My pal Ouyang Dan from FWD/Forward has written two great posts recently talking about the way the public devours celebrity, and specifically about the way in which the public frames female celebrity. “The Public Consumption of Britney” is up over at Bitch Magazine, and “On Speculation and Boundaries…” was published at FWD after the unexpected death of actress Brittany Murphy.
Both posts stuck with me, and left me with some lingering thoughts and ideas about female celebrities, mental illness, and the way the public thinks about celebrity. Ouyang Dan has a way of doing that to me. Her words are insidious. They incubate in my brainmeats for a while and then BAM something explodes.
The thing about female celebrities is that they are very much viewed as public property. Yes, the public is possessive and proprietary about male celebrities, but not quite in the same way it is about women. Women who are prominent public figures are constantly scrutinized and held to very high standards. Every change in their appearance is noted and discussed.
Every pound lost or gained. Every hair cut. Every outfit. Every word that exits their mouths. Every bite eaten, drink drunk, dance danced. Every moment, from strong to vulnerable, concert stage to hotel room, is considered fair game. And the public very much acts in a way which shows that people think that they are entitled to literally devour female celebrities. When challenged on this, people push back with the argument that if they didn’t want this, they shouldn’t have become famous.
Yes, evidently if you don’t want to be picked apart by buzzards, you should not try to build a career for yourself. If you are a woman and you are a good speaker, writer, actress, singer, musician, artist, you should keep it to yourself. Expressing yourself means that you automatically sign a contract which says that you belong to the public and that the public can do as it pleases with you. The public can make you, break you, and then discard you.
You are, literally, not in control of your own body when you are a female celebrity. Hollywood is sometimes called a fishbowl, especially for women, and it’s a very apt comparison. No place is safe. There is no escape. Private phone calls, emails, conversations, all can potentially be used against you and all of them are.
This cannot be an easy life to live. I’m sure that there are some talented women out there who have seen this and opted not to showcase their talents because they don’t want to deal with it. We are probably missing out on some supercool ladies because those ladies know that this public consumption is not something that they are prepared for or particularly want to deal with.
Nowhere is this more apparent than when women who lead very public lives behave “oddly” in the opinions of their voracious public. Any erratic behaviour cannot possibly be due to random factors, stress about public scrutiny, or any other influences.
No, it must be because of drugs. Or mental illness. But probably both. Especially if you are a female celebrity and you die, get ready for the public to start performing an autopsy within seconds, despite lacking access to training, experience, or facts.
Very few female celebrities have openly discussed psychiatric diagnoses. Yet, many members of the public believe that a number of celebrities are in fact mentally ill, and seem to think that they have detailed information about the nature of this mental illness. They speculate quite freely on what diagnoses celebrities may have, and use their behaviour as armchair psychiatrists to decide what’s “wrong” with female celebrities.
Make no mistake: If you are a female celebrity, there is something wrong with you. If you’re not mentally ill, you’re a catty uptight bitch. If you’re not either of those things, you are greedy and selfish, looking for your next big opportunity. You can’t be a woman and be value neutral, and just exist, in Hollywood. There’s got to be an angle somewhere, and the public will decide what that angle is.
This plays into a larger issue about women, which is that they are all assumed to be “crazy” and people think that they cannot actually endure high-stress situations like those experienced by celebrities. The assumption is that any woman would develop mental illness if she was a celebrity because women are prone to mental illness, only a paparazzi snap away from losing their shit and becoming certifiable. And, of course, when you are being consumed by the public, the public will pick over your supposed mental illness in exhaustive detail.
It’s not entirely improbable that some celebrities do have mental illness. And maybe if we lived in a society where mental illness was less stigmatized, we would know about it because these women would be open about their diagnoses. They would freely discuss their mental illness and talk about the ways in which it interacts with their careers. But the fact is that we live in a society where mental illness is regarded as a moral failing and where members of the public feel quite free saying that people with mental illness are bad people who probably need to be locked up for the safety of the general public.
In that kind of world, what woman is going to admit to having mental illness? And what celebrity, even in a psychiatric crisis, is going to say “yes, I am mentally ill”?
The rampant speculation which swirls around female celebrities in general makes me deeply uncomfortable, because it speaks to a lot of problems in our society. But the speculation in particular about psychiatric issues and drug abuse (some people might argue that drug abuse can be considered a psychiatric issue) makes me really upset. The idea that public ownership of celebrity extends even to private medical records is something that I really think we need to address.
Part and parcel with that comes the fact that we need to break down the ableism which surrounds mental illness, and start to force people to reconsider the way they think about mental illness, particularly in women. Not every woman who behaves “erratically” is mentally ill. Not every female celebrity has a mental illness. And mental illness does not make you a bad person.