In October 2019, a few days after World Mental Health Day, Caroline Flack, renowned television presenter and, until recently, host of ITV’s flagship show Love Island, took to Instagram to write about the pressure she felt under.
This warning shot, directed toward traditional media, trolls and fans alike, wasn’t heeded by all. When Flack and her boyfriend, Lewis Burton, were allegedly involved in a physical fight at her home on Thursday December 12, she was arrested and charged with assault. The tabloid furore that followed can only be described as gleeful.
The Daily Mail published close-up photographs of blood-spots on Flack’s pink front door, alongside a list entitled “A History of Flack’s Toyboy Lovers”. Painting Flack as a “cougar”, the implication was that she was somehow unbalanced, and that her charge of assault was an inevitable outcome of her unruly behaviour. Her penance.
It is of course impossible to know what happened, but the media’s treatment of Flack is sadly familiar and emblematic of a broader trend of treatment of female celebrities in and by the media. Over the years my work has focused closely on the media’s portrayal of gender. I’ve seen countless instances of the way that women – who have both talent and youth on their side and dare to date, dress glamorously and speak their minds – have been seen as a threat by the popular press.
Kathleen Rowe, an American former newspaper reporter and editor turned academic, wrote about “unruly women” back in the 1990s as women who “use humour and excess to undermine patriarchal norms and authority”, citing examples from Mae West to Roseanne Arnold. But contemporary unruly women arguably look and perform differently. As recent studies on celebrity suggest, modern-day celebrities are widely interpreted as images rather than as real people.
And this is particularly the case with women. In their study of the forms and functions of female celebrity, academics Su Holmes and Diane Negra identified a “gendered dynamic” in the contemporary treatment of celebrities, conveyed clearly through the “popular interest and pleasure in the misfortunes of female celebrities”. Citing comparative research undertaken by reporter Alex Williams and published in The New York Times, they noted his finding that parallel incidents involving drug use, attempted suicide, relationship breakdowns and mental health issues demonstrated a clear, gendered disparity. Williams concluded that:
Men who fall from grace are treated with gravity and distance, while women in similar circumstances are objects of derision, titillation and black comedy.
Celebrity as commodity
While the notion that stories and images can injure is well-trodden ground, it is easy to forget that news is not neutral on this score. High-profile women whose job, like Flack’s, is to “perform”, or to “front” shows, are particularly exposed to the risks of press intrusion and vilification. The media’s role in “taking them down a peg or two” isn’t new either, but speaks to a long history of women’s abuse by the media, tapping into and regurgitating the Madonna/whore dichotomy. Simply put, women are either chaste and maternal or bad, mad and promiscuous.
Of course, such a simplistic rendering of women works to benefit a society in which male power and control is retained. And many women beyond Flack have experienced similar treatment recently – from Amy Winehouse to Megan Markle.
This group of women isn’t homogeneous – but the pattern of their treatment is. Like all women, Flack’s life was undoubtedly complex, but was flattened for the benefit of a providing a known narrative, and driving sensational headlines.
Mental health is an important facet of the conversations that have come out in the press after the tragic news that Flack took her own life on February 15. While much of the news coverage has been empathetic, highlighting her talent and kindness toward others, there is still a sense in some stories that her struggles with mental health prove that she wasn’t a worthy woman after all. The Daily Mail couldn’t help reprising Flack’s “turbulent love life”, while The Sun – although sympathetic – speculated in some detail about Flack’s mental health.
It’s important to note that Flack herself hadn’t had an opportunity to speak about what had happened. In the months following her arrest, she was silenced, apart from a rare Instagram post in which she hinted at the pressure she was under.
Whether a legal silencing strategy or a PR-related one, what’s known is that Flack didn’t tell her story, at least not publicly. And considering the level of toxic trolling that high-profile women are frequently subjected to online, it’s not a surprise. Jesy Nelson from the girl-band Little Mix is just one recent example of a celebrity who reported that online trolling drove her to attempt to take her own life.
Much needs to change. The treatment of high-profile women in the press and online affects all women because it’s so visible, so palpable – from MPs, to celebrities, to teenage girls trying to navigate everyday life. But it also effects the whole of society. And we deserve better. The media is not however a hypodermic syringe, injecting us with a message that is directly and wholly received. We are not passive consumers.
But as British academic Rosalind Gill has argued, the media doesn’t just reflect society and gender norms, it shapes them. These representations and narratives about women are inauthentic – but, more than that, they are damaging. Change can happen but it needs to be structural and collective and kind. Imagine if we could all get behind that.