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January 23, 2008
Heath Ledger’s Death
and the Cultural Double Standard
the days following 28-year-old Heath Ledger’s tragic, too-young death on
Tuesday, possibly the result of an overdose – as suggested by the
prescription medications scattered around his body – I hope that the
media will start to loosen their grip on the similarly troubled young
females in Hollywood.
There are a plethora of lessons to be learned from a familiar face
losing his or her life to preventable causes, as seems to be the case in
Ledger’s death. And granted, many of these lessons are more pressing
than the amount of attention given to each gender in the media.
But it seems relevant to explore why the media salivate over the
drug use, drunk driving and other mental instabilities of blonde,
troubled young women, but tend to give males of similar celebrity a free
pass. Did anyone know that Heath even had a drug problem? A close friend
of Ledger told US Magazine, “To tell you the truth . . . we saw
it coming. Heath has gone though a rough road of trying to get sober.”
While every Britney Spears’s rehab entrance and exit is intensely
scrutinized, few seemed to know that Heath was battling a substance
abuse problem at all.
Scarce a day goes by without a breaking story about Britney’s latest
breakdown or Paris’s latest party antics, and the fascination with
Hollywood “bad girls” has hit a fever pitch. Across the pond, too,
British signing sensation Amy Winehouse was recently caught on video
tape smoking a crack pipe and mumbling about taking “six valiums.” As a
culture, we are fascinated by girls gone bad.
Perhaps it’s because they defy the long-standing cultural norms of what
is expected of women and refuse to apologize for it. Perhaps boozing,
drug overdoses and wild behavior is considered standard for male
celebrities. The partying lifestyles of male rock stars are the stuff of
legend. Either way, it’s a ridiculous double-standard that males should
be expected to sow their wild oats while females remain genteel and
January 15th, once-rising star Brad Renfro, just 25, died of
what some suspected may be a drug overdose. Last year, British rocker Pete Doherty was caught on
tape, in Amy Winehouse fashion, shooting heroin into his own forearm.
Now, as the details of Heath Ledger’s untimely death become clear, it
seems that he, too, has succumbed to a deadly vice. The first two news
events were barely a blip on the pop-culture radar.
Brad Renfro’s popularity was comparable to that of Anna Nichole Smith.
Both had once been recognizable faces with bright futures, both went on
a downward spiral after their peak of celebrity, each defined by their
transgressions rather than any actual professional work. Both had lives
that ended early, at a point when their names were fading in the
Hollywood memory, and both left behind a child. Yet the news coverage
dedicated to the two deaths is incomparable. Those who didn’t know who
Anna Nicole was when she passed away surely came to know her in the days
that followed, while those who didn’t know of Brad Renfro before
probably still don’t.
When a troubled female celebrity also happens to be a mother, the outcry
gets even louder. Tabloids love when they can accuse a celebrity
of being an unfit mother. Again, it seems unnatural for a woman
to choose a night of partying over a night of sitting at home with the
There is certainly some validity to this sentiment. If one wants to have
children, she should probably accept that binge drinking and late nights
will have to become a thing of the past, no matter her ease of access to
nannies and unlimited mind-altering substances. However, seldom do
fathers receive that same scolding media treatment. Colin Farrell, for
example, has a young son and a notorious hard-partying reputation. Jack
Nicholson has five different children by four different women, yet
remains an Academy Award winning actor and American favorite. Anyone
who makes the choice to have a child should make it his or her duty to
keep clean and care for him or her.
Hard-partying has become a problem for both sexes of Hollywood young
people, and one that seems to be producing more and more tragic
consequences for those who get wrapped up in it. Rather than
glamorizing these behaviors or shaming women for going against their
nature as pillars of virtue, we should examine ways to combat the
problem and keep it from seeping too deeply into the conscience of
America’s non-Hollywood youth, and that includes addressing that
partying too hard holds consequences for both sexes.
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