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Lisa Whittington-Hill

The Women Who Built Grunge

Four women — members of rock band L7 — pose on a park bench wearing sunglasses.
L7 in 1992. Photo: Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images

 

Lisa Whittington-Hill | Longreads | June 2022 | 16 minutes (4,445 words)

Jennifer Finch is smiling, but she’s clearly frustrated. “Everywhere I go, everywhere I turn, I see this fucking face,” says the bassist for Los Angeles band L7. “Frankly, I’m sick of it.” Finch is holding a copy of the January 1992 issue of Spin, which happens to be Nirvana’s first national magazine cover; the face in question belongs to her ex-boyfriend, Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl. 

The scene appears in the 2016 documentary L7: Pretend We’re Dead, but the sentiment dates back much farther. When the magazine was published, Finch and her L7 bandmates were in the studio recording their third album, Bricks Are Heavy. L7 had formed in 1985, two years before Nirvana was in bloom, and the two bands had toured England together in 1990. Yet, with Nirvana’s breakthrough 1991 album, Nevermind, Grohl, bassist Krist Novoselic, and lead singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain had seemingly gone from obscurity to ubiquity overnight: Nevermind was selling upwards of 300,000 copies a week, and was about to knock Michael Jackson’s Dangerous off the top of the Billboard charts. 

Nevermind was not the only seminal grunge album released in 1991. Pearl Jam’s Ten hit the record store at your local mall in August 1991 and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger in October. By the time L7’s Bricks Are Heavy was released in April 1992, grunge had exploded: You could buy Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell’s look at your local Walmart, rusty cage not included. But as Finch and her bandmates would find, not everyone in the grunge scene was granted the same success; despite glowing reviews, Bricks Are Heavy topped out at #160 on the Billboard 200.

From the return of jelly shoes to the pop culture nostalgia of Showtime’s Yellowjackets, the ’90s are back. Chuck Klosterman’s latest essay collection, The Nineties: A Book, chronicles what the author calls “the last decade with a fully formed and recognizable culture of its own”; Vice’s series The Dark Side of the 90s revisits the Gulf War, the Viper Room, and the dating history of Counting Crows lead singer Adam Duritz (a Gen X Pete Davidson if ever there was one). And with 30th anniversaries this summer of albums from Sonic Youth’s Dirty to Screaming Trees’ Sweet Oblivion — not to mention the Singles soundtrack, which 30 years ago this week packaged the “Seattle sound” for a mainstream audience — our desire to revisit and re-consume the decade that brought us Baywatch, Beavis and Butt-Head, and Beanie Babies shows no signs of slowing down. 

But not everything is cause for celebration. While the alternative and grunge scene of the early to mid-’90s celebrated opposition to the mainstream, it was also a very white, very male scene that downplayed the significant contributions of artists who didn’t fit that description. Female bands like 7 Year Bitch and Babes in Toyland sold significantly fewer records than their male counterparts, generated fewer bidding wars, and received less press. When not ignored, women were objectified by the media and marginalized by an industry that treated them like a fad, promoting only a handful of female musicians and only for a brief period. As we revisit the decade that gave us grunge, rather than be all apologies, it’s the perfect time to reexamine, reevaluate, and rewrite history — especially for the women who made up the scene. 

* * *

“If you look at any history of that time, you’d think almost no women were making music,” Gretta Harley told Seattle magazine in 2013 of Seattle’s early grunge music scene. Harley, a punk rock guitarist, had moved to Seattle in 1990 just as grunge was changing the city and putting it on the musical map; she formed the group Maxi Badd (which would become the Danger Gens) with drummer Dave Parnes and bassist Tess. Lotta. But when Nevermind’s 20th anniversary in 2011 prompted a rush of tributes to Nirvana and its influential album, she realized that none of them accurately reflected the Seattle scene — or women’s role in it. 

That inspired Harley, along with actress and writer Sarah Rudinoff and playwright Elizabeth Kenny, to write the 2013 play These Streets. “We started looking at the books that were written by different authors, and the women were absent, almost completely absent,” said Harley.

