When women make tabloid headlines for drug-related incidents, four female tropes rise out of the quagmire.
The Party Girl overdoses on party drugs and is is fetishised on the front page. Ideally, she’s blonde (which will be noted copiously), pretty, and has a character referee who will vouch she had never before taken a pill in her life. Besides, the Party Girl didn’t take a pill, she ‘fell victim’ to one, suffering ‘an adverse reaction’. It's a tragedy.
Professor Steve Allsop from the National Drug Research Institute tells me he thinks of this as ‘open-casket coverage’. In the case of Lorna Spinks, a ‘pretty teenager’ from the UK who died in 2001, The Mirror was so voyeuristic that it captioned a photograph her parents provided with: ‘She lies dead, her body ravaged by the super-strong ecstasy pills’. This Hammer Horror-style ghoulishness runs rife in both hemispheres: ‘Pretty blonde Anita’ (The Sun, 1999), ‘Pretty brunette’ (Daily Star), ‘Deadly ecstasy pill takes a beautiful girl’s life’ (Daily Telegraph, 2014), ‘Blonde nail technician’ (Evening Standard, 2013).
'Party Girl' is an enduring term. Twenty years after the BBC applied it to Leah Betts (‘Ecstasy Puts Party Girl in Coma’), the Daily Telegraph ran with ‘Party Girl Out of Danger After Suspected Drug Overdose’. It moved satirist Chris Lilley to write a deeply salacious song for his series Summer Heights High, about a ‘party girl with a bad habit for drugs'.
The overriding message of Party Girl coverage is that the victim didn’t deserve it. Which is quite correct – nobody deserves to die from a drug overdose. What’s up for consideration is that this isn’t the overriding message when it comes to coverage of the other tropes of women.
The Disgraced Middle-Classer has been a hit with readers ever since pulp fiction novels depicted nice girls in torn blouses being corrupted by jazz dopefiends. In media terms, she’s older than the Party Girl, less pervable, and smug enough to be taken down a peg or two by a headline that can barely contain its glee. 'From Daddy's Little Girl to Ice Junkie' was one summary of Harriet Wran, the daughter of former NSW Premier Neville Wran. ‘Ha ha,’ it might have added.
When London novelist Tania Glyde wrote the addiction memoir Cleaning Up, the Daily Mail summarised her thus: ‘Born into middle-class comfort, she was the only child of an industry manager and a former advertising executive turned stay-at-home mum.’ Renowned British journalist Rosie Boycott did the job herself, calling her booze memoir A Nice Girl Like Me.
But the Disgraced Middle-Classer is unlikely to fall as far as the next trope, the Slovenly Mum. She’s public enemy number one. She’s poor, she lives in a shit suburb, she doesn’t have honeyed skin or lustrous blonde hair, and she’s apparently sucking the life out of tax payers. This woman doesn’t suffer an ‘adverse reaction’ to drugs, she’s a ‘junkie’, a ‘zombie’, an ‘addict’. If she’s one of a couple who stands accused of negligence or abuse while in the throes of ice or alcohol, it will be her Facebook page that the tabloids raid for photographs.
The Slovenly Mum doesn’t feature kindly in popular culture, either. In song, she’s Marianne Faithfull’s pathetic, pill-gobbling tragedy in ‘The Ballad of Lucy Jordan’; the gin-soaked divorcee haunting bars for cock in The Rolling Stones’ ‘Honky-Tonk Woman’. In film, she’s mean-drunk Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf; and Kirsten, in Days of Wine and Roses, who drunkenly sets fire to her apartment and almost kills her child.
In essence, she is a dumping ground for disgust.
Lastly there’s the Fallen Starlet. In the early 20th century, practically all young female talent in Hollywood were encouraged to winsomely wither, by being medicated by studios for weight loss. After being cast as forever-young Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland’s constant diet of amphetamines and barbiturates led to her overdose at the age of 47. Marilyn Monroe, who overdosed on barbiturates, was a candle in the wind. Modern-day Ophelia Whitney Houston slipped quietly under the water of her bath, her heart giving out through cocaine use. Countless movie characters, from Anna in Dogs in Space, to Lynne in 1967’s Point Blank, Nadine in Drugstore Cowboy, Rosie in Another Day in Paradise and Michelle in Jesus’ Son have also quietly succumbed to overdose, inducing much pathos in the male lover left behind.
The drug-afflicted celebrities who don’t disappear delicately need to be frogmarched to the bitter end. Amy Winehouse, Peaches Geldof and – very nearly – Britney Spears were hounded aggressively to their downfalls. In Amy’s case, the punishment verged on assault. Headlines in the lead-up to her death in 2011 included ‘Amy on Crack’, ‘Amy and New Hubby Copycat Cuts Shock’, ‘Amy Winehouse gets Dodgy Boob Job’, ‘My Bizarre Night in the Disturbing World of Amy Winehouse’, ‘Tearful Amy Winehouse Spends the Night in Jail After Her Arrest Over Pub Assault’ and ‘Amy Winehouse Stumbles Out of Restaurant Exposing Her Pot Belly’. These prompted satirical news site The Onion to come up with their own headline that blends in seamlessly: ‘Things Amy Winehouse Mumbled Before She Stole Our Coffee Maker’.