Free Amanda Bynes: Social media and the consumption of mental illness

May 30, 2013

Have you seen Network? If not, let’s fill you in. Directed by Sidney Lumet, Network was a film about the changing boundaries of entertainment in a modern media era. In it, the Division President of a major broadcast network tells their lead news anchor he’s going to be let go in two weeks—because of his age and declining popularity. He just isn't relevant anymore.

The anchor then announces the following broadcast that he’s going to kill himself live on air next Tuesday.

Although the network quickly fires him, the President decides to give him one last broadcast—to go out with dignity and save face with his audience. Instead of going quietly, the anchor, Howard Beale, launches an impassioned, hysterical diatribe about how "life is bullsh*t."

However, instead of firing him, the other network executives decide keep him on and even give him his own show, called The Howard Beale Show.

Why would they give a spin-off program to someone they were so desperate to part with? It’s simple: ratings. Viewership soared during Howard Beale’s meltdown, and they decide to exploit him for every ad dollar he’s worth. It’s clear he needs psychiatric treatment, but he’s worth more to them on camera.

Critics have drawn clear parallels between Beale’s "mad prophet of the airwaves" and our radio and cable news demagogues, as Lumet and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky eerily predicted the rise of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. They aren’t anchors or journalists in the traditional sense, and most of what they say isn’t factually accurate. It’s not about news. It’s entertainment, based on their ability to inflame and arouse passions. They know how to get people to watch. We're the Howard Beale generation.

To me, Beale’s legacy is just as relevant for our culture of celebrity meltdowns, where personal tragedy and mental illness have become fodder for tabloid sales and ironic appropriation. It’s the business of misery, where exploiting a broken Britney or manic Charlie Sheen means big money for industry profiteers. Sheen became an industry phenomenon during his breakdown, in which we turned a drug addict and an abuser into a national hero. During that time, ratings for Two and a Half Men soared. It was the number one show in the country.

If you remember, Charlie Sheen wasn’t fired for being unstable or a perpetrator of domestic violence. He got fired for feuding with his boss. Sheen then got another show that debuted to record numbers on FX.

This weekend I watched Liz and Dick, the Lifetime channel movie starring Lindsay Lohan, a film so terrible that I couldn’t believe that no one stopped it. Liz and Dick features the worst use of green screen I’ve ever seen in a big budget production, and the film is riddled with errors that appear to be intentional. For those paying close attention, a newspaper clipping in the film features an article on how to lose weight by eating mayonnaise. The word “lose” is spelled with two “o's.”

At that point it hit me: Lifetime knew Liz and Dick would be a train wreck and that trash-diggers like me would tune in to watch it crash. Like Snakes on a Plane, they purposefully made a movie the audience would laugh at, but this time, they didn’t let us know they were in on it. America responded by having Liz and Dick viewing parties and playing into the profit margin. BuzzFeed even made a Liz and Dick drinking game.

Amanda Bynes is the latest example of this trend, a celebrity whose increasing irrelevance made her perfect fodder for a commentary on the costs of celebrity. In 2010, Bynes announced her retirement from acting. Bynes had been working consistently since she was a fetus— from being the star cast member of Nickelodeon’s All That to headlining her own show at 13 and co-starring in a long-running show on the WB.

According to her former co-stars, Amanda Bynes was easy to work with—smart, punctual and organically hilarious. According to Bynes, she quit because she just “didn’t love it anymore.” This was likely because as she got older, her roles got increasingly smaller while castmates Channing Tatum and Emma Stone became huge stars. When she quit acting, her last role as a lead was in 2007. That film, Sydney White, made a total of $11 million dollars at the box office.

Like Joaquin Phoenix before her, the retirement was just a prelude. Amanda Bynes had always been a little unhinged on social media (she really likes exclamation points), but in 2012, the door completely swung off its bolts. Bynes committed a DUI in early April, refusing a breathalyzer test, and then four days later, hit a car on the San Fernando Valley freeway. She fled the scene.

