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Why the Sudden Urge to Reconsider Famous Women?

This policing via popular media — comparing women’s outfits, judging their beach bodies and speculating as to how and why they were or weren’t pregnant — served as a warning for less famous women: See what can happen when you leave the house? The subtext was that any woman who put herself out there was asking for whatever she got. Disparagement was the price a woman paid for fame. That not all of these women sought or desired fame didn’t seem to matter.

Carolyn Chernoff, a sociologist who researches women and popular culture, said this media scrutiny seemed to worsen in the 1980s, perhaps as a reaction to feminist gains. “More and more women are in the workplace, are getting more power, are working visibly in powerful jobs,” she said. This led to what she called a “correction,” with the media coming after any woman perceived as too famous, too powerful, too exposed.

Ironically, the feminist gains of the ’80s and ’90s weren’t even particularly sturdy. “We had Sally Ride going to space and Toni Morrison winning the Pulitzer,” said Allison Yarrow, the author of “90s Bitch: Media, Culture and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality.” “But what I realize now is that it was one woman per industry who can succeed.”

According to Yarrow’s analysis, famous women who found themselves in the news were the targets of negative coverage. Worse, she said, the narrative became that women purposely engineered negative coverage for personal gain.

Cindi Leive, a former editor of the women’s magazines Self and Glamour, said that, in the late ’90s, “there was definitely a sense in general of celebrity watching as sport.” (The magazines she edited weren’t as brutalizing as the tabloids, but they did reaffirm some of the same biases.) “There’s an element of dehumanization that crept into all of our coverage — the industry broadly,” Leive said.

If you flipped through certain magazines at this time you could be forgiven for thinking that there was no right way to be a woman, only wrong ones — bimbo or frump, slut or prude, shrew or doormat. The line seemed impossible to walk, especially in heels — although being pretty, white, thin and rich typically gave you a leg up. For women who violated the hegenomic norm in other ways the challenges were much worse, though not necessarily the public scrutiny.

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