In June, JAN Trust wrote about “the not-so-hysterical problem of sexism in healthcare”, underlining the most blatant stereotype of the “hysterical” woman that has long been established in history and now in popular culture. The historical precedent for this sexist approach to mental health is undeniable. Since the advent of ‘insane asylums’, female mental health problems were an excuse to commit women as a means to control them in order to maintain the male-dominated status-quo.
Today, the news is dominated by another phenomenon, the #FreeBritney movement, that toes the line between awareness and exploitation. Many likely remember Britney Spears’s meltdown in 2007 when she shaved her head and did a stint in rehab. The meltdown was the front page of tabloid news, capitalising on the mental fragility of the then 25-year-old pop star. After the public crises and her failed time in rehab, many wondered if she would end up like Marilyn Monroe, whose very public death in 1962 similarly took over the news cycle.
Britney fell out of public interest for a while until she started making more public appearances again. Despite the hiatus, the public never really forgot her meltdown. Over a decade later memes of her meltdown still circulate the internet and a reference to Britney became the easiest punchline for jokes. Again, today’s interest in the singer has little to do with her prolific career, but rather the status of her legal battle with her father regarding the decade-long conservatorship due to her struggles with mental health.
In 2021 the New York Times released a documentary titled Framing Britney Spears. The feature looks at the nature of the conservatorship and the star’s lengthy court battle over who should be in control of her estate. The public intrigue was so great that BBC also created a film about her troubled life.
Both films criticise how the media in 2007 and 2008 capitalised on her misfortune, exacerbating her already very public struggles. Britney herself described them as hypocritical for similarly capitalising on her life’s misfortunes and her mental health struggles. Britney Spears didn’t ask for this publicity in relation to her personal life. While — rightly or wrongly — there is an expectation for stars to open up their lives to the public, the burden mostly falls to female stars who are unduly scrutinised.
As an Atlantic article noted: “There’s Never Been a Story like Britney Spears”. Although the fanfare in relation to #FreeBritney may indeed be a unique occurrence, the interest in stars’ mental health problems has always been a public fascination — especially those of female celebrities.
In 2018 when Mariah Carey opened up about having bipolar disorder, the announcement covered headlines. In that case, however, it was an attempt to take back the narrative of her mental health that was robbed from her after spending decades in the spotlight.
The conversation about mental health may be changing, but stars like Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, and Whitney Houston had to live through a different time. In 2001 when Mariah Carey was hospitalised and put under psychiatric care, the news reported that she was in “hysterics”. She fell into the same patriarchal gaze of early psychiatry. The event in 2001 labelled Carey as a “diva” and, similar to Britney, she was never quite able to get out from behind the shadow of her meltdown. Houston, similarly, became defined by “crack is wack” after an interview in 2002 until her untimely death a decade later.
“Who doesn’t love it when celebrities go crazy?” said a blogger at NewNowNex in a Carey-appreciation post. Whether its Britney Spears, Jade Goody or the Duchess of Sussex, the public is willing to sit and watch any spectacle unfurl.
This isn’t just a generational issue — the manner in which media scrutinises and talks about ‘normal’ celebrity behaviour is also a question of gender. Not only that, BAME women in Hollywood are even more likely to have their conditions ignored. Race often plays into the personification of racial stereotypes like “inclinations of women of color toward addiction, excessive sexuality, and anger”. These stereotypes build on mental health problems so that, when a BAME star shows inclinations towards preconceived notions of their race, instead of having their mental health problems dealt with they are criticised for their predilections towards “bad habits”. This is seen with the treatment of Mariah Carey who, even after the announcement of her bipolar diagnosis, is still unduly criticised for her behaviour unlike Britney Spears who, with the same diagnosis, garnered public sympathy.
Mental health organisations have guidelines for news and media networks on how they should write and publish stories about mental health issues. Unfortunately, despite their efforts, mental health gossip still makes front page news. Stars that are public about mental health are put on lists regardless of the intention behind it. If news organisations are not going to change the way they cover news, then it is up to the consumers. Your clicks matter and avoiding those articles helps take away their power.
JAN Trust works to help create safe spaces for the communities we work with, including online communities. Through our Web Guardians™ programme, we empower and educate women to know how to protect their kids from dangerous exposure online, including the headlines regarding mental health crises. For more information about our work visit our website.