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Leave Amanda Bynes alone; look at yourself instead

I’m writing about Amanda Bynes’ very public breakdown at the Guardian, and what the media coverage says about American views on beautiful women:

Clearly, we love a good train wreck, especially a female one.

It’s easy to go the “Leave Britney alone!” route, or to insist we collectively look away, or to criticize the media for perpetuating these downward spirals by giving the spiral-er the attention she craves. Those are all fair responses – we should all leave Britney alone and stop staring at people who are visibly troubled; the tabloid model that profits when bad things happen to famous people is clearly an evil one.

But it’s also worth taking a look at why we find it so satisfying when women appear to descend into madness, especially when those women were, like Bynes, previously paragons of female sweetness and innocence. Their erratic behavior is a particularly female kind: they’re brash when they were once admired for being demure, they amp up pinup model femininity in their appearance to the point of parody (think Bynes’ bleach-blonde wig and push-up bras, or Anna Nicole Smith’s heavy make-up and bleached hair) or tear it down in some dramatic way (head shaving seems to be a popular choice).

We love watching women the way we watch things. We’re used to women’s bodies being physical representations of sex, being coat-hangers for clothing, existing for our aesthetic pleasure and admiration and disgust. Even the females among us often adopt the male gaze, watching other women and watching ourselves be watched. Aesthetically, we gravitate toward culturally-agreed-upon beauty, but perfection slashed through with hideousness can be particularly compelling. When we’re used to seeing actresses, pop stars and models as part of an assembly line of real-life Barbie dolls, it becomes all the more interesting to see one with go by with her head popped off.

The whole piece is here. There’s a lot more to say — about our romanticization of mental illness in lovely women, about the very real incidents of police assault, about who is typically assaulted by law enforcement, about how “crazy” women and men are sexually assaulted at higher rates than the general population but are ignored because they’re crazy — and hopefully that will be a forthcoming blog post, since much of that was cut from the column because of word limits. But feel free to discuss in the comments.

22 thoughts on Leave Amanda Bynes alone; look at yourself instead

  1. Bynes shaved part of her head, posted a series of lingerie selfies on Twitter, claimed to be emabrking on a rap career and pierced her cheeks. She has threatened to sue In Touch magazine, Us Weekly, TMZ, the New York Police Department and a variety of other entities. She lashed out at model Chrissy Teigen after Teigen took to Twitter to voice her concern that it was “unsettling” that anyone was giving Bynes attention.

    So nothing particularly odd or “meltdown”ish really. We all know people that do odd things to their hair, get piercings, post way too revealing photos on facebook or twitter, threaten to sue people, and get in twitter wars.

    The ridiculous thing is that it’s being made out to be a thing, or to be particularly bizarre. Maybe it seems out of character for the idea that people had of Bynes, but none of it is worth a condescending concern for her mental health, or worth saying she has a likely untreated mental illness.

    It sounds less like a breakdown and more like she decided to stop playing perfect for the cameras. Of course, I haven’t been following the whole thing that closely, and am no mental health professional,

    It’s true that I can’t think of any male celebrities that are being followed so closely for such relatively minor behavior; although Beiber is certainly experiencing a lot of pointing and laughing after being chased down by a Prius.

    1. Disagree. Trust me, I don’t give a shit about celebrities either, and haven’t been following this story at all except for when it comes up in things I read, but tweeting to every female celebrity, whether or not they are a friend of yours or you never met them “u r ugly, i’m so pretty compared to you” etc. is not normal behavior. Something is wrong with her.

      1. Disagree. Trust me, I don’t give a shit about celebrities either, and haven’t been following this story at all except for when it comes up in things I read, but tweeting to every female celebrity, whether or not they are a friend of yours or you never met them “u r ugly, i’m so pretty compared to you” etc. is not normal behavior. Something is wrong with her.

        What, pray tell, is ‘normal behavior’? You “don’t give a shit about celebrities,” but you’ve heard of Amanda Bynes- that means she’s doing clearly doing the number one most important job of a celebrity, remaining in the public eye.

        Did you not read the OP or the Guardian article? Your ‘that’s not normal’ ‘something is wrong with her’ judgement is exactly what is being argued against.

  2. But it’s also worth taking a look at why we find it so satisfying when women appear to descend into madness, especially when those women were, like Bynes, previously paragons of female sweetness and innocence.

    I’ve never understood this. I really just haven’t. I get quite the kick out of watching politicians (or love-to-hate bloggers or wev) get a public beatdown, but that’s for asshole behaviour, not just being a Celebrity Doin It Rong.

    (Of course, literally the only thing I know about Amanda Bynes is she tweeted to Rihanna that she deserved beating by Chris Brown, so I dunno about the “not-asshole” part.)

    In any case, ffs, leave Britney of the Day alone. -_-

    1. I read that article too and found it interesting. I didn’t think of it so much as armchair psychology as her personal experience and what she’s observed in her colleagues.

      The thing about the reporter who asked her about Hugh Grant’s solicitation was a little WTF.

