Gloating over fallen women

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The Independent Culture
IT'S BEEN a marvellous week for sitting in judgement on troubled young female celebrities, a breed for whom the media appears to build and reserve its deepest and darkest reservoirs of fascinated contempt. How we love to hate a fallen woman. Now that liberal morality has made the mundane manufacture of such victims so much more difficult, there's a feeding frenzy each time a famous female comes close to crashing.

First there was Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, who found fame as an "It" girl and now has checked into a US rehabilitation clinic to have "it" sweated and psyched out of her system.

Palmer-Tomkinson is the perfect distillation of pure celebrity, in that there is no particular talent or gift involved in her rise, and, by logical extension it would seem, there is nothing particularly to be regretted in her fall.

She is from far from humble beginnings, and has parlayed her royal connections into a kind of career. She has never drawn any kind of line between her public and private lives, but has instead made her name out of living a brittle and shallow existence and reporting on it each week in a newspaper column. She has embraced the dubious rules of product placement, boasting that she could get anything she wanted just by endorsing it in copy or in publicity photographs.

For all of this crass behaviour, she has been admired and rewarded. She has been "cosseted" not only by being "well-connected", a double-edged advantage that tends to do little but damage and corrupt the people who nowadays can no longer rely on this alone to bring them the status and material advantages they have been brought up to expect as their right, but also by the value-free adulation of empty fame. No wonder she's a mess.

Second, there has been the latest episode in the long-running and tawdry drama of Pamela Anderson, her breasts and her love life. Anderson, of course, is another straightforward type of female celebrity, the blonde bombshell sex symbol.

There is never any shortage of women keen to grab a bottle of bleach and head for Hollywood, despite the fact that an unhappy personal life and a sticky end is part of this package. Nobody can deny that Anderson seems determined to play out the role expected of her.

Her revelation that her breasts feel like "two balls of burning flame" since the reversal of her breast augmentation operation, but that she doesn't care because "I've got my family back together, so everything is just great" seems unbearably stupid and sad. Having divorced an abusive husband, she and her sons are now back in his orbit. Her story, its saleability undampened by its tragic familiarity, will run and run.

Third, there's Geri Halliwell, her place in the cultural pantheon earned by the musical tastes of nine-year-olds and her personal development informed by self-help manuals. Earlier in the week she was chastised by the mental health charity Mind for titling her first solo album Schizophrenic. Yesterday she was condemned by the woman who had just made a television documentary about her for not "being herself in front of the camera". There have been sniggers all round that her new single is entitled "Look at Me".

Halliwell, it has been noted, often bursts into tears. Perhaps she is unhappy. Halliwell is cursed with the kind of fame that brings creative success but not creative acclaim. Instead of doing the sensible thing and quitting while she's ahead, she is doggedly fighting to "change her image", doing a stint as a UN "cultural ambassador", becoming involved in charity work, and attempting to prove that she really can sing, mainly by wearing more subtle make-up as she hollers unexceptionally into the microphone.

Having spent endless hours talking into cameras about "girl power", she does not appear to have the power to negotiate her life in a sensible manner. Each time she tries to prove herself, she is more roundly condemned as ludicrous.

Last, and most gruesomely outrageous, is Sinead O'Connor, talented, intelligent, mentally ill and unable to stop trying to justify herself to the media and trying to prove her worth to the world.

Her troubled background and the abuse she says she suffered at the hands of her mother have been the stuff of sensational headlines for more than a decade now. Even in the few months of this year, she has suffered more trauma than most of us would expect to survive in a lifetime, displaying terrible confusion about her confidence in herself as a mother, attempting suicide, and appearing on stage in an aggressive and unfocused state, to the delight of the tabloids.

In her latest escapade, she has been ordained as a priestess not once but twice, asking to be known as Mother Bernadette Maria of the Order of Mater Dei, and appearing on Irish television wearing a dog- collar. Claiming to have the power to heal with her hands, certain that she will be able to attract young people back into the Catholic Church, and at pains to convince the public that this latest episode in her chaotic life is a brave and honourable step, her behaviour has as usual resulted in a cacophony of critical comment accusing her again of lunacy, as if lunacy were some kind of deliberate strategy for gaining attention that one can choose not to stoop to if one wishes.

And while she is routinely dismissed as unstable, she is also routinely accused of being a publicity-seeker, something she has in common with the other three women whose distresses and dysfunctions have been picked over so joyfully over the last few days. There they are, continually appealing to the media for love and admiration, oddly convinced that this time they will be understood and congratulated, unable to see that they will never be able to turn the tide of scornful publicity. While men also fall victim to the vicissitudes of celebrity, there is a special routine for dealing with women in the public eye which serves to make the pressures on them even harder, and the allowances made for them even less.

My mother used to have a saying that always made sense to me, and which stated that all women think men are children and all men think women are mad.

And, of course, there is a long history in our culture of condemning women for madness, and forgiving men their childishness.

But when celebrity moves into the equation, it seems to make this tendency so much more extreme. While plenty of women do manage to negotiate fame successfully, an astounding number of them, the moment they falter, are treated like rats in a maze, to be watched for our entertainment as they play a dangerous game that they don't understand can only end in disaster for them.

It is a cruel spectacle, one we never seem to tire of seeing and one that sacrificial victims never seem to tire of setting themselves up for.

But all of these women are in fact living lives of noisy desperation, their place in the public eye strangely disconnected from the talents or qualities that initially catapulted them into it. The party girl will have to knock partying on the head, the power girl is condemned as weak and pushy, the sex symbol (of course) is doomed to a dreadful sexual relationship, and the girl with the hauntingly soaring voice ought to shut up for ever if she wants to save her sanity.

It's as if there has been some kind of consensus whereby certain women, like the witches of the Middle Ages, have to be thrown into the pond of publicity to see whether they sink or swim. And, as ever it was, these women are in a no-win situation. How can we possibly find such barbarity so compelling?

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