Why suicide is a feminine issue

Is society obsessed with the issue of women who commit suicide?

You can say what you like about the News of the World (I'm pretty sure it's all been said before), but its editors certainly know a thing or ten about flogging newspapers. So it was interesting to note the less than uplifting cover stories they ran this past weekend.

The main splash was the familiar tale of a soap star's "drugs shame", but the cover also featured two "exclusive" stories on women in turmoil. One promised the inside scoop on the former Celebrity Big Brother contestant Jo O'Meara and her "suicide nightmare". Then there was a photograph of a bald-headed pop princess alongside the equally bald headline "Britney tries to hang herself".

These tales arrived just a few weeks after mass coverage of the untimely death of the model, actress and all-round media catnip Anna Nicole Smith, aged just 39. Given Smith's wild, difficult life (born in small-town Texas, marries octogenarian billionaire, billionaire dies, Smith battles billionaire's family for a part of his estate while battling drug addiction), there was a nasty inevitability to her death. Still, though no one can have been surprised, this hasn't stemmed the flow of stories. Quite the opposite. Smith's death seems to have provided the papers with the perfect end to her story.

There is something about women who commit suicide, attempt suicide, or die in an untimely fashion, that we seem to find fascinating. It's not just tabloid stars. This coming week, for instance, brings the release of two biopics that follow in the deeply trodden footsteps of the films Sylvia, Tom and Viv and Carrington, all depictions of women whose lives ended tragically.

In Factory Girl, Sienna Miller essays Andy Warhol's muse Edie Sedgwick, who died from a drug overdose. Then there's Fur, "an imaginary portrait" of Diane Arbus, the brilliant photographer (and, indeed, writer) who died having overdosed on barbiturates and slit her wrists (the film doesn't include a death scene, but there's no doubt her suicide is one of the details that draws people to Arbus). The artist is played by Nicole Kidman, who is no stranger to depicting tragic women - it was her performance as Virginia Woolf in The Hours that won her an Oscar.

What is it that enthrals us about these sad, tumultuous lives? Of course, we're also drawn to the stories of tragic male artists. James Dean still fascinates us, his insouciant image a symbol of wasted, but for ever desirable, youth. And we are interested, no doubt, in the fact that Hemingway committed suicide - tragedy appeals to us, whatever the gender. In general, however, a suicide or early death doesn't overshadow the work and life of a male artist so much as it does with female counterparts. A tragic end becomes another interesting part of a man's biography, rather than something that defines him.

Our interest in these stories is largely the result of the worst human instincts. The impulse that makes people slow down and goggle as they pass a car crash is the same one that came into play when millions read the Britney Spears story. Because these people are "stars" - because they are widely considered more beautiful, more talented, or at least more famous than the rest of us - that car-crash instinct comes mixed with a heavy dose of schadenfreude. We look at Britney's woes, and all that we might once have envied about her - her looks, her riches, her ability to sing and dance with a huge snake perched atop her shoulders - falls away. Envy is a burden. It gives people headaches. Letting go is a relief.

And yet, beyond that, there is something fet ishistic in our attitudes to these women. (It's no surprise that the internet's foremost indie pin-up site, which features thousands of photos of naked and half-naked, pierced, tattooed women, is called SuicideGirls.) Suicide is the ultimate sign of vulnerability, a characteristic still highly prized in women. Talented, beautiful women are threatening, but suicide is a corrective that allows people to worship the dead woman without finding her success intimidating. Female stars who die young become a sick version of society's "perfect" woman - defined by their vulnerability, while their good looks remain suspended in time.

Just consider Marilyn Monroe. She made some great films - All About Eve, Some Like it Hot - but by comparison with her contemporaries, she was still a fairly minor actor. It was her untimely death, and the way that it emphasised her sweet-natured vulnerability, that soldered her in the collective consciousness as the most-loved screen icon of all time.

There's no doubt that these stories will persist, as will our fascination. There is no changing human nature. It's worth recognising, though, that our enthralment with the unhappy lives and deaths of the famous says something much more disturbing about us than it does about them.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the hidden cost of the war