The “hot mess”—someone, usually a woman, who is spectacularly unsuccessful or disordered—is a well-known cultural trope.
Whether on the front pages of tabloids, on gossip news sites, or even among our circles of friends over after-work drinks, we seem unable to resist sharing vignettes and photos of their latest improprieties. Amy Winehouse, Britney Spears, Tara Reid, and Whitney Houston are just a few well-known women who have been subjected to such relentless ridicule, often at the expense of their careers, accomplishments, and health. But why is the “hot mess” such a cultural laughingstock?
News of the death of Amy Winehouse in July 2011 made headlines all over the world, but for many, her passing didn’t come as a surprise. For months, the media had been minutely chronicling the musician’s abuse of hard drugs and alcohol, as well as her extreme weight loss and erratic behavior. News that her lungs were only functioning at 70 percent capacity, and later that she had developed the early stages of emphysema, paired with photos of her in bloodstained shoes and smeared makeup with missing teeth, turned Winehouse into the consummate “hot mess.”
But Asif Kapadia’s 2015 biopic “Amy” reveals a very different side of Winehouse. It shows a woman in pain, struggling against the many demons that haunted her, as well as a manipulative father who pushed his talented daughter to her limits for his own monetary gain. Using archival footage and personal testimony from those who knew her, it shows us her decline from once-healthy jazz crooner to the bulimic heroin addict mocked by Jay Leno. As dozens of flashbulbs spark like a firing squad the second she opens her front door, we’re given a small glimpse of what it must have been like to be Winehouse: hounded by paparazzi hungry for photos of her unraveling. No one offered sympathy, patience, or help, yet acted shocked and, indeed, sobered when she met an early death.
Winehouse is one of many women artists who have been badly bruised by the media’s obsession with them. Images of Britney Spears’ freshly shaven head and accounts of her struggles with mental illness are only a quick Google search away, as are reports of Lindsay Lohan’s on-and-off rehab stints and latest run-ins with law enforcement. Tabloid culture thrives on humiliating these women, competing on who can snap the most controversial photos. The spectacle of their misbehavior quickly eclipses their talent as artists and entertainers.
But more often than not, the “missteps” of female celebrities are the result of them pushing against the boundaries of what it means to behave as a woman. As journalist Sady Doyle notes in a Lit Hub interview about her 2016 book “Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear … and Why,” “Women who have succeeded too well at becoming visible have always been penalized visibly and forcefully, and turned into spectacles.” Their highly publicized reactions to media turmoil and personal struggles are framed as hysterics, their distress a sign of their particularly female inability to function as they should in the public eye. If we can’t understand or control them, at least we can laugh at them.
There are plenty of male celebrities whose public behavior has earned them less-than-favorable reputations—but they have a funny way of bouncing back. Kurt Cobain was known to struggle with drug addiction and mental illness, and his wife, Courtney Love, accused him of domestic abuse, despite later redacting the statement. Regardless of these deep flaws, legions of fans have helped elevate his figure to almost mythic proportions, as the tormented genius who invented grunge rock. Cobain’s chronic depression and suicide certainly make up a large part of his legacy, but mostly add poetic fragility to his unmatched musical talent, rather than overshadow it.
For further proof of the comparably huge space in which male celebrities can move without provoking the public’s ire, we need only look at Mel Gibson. After much success as an award-winning actor and director, in 2006, he made aggressively anti-Semitic remarks to a police officer when pulled over for drunk driving. And he’s certainly displayed misogynistic and abusive tendencies with his ex-girlfriend, Russian pianist Oksana Grigorieva: Leaked audio tapes of an intimate fight between the couple reveal Gibson berating his partner with abusive, unhinged comments, peppered with sexist slurs. Around this time, Grigorieva accused Gibson of breaking her front teeth with a blow that glanced the chin of their daughter.
News of Gibson’s volatile behavior circulated throughout Hollywood, but rather than playing it up, many fellow actors began handling him with kid gloves to avoid igniting his wrath. What’s worse, Grigorieva was actually punished for publicly referencing Gibson’s abuse on “The Howard Stern Show,” violating the legal agreement that she would stay mum about his violence. Although she didn’t explicitly discuss the issue, her veiled acknowledgment of it was enough to leave her with only 1/60 of the original settlement.
While Gibson’s reputation has been tarnished by these scandals, what do we make of Hollywood welcoming him with open arms this past awards season? The most recent film he directed, “Hacksaw Ridge,” got a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016, numerous awards nominations, and two Oscar wins. And the good news just keeps coming. Gibson scored a role in director S. Craig Zahler’s upcoming cop thriller, “Dragged Across Concrete,” and his current girlfriend just gave birth, making him a father of nine. While it seems that his disturbing and aggressive behavior would qualify him as something far worse than a “hot mess,” Hollywood and the media have absolved Gibson, offering him innumerable second chances to recreate his public image—while leaving women with the message that speaking out against domestic abuse can come with severe consequences.
Unlike female artistry in the public eye, which is always bound up in judgments of appearance and behavior, men’s talent is seen as much harder to extinguish.
Bill Cosby’s sexual assault charges are what ultimately blacklisted him, but it took 51 women coming forward for the general public to replace the image of a comedic legend and benign patriarch of the Huxtable family with that of a predator. As Doyle notes, “I think there are men who get mired in scandal. They just have to work a lot harder for it. I think we knew Roman Polanski had been raping an underaged girl for decades while we were still talking about him as a genius.”
Forget sexual abuse and assault: A woman only has to have a drinking problem, express sexuality, be too skinny, or shave her head to be considered a “hot mess.”
The eagerness with which society uses the label is another means by which we restrain female self-expression and denigrate female self-worth. There are many who watch the public downfalls of celebrities like Amy Winehouse and secretly believe she got what was coming for her—without seeing that they were complicit in her demise.
Collage Photographers: Rowan Chestnut (H), Christopher Campbell (O), Alexa Mazzare (T), Thong Vo (M), Stas Kulesh (E), Christopher Campbell (S1), Peter Sjo (S2), Sam Burriss (U), Xavier Sotomayor (F)