Academic journal article Genders

From Bad Girl to Mad Girl: British Female Celebrity, Reality Products, and the Pathologization of Pop-Feminism

Academic journal article Genders

From Bad Girl to Mad Girl: British Female Celebrity, Reality Products, and the Pathologization of Pop-Feminism

Article excerpt

"Hi everyone, I'm Kerry. You probably think you know everything about me already, but don't believe all that crap you read in the papers. I've got bipolar, so I have my highs and I have my lows ... Watch the show. You never know, you might even like me!"

[1] The statement above forms the introduction to, and advertising campaign for, a 2008 MTV UK docusoap entitled Kerry Katona: Crazy in Love. The show charts the "day to day life" of Katona, a high-profile British celebrity and former member of the girl band, Atomic Kitten. Katona joined the Kittens in 1999 at the age of just 19, and left in 2001 after suffering a mental breakdown and becoming pregnant. During her days with the Kittens, Katona was represented in the tabloid press as the most notorious band member--a brazen, busty, foul-mouthed, lower-class, binge drinking "bad girl". Her public persona was of an ex-soft-core porn model and lap dancing "wild child" who successfully transitioned to more respectable fame as a pop star. Yet, Katona was also represented as the hard-faced little sister of the power-girls, "ladettes", and "wild child" pop-feminists of the 1990s, such as the Spice Girls.

[2] As a "bad girl", Katona has attracted consistently and aggressively conflicting attention. She is locked in to a vicious and contradictory bond with the British tabloid and celebrity media: she has been hailed as a survivor and as "Best Celebrity Mother", while she has also been branded "Worst Celebrity Mother" and, most pervasively, "Crazy Kerry". In 2006, with her public image at an all time low, Katona released an autobiography, entitled Too Much, Too Soon: My Story of Love, Fame, And Survival. The book is a rags to riches story of brutal childhood neglect, addiction, and domestic abuse. It also details the wild "excesses" of early fame, breakdown and recovery, and her ongoing battle with mental illness.

[3] Part of Katona's motivation for publishing the book was clearly to try to gain agency and effect a rebranding of her negative media persona. "Star agency" is, as David Marshall points out, increasingly reduced to such "privatized, psychologized representation of activity and transformation" (cited in Williams, 118). Accordingly, Katona's transformation involved explaining how her chronic mental illness in part contributed to her "bad girl" persona. The "real Kerry" is represented as a woman with agency and self control, who is psychologically self-actualized and likeable, and has, above all, matured from "bad girl" to "good" woman. Yet her celebrity persona remains the product of an ongoing and vicious battle with the British tabloid and gossip media, with stories emerging (on an almost daily basis) about breakdowns, hospitalization, bad mothering, stays in rehab, custody battles and her scandalous past. Katona's career is now comprised of a steady stream of what can be termed "reality products"--autobiographies, reality TV shows, docusoaps, a column in celebrity gossip magazine OK, self-help literature and blogs. Her role in popular culture is as an identity-as-such, and her career is an ongoing process of managing, repudiating, and creating the scandals that afford her media attention. She is "Crazy Kerry" whose mad, mad life promises relentless and lucrative media content.

[4] Far from being unique, Katona's decision to disclose mental illness as part of her rebranding is indicative of a trend in post-feminist celebrity culture, whereby the bad girl/mad girl-redeemed script is a recognizable genre of female celebrities' reality products. There is now a propensity for "bad girls" such as Katona to renounce their apparent negations and transgressions of acceptable femininity as symptomatic of mental illness. Such renunciations frequently take the form of using reality products to make penitent apologies for "bad girl" behavior and involvement within pop-feminism. Yet repackaged bad girls habitually reassert their sanity--and seek social acceptability and cultural worth--by engaging with and invoking deeply problematic discourses about the relationship between femininity, fame, and mental health, and reactionary stereotypes derived from the tabloid press. …

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