“[W]hen a 250-page history of Seattle’s rock heyday … only includes a page and a half on the women of the era — calling it ‘The Female Presence’ — something feels … wrong,” wrote Laura Dannen in a preview of the play for Seattle Met magazine. “Like a female guitarist was some kind of elusive Bengal tiger, caught only briefly on tape.” These Streets explored the experiences of women in grunge in the late ’80s and early ’90s, drawing on interviews with more than 40 women in the scene. From Carrie Akre of Hammerbox and Kim Warnick of The Fastbacks to Lazy Susan’s Kim Virant and 7 Year Bitch’s Valerie Agnew and Elizabeth Davis-Simpson, These Streets shined a light on the contributions that so many histories had ignored. 


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Even those who managed to break through to wider renown, though, found themselves consistently undervalued. Like Nirvana, L7 had released one of indie label Sub Pop’s Singles of the Month, 1990’s “Shove/Packin’ a Rod.” After its second studio album, 1990’s Smell the Magic, was also released on Sub Pop, the band signed to Warner Bros. subsidiary Slash Records — for what is described in the documentary Pretend We’re Dead as a “shit deal” — at a time when major labels were scrambling to sign any band with a guitar and proximity to the Space Needle. Even when L7 finally got its own Spin cover in 1993, the compliment was backhanded: Next to the band’s photo was the coverline “More Than Babes in Boyland.” 

The Spin coverline embodied everything L7 was against. It wasn’t just sexist; it also manufactured a rivalry between L7 and Babes in Toyland, another female band at the time, flattening both to a girl-group trope. L7 often avoided group interviews and refused to be part of “women in music” special issues because the band felt they deserved their own article and didn’t want to be classified by their gender. “When we were naming our band, we did not want a gender-specific name,” said singer and guitarist Donita Sparks in a 2012 Spin oral history. “I wanted people to listen to our music and go, ‘Who the fuck is this?’ I didn’t really want to be lumped in with anybody. Us being women wasn’t a political platform.”

The uneven treatment of women in the scene was even more pronounced if you were a woman of color making music. Tina Bell, a Black woman, formed Seattle band Bam Bam with her husband, guitarist Tommy Martin, in 1983; she was the frontwoman and principal songwriter. Bam Bam would perform with The Melvins, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains, and were named KCMU/KEXP’s “Best NW Band.” Its 1984 EP Villains (Also Wear White) preceded Green River’s album Come on Down, often regarded as the first grunge album. Yet, while Bell is often referred to as the “Godmother of Grunge,” she’s also left out of most histories of the scene.

The Spin coverline embodied everything L7 was against. It wasn’t just sexist; it also manufactured a rivalry between L7 and Babes in Toyland, another female band at the time, flattening both to a girl-group trope.

“This modern genre’s sound was, in many ways, molded by a Black woman,” wrote Stephanie Siek in a 2021 Zora article about Bell’s legacy. “The reason she is mostly unknown has everything to do with racism and misogyny. Looking back at the beginnings of grunge, with the preconception that ‘everybody involved’ was White and/or male, means ignoring the Black woman who was standing at the front of the line.” 

For more: Lisa Whittington-Hill unpacked Courtney Love’s legacy in 2019. Read that piece here.

Bell eventually left the band and quit music; tragically, she died in 2012, shortly before a scheduled reunion of the band. However, when Bam Bam is referenced in accounts of the scene, it is sometimes referred to as a three-piece, removing Bell and her legacy completely. When she does receive a mention, it’s often in the context of Kurt Cobain being rumored to be a fan of Bell and the band. (Cobain had discovered them while he was a roadie for The Melvins.) 

Female musicians are often granted legitimacy based on their proximity to more successful, male musicians, and Bell is no exception. If you were a woman making music and Cobain name-checked you, you were automatically cool. (Sadly, Courtney Love remains one of the only exceptions to this rule.) “In general, in most histories, women’s participation has been disregarded from the get-go or cut from the narrative after-the-fact,” wrote Jen B. Larson in a tribute to Bell on the website Please Kill Me. “Though women have played key roles in musical innovations over time, we tend to notice them in hindsight, and only if dedicated crate-diggers are meticulous in excavating the past. The motif is especially apparent for Black women.” 

