On Heroes and Whores: Why Are the Drug-Related Deaths of Women Mocked, But Those of Men Glorified?

Peaches Geldof and son.
Peaches Geldof and son.

Yesterday, 25-year-old Peaches Geldof died of as yet unknown causes; it was as New York‘s Kat Stoeffel put it, an “unexpectedly unexpected death.” Geldof was a British socialite, a mother of two boys under the age of two, and the daughter of musician and Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof and the late writer and journalist Paula Yates, who died of a heroin overdose in 2000. She was also someone who had reportedly long-struggled with substance abuse issues (including a well-publicized, allegedly heroin-fueled night at the Scientology Center in Hollywood) and was no stranger to controversy (see: her decision to wear a Confederate Flag t-shirt around the time she was living in Williamsburg). However, in recent years she had become a mother, gotten married, moved to the London suburb of Kent, and settled down into the kind of life (filled with attachment parenting and populating her Instagram feed with photos of her children) that is instantly recognizable to all of us who know oversharing people with children. While nothing in her recent reality makes Geldof’s death any more lamentable than if she hadn’t cleaned up her life, it had seemed like she’d escaped the sad fate of so many people (and many of them tragically young) who have dealt with addiction and substance abuse. Even though the cause of Geldof’s death remains unclear, many are speculating that—even if it wasn’t directly attributable to substance abuse—there is reason to think that it was in some way related to her previous struggles.

And this, for some people, is enough to declare open season on mocking the death of a young woman who had lived an undoubtedly troubled life. Almost immediately after news broke of Geldof’s death, comments amassed under posts on sites like Gawker, wherein those brave anonymous hordes reacted to the information by saying things like, “so much for being attached to her child at all times” and “spoiled rotten, never worked a day in her life, living off her father’s money” and the perennial favorite when someone who is not, I don’t know, Marilyn Monroe dies, “Who the fuck is this woman?” To be sure, there were also many people who responded sensitively, both to Geldof’s death and to those who questioned “who the fuck” Geldof even was (it’s called Google, everyone; use it), but the overwhelming response to Geldof’s death was reminiscent of the reaction to the death of Amy Winehouse in that the majority of the public seems to hold both of these women responsible for their demises, regardless of the circumstances; in short, they deserved to die.

Celebrity death by overdose (or suicide or driving too fast or living too hard) is nothing new. But while some people are immediately lionized—Heath Ledger, Philip Seymour Hoffman, David Foster Wallace, Kurt Cobain—and understood to be the victims of forces (addiction or depression or other forms of mental illness or all of the above) larger than themselves, others wind up being vilified, and their deaths (like those of Geldof and Winehouse and Whitney Houston) frequently follow long periods of mockery in the media, during which their exploits are fodder for public consumption and judgment. And, of course, it’s no coincidence that the people who are often most harshly judged in death are women, because it is the women who live a life that veers the furthest from society’s norms are the ones who are also judged the harshest in life.

After Amy Winehouse died, there were jokes aplenty made about the fact that whoever had chosen that day in the “Amy Winehouse Death Pool” was going to make out like a bandit. Other names that have been bandied about in Celebrity Death Pools over the last ten years include Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, and Courtney Love. Rarely are there any men on these lists. (One notable exception is probably Charlie Sheen, but whereas his exploits earned him a—momentary—career resurgence and no small amount of hero worship, the women on this type of list tend to be professionally doomed unless they manage to clean up their acts.) And that’s no accident. Men—especially creative ones—are forgiven, or even encouraged in, their transgressions. Their destructive behavior—whether its directed at themselves or at others—is romanticized to a degree that only perpetuates the self-serving mythology surrounding artists and men in general, namely that all geniuses are tortured and so their actions should uniformly be forgiven. Meanwhile, no matter how famous or talented (and, really, I don’t want to hear about how Peaches Geldof was not David Foster Wallace; of course she wasn’t, but that doesn’t mean she had no humanity) a woman is, her transgressive actions are scrutinized and judged according to the standards of a patriarchal society that doesn’t want to see messy women, that still needs women to fit into the paradigm of virgin and whore. Or, at least, if that woman does prove to be a fuck-up? Then she’d better suffer for it.

The problem with this kind of sexism-in-death (as well as in life, of course) isn’t simply the glorification or denunciation of anyone’s demise, but that we don’t allow women to publicly live the same kind of complicated lives that men do. There is no equivalent “virgin/whore” binary for men, and so when Phillip Seymour Hoffman died of an overdose, there was no difficulty understanding how a man who had a family and children that he loved could also succumb to addiction. Instead, there was a great deal of compassion shown for Hoffman, and an understanding that there are no simple reasons behind almost anyone’s actions. We owe women that same kind of respect, that same acknowledgment of humanity, that same recognition of a person’s imperfections being part of what makes them a person. There’s no reason to mock anyone’s death or anyone’s life just because they lived in a way that’s different from how we’ve been told they should live. Maybe Peaches Geldof was spoiled and loud and did heroin and was all sorts of things that we don’t want a woman to be, but that doesn’t make her deserving of death any more than Hoffman’s heroin use made him deserving. Most of us are just doing the best we can, and that might mean we’re still fucked up. But that’s ok. That’s life.

In closing, here are some wise words from writer J. Escobedo Shepherd:

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen