There’s a serious problem with the way we talk about fallen female stars.
For a long time, Amanda Bynes existed as a public punchline.
Her career seemed disposable, her downfall predictable, and her talent for acting was overshadowed by her skills as a tabloid headline generator. She announced her retirement in 2010… by tweeting about it.
Naturally, she was mocked and ridiculed. What could Bynes be retiring from, at 24? She was still extremely exposed. She still attracted rolling news coverage when she was charged with a DUI in 2012, when she was arrested for drug possession in 2013, and when she started a fire in a stranger’s driveaway. Bynes, we were told, was just the latest in a long line of Lindsays, Britneys, Hilarys and Amys.
However, after spending six years out of the public eye, Bynes is back. She’s sober, she’s studying at the Fashion Institute of Design And Merchandising, and she’s telling Paper about how she’s changed. “I’m really ashamed and embarrassed…I can’t turn back time but if I could, I would,” she says.
“And I’m so sorry to whoever I hurt and whoever I lied about because it truly eats away at me. It makes me feel so horrible and sick to my stomach and sad.”
These are the words of a person who has been working on herself. This is what it sounds like when someone takes full responsibility for their actions – and is as concerned about the people their behaviour had impacted upon as they are about their own wellbeing.
Compare them with Louis CK’s almost passive aggressive, limited words, ‘I have been remorseful of my actions. And I’ve tried to learn from them.’ These from the same Louis CK who returned to the stage within a year of admitting that he had been exposing himself to unwilling women. If you Google ‘Johnny Depp’ apology the first result contains no reference to his alleged attack of his ex wife Amber Heard, but a video he made apologising for bringing his dogs into Australia. Again, this is the same Depp whom has become notorious for behaving in a way that makes him a ‘hellraiser’, and yet it is Bynes who has been dubbed the ‘trainwreck’.
I am ashamed of how easy I found it to believe the media narrative around Bynes, a young woman who started her working life when she was seven years old, and starred in her own television show when she was 13. In her Paper profile, she explains about how she became depressed after watching her own performance in She’s The Man, and how unhappy she felt after seeing herself dressed as a boy. She talks about faking ADHD symptoms in order to acquire an Adderall prescription because she felt that she had to lose weight, and then running off set because she couldn’t bear to see the way she looked in a monitor.
Bynes is not offering excuses for her behaviour, but she speaks candidly about the painful mental impact of growing up in the spotlight. She seems to bear the twin obligations of having to present herself as an inspiration and a cautionary tale. She wants to warn us about the dangers of drugs. “Be really, really careful because you could lose it all and ruin your entire life like I did.” We’re left with a sense that Bynes is only allowed to seek our forgiveness by becoming a martyr to her cause.
We know that women are held to more pernicious standards than men, judged more harshly and are the biggest victims of society’s double standards. This happens in life, and it’s magnified in many areas of the media. When I scroll through the Daily Mail’s infamous sidebar, I notice a pattern – if women aren’t ‘flaunting’, they’re ‘admitting’, ‘confessing’ or ‘speaking out’. Every single aspect of their behaviour is judged, analysed and called out. Kim Kardashian has been judged more harshly for using a private jet than any male subject of the #MeToo allegations.
While I suspect that spending six years out of the spotlight has been good for Bynes’ mental health and wellbeing, I’m sure that the Paper piece would not have been read with sympathy or enthusiasm if it had been published any sooner.
The bar is set too high for women. We are punished when our bodies, behaviour and lives fail to meet society’s great expectations. It’s strange that when women are in the public eye, that bar is lifted right out of reach – when for men, the main privilege of fame seems to be that the bar is removed altogether. Bynes made several missteps, at a point in her life when she was young and vulnerable, and was punished harshly, and repeatedly.
It makes me feel uncomfortable when I think of her treatment compared with Jeffrey Tambour’s, and the chilling Arrested Development cast interview in which his male co-stars defend him when their colleague Jessica Walter talks about how he was so cruel and angry that he made her cry. Consider how Bynes and the ‘Hollywood party girls’ have been vilified compared with the director David O Russell, who was recorded screaming and swearing at Lily Tomlin on the set of I Heart Huckabees in 2004.
When famous men are abusive and problematic, great pains are taken to separate the artist from the art. There’s rarely a need for a ‘comeback’ because these men are so rarely forced away from the spotlight or made to feel that they should be accountable for their actions.
As women, we’re told that any art we make will be overshadowed entirely by any missteps we make in our personal lives. Amanda Bynes is allowed to return, as long as she begs for our forgiveness. She seems to be in a much better place – even though we might be in a worse one. Her voluble shame, embarrassment and contrition contrasts so sharply with the lack of contrition shown by men accused of much greater crimes.
Apologies are meaningless unless we show that we have learned from our mistakes. Bynes has done this. Now it’s our turn.