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

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:

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  1. I’m not sure this has anything more to do with Geldof being a woman than it did to do with people just being nasty. Plenty of comments about Hoffman said “we don’t care he died, who the fuck was he, what a druggie idiot” etc. Also the tone in the uk has been overwhelmingly supportive of Geldof. The uk press has described her as not a massive drug user, and comments have been protective RIP type messages.

    I’m a feminist and write about gender equality but I’m not sure I can see the Geldof-Hoffman comparison. It’s just totally different situations. I think a few people being disgusting on Twitter is a depressingly normal experience.

    • I gotta agree – there are just as many jokes about guys like Belushi and Hoffman and Charlie Sheen as there are misguided folks who want to idolize them. And let’s face it – a drug-fuelled scientology orgy is going to be grist for the humor mill and stick to somebody no matter what sex they are.

      And “drug-shaming”? For fuck’s sake – if you have kids and you’re still fucking around with heroin, you SHOULD be fucking ashamed of yourself. And you deserve to be shamed by decent people. That’s just the truth.

      For fuck’s sake, enough with the third wave victimology and excuses for terrible behavior – take some fucking responsibility for yourselves and grow up already, ladies.

      • To be clear, in that case Hoffman and Cobain “SHOULD be fucking ashamed of [themselves]. And [they] deserve to be shamed by decent people” since they had families as well? Also, is there nothing to be said for people that get into these dangerous drugs vis a vis heavy prescriptions, like a UCLA graduate friend who had a surgery from a water polo accident and turned to heroin after becoming hopelessly addicted to his oxycotton prescription? He is now homeless. “Shouldn’t have been fucking around”!

  2. Mostly, I am just so confused about what this has to do with Brooklyn. I don’t mean to come off nasty, but it’s more and more disappointing all the time as a reader to come here looking for stuff in any way relevant to the borough, and then getting things like this instead.

    The GIRLS recaps seemed far fetched enough, but now we’re actually talking about someone from the other side of the ocean, who’s much better known on the other side of the ocean, whose public life took place largely on the other side of the ocean, and who died on the other side of the ocean. So what are the parameters for content on this site?

    • Sorry that you’re confused, but we think cultural commentary (that, yes, was inspired by the response to the death of a young woman who only briefly lived in Williamsburg) is relevant to our readers despite not having a Brooklyn-specific angle. However, if you only want to read about this borough, 14 of our 16 most recent posts are focused solely on Brooklyn (the two exceptions being this one and an article about the Staten Island Ferry).

  3. I’m glad you wrote this to bring attention to women who seem to be shamed post-death. However, I agree with some of the other comments that it’s a bit of a stretch to compare Geldof to Hoffman for several reasons (I do hate to bring up the talent card but…..) the main one being that her death hasn’t been ruled to be drug related. Right now there is speculation however I read today that it also could be related to an eating disorder. As for the negative comments through social media I do think they abound around any controversial death, it just depends what outlet you choose to read or follow.

    The sadness that comes with any death of a public figure is usually contested without reason. Sending love to Peaches’ family, friends and sweet little children who now are left motherless and ten years earlier then she was.

  4. I appreciate the sentiment, but I think you are confusing media and people. What I mean by that is that people write dumb shit all the time, but it has very little to do with real feelings and sentiments that circulate through social conciousness. Overwhelmingly, Ms. Geldolf’s death is recognised with horror and sadness, by millions of people who don’t write dumb shit about it. I love that you wrote this, because it shows you care about her as a person, but I think you’re wrong about your conclusion.

  5. Perhaps I subconsciously have surrounded myself with an overwhelming amount of folks possessing the sensitivity chip, but I do not know a single person who has commented on this, and has not expressed heartfelt sorrow over Peaches…a beautiful life, seemingly recovered from adversity, silenced waay too young. I agree with some of the other comments, people post unadulterated crap about other people, hiding behind their devices, and likely would not express face-to-face their chosen written venom and negativity about such a sorrow filled situation, whether the death was male or female. People like that need to hone their face-to-face communication skills, and perhaps in the process, compassion just may return to them, if they ever had it at all.

  6. which men have been glorified because they died of drugs? it seems like a broad generalization… Why did the article features a photo of Peaches Geldof whose death most likely was not drug related but possibly to her diet? Did people mock Marilyn Monroe? I do not think so. Did people mock Kirsten Pfaff, a member of teh band Hole because she died of overdose?

    How many people made jokes about Keith Moon’s substance abuse?

    I think it has to do more with lifestyle than gender. People mock Lindsay Lohan, Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen for their substance abuse related misadventures.

  7. Thank you for writing this. I didn’t even realize the difference, but now that I do – it is total bullshit.

  8. Since when was peaches Geldof’s death drug-related?

    Since when were drug-related deaths of men glorified?

    This is pseudo-feminist self-pity

  9. We don’t mock mail trainwrecks? Justin Bieber. Corey Haim. And yes, Charlie Sheen. The main difference with Sheen is that he was self-aware enough to capitalize on his decline while it was at is hottest. His popularity spiked, and I’m pretty sure that a “Winning” t-shirt will get you nothing but sneers in all but the most ironic of pubs, yet during his self-destruction phase, he was 100% milking it for all its worth.

    We’re a society of cynics. We love a train wreck and sex has nothing to do with it.

  10. It appears that the writer really had to struggle for this angle on this story. Amy Winehouse has been glorified far in excess of her contributions to music. Marilyn Monroe (I know, she was mentioned in the article) would be a footnote were it not for her overdose death. Most people had never heard of this woman before her unfortunate death. Possibly that is why there is no outpouring of grief. Anonymous drug addicts tend to die anonymously, with little fanfare.

    There are very real ways in which women are marginalized in our society. That they do not get their share of grief from internet bloggers when they OD is not one of them.