Off Track & On Display
What do Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, Britney Spears, Tara Reid, Lindsay Lohan, Courtney Love, Whitney Houston, Drew Barrymore, Winona Ryder, Kelly Osbourne, Michelle Rodriguez, Amy Winehouse, Fergie, Jessica Smith, Joanie “Chyna” Laurer, Carrie Fisher, Yasmine Bleeth, Brigitte Nielson, Mary Carey, Jessica Sierra, Angelina Jolie, Jaimee Foxworth, Melanie Griffiths, Wynonna Judd, Demi Moore, Tawney Kitaen, Kim Delaney, Samaire Armstrong, Tara Conner, Carnie Wilson, Kate Moss, Betty Ford, Mary Tyler Moore, Tatum O’Neal, Maureen McCormick, Ted Haggard, Tom Sizemore, Tom Arnold, Eric Clapton, Pete Doherty, Lou Gossett Jr., Macaulay Culkin, Mike Tyson, Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson, Haley Joel Osment, Danny Bonaduce, Chris Rock, David Crosby, Ben Affleck, Robin Williams, David Bowie, Chris Penn, Jason Priestley, Mickey Rourke, Marc Jacobs, Leif Garrett, George Carlin, Elton John, Ozzy Osbourne, Robert Downey Jr., Ted Turner, Marshall “Eminem” Mathers, Michael Jackson, Dennis Quaid, Don Johnson, Martin Lawrence, James Gandolfini, Kiefer Sutherland, Vincent Margera, Brad Renfro, David Hasselhoff, Rush Limbaugh, Chad Lowe, Seth Binzer, Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe, Jeff Conaway, Daniel Baldwin, and Lil Wayne all have in common?
They are all celebrities and they have all had substance abuse problems that have put them into rehab or into jail.
(Please note that this is not a complete list of celebrities with such problems; I wanted some room to write the rest of my blog, so not all are included. I chose just a representative group to include here.)
They represent acting, music, comedy, sports, modeling, politics, religion, and “personalities” (or whatever category to which Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, and their ilk belong).
How many of these people have gotten media attention for their substance use issues?
Now, how many of them have gotten constant attention for their ongoing battle with their problems? The list gets smaller here and is dominated by women with the coverage of Paris, Nicole, and Lindsay taking the lead. Notice that there are plenty of men and women who have similar problems, yet the media lavishes most of its attention on the young women.
Compare the recent jail releases of Paris Hilton and Kiefer Sutherland. Ms. Hilton served almost five days in jail for a 45-day sentence; a media frenzy ensued when she went in, while she was there, and when she was released to her home with a monitoring bracelet for 40 days (June 2006). Mr. Sutherland was released just after midnight (January 21 2008) after serving the entire 48-day sentence for a DUI and probation violation. Very little media were there to document it and while it did show up as news, it quickly disappeared.
One explanation involves gender stratification. We divide gender into two categories, men and women. We assign dominant and leadership qualities to men and subordinate and supportive qualities to women. Living in this patriarchal society in which men (as a group) have power over women (as a group), the deviance of men and women tends to be treated very differently.
The behavior of men, as members of the powerful group is usually only sanctioned when they deviate from their masculine role. Masculinity is defined by many characteristics, including aggressiveness and experimentation. Thus if men have substance abuse problems, these are to be dealt with quietly, as personal problems, since they do not violate standards of maleness.
The behavior of women, as members of the subordinate group, is sanctioned when they deviate from the feminine norms. Femininity includes nurturing and assistance of loved ones, thus when women (especially mothers) have substance abuse problems, they are not living up to their assigned qualities and roles in society; a person ruled by an addiction does not focus on others or their needs. Thus addicted women’s behaviors are more deviant than that of men who have identical problems!
Add to this a society obsessed with youth and we have two lenses focusing in on young women in trouble.
What do Gia, Paula Yates, Marilyn Monroe, Billie Holiday, Brigette Anderson, Anna Nicole Smith, Dana Plato, Donyale Luna, Judy Garland, Janis Joplin, Heath Ledger, Christian Brando, John Belushi, River Phoenix, Ike Turner, Chris Farley, John Candy, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Hillel Slovak, Ken Caminiti, Tim Hardin, Elvis Presley, John Kordic, Rick James, Kevin Dubrow, Kurt Cobain, Len Bias, John Bonham, Keith Moon, Chris Penn, and Sid Vicious all have in common?
There are men and women on this list, certainly. They represent some of the same categories as above: acting, music, comedy, sports, and modeling.
Is the same media attention pattern occurring here? Are the drug-related deaths of young women more public than those of men or other women? This is not entirely clear: how many of these names do you recognize and why do you recognize them? If you remember their names but you aren’t really a fan, the media is probably responsible for the recognition.
Count the number of men and women. Is there a preponderance of either men or women? Is there a difference in the number of women and men with whom you are familiar?
Oddly enough, when I tallied my lists of famous people who died from substance abuse, there were more men than women. How might we explain that?
There might be more deceased women or more men in the public eye than I have found. On the other hand, my original list is rather large and I’ve double-checked most of the entries. (Remember that I didn’t use the entire list here so that I could have some room to write my own comments!)
If the pattern reflects a real phenomenon, then using gender theory again can enlighten us.
The media attention to young women broadcasts images of their problems and behaviors. Men with the same problems (and women older than 29) also struggle, but usually do so out of the limelight.
If more men are dying from substance abuse than women, perhaps the men, in expressing (an extreme form of) their masculinity, are still conforming to their gendered expectations. They are still acting on their own initiative and taking charge, even if it is behavior that is harming them.
Perhaps because young women have that spotlight, they are more likely to enter rehab (eventually) and clean up while the men, struggling out there with much less attention, are more likely to push their bodies further and sometimes they perish from such “assertiveness”.
Furthermore, sometimes sympathetic people bend the rules for the young women offer them many second chances. In contrast, others (men and other women) are forced by the letter of the law to sober up or go to jail.
If you’ve ever seen the television shows Intervention or Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew , you’ve seen the challenges that people face when overcoming substance abuse and addiction. For famous people and the rest of us, it is the same difficult process of facing one’s life, choices, and outcomes and learning what you need to do better. However, celebrities have the amplified attention that fame brings.