At Laura Hankin’s launch event for her new novel The Daydreams, about a reunion show of an early 2000s teen drama, a fan asked what she had found in her research about celebrities in the early aughts that surprised her. Laura talked about a 2009 Vanity Fair article that described Jessica Simpson as “looking less than slender, holding the microphone like a turkey leg, and wearing what were described everywhere as ‘mom jeans.’” And this, I learned when I revisited the story after Hankin mentioned it, was in a redemption story about Simpson.
I felt a now familiar pang of guilt and shame when I listened to Hankin describe the sexist treatment female starlets faced in the early 2000s. It’s a feeling that’s become somewhat familiar in recent years. I felt it when listening to Jessica Simpson’s own memoir Open Book, as she described being boiled down to a series of clichés—the pure virgin, the blonde bimbo, and “sexual napalm” (that last one coined by John Mayer in his infamous Playboy interview).
As I listened to the audiobook, I knew that I had perpetuated those tropes: idly gossiping with my teenage friends, watching and dissecting Simpson’s reality show about her first marriage with 98 Degrees’ Nick Lachey, and quoting “Is this chicken or fish?” to mock Simpson’s infamous flub.
Hearing Simpson describe how the sudden death of her cousin, and the sexual abuse she faced as a child contributed to her unhealthy relationships, eating disorder, and addictions, I promised myself that I would be less judgmental. As I wrote in my book recommendation newsletter after finishing Open Book, “As someone who spent a lot of time making fun of Simpson’s airhead demeanor, this book served as a reminder that you never really know what’s going on in someone’s life. Simpson, now the owner of a billion-dollar fashion line, is far smarter, savvier, and stronger than I recognized.”
And yet, a year after that, I found myself unable to look away from the stories about Olivia Wilde, Harry Styles, Florence Pugh, and Don’t Worry Darling. I had zero interest in this movie—I still haven’t seen it—yet, I poured over Vulture’s timeline describing allegations of an on-set affair between actor Harry Styles and the then-married Olivia Wilde, who directed the film. Lurking beneath the dopamine I received as I scrolled Twitter and scanned Reddit looking for the latest developments was a gnawing sense of guilt. I knew no male director would ever be asked about on-set drama and I doubted—correctly, it turns out—that a married male film executive would even face questions about an affair with a movie star.
I had failed, it seemed, to learn the lessons of Open Book, the Lorena Bobbit documentary, and countless episodes of the podcast You’re Wrong About, which has made it a mission to rehabilitate the reputations of women like Marcia Clark and Tanya Harding. I was applying sexist tropes and double standards to Olivia Wilde, even as I ostensibly knew better.
Hankin’s The Daydreams is one of a handful of novels out this year—including Advika and the Hollywood Wives by Kirthana Ramisetti, Elissa Sussman’s Once More, With Feeling, and Laura Lippman’s Prom Mom—examining a cultural moment where we engage with an entire cottage industry dedicated to exposing the poor treatment of prominent women twenty years ago, while continuing that same treatment today. A combination of factors—engrained and long-held patterns of misogyny, dopamine-driven social media and cable news, and our love of gossip—keeps us repeating the same cycles.
The Oldest Archetype
The archetype of the fallen woman is among the oldest in literature, dating back to Pandora and Eve. Both women give into temptation—Pandora opens the box and Eve bites the apple—and bring misery to the previously perfect world. These tales both created and reinforced the idea that women couldn’t help but fall in with the evil forces prying on their communities. The good people—both men and women—would distinguish themselves by loudly disowning their behaviors.
Witch trials and the subsequent burning of women found guilty served as opportunities for jeering crowds to establish their superiority over women whose most likely crime was being different from their neighbors. Nathaniel Hawthorne famously skewers this dynamic in The Scarlet Letter, as Hester Prynne dons her red A so the Puritans can consistently remind themselves they are more moral than she is.
The reception to The Scarlet Letter, when it was first published in 1850, indicates that Americans have a long history of missing the point when it comes to the double standards in how men and women are treated. Religious leaders nationwide denounced the book as a “dirty story” only suitable for a “brothel library.” They either missed the point—or more likely feared it was too dangerous to let stand.
More than 100 years after Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter, the fallen woman trope persists. The seminal—and falsified—YA book Go Ask Alice documented the deadly spiral of a “good girl” who became addicted to drugs and destroyed her family. In a particularly pointed example, a 2010 Lifetime movie called The Pregnancy Pact, ended with teenage girls suffering with alcoholism, traumatic labors, and being shunned from their families. Even Gilmore Girls—the beloved 2000’s mother-daughter dramedy—advanced the archetype, with multiple characters derailing their lives after having sex for the first time.
For generations, people have devoured these stories. We’re comfortable with them and their clear-cut morality. It’s perhaps not surprising then that we continue to perpetuate the archetype, criticizing women who dare to break with norms.
As CU Denver associate professor Gillian Silverman told Jessica Bennett of the New York Times during the Amber Heard and Johnny Depp trial, “We no longer have what Hester Prynne had, but we have a version of it […] And this thing of putting women on a sort of dais in order to mock them, and make them take it for quite a while, feels pretty age-old.”
Cable news shows—desperate for content, and knowing we love to watch a once-high woman brought down to Earth—fill their broadcasts with stories about Amber Heard, Olivia Wilde, and Taylor Swift’s brief rebound relationship with the 1975 frontman Matt Healy.
Online mobs play a similar role that those who attended witch trials and burnings did, drawing contrast between us and them with memes and sharply worded tweets, instead of taunts and jeers. We repeat these patterns because they are the stories we have always told.
“Hating On People is Fun”
And yet, saying the continuation of sexist tropes is the fault of internalized misogyny and created media narratives feels overly simplistic. It lets us off the hook, acting as though we have no control over the stories we share or obsess over.
When I told friends—who similarly fell down the Don’t Worry Darling rabbit hole, and have listened to You’re Wrong About—that I was working on this essay, they all sheepishly looked at me and said something like, “Well, hating on people is fun.”
Countless studies have affirmed gossip as an activity that facilitates bonding. I experienced this first hand at a live taping of Normal Gossip, a podcast where writer Kelsey McKinney shares delicious anonymous stories of messy friend groups and relationships. I left the show feeling buoyed and tighter with the friends I attended with, more so than when I go to a political show taping.
And gossiping about female celebrities, whose lives are so detached from ours, still releases that dopamine, even if we have countless examples of women brought down by non-existent slights we can point to.
For months now, I’ve been thinking about a post I saw on the pop culture chat subreddit. A user posted a now-deleted picture of a tweet defending Demi Lovato, that said if another celeb had faced what she did—addiction, sexual assault and health issues—she would be renowned, not mocked. One user responded, “In 15 years will Demi get a documentary and people will swing back the other way about her (a la Britney, Pamela, Paris, etc) yeah. But now? nah.”
There are signs that we’re getting faster at reevaluating hot takes on female celebrities, beyond my nagging sense of guilt while obsessing over the “Don’t Worry, Darling” cast’s antics. The online conversation around Amber Heard has swung dramatically in her favor since last summer’s defamation trial, when Johnny Depp’s legal team attacked her as an abusive liar. Videos defending Heard have spiked in popularity on TikTok, as have posts on Reddit. The rehabilitation of a wronged woman happened in months not years.
Maybe we’re in the slow process of making new archetypes, learning how to hold space for complex, flawed women instead of forcing them into pre-existing boxes. It’s a future that may come with less juicy gossip, but more interesting people.
Elizabeth Held is a writer and literary critic living in Washington, D.C. She writes a weekly book recommendation newsletter, What To Read If.