Are we sexist in our schadenfreude?

Why do we take so much more pleasure in watching women self-destruct than we do in watching men?

Published February 19, 2008 12:08AM (EST)

This week's New York Times asks a question we've been wondering about ourselves -- namely, are female stars subject to more public scrutiny than male celebrities?

The article, titled "Boys Will Be Boys, Girls Will Be Hounded by the Media," starts off with the fact, as we previously reported, that Entertainment Tonight decided to pull a video of Heath Ledger hanging out at a "drug-fueled party" out of "respect for [his] family." Around the same time, however, tabloids let loose with a storm of photographs of Amy Winehouse smoking what the British tabloid the Sun said was a pipe of crack cocaine. Owen Wilson attempted suicide, the article continues, and got on one cover of Entertainment Weekly. Britney Spears goes for psychiatric treatment (with no confirmed suicide attempts, despite widespread speculation), and she gets six stories during the same time period. Kiefer Sutherland gets out of jail after serving time for drunk driving and no one pays too much attention; Paris Hilton goes back to serve the rest of her 45 days in jail for alcohol-related reckless driving and invites "a level of attention that invoked the O.J. Simpson trial," the Times asserts.

Some publicists agree that this is the case -- one named Ken Sunshine, for example, says "without a doubt" that women get worse treatment. "'I represent some pretty good-looking guys, and I complain constantly about the way they're treated and covered,'" he's quoted as saying. "'But it's absolutely harder for the women I represent.'"

What I thought was surprising about this article was not its assertion that women get tougher treatment -- I think it would be difficult to argue that this is not the case -- but rather some of the reasons given by editors for the difference. The editor in chief of US Weekly says that putting a solo man on the cover of the magazine is "cover death" because women, who constitute 70 percent of US Weekly's readership, "don't want to read about men unless it's through another woman: a marriage, a baby, a breakup." I find it difficult to believe that women really never want to read about men, but if it is true that women are inherently uninterested in gossip about male celebrities, that doesn't answer the question of why we put so much emphasis on female celebrities who are self-destructing. Why not focus on a female star who has her shit together?

Of course, the answer to that question lies in human nature -- tabloid magazines are, in many cases, an ink and paper form of rubbernecking, and one of the main reasons we buy them is to make ourselves feel sorry for celebrities whom we might otherwise envy. The real question, then, is why we seem to be more attracted to watching women self-destruct than we are to watching men. Theories?

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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