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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.
 
 
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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.

For example, mothers who smoke weed recreationally are “coming out” as stoned and proud, explaining to the public how smoking weed and being a good mom are not mutually exclusive. As many of the women point out, weed is safer than alcohol, and gets them buzzed just enough to relax, laugh and go about their day. Sick and tired of "being judged for doing something nontoxic and totally organic, enjoying a god-given plant, by moms who suck back two bottles of Chardonnay like sports drinks,” they are taking to the Internet to defend their lifestyle choice.

“Anybody who thinks that weed makes parents ignore their children has clearly never been high around one,” an anonymous weed mom wrote on Jezebel. And she’s right; It’s not like moms are lighting up and getting reckless. To the contrary, pot-smoking moms say a little cannabis helps them focus and relax so that typically menial tasks like folding laundry become fun. Instead of “getting all crazy, hanging out of limo sun roofs,” wrote Anonymous, “I tend to ride out my buzz by giggling with my family, eating dinner, doing the dishes, putting the baby to bed and watching an episode of 'Friday Night Lights.'"

These kinds of stories about non-problematic drug use empower women to control their bodies and lives--from what they put into them to what happens after. As Anonymous wrote,

“...I know I'm not the only one, and I know I'm in good company, but I wish that more parents were open about smoking pot in order to reduce the stigma associated with it. You know, I'm a mom, but I'm also a person. Don't put me in a box. Unless it's a hot box.”

Opening up this conversation could benefit not just the Lindsay Lohans of the world, but society at large. The judgements and condemnation that afflicts celebrity female drug users extends far beyond the tabloid pages. The drug war gives the government room to meddle in women’s wombs, to take their children away for crimes as small as marijuana use and to chain imprisoned addicts giving birth to hospital beds (as if they would run away).

Rewriting this narrative, therefore, isn’t simply about saving Cat Marnell; it’s about protecting the basic liberties of millions of women in the United States. After all, as Marnell told Vice magazine, “I am a person in a woman’s body.”

The fact that she said those words when she was likely high on a cocktail of amphetamines doesn’t make them any less true.

Kristen Gwynne is an associate editor and drug policy reporter at AlterNet.  Follow her on Twitter: @KristenGwynne