The dark side of celebrity

With their endless troubles, Britney, Paris and Lindsay have been dubbed "icons of female ruin." They’re dragging us down with them.

By the time you read this, Britney Spears will be dead.

As I write, it’s mid-October, and she has already marked the fall season with a parking-lot hit and run, and the loss of primary custody of her sons. Way to top off a busy summer, where she worked the rehab turnstile and delivered a somnambulant “comeback” on the MTV Video Music Awards. After the performance of “Gimme More,” people called her fat, but I disagree; doom can make a person puffy. Please, Britney, stop. I don’t think I can bear another media frenzy involving a young woman in giant sunglasses doing something stupid while the world points and laughs.

I remember flipping through People in the 1980s, when it was equal parts adoring Lady Diana profiles and stories about regular joes who grew root vegetables in funny shapes. Today, Canadians can choose their diversion from more than 60 magazines documenting the famous and the near-famous, hundreds of online stalkerazzi sites and a maw of celebrity TV shows. Yet is this stuff actually fun anymore? The morning-after delivery of disturbing images of Lindsay, Nicole and Paris – bedroom transgressions and head shaving and car crashing and jail-door weeping – has become a ritual humiliation. As the feminist critic Katha Pollitt put it, these women “are being made into these icons of female ruin.”

In fact, they hardly qualify as women. Just a few years ago, Britney was a girl in knee socks begging, “Hit me baby, one more time,” while teen Lindsay Lohan grinned on the red carpet, a giant freckle in a slit-up-to-here designer gown. That unnerving girl-woman hybrid, the sexualized innocent, is an unstoppable marketing tool, an age-old psychosexual brand.

But when Britney and Lindsay began to live the image off the page, in nightclubs and bad relationships with sub-literate layabouts, they earned a collective tsk tsk from their audience. They’re popular, yes, but loathed. It may have been borderline okay for Britney to splay and preen as a teenager, but not as a mom showing her postpartum belly in a jewel-studded bikini. The fallout of the MTV awards told this 25-year-old what we think of a woman who dares parade the soft curves of motherhood: You are old. You are undesirable. You are disposable.

There’ve always been celebrity scandals. Married Ingrid Bergman had an affair with Roberto Rossellini that led to a child out of wedlock; Marilyn Monroe posed nude; Ava Gardner was rumoured to have slept with Lana Turner. But these were women in their late twenties and thirties, not girls celebrating their twenty-first birthdays on leave from institutions with names like Promises.

In the past, most celebrities were not famous for being famous, like Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton, or the reality-TV stars of the gossip-and-tan smash The Hills. When these women fall – another DUI; another sex tape – the public doesn’t mourn, because we never really liked them. Were they ever anything more than a collective joke? Did they ever matter to us?

Britney and Lindsay now exist almost entirely as tabloid food, but they started as, respectively, a singer and an actor. Like others in their sad circle, they became singers-actors-models-designers. Perhaps they’ve attained some twisted version of have-it-all feminism – women with professionally flourishing lives who seem to take no joy in their success, nor have any say in it, corralled from the shadows by stage parents and sleazy managers.

And yet these girls aren’t exactly victims. They seem eager to participate in their own exploitation. Just hours after Britney’s MTV disaster, she was photographed panty-free. A few days later, she grinned for the cameras, toting her son Jayden, eager for a flattering “family” shot to temper the bad press; her every move is orchestrated for public consumption. It’s doubly hard to feel sorry for these girls when the thriving careers of other actresses prove that it’s possible to live a private life in Hollywood. But Claire Danes, Natalie Portman and Anna Paquin share a common history that the celebutantes don’t: They went to college. There’s nothing like a good education to teach a starlet that her worth might extend beyond her body. What’s sad is that the Britneys don’t seem to want to live privately. There’s no value or profit in the invisible, worked-out brain.

So maybe it’s time to disarm these girls by not looking. When we read celeb magazines and click on Perez Hilton, we’re voyeurs turned on by a person’s illness, the way gawkers toured mental hospitals in the Victorian age. Consider what researchers wrote in a study by the American Psychiatric Association confirming that girls who are sexualized too soon are at risk of serious damage: “Girls who had a more objectified relationship with their bodies were more likely to experience depression and had lower self-esteem.”

The celebutantes are too young to remember a time before the technological scrutiny of the internet. Being measured and talked about is all they know. In fact, they seem to lack any subjectivity, any awareness of themselves that isn’t refracted by someone else’s eyes.

Why do we want to see our young women this way? Almost the only time we hear of women in their twenties in the media is when they’re disgraced or staging a comeback that usually involves a glossy magazine spread torn from the porn world. (Lohan played a stripper in her most recent film, I Know Who Killed Me; Britney’s first major TV performance in three years had her writhing, mouth open, in front of 7 million.) Their brand of fame doesn’t support the dubious post-feminist idea that there’s empowerment in hyper-sexuality. These women are lethargic, powerless, silly. They don’t matter, and women need to matter.

So when I say that Britney Spears will be dead, I’m only half kidding, playing Nostradamus with the proven fact that a young girl who is valued only for sex is prone to suicide. In a metaphoric sense, I think Spears is already dead; a person who no longer knows how to live privately is one whose inner life has been snuffed. Did I kill her? Did she do it to herself?

In the end, the why of her many deaths won’t matter; all that will be reported is the size and shape of her not-so-pretty corpse.