This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

September-October 2014

Drive me crazy

Lisa Whittington-Hill@nerdygirly


Collage by Dave Donald

Inside media’s troubling gender-biased coverage of celebrity meltdowns

Charlie Sheen took thinking outside the bun to a whole new level in
July when he drunkenly wandered around a Taco Bell drive thru greeting
fellow fast food visitors with “Sorry I am so fucking hammered.”
Video of the incident soon made the rounds and the winning warlock
was once again making headlines. As it did with the actor’s well-publicized
2011 meltdown, media covered Sheen’s bad behaviour like it
was a sitcom—wondering what hilarity and hijinks he would get up to
next. Then and now, his substance abuse problems, anti-Semitism, and
responsibility for making #winning happen were largely swept under
the rug. Little mention was made of his history of violence against
women or his lacklustre parenting record. Instead, Sheen landed a
2012 Rolling Stone cover and made several prime time appearances. He
earned reported $1.8 million (U.S.) per episode of Two and a Half Men.

It doesn’t take long to see the double standard when it comes to
celebrity meltdowns: Compare coverage of Sheen’s meltdown to that
of Drake-lover Amanda Bynes or an umbrella-wielding Britney Spears.
At the same time Sheen was gracing the cover of Rolling Stone, Lindsay
Lohan appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair in a piece that painstakingly
detailed Lohan’s substance abuse issues and legal troubles. It also
made frequent reference to her haggard appearance and questioned
whether she would ever, ever get her once-promising career back on
track. The verdict: no. Sheen #winning. Lohan #tragic.

For bad boys like Sheen being bad is good for business. Not so
much for Lohan. Her last film The Canyons was largely panned before
it even hit theatres. Reviewers seemed unable to separate the Lohan
they saw on the big screen with the Lohan they saw on the TMZ small
screen. Lohan is definitely not the worst thing about The Canyons, but
almost every review focussed on her performance and never missed
an opportunity to refer to her as “embattled actress Lindsay Lohan”
or “troubled starlet Lindsay Lohan.” Chris Brown is always just Chris
Brown not “Rihanna beater Chris Brown” or “violent misogynist Chris
Brown” or “serial douchebag Chris Brown.”

And then there’s Shia LaBeouf. Where do we even start? If you’re
just joining the LaBeouf crazy train already in progress: he’s been
arrested for disturbing a theatre performance (he didn’t care much
for Cabaret); chased a homeless men around Times Square; plagiarized
people; punched people; and just generally behaved bizarrely.
He announced his retirement from acting—how very 2010 Joaquin
Phoenix of him—and then appeared at a film festival sporting a
paper bag over his head with “I’m Not Famous Anymore” scrawled
on it. It turns out this was all part of a performance art piece called
#IAMSORRY. Media coverage of the piece focussed on LaBeouf’s
eccentricity and his valuable contribution to the dialogue around performance
art. One media outlet even gathered a panel of performance
artists to discuss LaBeouf’s work with one going so far as to say: “He’s
starting a broad cultural discussion that needs to be had.”

Following his recent booze-fuelled NYC meltdown, the media
speculated on whether LaBeouf would head to rehab. He was photographed
carrying an AA book which was enough to satisfy bloggers
who didn’t question whether LaBeouf was really serious about
recovery or if the book was just a PR prop. There was mention of his
mental state, but not nearly the coverage of say a 2007 head-shaving
Spears. The consensus was that LaBeouf ’s career would recover—
just maybe not as a theatre reviewer. Compare this to the seemingly
endless column inches devoted to whether Lohan’s career will ever
bounce back and speculation that the mean girl now uses her talent
to trade blowies for blow.

Media rarely commented on LaBeouf’s appearance, despite the
fact that disturbia could be used to refer to one of his films, as well
as his approach to personal hygiene. Media coverage of Bynes’ meltdown
focused largely on her physical appearance, commenting on
what she wore and how much her appearance had changed—and
not in a good way. The media regularly updates us on Sheen, while
Bynes has received little post-meltdown coverage. Redemption stories
only get coverage when there’s a male protagonist. And while the
Bynes story has a happy ending—post rehab she is doing better and
has not once asked Drake to murder her vagina—that’s not always the
case. If Lohan or Bynes were to die, they would get a media circus of
Whitney Houston proportions, not the respectful coverage afforded
Philip Seymour Hoffman or Heath Ledger.

I hope it doesn’t come to that, and that Lohan’s actually been punking
us all this time. Soon she’ll announce it’s all been one big performance
art piece. If she did, the media would no doubt accuse her
of stealing LaBeouf’s paper bag and he’d be arrested for disrupting
her show.

Lisa Whittington-Hill is the publisher of This Magazine, and like
Shia, she doesn’t care much for Cabaret.

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