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This Tuesday, TMZ hosted a live video feedhref> of Lindsay Lohan making her way to Lynnwood's Century Regional Detention Center. There wasn't much, apparently, that the video feed could show: The live blog for the event is full of information phoned in or gleaned from elsewhere. Lindsay was driving to the courthouse; Lindsay was in the courthouse; Lindsay was being cuffed, but TMZ couldn't film it; Lindsay was being driven to jail. Still, the brief, customary shuffle had the feeling of an entertainment event. Fans held signs; photographers tried to catch the definitive "last look" at the prisoner; someone threw confetti. Later that night, blogs would report Lohan's jailhouse Tweets, and various experts on the Lohan case, including Lohan's estranged and very publicity-friendly father, would opine about the matter on Larry King. For years now, Lindsay Lohan's movies have done poorly with critics and audiences alike. Her name is no incitement to buy tickets. But this—well, this was a show.
Watching Lindsay Lohan's downfall—which was not so much a quick, decisive loss of grace as it was a long, excruciating series of bad calls and public humiliations—has been popular for a very long time. The pull of the Lohan narrative isn't confined to any one group: It pays the bills of unashamed muckrakers and serious commentators alike, with the only difference being whether the tone of the coverage is gleeful or faux-concerned. Do you want to see a picture of a young woman's vagina, taken without her permission? Or do you want to see a picture of a woman's vagina, taken without her permission, attached to an article about how terrible it is that young women are doing this to themselves these days? It's the same dish, with two different sauces. The good news is, our appetite for it never seems to diminish.
And Lohan is part of a long line of tragic women. Celebrities who fall apart, humiliate themselves, or come to nasty ends take on a special kind of glow; they become icons, often for reasons having little or nothing to do with their careers. This is especially true if they're girls. We like sex bombs with dirty secrets and ugly deaths: Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Anna Nicole Smith. We like child stars who lose their innocence and their minds: Judy Garland, Britney Spears. We like messy relationships, sexual humiliations, some assurance that the beautiful, rich, and female are, in fact, in a great deal of pain. Lohan's coverage has been especially graphic and brutal—"Lesbian Prison Gangs Waiting to Get Hands on Lindsay Lohan,"href> ran the headline of a FOX News article; the "lesbian prison gangs" were either going to gang-rape her, beat her up, or just yell at her from their cells, according to the one source interviewed for the piece. But the narrative, and the desires it panders to, have been around at least since Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls. Illicit sex, crumbling marriages, catfights, addictions, poor Neely O'Hara stumbling through TV performances in a drugged-out haze: We want to see the bad girls punished. We also want to see how bad they can get.