Deceased singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse may or may not have considered herself a feminist, but she is credited with making a male-dominated industry more hospitable to women pop artists, from Adele to Lady Gaga. The Guardian hailed her as “a huge trailblazing force in the music industry,” and Spin magazine music editor Charles Aaron called her “the Nirvana moment for all these women.” After her death late last month, the Grammy-winning singer was mourned by fans around the world.
Winehouse was raspy, sassy, talented and evidently damaged.
In recent years, the singer’s alcoholism and drug abuse became as iconic as her talent. And the media — a reliable mirror for a society that is both sexist and also ruthless and confused when it comes to addiction — played an enabling role in her downfall.
Here’s an example: Newsweek magazine dubbed Winehouse “a perfect storm of sex kitten, raw talent and poor impulse control.”
What on God’s green earth is that supposed to mean? Are they celebrating Winehouse for her talents or her disasters?
I’m not out to demonize the media. Too often tabloids become the scapegoat for social issues that extend far beyond the limited imaginations and powers of gossip columnists. But the bizarre and degrading way the media and its consumers discuss famous women — particularly those who are in evident distress — has implications for all women, and for the way we view beauty, our bodies and our worth.
I was struck by a juxtaposition I found on Feministing of Amy Winehouse in a less tattooed, healthier-looking time next to the eyeliner-laden skeleton that she became. It was the latter body — the one that had reportedly begun to develop signs of emphysema by the age of 27 — that was the beloved one. The jutting collar bones and the cigarettes were as iconic as the sailor tattoos and the beehive hairdo. The addiction was part of the image, whether Winehouse intended it or not.
Popular society is fascinated by female celebrities in trouble. Maybe it is partly an inevitable byproduct of a grotesquely unequal world, a world in which some make millions and the vast majority struggle to make mortgage payments — like, a depoliticized version of class war. Or maybe it is simply a relief to us to have the rich and famous appear human. But I do think there is a kernel of sexism at the core of this hatred for famous girls gone wild. The public fascination with Lindsay Lohan and other young, beautiful and troubled women may be rooted in the popular icon of the “damsel in distress” — the helpless young woman in need of rescue. Popular culture has glamorized the image of the depressed heroine behind the beautiful facade — think Marilyn Monroe, or the fictional character “Lucky” in Britney Spears’s hit single of the same name.
Even as popular culture glamorizes depression, self-destruction and the “party” lifestyle, it can refuse to forgive addiction — or to distinguish between fun and illness. In Winehouse’s case, the attraction was clouded by violent outbursts and other totally unglamorous activities, like the time her (apparently abusive) ex-husband filmed her singing racist lyrics to a children’s song — an incident for which she later apologized. (For commentary on Winehouse’s abusive relationship and the double standard faced by female “trainwrecks,” see this post at Freudian-Slip.)
Consider what happened to Winehouse about a month before her death, according to the Los Angeles Times:
In June, she went on stage in Belgrade for the first stop on her European tour. Apparently drunk, she mumbled, meandered and fell on stage and struggled to remember the words to her songs. The crowd pelted her with paper cups and booed.
The incident reflects a ruthless lack of forgiveness on the part of her fans at a time when Winehouse was evidently seriously ill. Or perhaps the fans were just pissed about having paid about 40 pounds a pop to watch Winehouse flub a performance.
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse cites predictable factors like low self-esteem, peer pressure and concerns about weight and appearance as the top motivations for girls to drink. That these things aren’t sensational doesn’t make them any less troubling.
Those common products of patriarchy — low self-esteem and poor self-image — may also have been at the core of Winehouse’s addiction. She did publicly admit to struggling with eating disorders and depression.
The musician Billy Bragg told Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman that he thought “maybe we were all complicit” when it came to Winehouse’s death. In a way, that’s true. Certainly the collective social forces of patriarchy, sensationalism and a profound popular misunderstanding of addiction may have played a role in Winehouse’s death, and the deaths of other women, both famous and unknown. But when it comes to addiction, it is only the addicts who can change, regardless of how much support they have, or whether their exploits end up on Youtube. I don’t blame myself for Winehouse’s death, since I doubt I would have been of much help to her. But most of us have someone in our lives who — whether famously or silently — struggles with addiction to drugs or alcohol. And as these personal experiences may show, this disease is anything but glamorous.