Every week, it seems like I open Twitter to a new celebrity scandal. My feed blows up with speculative tweets and links to the same four gossip sites, over and over and over again. And sometimes, these scandals are about a very specific phenomenon: The celebrity breakdown. Few things appear to spark more excitement than a celebrity who appears to be struggling with the symptoms of mental illness.
Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Courtney Love, Amy Winehouse. All four of these women, to pick some fairly random and high-profile examples, have been hounded by the media, sometimes while dealing with very personal issues, and even death didn’t stop the speculation and gossip mongery. It’s not just that the media eagerly presents information about their private lives and the public happily demands and consumes it, but that, often, this consumption takes the form of reveling in the expressions of mental illness and mocking celebrities with mental health conditions and substance abuse problems.
Celebrity breakdown stories tend to focus specifically on women, and are often presented in a way to make the consumer understand that the celebrity is weak, cracking under the pressure, simply can’t take the rough environment of Hollywood. Surely, the media assures itself, it isn’t playing any role in the mental distress of its subjects. Women who are obviously struggling with emotional turmoil must find it extremely hard to deal with it in a productive way when every move is scrutinized. You can’t even go to the hairdresser without being pursued by paparazzi when they smell blood—or an exclusive—in the water.
There’s an attitude that mental health health care is an “indulgence” for whiny white women (and the perception of mental health services as something only white women need plays heavily into stigma when women of color and nonwhite women consider treatment—look at the racist, misogynistic stories surrounding Rihanna, for example, and how they played into the “strong black woman” archetype), and the eager pursuit of celebrity breakdown stories really feeds into that. These women are depicted as weak, selfish, and useless. If they do seek treatment, the media will be filled with speculation along with nasty comments about, say, the parklike environs of expensive inpatient drug rehabilitation centers. When they die, commentators immediately and eagerly attribute it to personal weakness and assume those deaths are substance abuse or mental health related; the same publications that ridiculed and mocked them for erratic behavior like slurring songs on stage happily publish photographs of them being taken out of their homes in body bags.
A certain amount of schadenfreude tends to surround this kind of reporting and the narratives embedded within it. Readers can feel smug in their predictions that a fragile-minded female celebrity was unable to withstand the rigors of the job. Readers often revel in the very real pain experienced by the subjects of close media attention, and outright mockery of the symptoms of mental illness is not uncommon. How pleasurable it is to see the mighty fall.
In rare cases, it’s a man who becomes a target of public attention, like Charlie Sheen earlier this year. Sheen’s struggles with alcohol abuse became highly public, as did his spates of domestic violence, and many people took delight in reveling in his downfall, just as they do with female celebrities. Many feminist websites participated, arguing that he deserved anything they could dish out because of his history of domestic violence. While sites mocked Sheen, very few people suggested that he might be experiencing symptoms of mental illness, and might benefit from compassionate space rather than endless jokes at his expense; not to excuse his domestic violence, or to argue that mental illness causes domestic violence, but to suggest that his “odd” behavior wasn’t something we should mock, but something we should be concerned by.
The hunger for celebrity gossip appears unslakable; there’s a reason paparazzi and gossip-mongers can always find employment in Los Angeles. Even in periods of economic depression, in fact perhaps especially in periods of economic depression, the public demands stories about celebrity shenanigans and it particularly wants stories about celebrities gone bad. Celebrities losing control. It consumes, with relish, stories about celebrity breakdowns because many people seem to enjoy a sense of smugness about the downfall of greatness over their morning gossip rag.
Working in Hollywood is intensely stressful, which can tend to add to the risks of experiencing mental illness. It is a highly pressured, fast-paced environment, especially for women, who have to fight twice as hard to attain half the popularity and following of their male peers, while remaining “strong” so they can be the subject of flattering profiles rather than lurid tabloid covers. Drug and alcohol abuse tend to be high in this environment as well; I’ve attended enough Hollywood parties as a non-drinker to know that you experience tremendous pressure to imbibe even when you have good reasons not to do so. While neither drug nor alcohol abuse is necessarily a cause of mental illness, both can cause erratic behavior and they may trigger latent mental illness, especially in a patient who is held under the looking glass instead of being given adequate support.
Many female celebrities also start working very early, when they may be especially vulnerable, as seen with people like Lindsay and Britney, who were both under the age of majority when they started to get popular, tightly controlled by handlers and managers and rarely allowed their own independence. Is it all that surprising that both women lashed out as they grew up?
The titillation over celebrity breakdowns certainly isn’t very helpful for celebrities who may be struggling with intense emotions, sometimes complicated by underlying mental illness. Attitudes about mental health as depicted in pop culture very much play into the way the public demands and consumes stories about celebrities “losing it.” When mental illness becomes a subject of mockery and pleasure throughout the mass media, it is impossible to escape that messaging and harder still to avoid internalizing it.
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