Whitney Houston and moving beyond tragic narratives for women

Given the frenetic pace at which we overcome public deaths–writing about Whitney Houston five full days since she passed feels like old news. This, in and of itself, is sad. But even sadder is the lessons we learned this week about fame, addiction and tragedy, which are lasting.

Like many others, Whitney Houston’s death felt really personal to me. I was never a mega-Whitney fan, but her music played in the background throughout my life, like most of us in our 30s. One of my fondest Romy and Michele-esque memories was performing a choreographed dance to “How Will I Know” for the 4th grade “spring fling.” This is one of the few memories I have from childhood of being included in something, as opposed to being teased all the time.

Her death felt personal to me for another reason. I have dealt with a lot of addiction, feelings of alienation and self hate in my life, both personally and through friends. I recognize what it takes for people to overcome such afflictions and as a result found myself instantly filled with anger and frustration at how a woman could be so much in the public eye–a public so aware of her problems–and just not ever be able to surround herself with the people that could help her. How could someone that sang songs that filled our hearts with love and joy be robbed of that very human connection and transformative love that get most of us through our darkest hours?

The stories of women and specifically women of color that have dealt with addiction are rarely positive. And they shouldn’t be, unless you have overcome addiction there really isn’t much that is positive about it–but it feels like people take joy in watching the demise of these women.

I was really struck by this segment by Wendy Williams–a very emotional confession about overcoming addiction.

You can hear in her voice a frustration with the way these stories are told. The images and headlines that followed Houston’s death were some of the worst and most insensitive. And every time this happens–it feels like a cautionary tale. When we continually see stories of female success ending as tragedy, there is a subtle narrative that as a woman, you can’t have it all.

Part of my frustration came from what I felt was the sexism in the reporting of her death. Every story that wrote about her death discussed her drug addiction within the first paragraph. Perhaps it is because this is the most recent information that was public about her life but it was notable in contrast to last week’s news that Don Cornelius had committed suicide. When I was searching for some background on Don Cornelius’s history of domestic violence, I could find barely any record of it. Instead, almost every obituary boasted about his (quite notable) impact on American culture.

There is a history of documenting and fetishizing the demise of women. It’s part of our celebrity obsessed culture, but it is a unique pressure for women and we love to watch women flounder. As Amanda and I discuss in this week’s podcast there is a lack of appreciation in our culture for just how difficult it is for women in the public eye.

Houston had a great impact on American culture and music, but her lasting memory is the demons she couldn’t overcome. Does this feed some fantasy about talent, drug use and caged birds that sing? Maybe–but this is the exact narrative that has to disappear if we want women in leadership positions, in popular culture or in the public eye. We must support them in strength more than we obsess over their demise.

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