Whitney Houston onstage at the 2009 American Music Awards at the Nokia Theatre on November 22, 2009 in Los Angeles.  Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Whitney Houston onstage at the 2009 American Music Awards at the Nokia Theatre on November 22, 2009 in Los Angeles.  (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

How We Keep Killing Talented Women, Over and Over

How We Keep Killing Talented Women, Over and Over

America loves to watch a woman fall apart.

The prettier she is, the more magnetic her presence, the less attainable her talents, the better. The swan dive from good graces is longer, then, and that much more satisfying. On some subconscious level, I’d wager, it’s what we think she deserves; the scales of justice balancing themselves; due punishment for those who would dare to have it all.

This was the sick logic that lingered in my stomach last week as the credits rolled on Whitney: Can I Be Me, the new documentary chronicling the rise and fall of a woman considered by some to be the best singer of all time. A literally breathtaking talent. That smile. That voice. Houston died alone, in a bathtub, at 48. I turned down the volume, took off my headphones, and sat with the feeling: sadness, frustration, guilt.

Around me, on a darkened airplane, people were sleeping, or watching separate, small, silently flashing screens: Friends or When Harry Met Sally or Baby Driver. We were crossing the Atlantic Ocean, headed home to the U.S. after two weeks in Europe, two weeks I’d spent trying to enjoy simple things like ancient architecture and wine at lunch, without being suctioned into the vortex of Twitter and cable news and Trump’s latest horrors and oh god, the entirety of the monstrous Harvey Weinstein mountain tumbling down.

'Whitney: Can I Be Me' was released this year.
'Whitney: Can I Be Me' was released in August 2017. (Showtime)

My success rate was dismal, of course, especially on that last one. Something unavoidable was shifting -- is shifting -- and it’s for the better; I know that. Women are talking. Women are screaming. Women are flying blimps overhead bearing 12-foot-high banners that read This can’t just be how it is anymore. We’re f-cking DONE.

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Whitney provided a short detour for my rage on that flight, a side street, if you will, on my already considerable map of anger. Because as long as our culture views female bodies and voices as commodities -- which is of course not just an ingrained belief but the basis of entire industries: massive, tentacular economic systems -- we are going to keep killing talented women. The least we could do is stop acting surprised.

 

There’s a formula to how we chew up and spit out young female entertainers by now, and you know it as well as I do: we track the rise of a new It Girl who’s somewhere between the ages of 12 and 19. There are drooling GQ profiles, best-dressed lists at awards shows. A few years later, she “goes bad” -- addiction, mental illness, abusive relationships, nonsensical tweets -- and we make a spectacle of it, barely containing our collective glee. Bored at the office, we make chit-chat with coworkers, mocking each social media post, every failed rehab attempt; she becomes a punchline.

And then, when said It Girl dies, we get a sorrowful documentary with a sneaky, snaking narrative underneath about the inevitability of it all. Her death was tragic, we are told, but also fated somehow. Romantic, even.

Amy, the 2015 documentary about another startlingly talented woman done in by the demons of fame and addiction, skillfully and rightfully implicated you and I -- the viewers -- in this entire arc. We rubbernecked, we were reminded, at every trainwreck of a tabloid story. Her hit single was about refusing to get help, and it was sexy as hell -- even as photos screamed This is a person killing herself. Her father was a piece of work, to be sure, as were her romantic partners. But we were all complicit.

Whitney Houston in the video for 'I Wanna Dance With Somebody.'
Whitney Houston in the video for 'I Wanna Dance With Somebody.' (Arista Records)

Whitney didn’t drive this narrative home quite as forcefully as I might have liked, but in its place was a whole other one, full of ugly truths about racism and homophobia and the very narrow boxes we allow women to occupy. Whitney Houston was under every bit as much pressure as any starlet ever has been -- and she was black. It might be tough to imagine in 2017, when Beyoncé’s domination borders on theocracy, but it wasn’t so long ago that R&B did not drive pop culture; black women in particular were almost entirely absent from the mainstream charts.

Whitney was selected specifically to change that. Fresh out of high school, already a Seventeen cover girl and a backup singer for Chaka Khan, she landed in the hands of Clive Davis, who molded her career with the explicit intention of creating the perfect crossover artist. To accomplish this, Houston had to be not just a perfect singer, not just a perfect-looking woman, but a perfect representative for all black women: an ambassador to the white pop world. Her image -- crafted at the direction of a white man 30 years her senior -- was calculated, coy, and inoffensive. And then there was the real Whitney shining through: sweet, eager to please, a little rough around the edges, with charm for miles and a voice unlike anything the world had heard before or since.

