In his work Stars (1979), Richard Dyer argues that the role of celebrities in society is much more complex than just the result of a manufactured persona. For Dyer, the celebrity is constructed in part through the range of texts that circulates around them (blogs, reviews, etc.), and also through the way that they reflect our desire to be individuals. The star or celebrity emerges at a particular nexus and time because they represent something about the social. Thus for Dyer, Marilyn Monroe’s stardom is fuelled by the way she represents a safe expression of female sexuality at a time of changing social roles in the 1950s, a kind of sexy office worker who, while sexualized, never really challenges men. The image of the celebrity therefore has little to do with the actual person themselves, but their representation. The audience remain in a parasocial or one-way relationship with the celebrity, and because they cannot be known, they are read through the texts that circulate about them. The celebrity functions a social fantasy, a kind of avatar for working through broader issues in culture.
Critical approaches to celebrity culture are particularly useful in looking at the tragic case of Charlotte Dawson’s death. Because Dawson herself is not known to many of the commentators, or can only be partially known, the way that her death is perceived reveals much more about New Zealand and Australian culture and views on femininity than it does about Dawson herself. At best, her motivations, her internal turmoil can only be read through hack psychology. What is interesting about these readings (and the comments that people have made on her death), however, is the way that Dawson is often read through the lens of a divisive “good” and “bad” femininity – one which positions her beauty and choice of industry as a Faustian agreement that undermines her ability for an authentic existence as a “good woman”.
For example, in Deborah Hill Cone’s article yesterday, depression is removed as a cause for Dawson’s death, as well as the personal challenges she faces in her life. Rather, for Cone, Dawson’s death was about aging and the desire to preserve a youthful image rather than confront the aging process. Her death was the result of what Cone terms “narcissistic injury”. Says Cone, “women who can’t bear the shift to a supporting role may ape the behaviours, clothing and attitudes of the young, trying to preserve their sexual appeal. They may opt for plastic surgery”. Cone is not the only one to propagate this narrative – in many of the comments, there seems to be the perception that as Dawson courted publicity, she should be able to handle it. “Why didn’t she shut down her Twitter?”, many ask.
Ironically, much of this kind of analysis reflects many of the reasons she was bullied in the first place. Perceived as having bad femininity, Dawson was a celebrity that many relished in defining themselves against. As much as we like to have celebrities we identify with, we also like to have the ones we rally against. What was remarkable about this bullying is the way it cut across elements of society – it was not just Bieberites or teen One Directioners that were trolling her online, it was employees of Monash University. It is the same in death. These responses tell us much more about ourselves than they will ever do about depression or Dawson. Cone’s article is representative of much wider and older stereotypes about women of the Madonna and the whore, and cast into this narrative her suicide is positioned as the punitive result of poor career choices to pursue her celebrity rather than her intelligence. Cone’s message is clear: smart women like her are less vulnerable because they take heed and incorporate the norms.
While it is probably impossible to resolve or even begin to deal with the gender bias around the way this reinforces stereotypes in one piece, let’s start here: let’s throw out the idea that assessments of women should be based on how she looks and how she enacts her sexuality. Those same stereotypes, after all, are the reasons why some of my friends have to spend time actively altering their appearances to look less attractive in business, or the same reason why sometimes in business meetings with people I don’t know, people assume I must be sleeping with someone because despite being 35 I still look young. I’m not sure about sending people to prison for three years for bullying, or how much this piece contributes to a broader discussion we need to have about the social stigmas around mental illness (which is totally different than aging), but one of the places we need to start is with women supporting each other. We should be able to wear what we want, look how we want, and have control of our own bodies. And perhaps in this tragedy there is a starting point for this discussion.