Women Behaving Badly: the allure of the Diva

Female celebrity meltdowns are depicted very differently from male ones – but is it such a bad thing to be a diva?

We've long argued that there is really no such thing as a 'guilty pleasure'. After all, if you felt that guilty about it, then it wouldn't be a pleasure - and if it's a truly, wholly pleasurable activity, then presumably you don't really give a toss about what anybody else thinks. And pure, unadulterated pleasure is how we both feel about international singing sensation and boundless warbler Mariah Carey. It is a love that will last until the end of time, transcending the occasional troughs that have marred an otherwise illustrious career. Yes, even Glitter.

Now that we've got that bombshell out of the way, we'd like to talk about divas. It is a label which, perhaps more than any other singer, has followed Mariah around like a slimy little paparazzo since the beginning of her career. As a term, its operatic origins have been relinquished in favour of its use as a moniker for any female singer who dares to forthrightly express an opinion on anything, ever. Granted, that opinion is more often than not related to the number of scented candles in one's dressing room (or, in the case of one particular rumour, a strong preference for only one colour of Smartie, thus presumably necessitating the employment of one lucky lackey whose job it was to filter out all the other Smarties colours in a hundred tubes). Nevertheless, the way in which stories about diva behaviour compare with coverage of male meltdowns does raise some important questions.

Lists featuring the top ten celebrity tantrums are often female-dominated, despite the fact that paps have documented male paddies on behalf of everyone from Russell Crowe (not impressed when the BBC cut his televised poem) to Alec Baldwin (numerous toys-out-of-pram offences, most notably calling his daughter a 'rude, thoughtless little pig' on a leaked voicemail) to Hugh Grant (baked bean brouhaha - we'll say no more). According to the media, male meltdowns are either comedy fodder, entirely justified on the basis of papparazzi harassment, or, in the case of Charlie Sheen, concerning spirals into mental illness. Where women are concerned, such distinctions are hardly made, and instead seem to fall under a group umbrella of 'diva behaviour' regardless of the underlying reasons. As recent coverage of Amanda Bynes and Lindsay Lohan demonstrates, somehow, 'troubled' has become a euphemism for 'spoilt'. Meanwhile, alcoholism is a serious affliction in a man, but explained away as 'a tad unladylike' in his female counterpart.

But who is the 'classic diva', and why? In a world where examples of the media ridiculing 'women on the verge' abound, it's important that we distinguish bad behaviour from actual cause for concern, not only because failing to do so perpetuates a lack of understanding about mental illness, but also because tales of bad celebrity behavior are hilariously, cringingly entertaining (of which Reese Witherspoon's drunken don't-you-know-who-I-am footage is a prime example.) Yes, very bad behaviour should be condemned, especially if you're Trudie Styler and your reaction to your pregnant chef's inability to make you soup is reportedly, 'Who the fuck does she think she is?', in a bizarre reflection of the aforementioned Witherspoon incident. Proper Diva Behaviour, however, can probably be exemplified by Beyonce's recent attempt to remove some ugly pictures of herself 'from the internet'. We've all been there, B, and therein lies the nub of diva-ishness. The diva demand should be completely and utterly divorced from reality, but also, at some level, relatable in its audacity. Hence our sympathy with Mariah, who once reportedly insisted that she be lowered onto the GMTV sofa by members of her entourage. Fair play. After all, who would sit there of their own free will?

The other important facet of the diva is, of course, her apparent willingness to pit herself against other divas. Mariah's name has been sullied all over Twitter by that challenger to the throne, Nicki Minaj, but ultimately we all know that Carey has spent so much time being pitted against other divas already (see video) that we don't fancy Minaj's chances in the latest Mail-sponsored CELEBRITY CATFIGHT. Perhaps, like the girl Rhiannon's boyfriend overheard on the phone in a bar last week, things will go 'literally apeshit', which I think you'll agree is something we'd all like to see.

It should go without saying that the 'diva philosophy' plays directly into the narrative which asserts that in order to be successful, as a woman, one needs also to be a mega-bitch who hates other women. Space is limited at the top, the logic goes, and nobody wants too many kittens in showbiz; they'll have to get their claws out. So women 'throw tantrums' (because it's childlike); men 'fume' silently, or 'become enraged' with enough provocation, safe in the knowledge that there's room for them when they're done. Divas have probably gained an inflated sense of self from PMT-induced fervour; shirty men have 'complicated stories', and most likely 'psycho ex-wives' who drove them to it. In other words, male frustration is seen as personal and explicable in a myriad of ways, whereas female frustration should be seen as a veiled attempt to trample on her sisters, a cry for the continued attention of Daddy Media to the detriment of others.

Back when the diva *was* a temperamental opera singer who had to be pandered to because of her extraordinary talents, things were a little different. Her ilk were seen as fairly discerning, if dramatic, with little tolerance for incompetence in her peers; nowadays, her demands are seen as all the more impudent because of an altered definition. The 'celebrity diva' of the 21st century is a fairly replaceable pop-star, often of apparently questionable talent, with a trailer full of make-up artists and an eagle eye on the photographs of herself presently circulating in cyberspace. She is ridiculous because she is both high-maintenance and dispensable. The thrill of hearing about Naomi Campbell's latest altercation with airline staff lies in the knowledge that she's treading a much more dangerous line, not as the prima donna in an isolated theatre but on a global stage full of worthy competitors. At any moment, her star may fall, or indeed be knocked down by the girl behind her in a continuation of the diva circle of life (see Carey and Minaj.) The audience to modern-day 'diva behaviour' isn't just rolling its eyes; it's baying for her blood.

Clearly, it's unfair that the two-dimensional diva role lies at the female door, telling its same old celebrity magazine story about pigeonholing 'emotional women'. Still, many would argue that if the role is foisted upon you, why not play it? With all these myriad expectations, it's no wonder that Rihanna's taken to reclining on a white six-foot sofa surrounded by animal furs before she does another chorus of 'Rude Boy' at her latest venue. After all, it's clear that the myth of The Diva and its ardent subscribers aren't going to die out any day soon - and there will always be a few performers who just can't resist feeding the trolls.

Nicki Minaj, sitting on a cloud. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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