There is no swag involved with being a drug-addicted famous woman. Maybe there used to be—Janis Joplin, Marilyn Monroe, and Billie Holiday all died before YouTube and TMZ, and therefore escaped with their mystique intact. Nowadays, though, if you're Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan or Courtney Love or the recently deceased Amy Winehouse, your every move is mocked relentlessly by the media. People pity you; they're disgusted by you. They wince when they see you stumbling and glassy-eyed on the cover of magazines, or they buy domain names like whenwillamywinehousedie.com. I'm guilty of laughing at Amy Winehouse's pain, too. Back in January, I sent my friend a particularly shocking photo in an email with the gleeful subject, "Literally the worst picture of Amy Winehouse of ALL. TIME."
For the most part, male celebrities with a substance abuse problem are left to wallow in their addictions. Most are seen as lost, misguided soul-searchers, or "deeply troubled." Do you recall an embarrassing video of Kurt Cobain, Elliott Smith, or Heath Ledger? Is it because they controlled themselves in the public eye, or because we don't care to mock them? Probably a little bit of both; Ledger's death was a shock, partly because it seemed to be accidental but also because drug addiction doesn't necessarily go well with "Oscar-nominated actor." Charlie Sheen certainly got his fair share of snickers, but now he's laughing all the way to the bank.
Many male rock stars, stretching back to Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, are open about their self-destructive lifestyles. Often, it comes with the territory. Kurt Cobain certainly didn't hold anything back. There are tons of videos of him freaking out on stage, talking about drugs and suicide, being visibly intoxicated, looking pale and monumentally depressed. But that only added to his tortured, grunge aesthetic.
Of course, Winehouse laid out her addiction more than most women artists. Like her male counterparts, it was part of her schtick; if you knew any song she sang, you knew "Rehab." She tried and failed to own the well-worn, addicted-artist narrative. Her smoky voice sang about sex, drugs, and Tanqueray, and she echoed other stars when she admitted that getting obliterated fueled her creativity.
Instead of swooning along with her, the tabloids reported on countless cringeworthy incidents, from a grainy video recording her with a crack pipe, to shouting out "Hello Athens!" to 20,000 people in Belgrade, to a slew of canceled tours. Winehouse is also the first drug-addicted female pop star to die in the era of information overload, so it's possible that she will be romanticized with along with Joplin, her fellow white blues singer and member of the Forever 27 Club. It's also possible she will fade into obscurity.
But hopefully this is a wake-up call to ease up on our female "tabloid trainwrecks." Britney Spears seems to have made it through horrific media circuses with little public support, save for the YouTube pleas of Chris Crocker (which kind of became a punchline in their own right). Others, like Lindsay Lohan and Courtney Love, are still struggling with a tangle of substance abuse and legal problems. Winehouse, though obviously still trying to beat her addiction, had become a punchline at the time of her death.
Collectively, we have had very little sympathy for any of these women, even now that one of them is dead. When we see photos of them, our default reaction is an exasperated, "Pull yourself together!" rather than the romanticization, twisted jealousy, or genuine concern we have for many male stars in a similar state. Part of it is that we, as a culture, don't understand addiction or take it seriously. It's also that, deep down, we feel uncomfortable with women living the rock and roll lifestyle.