It must be every bulimic’s worst nightmare to have their darkest secret broadcast on the big screen. Amy Winehouse had bulimia, as the public now knows.
Asif Kapadia’s latest documentary repeatedly intimates that the leading cause of her death may well have been bulimia. Weight fluctuations and plastic surgery stories are the bread and butter of the celebrity media, and Amy Winehouse was not exactly an under-exposed star. She certainly became extremely thin during her rise to fame, and acquired some breast implants. We may dislike it, but we can’t deny that women in the public eye are subjected to an obscenely large volume of commentary upon their appearance, especially on their figure -- and women in entertainment most of all.
But for Amy Winehouse, the media focus in public portrayals always swerved to drink and drugs, to nocturnal escapades and horrible debacles. For Winehouse, the media had in store one very special thread of storytelling, a pre-existing Hollywood narrative: the “good girl gone bad”. Versions of this story were also spun out around Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, and in pride of place, Courtney Love.
The structure of this tale and its character is simple, and it goes back to the fallen women of Victorian horror fiction, and further. It weaves its structural thread all the way back to the beginnings of western narrative in ancient times. It is a tale of a woman’s gradual estrangement from society, often connected with a narrative of insanity. It is, at its heart, a tragic tale.
To a degree, prefabricated tales and patterns are a helpful cognitive tool in society; but they remain inventions. The invented narrative of the drug-addled rockstar links Amy Winehouse’s story to the Kurt Cobain story, to Jim Morrison, to the myth of Club 27, and the rich web of rock mythology. Here, heroin is a cognitive prop: heroin is rock’n’roll, is edgy, and totally glamorizeabe. Bulimia can not be glamorized. By its very nature, bulimia is characterized by secrecy, disgust and shame. It refuses to be seamed together correctly with a public image.
Kapadia’s film boldly begins to work the bulimia aspect in, and drops it soon again. Perhaps with an awareness that the public expects a feisty rock lioness disaster story, rather than a story of fragility and bruised self-esteem. Several of Amy Winehouse’s close friends and collaborators give their accounts of what happened, and they intensely medicalize the memory with many tenets of pop-psychology. We hear that when in the presence of an addict, one must show tough love, that addiction puts a strain on those around you, that Amy Winehouse lacked self-control, that she had all the options, but chose the worse options, that she did it all herself. All these arguments lead up to one conclusion: there is no-one else to blame. The overall picture begs the question if the system as a whole is to blame.
Taken together, Kapadia’s picture is fascinatingly documents the human instinct to recoil away from responsibility and blame when a tragedy happens. It is an important group dynamic at the heart of our social functioning, and this is where the “good girl gone bad” narrative becomes useful -- and comes back to haunt everyone. Once it is understood that this story is simply the repetition of an ancient pattern, of a tale of gradual estrangement and isolation in plain sight, what is left is the knowledge that as a society we are ill equipped to include and protect those whose character and life go beyond certain limits of the usual. And Amy Winehouse went beyond a lot of limits. First of all, her disproportionately high achievements, talent and success set her apart from the rest. Drugs came later. And bulimia was there the whole time. It is incumbent upon everyone who considers themselves modern, to ask if the “self to blame” model is not just... a bit lame.
I'm the author of Cured Meat: Memoirs of a Psychiatric Runaway