    2. I also found that article to be very interesting. You don’t usually get this kind of viewpoint on the child star industry.

  3. It’s an interesting piece, but I’m not sure it’s true that “While we’re transfixed, women are especially punished for appearing to go off the deep end. Men who behave like raging narcissists and actually get violent, on the other hand, are routinely enabled and placated.”

    You mention Lindsay Lohan, Paula Abdul, and Britney Spears, all of whom continued to have (relatively) unimpeded careers at this point, despite their at-one-point erratic behavior. On the other hand, it’s worth remembering that Charlie Sheen was fired from Two and a Half Men during his outbreak, and his speaking tour was just audience members gawking (until it turned out it was less funny than expected, at which point the audience turned on him. Joaquin Phoenix went through a similar ordeal when he was… doing whatever he was doing for the production of “I’m Still Here,” and I remember the reaction being largely negative.

    If there’s a noticeable difference between male and female celebrity breakdowns, I think it might have more to do with the fact that most of the celebrities you mentioned (Lohan, Bynes, and especially Spears) built of an image of wholesomeness, and then broke the (if we’re being honest) facade of that wholesomeness so thoroughly.

    1. I tend to agree, if I’m understanding you correctly. I would go even further to say that making this saddening spectacle and media frenzy into an issue about sexist attitudes, or about how famous women, in particular, are perceived by the gawking public, as opposed to men who have been equally embarrassed, is very much off the mark. Charlie Sheen, was, if anything, even more shamed and lambasted than any of the women mentioned in the article.

      At the time of Charlie Sheen’s meltdown, Craig Ferguson (a late-night talk show host) said that he was reminded of a time when people were allowed to gawk at mentally ill patients through a peep-hole, for their own amusement. He found the public ridicule directed at Charlie Sheen to be just as shameful, and refused to engage in it himself.

      What’s disgusting is that the public delights in the pain and misery of those who happen to be suffering in public view. It’s utterly reprehensible, but it has nothing to do, in my view, with feminism or with society’s view of women.

      1. I agree. It was actually incredibly disgusting the way they gave him interview after interview.

      2. There are real differences in the ways that Sheen was treated, though, and how women like Bynes are treated. I don’t disagree that the treatment of Sheen was awful, but Sheen actually did retain his role on Two and a Half Men for a while. And he had a history of abusing and mistreating women, which everyone basically ignored. People laughed and sold Tiger Blood t-shirts, but no one was calling him a whore (even for having sex with porn stars and sex workers) or really even mentioning the fact that he had attacked several different women. He wasn’t “shamed.” He was mocked, yes, but he was given an enormous platform from which to speak.

        Contrast that with Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes, etc etc. Where are their actual voices, outside of Twitter for Bynes? We’d rather watch them be a spectacle, and shame them for their problems (we’re also quick to attach displays of sexuality to mental illness in those women).

        1. Charlie Sheen was not watched as a spectacle, and he wasn’t shamed? Of course he was. As for having a platform, if any of these women wanted to give interviews, media outlets would be falling all over themselves to grant them.

          What I’m saying is that whatever difference there may be between how male or female stars who are in trouble are treated (and I don’t see that there is much of a difference at all), absolutely pales in comparison to the deplorable public excoriation that both are subjected to. That issue is much bigger than the nuances of how sexism affects mob-mentality, and it is what the media and the public should be called to task on.

        2. Let’s not forget that Sheen was so shamed, he has a new sitcom. I think the industry is much more forgiving of men who go off the rails.

  4. Hi Jill,

    Isn’t this piece a little bit hypocritical? When Amanda started to show (publicly) signs of mental illness, I remember being shocked that you tweeted the following: “If I were Jesus, I would put @drake @amandabynes & @_floridaman in a room together to see what kind of vagina-related crimes occurred.” There were other tweets as well, but I find it unnecessary to post them. The point is, you are now criticizing the “thousands of twitter users” who are “getting in on the action,” but you yourself are one of them. I think this at least deserves acknowledgement in the piece.

    1. At the time, I wasn’t following Amanda Bynes at all. I saw that one tweet RTed and just assumed she was being ridiculous/funny.

  5. I think that Lime has a good point. Perhaps it isn’t the nature of the breakdown (good kid gone bad teenager) that’s differentiated by gender, but it’s the way the industry constructs these gendered personas to begin with. They sell these young girls as squeeky clean – and the young men are sold as “cute with a little edge.” So when they go off the rails, the public are more shocked by the women’s behavior because they were constructed in the angelic image. Either way, the gender factor is quite disturbing. …..Amanda Bynes is definitely having some kind of episode, though. If she were my daughter, I’d fight my way into her life and stop her at all costs. Too many people are making money off of her misfortune.

  6. i was on amanda’s side until she said rihanna was beaten by chris brown because she’s ugly? that’s f’d up

  7. Celebrity culture is disgusting. Let’s talk about the loopy shit the girl form All That has tweeted! That’ll show ’em!

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