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The next time you go to the supermarket, take a look at the splashy tabloids that line the checkout counters alongside king-size packs of Reese's peanut butter cups and sugary bubble gum. They'll all feature different, hyperbolic stories—exasperated fairy tales (and tragedies) about Hollywood's well-groomed glitterati. But read them closely enough and you'll notice two pervasive trends: a feverish obsession with male stars' taut physiques—and an even more feverish obsession with female failures.
The latter narrative has existed in tabloids for decades, and it was perhaps
best worst encapsulated during the Britney Spears breakdown of 2007—which actually began in 2006, when a random rag included a cover line about her that still stings to this day. The pop star was 24 and married to Kevin Federline at the time, and their union, to put it lightly, wasn't celebrated by journalists. Matt Lauer read Spears the aforementioned line in a now-infamous 2006 interview: "Can she work it out with Kevin?" the magazine asked. "We hope not!"
"I try not to respond to trash," Spears said after hearing this, trying her best to keep an even tone. But you could see in her eyes that she was hurt. Can you blame her?
Because these 10 disgusting words confirmed that people—not tabloid editors, actual people—were rooting for Spears to fail back then. That kicker says more about the folks reading tabloids than the ones who make them. The public wanted to watch Spears' marriage crash and burn, and tabloids were there to deliver.
They obviously made more money off Spears' misfortune in 2007, the singer's bleakest year, full stop. (Magazines raked in an estimated $360 million on Spears-centric content alone between January 2006 and July 2007. A tabloid with her face on the cover performed 33 percent better than ones that didn't.) These glossy-but-grimy pages captured every moment of Spears' very real breakdown (her head-shaving incident, erratic midnight trips to Rite-Aid, that VMAs performance) and packaged it as a Hollywood horror show—a prime-time drama meant to shock, bewilder, and, ultimately, entertain. Bring your popcorn and your pitchforks, but leave your principles.
When Spears' father became her legal conservator in 2008, the celebrity media backed off. She was healthy and "normal" again—there were no more drugstore runs or Starbucks parking-lot meltdowns to cover. So magazines moved on to Lindsay Lohan and her many brushes with the law. After Lohan came Amanda Bynes' unsettling Twitter tirades, which news outlets covered heavily and people digested happily. The Kardashians are the tabloid gals du jour, but when they're off-duty, journos always have Jennifer Aniston's operatic love life to keep the lights on. (Actually, make that Angelina Jolie's—she's the one who's now single, desperate, and alone, right?)
Failure—specifically, female failure—is big business in Hollywood. (Yes, the Charlie Sheens of the world are covered, too, but not as closely as the Kylie Jenners.) A star doesn't have to shave her head for you to see this pattern, either. Just look at Jennifer Lawrence, who was media's anointed, relatable queen in 2013 but is now heavily criticized for the same quirks that made her famous.
Or Lady Gaga, who saturated pop music from 2008 to 2010, but when culture grew annoyed with the meat dresses, it focused on taking her down. During the short-lived Born This Way Ball Tour, critics focused on Gaga's weight more than her songs, and by the time the sublimely underrated ARTPOP dropped (and, subsequently, flopped) people were in full-on hate mode. She's now on the other side: A sky-high Super Bowl performance and a more accessible image have folks goo-goo for Gaga again—but, even still, they can't resist a little gripe. (The biggest story from the Super Bowl was about the state of Gaga's stomach.)
Forgive me, but I can't think of a male celebrity who's endured a similar cycle: A meteoric rise, catastrophic (and meticulously documented) fall, and warbly redemption. When a dude "screws up," all is forgiven (and forgotten) in 24 hours. The zeitgeist cared about Zac Efron's "drug addiction" for 30 seconds before turning back to his abs, but Demi Lovato's substance abuse issue from seven years ago is still very much a hot topic. It's brave and admirable that Sheen came forward with his HIV diagnosis; however, the media has practically erased his sordid past as a result. I wonder if a similar amnesia would happen for a female celebrity.
