By Negra, Diane; Holmes, Su | Genders, December 2008 | Go to article overview


Negra, Diane, Holmes, Su, Genders

[1] What is it with female celebrities lately? While the good girl/bad girl categories of a ludicrously dichotimized cultural script of femininity have long been in operation, these poles now seem to be moving further apart in a celebrity landscape peopled by remote cinema goddesses and overexposed tabloid "trash." Furthermore, recent saturation coverage of female stars "in crisis" contrasts forcibly with the journalistic restraint often exhibited in relation to male stars. If current media codes invite/expect us to "root against" such putatively "toxic" stars as Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse, it is taken for granted that we "root for" their troubled male counterparts. We revel in our disgust over the latest round of paparazzi "crotch shots" of panty-less female celebrities, and extend sober judgment in regard to (British reality TV star) Jade Goody's racist remarks about her Celebrity Big Brother (2001-2007) housemate Shilpa Shetty. Meanwhile, we are asked to wish Owen Wilson a rapid and complete recovery from the depression that led him to attempt suicide and we celebrate the career longevity and personal recovery of Robert Downey Jr. as one aspect of the public consumption of summer blockbuster Iron Man. When Heath Ledger died suddenly in early 2008, A.O. Scott of The New York Times railed against the "rituals of media cannibalism," positing Ledger as "ensnared in a pathological gossip culture that chews up the private lives of celebrities" (Scott). On the Internet shocked early responses to the star's death not infrequently expressed surprise that it was Ledger who had died rather than one of the many headline-making female celebrities who normally dominate coverage. "'Heath before Britney?' wrote one. 'Something is seriously wrong with the world.'" ('USA Today').

[2] By summer, 2008 such gender-based representational incongruities were explicit enough to attract media commentary in their own right. In comparing the treatment of male and female celebrities when it came to such events as drunk-driving, suicide attempts and mental illness, Alex Williams declared after interviewing industry professionals for a New York Times article that:

[M]onths of parallel incidents like these seem to demonstrate disparate standards of coverage. Men who fall from grace are treated with gravity and distance, while women in similar circumstances are objects of derision, titillation and black comedy (Williams).

Contrasts such as these catalyze reflection about the intensifying double standard underlying a postfeminist cover story about gender egalitarianism. They also invite questions about the extent to which dignity and privacy are increasingly gendered in the context of celebrity representation. In a postfeminist representational environment, femininity is routinely conceptualized as torn between chaos and (over)control, serenity and agitation. Female celebrity models for creditably managing the (feminine) "work/life balance" are often positioned as only precariously and temporarily stabilized; we are invited to play a "waiting game" to see when their hard-won achievements will collapse under the simultaneous weight of relationship, family and career. One reason why stories of professionally accomplished/personally troubled female celebrities circulate so actively is that when women struggle or fail, their actions are seen to constitute "proof" that for women the "work/life balance" is really an impossible one. It is useful to bear this in mind when assessing a media climate dominated by stories that work to consolidate a strong cultural consensus about "out of bounds" behavior for women and proffer the pleasures of identifying and judging it. At the same time, and as discussed below, this assertion about the construction of female celebrity careers is in itself shot through with the judgments which structure the contemporary crisis of value surrounding celebrity: after all, the concept of work (as well as 'merit' or 'talent') is increasingly seen as being evacuated from contemporary explanations of fame--especially in its gendered (feminine) forms. …

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