* * *

For a 2016 issue celebrating the 25th anniversary of grunge, British music magazine Q published a special package that included insiders and musicians talking about the scene. Not surprisingly, the piece features no women. Hole’s 1994 record Live Through This is the only entry from a band featuring women on a list of the 25 most influential grunge albums. Mojo’s “Early Grunge Classics” and Revolver’s “Flyin’ the Flannel” both feature no entries by women. There are also no women on Rolling Stone’s readers’ poll of the best grunge albums of all time. 

When the media covered women in the grunge and alternative scene, it treated them like a genre unto itself. This genre, though, received almost no in-depth profiles or features. Instead, women were given the listicle treatment: an easy way for an outlet to appear to cover female musicians, without the hard work of devoting actual words and thought to them. From “5 Female-Led Bands That Channelled the Fearless Ferocity of Grunge” to “10 Essential Alternative ’90s Bands Fronted by Women You Should Know,” the facile format signaled that a magazine didn’t deem their work or musical contribution worthy of serious consideration. 

If music and talent weren’t the subject of the listicle, you can probably guess what was: appearance and sex appeal. In 2011, SF Weekly somehow managed to use a listicle to objectify women and celebrate male bands at the same time: “As Nirvana’s Nevermind turns 20 this week, and Pearl Jam celebrates two decades of being a band, we think it’s time to look back on the top 10 hottest women in grunge,” reads the introduction to “The Top 11 Hottest Women in Grunge.”  

When the media covered women in the grunge and alternative scene, it treated them like a genre unto itself. This genre, though, received almost no in-depth profiles or features.

As for the lists themselves, they often highlighted artists who had little in common except their gender. Diffuser.fm’s “10 Best Female Rockers of the ’90s” includes L7’s Donita Sparks, Björk, and Juliana Hatfield — all women, yes, but all women making quite different music. (Garbage and Gwen Stefani on the same list? Why not! They both wrote songs with “Girl” in the title.) Not only do listicles reduce gender to a genre, but they also pit women against each other as they compete for the number one spot, or any spot at all. There are already too many competitive situations for women in music; we didn’t need a Spin top 10 to fuel yet another.

And then there were the “women in music” packages and special issues. These may have devoted more space to the acts in question, but they again flattened these women into a single monolithic group. “The all-women’s issue. The women in rock. This ghetto that they put us in. You get the one issue a year. People always compare us to bands with female singers. Not that we don’t love those bands, but it seems so narrow-minded to me,” said former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss in an interview with Broad City co-creators Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson.

“Women in music” issues reached their tragic peak in 1997. First came Spin’s “The Girl Issue,” the cover of which featured Fiona Apple alongside the headline, “She’s Been a Bad, Bad Girl.” Inside, the accompanying profile included the line, “Fiona Apple is a pop star trapped in the body of a pretty teenage girl.” (The profile seems unable to stop reminding readers of Apple’s gender, comparing her to other female musicians and repeatedly talking about her looks and “sexy and girlish” outfits.) Not to be outdone, Rolling Stone published its own “Girl Issue” later that year, with a cover featuring the random-seeming combination of Madonna, Courtney Love, and Tina Turner. Magazines thought they were celebrating women, without realizing that the very nature of the celebration accomplished exactly the opposite. Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger punctured the tradition perfectly with its satirical “men who rock” special issues in 2012 and 2015 — complete with sexy-pose photoshoots and inane interview questions.

Portrait of grunge band L7 sitting in a sauna, photographed in the early 1990's.

