anything, his allegedly iron constitution was a point of pride for him and, subsequently, for his amused fans.There was no remorse or regret in his interviews - the drug-taking and partying that he had indulged in was ‘radical’ and ‘epic’.‘I probably took more drugs than anyone could survive. I was banging seven-gram rocks, because that's how I roll.’
The internet soon swam with new pages set up to applaud the self-revering actor. Hundreds of Facebook groups were created around Sheen’s big catchphrases and there was a petition to make him president. ‘Bi-winning’ t-shirts took off on ebay and Sheen famously attracted one million Twitter followers in a day. Off the back of his highly-televised madness, Sheen went on to start a cooking program (‘Charlie Sheen’s Winning Recipes’) and also had his own stand-up show, ‘My Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat Is Not an Option’.
People couldn’t get enough. In the eyes of those who he had won amused affection from, he might be a monster of fame, but he was also a middle-aged renegade who was living life on his own hedonistic terms. He wanted drugs and sex and prostitutes and money and he wasn’t afraid to say it. Sure, there was some eye-rolling irony attached to declaring your ‘love’ for Sheen on social media sites, but the bottom line was that this guy was, in some senses, living the dream.
Sheen’s warm reception from the public isn’t all that surprising, however. Society and the media have long had a great deal of affection for good-time, partying, male celebrities whose consumption of drugs is famously huge. Russell Brand, a self-confessed ex drug and sex addict, is characterised as a charmingly erudite mess. Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones, whose drug-use was probably a lot more ‘epic’ than Sheen’s, is held by many as a kind of wilfully-debauched uncle figure.
According to his autobiographies, Richards has spent much of his life traipsing around London on speedballs and walking down Oxford Street with ‘a slab of hash as big as a skateboard’. Seen as a musical genius with a natural creative right to make choices about which substances he patronises, however, his disregard for convention has become famous and admired. ‘I snorted my father’, he explained in 2007. ‘He was cremated and I couldn’t resist grinding him up in little bits of blow. My dad wouldn’t have cared.’ Richards only stopped using cocaine in his early 60s, he explains, after he split his head open climbing up a coconut tree and had to have a major operation on his injured brain.
If I ask you to think of the most ‘troubled’, ailing celebrity you can, however, it is unlikely that you will call on the name of Keith Richards and his doomed coconut expedition. You will probably think of necklace-stealing ‘brat’ Lindsay Lohan, ‘gaunt cokehead’ Tara Reid or recall Britney Spears’ hair-shaving, car-kicking breakdown of 2007.
The target of the gloating tabloid, after all, is not the violently decadent male celebrity but the young starlet who, if she has a DUI under her belt or is caught with cocaine or photographed in a car with no knickers on, is forever condemned to magazine covers that bewail her ‘carcrash’ lifestyle and warn that she’s heading for a ‘catastrophic meltdown’.
Take the most recent issue of the National Enquirer, for instance. In the wake of Amy Winehouse’s death, it selects a handful of female celebrities and asks in big dangerous letters, ‘Who’ll Die Next?’ These ‘stars on the brink’ are, according to the paper, all in grave danger of an early tragic demise. How do we know? Because each of the rivals for the crown is photographed looking sad or intoxicated, a large skull and crossbones next to her name.
Eighteen year old Demi Lovato makes the list because she admitted to self-harming. There is a picture of the ‘cutter’ herself on the front of National Enquirer. She is photographed with a seemingly pristine arm on show and sunglasses on (probably to hide her perpetually tear-stained, self-harming eyes).
Lady Gaga appears too because, by her own admission, she used to take cocaine. In the article, an anonymous source remembers seeing Lady Gaga at a bar with ‘a drink in her hand the entire night’ – can you imagine?! ‘She looked blitzed and had her sunglasses on most of the time’, they continue, ‘probably so no one could see her tipsy eyes’. Kelly Osbourne’s there too because she went to rehab for painkiller addiction four years ago, ‘struggles with her weight’ and ‘was one of Amy Winehouse’s best friends’. So what if the link is embarrassingly tenuous?
Maybe the magazine should have called on Amy’s father, drug-bombarded Ozzy, as a more suitable influential factor. But that wouldn’t work, because the ageing male superstar (like George Clooney, who recently gave an interview where he said that he’d taken too many drugs and had too much sex over his career) is seen as being energized by his taste for fun, excess and danger. In the eyes of the public and media, these things make him characterful, exciting, sexy and independent.