So why does this happen? Why are we so transfixed by the tiniest indiscretions of female celebrities but (mostly) give their male counterparts a hall pass? It's an offensive trope as old as time, and the reason for it is even older: Men don't have to be perfect. But women do.
It's the patriarchy that's really handing out these hall passes. A society run by men means that men have no rules. They can be as wild or conservative as they want with relatively no consequence. If they screw up, no worries: The judge and jury are comprised of male peers who will turn a blind eye or quickly forgive them. Straight men control our news, entertainment, and now the entire country, which means they (and they alone) dictate our social norms.
And in their eyes, women need to behave and look a certain way: skinny, "polite," and mostly silent. Any deviation from this trifecta is grounds for ridicule, shaming, and cruelty—which is why male-controlled media transforms female missteps into missile crises. As a society, we're programmed to think this kind of behavior is "shocking" (why else would tabloids cover it so fervently?) and mock it appropriately. It's a phenomenon grounded in misogyny.
Sady Doyle, the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear . . . and Why shared a similar sentiment in an interview with . "...when I was writing Trainwreck, what I kept coming back to was the question of female visibility, and how uncomfortable we are with highly visible women," she said. "...We’ve got women whose whole job is to be heard and seen. And, as long as they also live out impossible female ideals—the Sexy Virgin, the Girl Next Door, whoever—we sort of permit them to exist. That way, they’re useful, as something that other women can aspire to and fail to become. But if they’re remotely unruly, if they’re flawed, if they’re in any way recognizably human, all of our discomfort with female visibility comes to the surface, and we pour gallons of derision on them...It’s a way to make sure female visibility doesn’t translate to female power, and it’s a way to keep everyday women aware that there is danger in being seen. "
Doyle says the female trainwreck narrative is patriarchy's "longest-running game show" and that it centers on "the belief that women are, at their core, fundamentally less human and less likable and less moral than men, and the corresponding belief that women have to be strictly controlled in order to keep them from running amok and ruining the world."
"All of us—men and women both—are raised to believe that we have the right to judge and control women’s lives and decisions," Doyle said. "That is a perfect recipe for mob hatred and punitive vigilante cruelty."
Things are slowly changing. The emergence of more progressive media brands has balanced our news landscape. Nowadays, if a backwards-thinking website writes something offensive about Spears, a plethora of feminist and queer-centric outlets—not to mention all of Twitter—will call it out. This, in turn, has made the Internet slightly kinder toward female celebrities—but we're not there yet. Remember, people tore Gaga's midsection to smithereens only a few months ago. (Sidebar: She looks incredible—and so do all women. All the time. No matter what!)
It's difficult to say what will fix this problem completely. We're talking about untangling people's deep-rooted misogynistic beliefs, which they sometimes don't even realize they have. (Anne Hathaway, a proud feminist, recently admitted she's afraid she treated the female director of One Day with internalized misogyny. It's totally possible to subconsciously absorb a wrong message if you hear it enough times.) Truthfully, "trainwreck" culture will only disappear when patriarchal expectations for women do.
"I think we need to fundamentally change, or end, our sense of entitlement when it comes to women’s lives," Doyle said. "We have to stop believing that women exist to please us, and we need to renounce the sense that, when a woman makes a decision we don’t like, or fails to make us like her, we are entitled to punish her or ruin her life. We need to accept that the female ideals these women fail to live up to—they’re nonexistent."
Of course, culture still perpetuates the notion that these ideals do exist. It's why the media, largely, has taken a cue from the Chris Crocker handbook and leaves Britney Spears alone. On the outside, it appears she's back to following the rigid, constraining rules that only apply to women. She isn't a "story" anymore.
But she shouldn't have been a "story" to begin with—that's the problem. Our appetite for her destruction has been sated, but we should've never been hungry for it in the first place.