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.

David Brent: Life on the Road
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Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.