In contrast, his ‘wild child’ female counterpart (Lohan, Hilton, Barton, Reid, Spears, Cyrus) is represented as being used up by fame at a very young age. When her appetite seems hedonistic, she is described in terms that underline her weakness and victimhood. She is a ‘troubled star’ in ‘meltdown’. A ‘lost little girl’, she is characterised as being desperate, jealous, guilty and insecure. Fun, excess and danger deform her. Using illegal substances and alcohol renders her inevitably ‘out of control’.
One could easily argue, however, that young women like Lohan and Hilton are far more in charge of their lives than someone like Sheen. Young and unattached, they are really just doing what (let’s face it) a lot of other young people do. Sheen might have threatened his most recent wife with a knife, had numerous restraining orders filed against him by other women and shot his first wife in the arm ‘by mistake’, but few feel an urge to condemn the hilarious and no doubt pleasurable antics of Hollywood’s biggest bad boys. If you don’t like what he’s doing, then sorry, maybe his life is just a lot more bitchin’ than yours.
Producer Richard O’ Sullivan is contemptuous of this double-standard. ‘(If) Lindsay Lohan pulled half the stunts Charlie Sheen does, half the country would be clamoring to burn that poor girl at the stake’. A female celebrity, though, is abused and pitied for offences that are nowhere near as serious, criminal and embarrassing as those we have learnt to laugh at and admire in someone like Sheen. ‘Lindsay hasn't been keeping entire prostitution rings in business. Charlie has. Lindsay hasn't destroyed personal property like Charlie has. Still, Lindsay's a pariah and yet when Charlie does it, it's just 'boys being boys’.
Whereas the bravado and hedonism of male stars makes them seem more attractive, the tabloid press sanctimoniously descends on the young female celebrity when her behaviour is seen to transgress certain prescribed gender boundaries. The paternalistic offers of help and advice in these publications (where hordes of ‘concerned friends’ share their ‘fears’ about a ‘troubled starlet’) expresses that there is an underlying social anxiety about the sexual and financial independence of teenage girls and young women.
At the heart of this issue is the broader fact that society has little faith in the notion that women possess their own independence and volition. Lindsay Lohan, to take an example, is never characterised as being in charge of her behaviour. Although she is a twenty five years old, she is usually described as a girl and in other terms that highlight her immaturity: she is a ‘wild child’, a ‘baby’ a ‘little girl lost’. In news stories devoted to ‘helping’ her to overcome her problems she is told to listen to advice and to embrace the ‘loving care’ of those around her. On the Nancy Grace show in 2009, the host discussed the subject of Lindsay Lohan’s ‘meltdowns’ with Anne Bremmer, a trial attorney. ‘I’ve got a question Anne. What happened to ‘Parent Trap’? Remember that cute little girl that everyone loved?’
The 'Who’ll Die Next?’ story in this week’s National Enquirer is not the only one of its kind. In 2010, NE ran pretty much the same story, with a big picture of Lindsay Lohan crying on the front cover. Various other stars’ faces are scattered around hers: Mischa Barton (‘Rehab Hell’), Tara Reid (‘Troubled’), Kirsten Dunst (‘Depression’) and Paris Hilton (‘Hard Partying’). Apparently all these women are set to meet grizzly ends some time in the near future.
In 2007, Globe Magazine ran an article with the same title too, where Lillian Glass, psychologist and ‘age expert’ (whatever that is) predicted that ‘ailing Liz Taylor will outlive wild-child Lindsay Lohan’. Glass wasn’t alone in her forecast - In 2007, ‘addiction specialist’ pundit Drew Pinksy appeared on CNN and extravagantly declared that ‘(Lohan) is going to die of this. Her prognosis is worse than most cancer patients’. Glass gave Britney Spears five years to live back then, which means that (and sorry if you’re a fan) she’ll be dead before 2012’s up.
Maybe what these publications and experts are telling us is that women like these (‘brats’, ‘princesses’ and ‘good-time party-monsters’) don’t deserve to live. Women cannot deal with extravagance and ambition and hedonism because – or so we have got into the habit of believing – they are broken, vulnerable and need to be protected from themselves. When they have behaved in ways which appear to demonstrate their disregard or distaste for society’s clammy patriarchal grasp, a big dose of hubris is only fitting.