Cat Marnell’s exploits are well known and well trodden. She’s a generally unapologetic, fucked up party girl and writer who just landed a book deal worth $500,000. She’s always been forthcoming about her drug use, particularly when it comes to regularly eating vast arrays of pharmaceuticals. The art of attention seeking through showcasing deviant behavior is not a new tactic to achieve celebrity and notoriety. And the conflicted, addicted writer has become such a cliché that I often wonder why Cat’s behavior stokes the sort of shock and dismay that it does. It’s obvious that we want to watch her, and that she wants us to watch. But there’s no reason to be especially surprised by what unfolds.
What is most interesting about the current backlash against Cat’s book deal is the absolute Internet vitriol and concern-trolling it has unleashed. Every article published over the past couple days has decried the state of entertainment and the literary world (Marnell did not single-handedly create a culture where sensational, “reality television”-style entertainment was financially rewarded) or expressed condescending concern that she will blow her advance on blow and die.
In an interview with VICE last year—before her short-lived but popular column “Amphetamine Logic”—Cat resisted the explicit connection between her writing and her gender. She railed against the lady blogger label, claiming, “I am a person before I am a girl.” But she also stated that the reason she writes about drugs so much "is that it’s always been a boys' club—the shameless drug user writers club at least. Women always write the recovery memoirs.”
And it has always been a boys’ club. Hemingway, Bukowski, Ginsberg, even VICE columnist and novelist Tao Lin, have all written about drugs and alcohol from journalistic and fictional perspectives. Somehow, their drug (ab)use has often been folded into their aura of genius. When Lin netted a $50,000 book deal from Vintage for Taipei, I didn’t sense any collective handwringing from the blogosphere. There was no faux concern akin to that “Would You Give A Junkie $500K? Pals Concerned Over Cat Marnell’s Mega Book Deal” headline we saw this week. Lin has written extensively on drugs, drug use, prescription drug use, and mental illness; no one asked if he would spend the months following in a benzophiazaphine haze.
When I mentioned to Tao that my suspicions as to why the media reacted so differently to his and Marnell's respective books deals and exploits was due in part to their different genders, he wasn’t so sure. Though no one regularly questions his drug use, Tao does receive his fair share of online invective.
“I get shittalked constantly," he told me. "It's ongoing and never-ending.”
Lin (via Flickr)
Ultimately, Tao's unsure about the difference in gender, but perhaps feels a sense of kinship with another internet personality subjected to unrelenting online criticism. “I think there's too many factors for me to feel able to to confidently say anything about how much of an influence gender has in this, but, yes, it is probably a factor, to certain journalists. I support Cat 100 percent and feel depressed by anyone shittalking.”
The question is whether internet culture merely reflects and magnifies a sentiment that already exists, or whether it offers new ways to codify a system of judgments that affect men and women unequally. Do we secretly want our internet girls good? Are we too quick and ready to shame them when they don’t act how we think they should? In an excellent essay on female drug users published last year on Alternet, Kristen Gwynne observes:
Would Marnell be a wreck if society did not insist on tearing her down? For women, the fears and stigmas of drug use often eclipse the reality. Women like Miley Cyrus may experiment with drugs without any problems, but they are nonetheless stereotyped as disgraced party girls, in part because a wreck is what many may wish upon them.
It’s well known that the internet provides many platforms where women may feel attacked or shamed. The entire phenomenon of revenge pornography—something that disproportionately affects women—is predicated on the idea of a fitting punishment for some “crime” (generally being wantonly sexual and leaving digital proof of that transgression).
It’s likely that we view women, especially young women, as more susceptible to outside influence. Thus, we don’t perceive Justin Beiber’s innocent weed dabble as inherently threatening to the moral futures of young men everywhere, but we do see Kim Kardashian as dangerously influential, possibly encouraging a generation of sextape-creating girls.
Whether any celebrity woman is a “fit role model” is a commonly asked question, one that is endlessly discussed. In fact, most female celebrities with colorful lives have to make a bizarre statement of intent to the media. One after another, hard partying ladies offer up various versions of, “I’m not here to be a role model.” The implication is that they were, by sheer virtue of their fame, assigned this status until they formally cast it off. A woman can be setting a good or a bad example for other women, but her actions are never only her own.
There’s a host of pop cultural celebrity women—Miley Cyrus, Amanda Bynes, Mary-Kate Olsen, Lindsay Lohan, Cat Marnell—whose “bad" behavior is discussed and dissected ad nauseum on the internet. But what about celebrity men? It cannot be that they don’t get drunk or don't eat pills; it’s rather that we don’t define them by the fact that they get drunk or eat pills. We don't need them to have consequences in the same way we need women addicts to suffer. Perhaps our fixation on and judgment of bad girls is self-fulfilling. If everyone in media constantly discusses your cocaine habit and projects your impending nervous breakdown, maybe it is indeed more likely you'll have one.
Let Cat Marnell be a drug addict if that's what she wants to be. If she gets paid a boatload of money to talk about it, who cares? Being a drug addict isn't even interesting unless we give it that power. It's only when we act surprised that a young woman would choose to use her celebrity not to inspire other women but to promote herself, that it even seems surprising.