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Why Does America Love Gossiping About Young, Drug-Using Women Like Cat Marnell?

What’s missing from the conversation is the idea that there could be a female drug user who doesn't end in a flame of self-destruction.

Beauty writer and self-proclaimed party girl Cat Marnell doesn’t give a shit. At least, that was the headline of a recent Vice magazine article about the “troubled drug-addicted beauty-queen.” A former beauty and health editor at the women’s lifestyle Web site xoJane, Marnell very publicly refused to enter rehab, got fired from xoJane and hired at Vice, where she continues to write shamelessly about her cocaine, Adderall and PCP binges.

Whether you love or hate her, Cat Marnell is unique because she not only accepts a role condemned by society, she actually flaunts this identity. As Sady Doyle writes, Marnell embodies the female “wreck” -- a hot mess of smeared lipstick, cigarettes and stumbling, perhaps best personified by the pop star Ke$sha, whose conflation of pleasure and downfall climaxes in her hit song “Your Love is a Drug.”  Marnell’s compliance with that role is what makes her different. It is also part of what so many find sad.

Some envy Marnell’s talent, and her willingness to sacrifice health for excitement and attention. In the  New York Times magazine, former alcoholic Sarah Hepola wrote:

I would get these funny zaps of envy reading her prose. I should have done more drugs, I would stupidly think. I should have fallen deeper in the hole. I was just a garden-variety lush, so enamored of booze I didn’t even bother with hard drugs. And I saw in her drug use and her writing an abandon I never allowed myself, and it gave her articles that unmistakable thrill of things breaking apart.

After all, society loves, and loves to hate, a female whose life is spiraling out of control--and Marnell is well aware of this fact. “A blonde who's soaking wet and crashing down looks chic and trés Carolyn Bessette,” Marnell recently wrote.

What society loves most is the crash itself. Marnell’s readers and voyeurs anxiously await her demise as confirmation that, as Nathaniel Hawthorne taught us, bad girls are always punished with failure. This inevitable fiery end is presupposed, already written into the script. But what’s missing from the conversation about Cat Marnell is the idea that there could be a female drug user who doesn't end in a flame of self-destruction.

Drug use is an integral part of the ticking time-bomb party girl stereotype. The logic is as simple as it is puritanical: you can’t break too many social rules and still become successful; self-destruction punishes over-indulgence. But young girls need not be the perfect virgin nor the jezebel when it comes to both sex and drugs.

There has long been a double standard for substance use, and just as misogyny drives the fascination with female destruction, it is also the driving force behind the stereotyped female user. The supposed sanctity of women’s bodies has led society to frown upon women who “poison their temple” by participating in what are considered to be male vices. Women who use drugs are quickly scandalized in the tabloids as reckless party girls whose self-abandon is destroying both their personal and professional lives. But where are the male Paris Hiltons? Or better yet, the female Mick Jaggers?

“Where are the female Tommy Chongs, the Snoop Dog (Lion)s, and the Willie Nelsons?” Greta Gaines wrote in a recent AlterNet article. “They are out there, but they’re not talking.”

Would Marnell be a wreck if society did not insist on tearing her down? For women, the fears and stigmas of drug use often eclipse the reality. Women like Miley Cyrus may experiment with drugs without any problems, but they are nonetheless stereotyped as disgraced party girls, in part because a wreck is what many may wish upon them. To avoid the crash, women must create alternative endings for the drug-use narrative.