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Why the sudden urge to reconsider famous women?


This policing via popular media – comparing women’s outfits, judging their beach bodies and speculating about how and why they were or weren’t pregnant – served as a warning to less famous women: see what can happen when you leave the house? The implication was that any woman who showed up was asking for whatever she was getting. Denigration was the price a woman paid for fame. The fact that not all of these women were seeking or desiring fame didn’t seem to matter.

Carolyn Chernoff, a sociologist who studies women and popular culture, said this media scrutiny seemed to worsen in the 1980s, perhaps in reaction to feminist gains. “More and more women are in the workplace, getting more power, visibly working in powerful jobs,” she said. This led to what she called a “correction”, with the media coming after any woman perceived as too famous, too powerful, too exposed.

Ironically, the feminist gains of the 80s and 90s weren’t even particularly strong. “We had Sally Ride going to space and Toni Morrison winning the Pulitzer,” said Allison Yarrow, author of “90s Bitch: Media, Culture and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality.” “But what I realize now is that it’s one woman per industry that can be successful.”

According to Yarrow’s analysis, famous women who found themselves in the news were the targets of negative coverage. Worse, she says, the narrative has become that the women deliberately engineered negative coverage for personal gain.

Cindi Leive, former editor of women’s magazines Self and Glamour, said that in the late 90s “there was definitely a general feeling of looking at celebrities as sport”. (The the magazines she edited weren’t as brutal as the tabloids, but they reaffirmed some of the same prejudices.) “There’s an element of dehumanization that has crept into all of our coverage – the industry in the sense wide,” Leive said.

If you flipped through certain magazines in those days, you could be forgiven for thinking that there was no right way to be a woman, only wrong ones – bimbo or frump, slut or prudish, shrew or doormat. The line seemed impossible to walk, especially with heels – although being pretty, white, slim and rich usually gave you a head start. For women who violated the hegenomic norm in other ways, the challenges were far worse, but not necessarily public scrutiny.

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