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The first time I heard Amy Winehouse back in 2007 I was hooked. Back to Black was so perfect I could hardly believe it existed. I'd been listening to old soul music since I was a child, obsessed with my mother's Supremes record and, later, with musicians and groups like Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder, The Shirelles, The Four Tops, Gladys Knight & the Pips, The Temptations, Etta James, Al Green, and on and on. I barely listened to anything current until I discovered hip hop in the 90s. Amy had managed to create something that I'd thought was no longer possible and I couldn't stop listening.
As I watched her very public and publicized downfall, as she was abandoned to her addictions, depression, now-apparent eating disorder, and struggles with the pressures of fame, I noticed the different treatment she received in the media.
Male substance abusers are often afforded a certain level of respect no matter how much they drink or use drugs -- women, less so. Framed as "trainwrecks," unfeminine and embarrassing, both pitied and mocked -- women are meant to maintain composure and class in a way men aren't expected to. Generally, drunkenness in men is viewed as normal and acceptable whereas women who party are portrayed as messy, trashy, slutty, and deserving of any "punishment" they receive (see: the victim blaming of rape victims who were under the influence when assaulted) for their unladylike behaviour.
As pointed out by Molly Beauchemin in Pitchfork, "Men who grapple with issues that coincide with art and fame are canonized in death." Indeed, male addicts are romanticized as troubled artists while women who struggle with addiction or mental illness or both, as the two often go hand in hand, are seen as disasters. Kurt Cobain is one example Beauchemin offers who has most certainly been painted as tragic and as having suffered, but also as a universally respected genius. (Conveniently, many have blamed Courtney Love for his heroin addiction and his death.) Amy, in comparison, hasn't been treated with anywhere near the respect Cobain was and her death was seen by many as expected and deserved.
I watched Amy on Sunday night, prepared to feel sadness and loss, but less prepared for the level of anger I felt as I left the theatre. She didn't die, as the media told us, because she was a lost cause who cared only for boozing and nothing else. Amy died because the men in her life were selfish, careless, capitalists who faked compassion for cameras when it was convenient, but only in order to boost their own "careers," fill their bank accounts, and satisfy their own needs. More broadly, she died because of a culture built on greed, misogyny, and individualism.
Amy's father, Mitch, taught her how little he valued women right from the very beginning, trading fatherhood for womanizing. He was never around when she was a child, busy cheating on Amy's mother, Janis, and eventually leaving them all for another woman. Mitch didn't really re-enter Amy's life until he saw her as a financial opportunity, talking her out of going to rehab early on when it became clear that her drinking was becoming dangerous, showing up with a reality TV camera crew when Amy tried to escape both drugs and showbiz in St. Lucia, and forcing her to go on tour when she really just needed (and wanted) to get out of the spotlight (We're under contract, he explains, verbally shrugging his shoulders. Whatcanyado.) Mitch's documentary, My Daughter, Amy, of course, both had nothing to do with Amy but couldn't exist without her. On the surface, it centered around Amy but really was only for and about her father. Mitch may have cared for his daughter, but he certainly put his own interests and well-being before hers, time and time again.
The other central figure in Amy's life was (surprise!) another womanizer, her ex-husband-to-be, Blake Fielder-Civil, who eventually decided to settle down with her in order to have access to her bank account and to maintain his own drug habits. Not only did Fielder-Civil introduce Amy to heroin and crack, but he seemed determined to ensure she didn't get clean, sneaking drugs to her while she was in rehab. If Amy got off drugs, of course, Fielder-Civil's ability to feed his own addictions would be in jeopardy. On the day the couple decided to get married, camera footage shows Fielder-Civil in a bar, with Amy in the background, as he brags that it will be his new wife who will be picking up the tab -- he was broke, after all. It's also alleged that Fielder-Civil sold nude photos of Amy to the media, completing the full circle of male exploitation of women, pornifying as punishment.
Both men courted the media after Amy's death -- Fielder-Civil brought them along to photograph him in mourning, at her grave and Mitch has been busily trying to spin his own version of Amy's life story in a way that makes him look like a caring, selfless father.
Amy's bulimia was something I -- and many others -- knew less about until recently. She had been binging and purging since she was quite young and it took, as bulimia does, an incredible toll on her health. What they say killed her, in the end, was the impact of bulimia on Amy's heart -- that, when combined with drinking to excess, was too much for her body to handle.
While I have never personally suffered from an eating disorder and so cannot speak to the complexities of something like anorexia or bulimia, I have never much cared for it's categorization as "a disease." The disease model erases the gendered aspect of eating disorders and the very relevant fact that we teach girls to hate their bodies and obsess over food and their weight. Only five to 15 per cent of people who suffer from anorexia or bulimia are male so I don't know, take a wild guess as to what that's about.
What's wonderful about Amy is that director, Asif Kapadia, shows us that she was not a celebrity or a pop star or tabloid fodder or an angel or the devil, but a true and exceptional musician -- one in more than a million. Amy wasn't a perfect human being and who cares. She was, in fact, messy and unladylike -- loud, brash, a girl who liked to hang out at the pub and crack jokes, leaving at the end of the night looking as though she spent the night in a pub. I, of course, have nothing but love for those kinds of women -- they are the ones I relate to; far more than the classy ones who never lose their cool or get too loud or say inappropriate things or swear and burp defiantly. But those aren't the kinds of women the world thinks deserve to be respected for their work or art.
Amy may well have behaved badly, she most certainly hurt herself and those around her -- it isn't easy to be around people who struggle with substance abuse nor is it easy to know what to do or how to help. Often, there is really very little you can do to help. That said, Amy's addictions don't exist in isolation from larger context and the way she was treated and portrayed as her struggle deepened played an enormous role in her destruction, whether or not you want to see that destruction as self-orchestrated.
This is someone who didn't even want fame. Amy knew it would hurt her. She wanted to play music in pubs and jazz clubs and to collaborate with other musicians. Fame was something others wanted for her as was, it seems, her demise. Both her father and her husband, as well as the media and the men who managed her cared little about the way she was suffering and in danger. "It's her choice," seems to have been their approach to Amy's survival. And isn't that an enraging but suitable response from individuals and a culture that believes personal choice is king, that interference of any kind is patronizing and doesn't respect the agency of individuals, and that no one is responsible for anything except their own actions and how those actions impact only themselves.
Amy's lyrics are powerful because they are true, vulnerable, and because so many of us can relate. She asks, early on in her career, "What is it about men?" knowing she first learned pain and rejection from them, later blaming herself for being subjected to what she's smart enough to know is a pattern that is bigger than her.
I shouldn't play myself again,
I should just be my own best friend,
Not fuck myself in the head with stupid men
Undoubtedly Amy was powerful and headstrong. She was no shrinking violet, waiting to be told what to do by some man. Nonetheless, she, like all humans, deserved compassion and care and instead was taken advantage of and used by those she cared for. I believe, on one hand, that she could have been ok if she'd received the support she needed and was offered an escape from the ever-prying claws of the limelight. Then again, living as a woman in a man's world isn't easy for any of us. Perhaps what she really needed to survive was the option of life outside capitalism and patriarchy.
Amy's tragic death was not truly or solely about her choices, it was about much more than that and there are many more who are accountable. If we still cannot see the ways our culture quite literally kills, and we continue to insist on wiping our hands clean of that blood, I'll admit I have little hope for humanity.
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