Beautiful women who fall apart serve a necessary cultural purpose: they’re a warning against over-indulgence and narcissism. They also attract the peddlers of celebrity gossip in a way that few other stories do.
Today, it’s Amanda Bynes. In recent memory it’s been Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Paula Abdul, Anna Nicole Smith and Courtney Love. The storyline is more or less the same every time: a celebrity whose career is ebbing does something erratic; the media takes notice; the celebrity realizes the media notices and the erratic behavior becomes increasingly bizarre, often involving social media; at some point the celebrity does something illegal or at least quite alarming and the police become involved; rubber-neckers look on and murmur concern while buying Us Weekly to get the latest…
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).