What Dawson’s death tells us about our society


Charlotte-Dawson-on-Internet-Trolls article

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.

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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.


  1. The New Astrology write up for Aries/Horse is quite telling with respect to Charlotte Dawson:
    There is something of the victorious athlete in all Aries/Horses. They are both fast on their feet and quick of wit. But they don’t always carry through on their serve. Herein lies the first and most bothersome of Aries/Horse faults. Both Aries and Horse are pushy and active. Both signs are ego-oriented. Both Aries and Horse are guilty of willfulness. Couple them and you come up with a mighty character prone to demanding what he wants when he wants it, putting down his foot – after removing it from his mouth of course…

    I believe that the tragedy of CD’s passing is made up of many factors all working together, such as a perfect storm of sorts.

    Though from all the influencing parts that make up the whole I would place as leading factors:
    -Adoption and lack of a strong sense of family
    -Drug and alcohol use
    -Willful headstrong attitude coupled with a drive to improve the world and others around her. Very draining trying to change people for the better.
    -Very large brain, in a beautiful body, in a corrupt world.
    -Acting out of extreme enthusiasm for goodness, without regard for ones personal safety, and not thinking through

    Charlotte cared a great deal about many issues, she was one of the good ones.
    Like a war hero who never made it, she devoted a great deal to social injustice.

  2. “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.”
    Yes! But this is a RE-starting point for discussion. Perhaps 1 in 20–50,000 women is born with the appearance of Charlotte–and her case is a tragedy–but the cause of Feminism is an old, constantly attacked and beleaguered one from the decades past on behalf of ALL women. What women (or men) look like and their age should never be a point of judgement with attached cultural, behavioral expectations. It beggars belief that the majority of women, and even stunningly stereotypically “beautiful” free minds, still suffer under the yoke of sexual bias, and erroneous standards of appearance, instead of being appreciated for their intelligence. Feminism is not an obsolete cause.

  3. I tried to make a comment yesterday, but I was too sickened after clicking that link. My thoughts and prayers go out to Charlotte’s family and close friends. How many people she helped would be hard to say and I think we should remember her that way, with a day, specifically reserved for kindness, in her memory.

  4. Thanks for this thoughtful post Phoebe.

    >> I’m not sure about sending people to prison for three years for bullying <<

    I'm damn sure. Sure it's the most counterproductive idea since the War on (Some) Drugs. If I wanted someone to stop stealing my pens, the last thing I'd do is make them spend three years in an intensive theft training course. The very worst thing to do with someone who has shown a tendency for bullying is to send them to prison, where that bullying streak can only be developed and amplified. We need to be dis-establishing institutional environments that encourage and reward bullying, not sending more people into them.

    Bullying in person is a complex problem, involving a serious threat of physical violence. It may be a candidate for restorative justice processes, where the relationship between bully and bullied can be reworked, and the underlying psychological problems in the bully addresses. Online bullying (I refuse to take the propaganda phrase "cyberbulllying" seriously) is a much simpler problem, where physical violence is not a threat, and I believe it can be solved by teaching people basic online self-defence skills like un-friending bullies on FB, not 'following' them on Twitter, and filtering email from them straight to trash. No heavy-handed state tribunal is required.

  5. I think we all need to stop pretending we have a right to dissect and politicise what may or may not have ultimately contributed to the tragedy of Dawson’s death. We do not own her. Most of us didn’t even know her. Most importantly, we just don’t know.
    In defense of DBH’s article, I don’t think she was removing depression as the cause of death at all, she was presnting a far more complex picture of what it’s like to be a high profile woman in the media – a cannibalistic industry that puts a terrible pressure on women based on how the look and behave. These things naturally feed into depression and other mental health issues.

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