Since that time, she’s been in so many auto accidents that you’d think she was one of the fetishists from David Cronenberg’s Crash. However, what got the public’s attention wasn’t her driving habits (or her strange pleas to Barack Obama for clemency). Bynes’ meltdown came to prominence earlier this year when she asked Drake to “murder [her] vagina” on Twitter. That tweet was shared over 52,000 times.

Today Bynes is a Twitter phenomenon. Over 1.3 million followers are tuned in constant feed of updates on her ongoing soap opera. Bynes is a Greatest Hits of past meltdowns. She’s got Sheen’s bon mots, Bret Ellis’ Twitter trolling, Lohan’s family drama and Britney’s hair issues. Bynes recently threw her bong out a window and has filmed numerous videos of herself while she appears to be under the influence of something. I think it’s celebrity.

Joaquin Phoenix’s example is telling. Phoenix faked a breakdown (in which he quit acting for a rap career) in order to make a mockumentary about our obsession with celebrity meltdowns, the little-seen I’m Still Here. Phoenix’s con was poorly received because we were always somewhat aware that we were being played. Because the method breakdown was for a film, the placement of the camera on Phoenix comforted and repulsed us with its artifice.

But with Bynes, the gaze has been taken away. The documentary is no longer being filmed. We are the camera tracking her every move and feeding into the meltdown. Americans love to see femininity unmasked and debased, whether that’s women tearing each other apart on the Real Housewives and Revenge or the fervor over Anna Nicole Smith and Courtney Love.

Love has battled drug addiction, substance abuse and depression for decades, but her following jokes that she’s their “spirit animal.” A fan posted a drag video in which he impersonates the former Mrs. Cobain titled, “Courtney Love Will Never Change XOX.”

Like Bynes, Courtney Love has quite the following on Twitter. They say you vote with your dollar. Now we’re voting with our click.

Bynes’ tragedy can be endlessly shared and commented on, a sad commentary on our ironic consumption of mental illness. Like Spears during her bipolar breakdown (for which she’s now on medication), people have started betting on Amanda Bynes death. She placed third in Crossing Guard’s poll. She was beat out by Lohan, considered the "Susan Lucci of death pools" everywhere.

But how in on the joke is Bynes? Does she realize what her celebrity represents?

According to some, Bynes is trolling us—or is the “greatest artist of our time.” The “performance art” conspiracy theorists have cited her influences from previous celebrity meltdowns and from Petra Cortright, who takes selfie videos as a way to comment on our culture of narcissism.

Cortright and Bynes’ short films are eerily similar, but I think this theory gives Bynes too much credit. Amanda Bynes simply isn't the actor Phoenix is, and her breakdown is too raw not to come from somewhere real.

For Bynes, it’s not about art. It’s about publicity.

Whether or not Amanda Bynes sees it as such, there’s an undeniably performative aspect to her publicizing her behavior—from the recent Rihanna feud to her decision to hire a best friend for the day. Bynes met her rent-a-friend on the street, where they pretended to catch up and commiserate for the paparazzi. Bynes then took her to an ATM where she paid her friend for an hour’s worth of imaginary companionship.

Like a child who throws a tantrum to get their parents’ attention, Bynes knows that the weirder she acts, the more people tune in. Her breakdown is a PR goldmine. Instead of live tweeting an acid trip like Shia LeBeouf, she’s tweeting her surreal life, fit for our 24/7 news cycle. After posting something bizarre, Bynes often reminds us to follow her account. For $18, you can even buy a “Free Amanda Bynes” t-shirt.

In a perfect world, Amanda Bynes is controlling the reins and is off somewhere right now laughing about what fools and enablers we all are. I hope she gets the help she clearly needs, but if not, she’s already accomplished something. By quitting acting to act out, she's finally getting noticed. Her ratings have never been higher.

Nico Lang writes about LGBTQ issues in Chicago. You can follow Nico on Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr.