Amy Winehouse

Topics included “Britney’s Tears: The Abject Female Celebrity in Postemotional Society” and “Hooker, Victim and/or Doormat: Lindsay Lohan and the Culture of Celebrity Notoriety.”

European and American academics are meeting here this week to examine society’s fascination with “train wreck” female celebrities. Why do the public and media seem to get such a kick out of Britney’s latest meltdown, Lindsay’s booze and drug arrests, and Amy Winehouse’s rehab struggles?
Diane Negra, one of the conference organizers, says 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,” says Negra, a professor of film and television at the host university in Norwich, 185 kilometres northeast of London. “These women operate as lightning rods for a lot of other concerns.”

There’s nothing new in society’s fascination with celebrities. But the Internet and the spread of tabloid culture to the mainstream have created a whirlwind in which rumour, claim and rebuttal swirl.
A Google News search for troubled soul diva Winehouse produces almost 10,000 stories. In British newspapers, the story of the singer’s erratic public appearances, struggle with drugs and health worries is played out almost daily.

There are plenty of male celebrities, from Pete Doherty to Robert Downey Jr., whose personal and legal difficulties also make headlines.

But Negra claims 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 applauded for 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,” Negra says.

“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.'”

Unsurprisingly, celebrity journalists here disagree. Gordon Smart, who edits the Sun newspaper’s celebrity pages, says the preponderance of troubled female stars in the news is a coincidence.
“I just think at the moment there just happens to be cluster of female celebrities that are going through difficult times,” Smart told BBC Radio.

Cary Cooper, a professor of psychology and health at Lancaster University in England, says readers and viewers want to watch celebrities struggle.

“It makes people feel good,” Cooper says. 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 suggests the negative tone of much coverage reflects public concern about the growing number of celebrities with no obvious talent: people like Paris Hilton or the stars of reality-TV shows, who are famous simply for being famous.

Jill Lawless
The Toronto Star