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Celebrity “Confessions”: Mischa Barton and AnnaLynne McCord, Trauma and Gossip

It is not news that the way celebrity culture treats young female celebrities (and older female celebrities, for that matter) is icky. There is the constant hounding of singers and models trying to go about their grocery shopping. There are vicious rumours. There is the excessive and depersonalising adoration of the sweet young innocents – until they misstep, and then the celebrity gossip machine gorges itself upon the fall. I am given to think that sometimes the particular adoration of pre-fall female celebrities is set up in order to make their downfalls – however minor or major – seem all the more shocking and tragic. What’s really striking is the contrast between how celebrity culture deals with the “good girl gone bad” moments upon which it seizes as opposed to the real shocks, the real tragedies.

AnnaLynne McCord is an actor on US television show 90210, and her name has hit the headlines recently because she spoke about how trauma caused by a rape led her to become suicidal. She spoke about this at an event to benefit the Somaly Mam Foundation, which works to prevent sex slavery and support survivors. However, In Touch Weekly ran with a headline that spoke of “AnnaLynne McCord’s Startling Confession”. The article’s first paragraph gushes that ‘one may be captivating [sic] by her bouncing, blonde hair and big, beautiful smile—so it’s hard to imagine that the 26-year-old starlet has a dark past’. Presumably, attractive, happy-looking, blonde people are not routinely raped, just like people from every other population group.

It’s just a bizarre angle, and the startled sentiment is made all the more bizarre by the idea that McCord’s rape is something she confessed, as though she was a sinner and her audience granted her divine forgiveness. This is what happens when we understand celebrities, and women in general, as figures to be judged by the general public for terrible things that happen to them. This kind of framing opens up survivors to judgement, rather than following the example of people like McCord herself, whose speech is now being twisted to mean something other than what it was: a heartfelt expression of solidarity with fellow survivors of sexual violence. If only media outlets would follow suit and let survivors be in charge of their own stories. I am not even going to touch the Daily Mail’s talk of McCord having ‘revealed’ a ‘shocking admission,’ because I would like to keep down my lunch.

Actor Mischa Barton, best known for her time on The O.C., has recently spoken about her time as an involuntary psychiatric patient following a breakdown. The L.A. Times, not even a celebrity rag, has this headline: “Mischa Barton shares the dish about her meltdown — and rebound”. I am reasonably sure she did nothing of the kind, because there are two things you “dish” up, and those are meals and gossip, not this. Again, it’s the Daily Mail scraping the bottom of the barrel with an article called “Mischa Barton looks happy and healthy as she makes first red carpet appearance after opening up about her ‘full-on breakdown’”. The curious thing is that this article mostly centres Barton’s fashion choices at a red carpet event. The content about her breakdown is just the hook at the start.

The important thing is that she looks healthy, looks happy – just like McCord, whose appearance of happiness is crucial to the ‘shock’ of her headlines, just like the appearance of happiness means everyone gets to feel good about Barton’s ‘rebound’. To these editors, it doesn’t matter how these young women feel so much as it matters how they look, and how they can be represented for pageclicks. They can become minimised clotheshorses again rather than powerful women speaking out about real and terrible things. It’s the most horrible kind of misrepresentation.

When young women go through horrific things, and then come out the other side and speak of these things, it ought not to be refigured as salacious gossip, or confession narratives, or something to be judged. These are people to be supported, just as everyone who survives these things ought to be supported. There’s a difference between this minimising trend and the pure venom directed at the likes of Britney Spears, because here’s a real investment in the fight back to the top, as long as the bad things are truly behind the celebrity in question. There’s no way, in the world of celebrity gossip, to talk about real and awful things like this in ways that place no blame on the victims, or talk about the hardships they endure as though the trauma is ongoing. As though the semblance of happiness in a photograph can tell the public everything there is to know.