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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  • http://feministing.com/members/samll/ Sam Lindsay-Levine

    The contrast you give doesn’t seem like a very good parallel – most obituaries list something related to cause of death in the first paragraph, and I think it’s presumed that Ms. Houston’s death was drug-related.

    I don’t follow celebrity death announcements, but googling around for a recent male celebrity who died of drug-related causes turned up Mikey Welsh, and almost all of the obituaries for him started with the information that the cause of death was a drug overdose.

  • http://feministing.com/members/nessa/ Venessa S

    I agree that people are always entranced by a trainwreck… you can’t look away, but I’m not sure the obsession is amplified by her being a woman. We were all just as sad/devastated/intrigued when River Phoenix died, and everyone knew drugs would most likely be the culprit. The narrative is more about tragedy, and loss of a person with so much talent and success… with so much to lose.

  • http://feministing.com/members/tetesagehen/ Teresa Valdez Klein

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the similarities between Whitney Houston and Steve Jobs. Both were known drug users. Neither was a model parent. Both were prone to erratic, bizarre behavior.

    A lot of people justify their contempt for Whitney Houston by saying, “she abused her body with drugs.” But Steve Jobs abused his body too – by trying to cure pancreatic cancer with apple juice. And yet despite all his foibles, Jobs is remembered as a hero who revolutionized his industry.

    Whitney revolutionized her industry too.

    • honeybee

      I don’t think Jobs is seen as a hero… his flaws are well known and no one I know would want him as a relative (other then for his money).

      He was a hero in terms of business success and changing the world. But he was not a good person. The people I talk to recognize the distinction.

  • http://feministing.com/members/toongrrl/ toongrrl

    I remember Whitney Houston in the Brandy version of Cinderella and thought she made an awesome fairy godmother and then she had produced The Princess Diaries film adaptation. Miss her and Wendy Williams made a beautiful speech about her, admittedly the first time I saw her in a serious light.
    Arnold and the gang http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=saLC0JsfsRk&feature=fvsr

  • http://feministing.com/members/piblogger/ Jon Hansen

    Branding expert Roz Usheroff talked about what we can learn from Whitney Houston’s tragic death . . . above all else be true to yourself (http://wp.me/p1XSrf-7j).

  • http://feministing.com/members/logibear/ Dudley

    I have to say that I fond the point of this blog to be very skewed and selective in terms of its rationality. Nobody is enjoying the demise of Whitney Houston, particularly because she is a woman. Her drug problems are in the public eye because she was open about them and because she is a public icon. Almost everybody who is a public icon and sho is involved in risky behavior has storiesz run about their issues. It’s not even remotely limited to women, or to women of color. At all. I am sure that if the opposite were to happen, and her death was largely ignored, the same people complainig about this would be complaining about how iconic women are ignored in the media, not given proper recognition because they are women, and how that’s a problem in our “sexist” society,