Web Only / Features » August 18, 2012
Our Fascination with Female Train Wrecks
Judy Garland, Lindsay Lohan, Cat Marnell: Why we can’t stop watching women self-destruct
We’re fascinated with men when they’re destructive. We’re fascinated with women when there is a chance that we’ll see them destroyed.
True story: Right as I sat down to write a piece about Cat Marnell, there was a car crash outside my apartment. I live near a gas station, so the sound of screeching tires is common. But this sounded like a genuine wreck: first the screech, then a loud thud, then breaking glass. It sounded horrible; it sounded expensive; it sounded like someone had gotten hurt. There was no way I was not getting up from my desk to look.
It’s this prurient, irresistible impulse—I’ve got to see this, it could be awful—that has fueled the firestorm around Cat Marnell. Marnell is a writer, and formerly occupied what would seem like a fairly innocuous post at the ladyblog xoJane, “Beauty and Health Director.” But she filled the space with confessions, revelations about her father and, naturally, details of her prolific drug use. In a post on rehab, she proclaimed that “when I wasn’t filing stories for this website it was because I was up on speed in my apartment alone, strutting around in a skimpy kimono like Buffalo Bill in ‘Silence of the Lambs’, listening to obscure David Bowie.” Oddly, it’s not the drugs, but her insistence on the obscurity of the Bowie that makes this seem unlikable. You’ll do PCP, but “Life on Mars” isn’t good enough for you? Ugh.
Marnell caused a particular ruckus with the admission that she uses Plan B as a contraceptive. Birth control pills would make her “fat” and she didn’t like condoms, she explained, but don't worry: “I would not talk in such a … glib tone about abortion, which I believe, yes, is murder.”
The latest round of Marnell talk stems from an excellent New York Times Magazine piece by Sarah Hepola, who shrewdly analyzes the market forces contributing to Marnell’s success and/or self-destruction, and shares her own history as a recovering alcoholic and reluctant envier of Marnell’s work. Hepola is correct that there is a real economic force driving Marnell off this particular cliff, a public appetite for confession: “I worry about the bloggers and viral stars who have burned up so much of themselves for the prize of a few thousand followers,” she says.
But then, Marnell and others must contend with a market that paves only a few narrow paths for women. Men have a ready-made entree to the heady realms of Internet fame: they can be opinionators. They dominate cultural criticism; music writing is a particularly notorious den of male iniquity. Mention “music writer dudes” to a group of female writers and wait for the torrent of griping. Audra Schroeder recently wrote that “I actually had an old editor tell me, with a straight face, just last year, that writing about music is a ‘boy's profession.’” But it's not just music: A man can set up shop on anything, and, if he covers it with sufficient charm, become recognized as an expert. Food. Apple products. Movies. Comics. The language of mastery is much less readily accepted when it comes from a woman. Men, including colleagues, will talk down to her, explain her own pieces to her, proclaim her ignorance using nitpicking and apocryphal detail, bait her with hostility and see if she reacts like a hysterical female. (Okay, so I’m doing a little confessional writing myself.) She can, however, get attention if she spices up her pieces with the traditional female condiments: sex, or suffering, or both.
This is not about personal writing, per se. Personal writing by women, as Hepola notes and as I’ve recently written, can be one of the more liberating and innovative forms of feminist art. But, alongside that marketplace, there’s another, darker market for female humiliation. Google “Cat Marnell” and, on the first result page, you will find only one or two links to pieces she’s actually written. The rest are pieces written about her: the interviews, the profiles, the analyses, the condemnations. Marnell doesn’t exactly belong in the realm of the personal-essay writer. Those writers are primarily defined as subjects, and Marnell has been widely reduced to an object. A piece about Marnell, or an interview with Marnell, has the same car-crash-value as an essay by Marnell. She’s primarily a personality, not a voice; she does not control her own narrative.
A woman does not have to be an artist to be a train wreck; she merely has to be famous. Or at least visible. Lindsay Lohan has not made a movie, let alone a good movie, in years, but we still eagerly consume the details of her firings, fall-outs and bad decisions. Paris Hilton had gawking, unflattering magazine profiles written about her—and a sex tape released—before she ever appeared on reality TV. The success of the Real Housewives franchise is based entirely on our appetite for judging hysterical or badly behaved women; the producers just happened to be shrewd enough to notice that women often enjoy hating “bad” women even more than men do, and to market these particular wrecks to us. And, of course, Amy Winehouse stopped making music, and was still subjected to public scorn for her addictions and to unflattering paparazzi shots of her physical decay. That is, until those addictions killed her, at which point we proclaimed that we had always loved poor Amy.
It’s a history that reaches all the way back to the spectacularly cruel portrait of pill-popping, suicidal Judy Garland in Valley of the Dolls. Female trauma is ugly and awful and very, very fun to watch, particularly if you have a lingering need to sort good girls from bad ones, and to reassure yourself that “bad” women (however you define them) will never be able to succeed or meaningfully compete with you, the virtuous watcher and reader. The recent rise of bad girls on the web—alongside Marnell, there’s Marie Calloway, who shares her occasionally successful attempts to seduce men with girlfriends or wives, and her accompanying insecurities, in irregularly capitalized, rambling, grammatically free-form pieces that she often packages with nude self-portraits—is likely money-driven. It’s cheaper and quicker to publish a blog post than it is to produce a movie or a television show, and bloggers are much more likely to respond to a request for an interview.
Of course, men also flame out. Mel Gibson and Charlie Sheen would be two of the more obvious examples; there’s also the massive public appetite for bad news about self-plagiarizing and quote-fabricating Jonah Lehrer. But men, in order to be portrayed as wrecks, often have to break real rules: They have to abuse partners, be violent, go on racist tirades a la Gibson or Michael Richards, or make up a quote from Bob Dylan. Men who are merely self-destructive, mildly cruel, promiscuous or rebellious are heroes, not freak shows (as many people have noted in contrast with Marnell). But all a woman need do to be condemned is to get in trouble, and piss us off a bit (Marnell with her name-dropping and expensive tastes; Calloway with her disregard for the aforementioned wives and girlfriends). We’re fascinated with men when they’re destructive. We’re fascinated with women when there is a chance that we’ll see them destroyed.
I admit: I’ve never hesitated to write about myself, or to be unlikable, an insistence that’s really more blithe stupidity than artistic decision. But I have often felt the call of self-destruction: the temptation to reach into your gut, pull a kidney out, let a thousand strangers touch it with their grubby fingers, then put it back in, knowing that none of those strangers will be around to help you through the subsequent infection. This is the real danger: I’m just another girl, unless I can offer myself as a human sacrifice, or (as is often the case) let myself be offered. As long as there is misogyny, there will always be an appetite—on the part of both men and women—to see the women transgress the rules of femininity and get punished. And there will always be people, whether unscrupulous editors or blood-hungry fans, who eagerly hand women the rope to hang themselves.
My boyfriend went out to see the wreck. He said that a car had probably attempted to turn while another car was crossing; at any rate, a black sedan had collided with a few parked cars on the curb, then sailed into the wrought-iron fence of a retirement home. The cars looked okay; the wreck was surrounded by pedestrians; an ambulance was on its way. As with Cat Marnell, neither of us knew the ultimate costs, or whether any fatalities would result.
Sady Doyle is an In These Times Staff Writer. She also contributes regularly to Rookie Magazine, and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. She's the winner of the first Women's Media Center Social Media Award. She's interested in women in pop culture, women creating pop culture, reproductive rights, and women's relationship to the Internet and the Left. You can follow her on Twitter at @sadydoyle, or e-mail her at sady