Scandalized women are bouncing back bigtime

Published: Sunday, January 23, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 23, 2005 at 3:32 a.m.
Enlarge |

Kirstie Alley and her quest to lose weight are the centerpiece of her new Showtime comedy series, "Fat Actress," that lampoons everything and everyone, including its star. The series debuts March 6.

The Associated Press
Kirstie Alley ate her way to obesity and gossip-page scorn, but she will return to prime time in March with a show that's more anticipated than anything she has done since ''Cheers.''
Martha Stewart, the paragon of domesticity, will soon reappear on television too, and though she remains stuck at a West Virginia prison, her company's stock went up nearly 7 percent after the announcement of a deal with NBC. Advertisers are returning to her magazine as they detect a melting of her icy image.
Women, it seems, have finally upended the double standard that allows scandal-slagged men to re-emerge to a hero's welcome while the ladies are pushed back down into the muck. Gone, social critics say, are the days when Robert Mitchum could ride his 1949 jail sentence for marijuana possession to bigger parts and greater esteem while his contemporary Ingrid Bergman was denounced on the Senate floor as an ''apostle of degradation'' for having had a child out of wedlock and was shunned by Hollywood for seven years.
And remember Vanessa Williams and Lisa Bonet? Their soft-core nudity in the 1980s nearly killed their careers. Or how about Anita Hill and Monica Lewinsky? Ascribing sexual indiscretions to powerful men turned them into pariahs, even as Clarence Thomas, Bill Clinton and a host of sexual adventurers including R. Kelly and Marv Albert - who was back on the air a year after a girlfriend accused him of biting her and forcing her to perform oral sex - came through scandals in good repair.
Men, said Leo Braudy, the author of ''The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History'' (Oxford, 1986), have always been given more opportunities to make a comeback. ''There are plenty of examples of the public saying bad boys will be boys,'' he said. ''Nobody said girls would be girls.''
Well, things have changed. Paris Hilton did not skulk from view after several grainy videos of her having sex were posted on the Internet. On the contrary, her spoiled-heiress image brought her modeling and book deals. With Alley and Stewart also on the march, and at a time when Ellen DeGeneres and even Williams, a former Miss America, have also rediscovered supportive constituencies, women once scorned have come a long way, baby.
''There's more freedom to fail,'' said Elaine Lafferty, the editor of Ms. Magazine. ''Years ago the women's movement said all they wanted was the chance to be as mediocre as men. Now they have the chance to crash and burn as well.''
Karal Ann Marling, an author of several books on American culture including ''As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s'' (Harvard University Press, 1994), offered a similar take. ''It all goes to show that women can be as idiotic as men without much penalty,'' she said. ''Anybody who makes a public spectacle of making a comeback and/or telling all contritely can succeed.''
A view frequently heard online and among social critics is that women like Alley, Stewart and Hillary Rodham Clinton are feminist causes celebres. ''The opposition to Hillary Clinton's health plan was so ferocious, and I can't help but think it was because she was a woman,'' said Wendy Steiner, author of ''The Scandal of Pleasure: Art in an Age of Fundamentalism'' (University of Chicago Press, 1995). ''Martha Stewart's business dealings were treated much more severely in the press than those men who did that sort of thing.''
The networks that made recent deals with Alley and Stewart are essentially betting on this sense of outrage, media critics say. They are hoping that the same female viewers who have made Oprah the Queen of All Media will also embrace these latter-day heroines.
To watch the new Martha Stewart show on cooking and style, scheduled to begin in September, will be to spit daggers about the five-month prison term she will have served by then even while Kenneth Lay, the former Enron chairman, was still free pending trial. To buy a tabloid with the overweight Alley on the cover is to damn the Vogues of the world with their models the size of javelins. Refusing to banish Hilton is at some level a protest against the fact that her boyfriends have failed to be equally scandalized.
''Women now are asserting themselves against a male-dominated society,'' said Neal Gabler, author of ''Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality'' (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998). ''Martha's rehabilitation or the fact that Kirstie can be popular even though she's fat is definitely a woman's assertion. This is a function of women feeling more empowered than they ever felt before.''
