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.