The tabloids paint Britney Spears' as a neglectful, deranged, drug-addicted mother who frequently neglects and even endangers her children, and whose partying ways are responsible for her demise. The video and images of Amy Winehouse smoking crack cocaine have been widely circulated, along with a flurry of recent articles alleging that her frequent drug use is to blame for the decline of her health -- including emphysema and her stark emaciation.
But a video of Heath Ledger hanging out at a drug-fueled party before his death didn't make it to air on Entertainment Tonight, nor appear elsewhere. New York coroners ruled that Ledger's recent death was due to an accidental overdose of prescription medication, with few media outlets even casting other aspersions. And when Owen Wilson was hospitalized last year after an apparent suicide attempt, not only did his plight inspire only one cover story in US Weekly, but news coverage was almost entirely sympathetic and respectful, often citing psychiatrists' explanations of the intricacies of mental illness and depression.
Sure, plenty of male stars get excoriated by the media -- Mel Gibson to name one. But overwhelmingly, as a recent New York Times article alleges, "Men who fall from grace are treated with gravity and distance, while women in similar circumstances are objects of derision, titillation and black comedy."
Last week a conference called Going Cheap? FemaleCelebrity in the Tabloid, Reality and Scandal Genres, held at the University of East Anglia in the U.K., attempted to get to the bottom of this paradox and "our" fascination with self-destructive female celebrities. Papers included "Britney's Tears: The Abject Female Celebrity in Post-Emotional Society" and "Hooker, Victim and/or Doormat: Lindsay Lohan and the Culture of Celebrity Notoriety, among others.
Unsurprisingly, some celebrity journalists disagreed with the symposium's premise, including Gordon Smart, who edits The Sun. He told the BBC that the preponderance of female stars is purely coincidence. "At the moment there just happens to be cluster of female celebrities that are going through difficult times."
But Diane Negra, a professor of film and television studies at the host university, said the coverage of women is definitely more judgmental than the coverage of men. And that while a media story about a drug-addicted man is likely to focus on or even celebrate his expected return (as with Robert Downey Jr.'s recent Iron Man performance) coverage of female celebs is more likely to focus on their (self-inflicted) demise and act as "cautionary tales."
"We seem to have a lot more fixed ideas about what women's lives should be like than we do of men," she said.
Why? "When we use female celebrities this way, we see them failing and struggling, they serve as proof that for women the work-life balance is impossible. Can you have it all? The answer these stories give again and again is 'absolutely not.'"
In the recent New York Times piece, several tabloid editors agreed they handle female celebrities differently but said the reason is due to readership, not sexism. US Weekly's readership is 70 per cent female, and People's is over 90 per cent.
Janice Min, the editor-in-chief of US Weekly, said that putting a solo man on the cover is "cover death. Women don't want to read about men unless it's through another woman: a marriage, a baby, a breakup."
So the only coverage of Ledger's death focused on how his estranged wife and child were coping, not on any of his history. And with Owen Wilson, much of the coverage focused on Kate Hudson -- whether their recent breakup was to blame for his troubles, and how she was reacting.
The conference touched on another reason for increasing negative tone: public concern about the growing number of celebrities who are famous simply for being famous, like Paris Hilton or the stars of reality TV shows.
Cary Cooper, a professor of psychology and health at Lancaster University in England, said readers and viewers want to see celebrities struggle because "it makes people feel good." Celebrities "look like they lead a golden life, and yet it doesn't make them happy. So in a way it justifies our humdrum existence."
But while readership demographics explain why there's more coverage of bad girls than bad boys, and public resentment about rich but talentless celebs explains why much coverage generally is negative in tone, those two factors don't entirely explain why the media is more critical of ailing female celebs than of male ones.
Negra has one more theory, that the "massive coverage these women draw is only a little bit about themselves... These women operate as lightning rods for a lot of other concerns."
And for a lot of negative sentiment about women, generally.
"Urgh, I'd never thought about that, but it's true," a 38 year old female friend groaned when I told her about the conference's premise.
"I hate to admit it," said the same friend, one of the most positive, enthusiastic people I know, "but I do it. I cut down other women." Two other friends chimed in and agreed they do it too.
A 12-year-old boy, also sitting at the table, said that the girls in his class are mean to each other. "They're always saying other girls are fat. And 'I hate her, I don't like her.'"
A few years ago, a 60-year-old mother of two sons told me she was so glad she'd had boys because "girls are all so prissy and frilly and catty. Yuck."
An unrelated study, released this week, showed that glaring sexism is easy to brush off, but subtle sexism leads to self-criticism, self-loathing and poor performance on tests.
Researchers set up a mock job interview in which women were asked sexist questions, then all were told they didn't get the job. Half the women were told the reason was that they were women -- and their self-esteem remained intact. The other half were told they didn't get the job because they'd given wrong answers, and subsequently experienced low self-image and poorer performance on IQ and other tests.
Hasn't everyone heard somewhere that people who bully and criticize others are ones who have low self esteem themselves?
So isn't it possible that the increasing appetite for tabloid stories that attack other women could actually be because those female readers are experiencing more subtle sexism and therefore self-loathing?
The more that happens, the more it does, apparently. Rebecca Roy, a psychotherapist who has several clients in the entertainment industry, was quoted saying the double standard in public treatment of bad girls and bad boys can actually intensify the destructive behavior of those female stars, pushing them to further depths of substance abuse and erratic behavior.
So is the solution for me to learn to love Britney and Lindsay?
This post first appeared on The Tyee.