That both women have suffered for their sins makes their public following only broader and more intense. The Puritan ethos applied to Hester Prynne in ''The Scarlet Letter'' remains strong: Flawed women are best when served after a marinade in penance.
Once that banishment was lengthy, if not permanent. Take Bergman. She was one of the biggest box-office draws of the 1940s, the star of ''Casablanca'' and a four-time Oscar nominee, but when she left her husband and daughter for the Italian director Roberto Rossellini in 1949, she became an unwanted prodigal. She spent seven years in Europe before cracking back into Hollywood with ''Anastasia,'' for which she earned her fifth Oscar nomination and second award.
Williams, forced to give up her Miss America tiara in 1984 when it became known that Penthouse planned to publish nude pictures of her, also endured years of obscurity before attaining a moderately successful musical career. DeGeneres and her ex-lover Anne Heche hibernated too, after their messy breakup, before resuming their careers.
No such waiting was necessary for Robert Mitchum, who starred in three Hollywood films the year after his marijuana arrest and in more than 50 others afterward. Hugh Grant, who was in a long-term relationship with the model Elizabeth Hurley when he was arrested with a prostitute in 1995, never suffered professionally either.
But that would be par for the course. Men have often managed to avoid the consequences of their scandals while women were expected to endure them like childbirth: pain followed by reward. As the conservative commentator Larry Kudlow wrote in a recent column, Stewart is ''a successful woman who made a mistake, is paying the price for that mistake and will embark on a new chapter in her life when she is released in March.''
''Stewart's story,'' he wrote, ''is as American as pumpkin pie.''
At least now the duration of the penance has shrunk. Stewart's television deal was announced in December, two months after she began serving her prison sentence, just as preconviction public opinion about her - that hubris caused her to lie about a stock sale and that she deserved punishment - seemed to be tipping to a judgment that she had been treated too harshly. Her new show, produced by the creator of ''Survivor,'' may be even more popular than an earlier show that was dropped by stations when the scandal broke.
New technologies may be helping tarnished women avoid the abyss. Because the television audience has become so segmented among the free and cable channels, a program or a celebrity now requires a smaller audience to succeed, Braudy, the ''Frenzy of Renown'' author, explained. And Gabler, author of ''Life: The Movie,'' pointed out that public opinion is now registered in more varied ways, showing up on fan Web sites, for example, as well as in TiVo viewing data and in statistics about big-selling magazine covers. The issue of Star magazine last April that featured a hugely unflattering picture of Kirstie Alley and blared ''What Happened and Why!'' sold more than 1 million copies, ''fantastically well,'' said Bonnie Fuller, the editorial director of American Media, the publisher.
In short order Alley was able to transmute this muck into gold by making a deal with Showtime to star in ''Fat Actress,'' a series that will send up her career-disabling obesity. ''Star would like to take some credit for helping her reignite her career by bringing her into the public eye,'' Fuller said. ''I think 'Fat Actress' is going to be a big hit.'' From public ridicule to a new show in just 11 months.
Pop culture has essentially become like politics - a place where the public can exert power - argued Gabler, who also wrote ''Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity'' (Knopf, 1994). ''We are not simply watching anymore,'' he said. ''We're participating.''
Some critics are not exactly convinced that consumer populism should be lauded as a sign of positive change. Wendy Steiner, the ''Scandal of Pleasure'' author, who teaches English at the University of Pennsylvania, questions whether a couple of television shows about a fat woman obsessing about her career and a queen of homemaking really amount to feminist progress. She said she feared that these women would be limited once they return to the small screen.
''From now on Martha's whole public image will probably only be about domesticity,'' Steiner said. ''Anything that has to do with money will be handled by someone else.''
It is a truism that fame and infamy have become almost interchangeable in today's celebrity culture. But another interpretation might be that society's understanding of women has grown more multifaceted. ''People have learned to view women's personalities in a more complicated way,'' Braudy said. ''It used to be, you had a moral flaw, you've made some kind of breach in the social contract, and that split you in half. It radiated through every part of your personality.
''Now people compartmentalize a lot more,'' he said. ''In order to be idolized you no longer have to be idealized.''

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

Comments are currently unavailable on this article

▲ Return to Top