To say it worked is an understatement. She was the first black woman to receive real rotation on MTV. Her self-titled 1985 debut was, at the time, the best-selling debut album by a solo artist ever. Her foray into acting yielded a blockbuster movie and perhaps the single best song to ever appear on a motion picture soundtrack (and certainly the best key change). She's received so many awards I’d need a whole other column just to list them.

She also paid the costs. At the 1989 Soul Train Awards, when her name was read as a nominee, she got booed. Loudly. The Soul Train Awards are about black music, and the show had a largely black audience. The daughter of a gospel singer, raised in a tight-knit black community, she was now perceived as having sold out: her music was “too white.” Those close to her said it broke her heart. It is maybe no coincidence that this is also the night she met Bobby Brown.

 

The saddest moment in the film arrives, however, when Houston’s best friend from high school and likely sometime-girlfriend, Robyn Crawford, is forcibly removed from the singer’s circle. She had always clashed with Brown (who was cheating left and right by this point, and enabling if not pushing Houston’s drug use). But more importantly, bisexuality rumors did not fit into the story Houston’s people were selling. Crawford didn’t participate in the documentary, but it's clear that as Houston began her dive toward rock bottom with drugs and alcohol, this friend was one of the last people left who truly wanted the best for the singer. Gone. And that’s about when the media began to cover Whitney Houston like this.

America loves to watch a woman fall apart.

Of course, that’s not even getting into the social stigmas women face with regard to addiction; how often they hide it compared to men and why; how very rarely we as a culture forgive them. Bobby Brown has been arrested for driving under the influence and attended rehab about a half-dozen times since Whitney died in 2012. Their daughter died under circumstances similar to her mother in 2015. Brown remarried, and by all accounts he's doing fine. At the very least: the tabloids don’t care what he’s doing.

I’m sick of romantic eulogies for people done in by industry abuse is another sentence that kept popping up in my brain this past week, as former It Girl Lindsay Lohan said some not-so-eloquently phrased things about the alleged assault she suffered at the hands of her former fiancé, and how few women in America seemed to care. Lohan is problematic AF, as the kids say, but this statement -- no matter how awkwardly issued -- had the ring of grotesque truth. I have laughed at LiLo messes; my personal favorite involves the 2007 arrest in which a police officer found cocaine in her pants pocket, and Lohan’s response was “These aren’t my pants.” You gotta hand it to her, right? Funny stuff.

A view of Whitney Houston on the video screen onstage during the 2012 BET Awards on July 1, 2012 in Los Angeles.
A view of Whitney Houston on the video screen onstage during the 2012 BET Awards on July 1, 2012 in Los Angeles. (Christopher Polk/Getty Images For BET)

But I also bet you one million dollars that when Lohan dies, there will be sad documentaries, morose op-eds chronicling her rise and fall. This was inevitable, their narratives will say, throwing up their hands: we certainly couldn’t have stopped it. Nope, America’s expectations for young women didn’t slowly but surely kill this human being. I will gobble up said documentaries and articles. I will do this the way I have read everything I possibly can about Brittany Murphy. I will do it and I will feel like shit about it.

I walked out of SFO that day to the smell of burning homes, burning livelihoods, 60 miles north. Half the state of California was on fire and it was horrible and sickening and sickeningly appropriate, also, for the state of the world. In between photos of fire and devastation, my Facebook feed was all women describing their sexual assaults in varying degrees of stomach-churning detail. It's been hard to watch, hard to read.

But somewhere under the nausea, for me, there's also a kernel of hope. It has to do with that old cliché but reliable line about the cleansing power of sunlight on truth, I think. Who knows, but at the moment I’m hopeful I won't be hearing these same stories in 2037.

In 2017, we have no choice but to hear them. Headed into the city, I inhaled the smoky air and thought, Welcome home, this is America at the moment, and headphones won’t help you. There’s no turning down the volume right now, no changing the channel, and that's a good thing. But it also makes sense that, in so many ways right now, it's simply very difficult to breathe.

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Emma Silvers lives in San Francisco. Find her on Twitter here.

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