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.
Of course, we enjoy watching famous men fall apart, too. Mel Gibson's name and face are everywhere at the moment, typically attached to choice quotes along the lines of "you look like a fucking pig in heat, and if you get raped by a pack of niggers, it will be your fault," and some reflections on how abhorrent the quotes are. Still, when you compare the sins of Mel Gibson (racism, threats of violence and rape, sexism, allegedly punching his girlfriend while she held their child) to the crimes of Lindsay Lohan (doing drugs, drunk driving, being generally unprofessional) it seems clear that one of them has had to work a bit harder to become infamous. And men seem to have more avenues open for rehabilitation: Just look at all the adoration reserved for Robert Downey, Jr. and Mickey Rourke, men whose struggles with alcohol and drugs are well-known and readily forgiven. Last year, at the Golden Globes, Mike Tyson took the stage to help director Todd Phillips accept the Best Picture – Comedy award for The Hangover. His name was applauded, and loving jokes were made at his expense: You'd never know the man was a convicted rapist. The stories of badly behaved women, on the other hand, tend to end in obscurity or early death. The most a girl who's made some unfortunate choices can hope for, it would seem, is to become a joke, along the lines of Elizabeth Taylor.
And then, there's the uncomfortable fact that these stories of celebrity girls gone wrong are marketed, very often, to women. And many women enjoy them. "Is it because we have so little control in our own lives that taking joy in others' misfortune makes us feel better? Or maybe we like seeing the young women who represent these unattainable beauty standards crashing and burning," notes Jessica Valenti, in her book He's a Stud, She's a Slut. Maybe. For women who feel decidedly un-exalted in their own lives, knowing that the women who have everything are somehow "worse" than we are can be a comfort. No one likes to believe that the folks on top really deserve their positions; it leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that those of us on the bottom might deserve ours, too.
But "bad girls," and their public humiliation, can serve more than one purpose. On the one hand, they can help to keep the "good girls" in line; Lindsay Lohan serves as a cautionary tale, an illustration of how too much freedom inevitably leads to self-destruction and the contempt of strangers. On the other, these girls let us live through them; they live out our worst potential for us, and let us define ourselves against them, without guilt. If there weren't any bad girls, after all, would there be any good girls? Would we know how to recognize ourselves, or who we aren't supposed to be?