Britney and Lindsay go to college

Academics meet to discuss the public's fascination with "train wreck" celebrities.

Published June 30, 2008 8:12PM (EDT)

Amy Winehouse has emphysema and tuberculosis. Amy Winehouse has emphysema but not TB. Amy Winehouse has neither emphysema nor TB. Amy Winehouse attacked a fan at last weekend's Glastonbury Festival. Amy Winehouse dissed Kanye West and was snubbed by Arctic Monkeys. Amy Winehouse has returned to the hospital. Despite (or perhaps because of) her behavior, Madame Tussauds plans to cast Amy Winehouse's image in wax. These are only a few of the Amy Winehouse headlines -- some true, some false and some mutually exclusive -- that have shown up in the past week. If you didn't know better, you might think she had cannibalized all other celebrities, leaving only her own, demonic Marge Simpson visage to haunt everything from gossip blogs to TV news on a daily basis.

And if it isn't Winehouse, it's Britney Spears' custody battle or Lindsay Lohan in rehab. The same publications that propagate these stories have also been doing their fair share of hand-wringing over the public's fascination with bad-girl celebrities and their nonstop nervous breakdowns. Now, academia is joining the fray. At a symposium held last Wednesday at England's University of East Anglia, scholars discussed what they called "train wreck" celebrities. Papers included "Hooker, Victim and/or Doormat: Lindsay Lohan and the Culture of Celebrity Notoriety," "Just Too Much? Heather Mills and Celebrity Transgression" and, my jargon-laden favorite, "Britney's Tears: The Abject Female Celebrity in Postemotional Society."

Though mainstream articles have already identified many of the issues the academics covered, one quote from a symposium organizer sticks out as particularly perceptive. "When we use female celebrities this way," Diane Negra, a professor of film and television, said, "we see them failing and struggling, they serve as proof that for women the work-life balance is impossible. Can you have it all? The answer these stories give again and again is 'absolutely not.'"

Of course, gossip columnists -- whoops, I mean "celebrity journalists" -- are already protesting that mere coincidence accounts for the scads of tragic-woman stories that clog our entertainment news. And the idea that these celebrities serve as "cautionary tales" is nothing new. But what if, as Negra suggests, the warning isn't as much against drugs and promiscuity as it is against ambition and success?

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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