L7 (and a mystery woman) in a photoshoot typical of media coverage at the time. Photo: AJ Barratt/Avalon/Getty Images

When women in the ’90s received coverage, interview questions focused exclusively on the idea that a woman making music was a novelty. Women were repeatedly asked to recount tales of the sexism they experienced, feed into fake feuds with other female musicians, or talk about their looks, fashion choices, or who they were dating — all things that would rarely be asked of a man, except maybe in a parody issue of The Stranger. “When you’re a woman working in a man’s world, your gender is acknowledged constantly,” wrote Jillian Mapes in a Flavorwire piece on women rock musicians. “At times it can feel empowering, this sense of taking up richly deserved space in a man’s world. But at a certain point, gender-defined underdog status and tokenization grows old, even if it’s positioned as a necessary breath of fresh air in the press or among fans.”

When not objectifying them (“Spanks for the Memory,” reads the headline of a 1990 Melody Maker piece on Babes in Toyland), coverage focused on female musicians’ behavior over their music. Like L7’s Donita Sparks throwing her used tampon into the audience at 1992’s Reading Festival after the crowd hurled mud at the band. Or Alanis Morissette talking about going down on a Full House cast member in a theater. Or anything Courtney Love did. (“Love ripped through the grunge scene like a hurricane, marrying its prom king and becoming as notorious for her public antics as for her music,” reads the entry for Love on Diffuser.fm’s list of the “10 Best Female Rockers of the ’90s,” which echoed most of the pieces written about her in that decade.) 

* * *

In the early ’90s, grunge was often associated with riot grrrl, the name taken by Olympia, Washington’s underground feminist movement. On the surface, the two scenes took a similar form. Both originated in the Pacific Northwest, had their roots in punk, and shared a DIY ethic. Grunge and riot grrrl bands often played shows together, signed to the same record labels, and formed friendships. 

But not everyone agreed with the affiliation. “There was a sexist shock-value imagery with grunge,” said Allison Wolfe, a member of riot grrrl act Bratmobile, in a 2021 Guardian piece on the 30th anniversary of the record label Kill Rock Stars. “Especially from Sub Pop bands. It didn’t speak to us. I’m not that naked woman on the cover with blood dripping all over me [in Dwarves’ 1990 single “Drug Store”]. It was about forging a path to have a voice and knowing even if we didn’t have the musical skills that we had something to say that would be more interesting than half the shit these guys are saying.” 

Female musicians were often labeled by journalists as riot grrrls, regardless of whether they self-identified as such. Not only was it lazy and disrespectful, but it highlighted the limited vocabulary and reference points that existed when talking about women making music. “Riot grrrl” became a catch-all to easily categorize and compartmentalize women. 

Meanwhile, riot grrrl bands routinely met ridicule and dismissal from the media. Rarely, if ever, did journalists or critics engage with the substance of the music. Instead, articles focused on the physical appearances and fashion choices of the girls or wondered whether Chelsea Clinton would become a riot grrrl when she moved to Washington. A Melody Maker piece suggested that “the best thing any Riot Grrrl could do is to go away and do some reading and I don’t mean a grubby little fanzine,” and Newsweek called riot grrrl “feminism with a loud happy face dotting the ‘i.’” 

“I think it was deliberate that we were made to look like we were just ridiculous girls parading around in our underwear,” said Corin Tucker, of Sleater-Kinney and Heavens to Betsy, in an interview for Riot Grrrl Retrospectives, a 1999 video project by Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture. “They refused to do serious interviews with us, they misprinted what we had to say; they would take our articles and our fanzines and our essays and take them out of context. We wrote a lot about sexual abuse and sexual assault for teenagers and young women. I think those are really important concepts that the media never addressed.”

A black and white photo of an all-female band performing on stage.

Sleater-Kinney performs at the Riot Grrrl Convention in Los Angeles in 1995. (Photo: Lindsay Brice/Getty Images)

Nowhere was there any mention of the musicians who had influenced riot grrrl acts like Bratmobile and Bikini Kill. It was as though Kim Gordon had never co-founded Sonic Youth, as though The Slits had never existed. Women making music were treated like a novelty — each group of female musicians treated like the first, their history erased and their connection to the future denied. “There were a lot of very important ideas that I think the mainstream media couldn’t handle, so it was easier to focus on the fact that these were girls who were wearing barrettes in their hair or writing ‘slut’ on their stomach,” said Sharon Cheslow, who formed Chalk Circle, Washington D.C.’s first all-female punk band in 1981, in another Riot Grrrl Retrospectives interview. Riot grrrl eventually declared a media boycott in 1992 over growing concerns that their messages were being misinterpreted, diluted, and trivialized. 

And just as with “women in music” special issues, female artists were seen as disposable and automatically compared to each other. “PJ Harvey‘s record-breaking contributions to indie rock are redoubtable, but rock’s one-in one-out policy for women has made her an inescapable comparison for any rock woman standing alone with a six string and toe pressed to a distortion pedal,” wrote Charlotte Richardson Andrews in a 2012 Guardian piece

One-in and one-out also applied to radio airplay and concert bills. If there was already a woman on a festival lineup or in radio rotation in the ’90s, there was resistance to adding another. I remember attending Lollapalooza in 1992, disappointed there was only one band featuring women on the bill — British band Lush — especially because the festival prided itself on its diversity. (I also accidentally locked myself in a port-a-potty and missed all of Pearl Jam’s performance, which has led to a lifelong fear of both the band and portable toilets, but that’s a different piece.)

Lilith Fair launched in 1997 to counter the lack of women on festival lineups and offer support and exposure for female artists — not to mention all the Biore pore strips audiences wanted. The event grossed $16 million its first year, making it the top-grossing touring festival, but not everyone was happy. “The latest trend in rock and roll: women,” announced ABC News’s Elizabeth Vargas, opening a segment about Lilith Fair. Sleater-Kinney declined to join Lilith Fair; Garbage’s Shirley Manson, among others, criticized it for its lack of diversity. Lilith Fair also helped contribute to the misbelief that music made by women had to be personal, had to be polite, and had to include an acoustic guitar. It also reinforced the idea that women’s music is only for women audiences.

Lilith Fair represented a more mainstream, commercial approach to feminism than the political action and activism of the riot grrrls, but both contributed to the idea of the ’90s as an encouraging and supportive utopia for female-fronted acts which gave the illusion of gender equality in music. While women musicians achieved undeniable success during the decade, Revolution Girl Style was far from over.

* * *

Grunge benefitted from its connection to riot grrrrl because it made the male-dominated scene seem more feminist, more progressive, and less sexist than it was. When women took Sharpies to their skin, the media dismissed them; when Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder did it, it somehow became cool and subversive. During a performance of the band’s song “Porch” on their 1992 MTV Unplugged show, Vedder wrote “PRO-CHOICE!!!” on his arm with a black marker; later that year, he appeared on Saturday Night Live wearing a T-shirt with a wire hanger and a pro-choice slogan on it. He also penned a 1992 op-ed on abortion for Spin. The mainstream media could handle politics in its music — as long as it was men doing the talking.

Whereas riot grrrl’s anger had scared journalists, resulting in misrepresentation and mockery, Vedder was allowed to be angry. “All the Rage,” read the cover of Time’s 1993 issue about how this new breed of angry male rockers was expressing the “passions and fears of a generation.” Both Vedder and Kurt Cobain declined to be interviewed for the story, but Vedder ended up on the cover anyway. This trend continued through the ’90s: men being lauded for their anger while women like Alanis Morissette were policed for it, accused of manufacturing outrage as a marketing strategy. Female musicians like Morissette had to be just angry enough to sell records, but not angry enough to risk offending anyone.

But male grunge bands also promoted a progressive, feminist stance, and changed the tone from the machismo and sexism associated with Mötley Crüe and other ’80s bands. They helped to bring gender politics to the mainstream, and regularly challenged sexism in their song lyrics, interviews, and videos. They championed feminist organizations, causes, and musicians, helping to bring them to a larger, more mainstream audience. I’d grown up watching ’80s hair-metal bands on MTV; male musicians promoting the idea that women were something other than bangable flesh trophies blew me away more than a RATT video’s pyrotechnics ever could.

I’d grown up watching ’80s hair-metal bands on MTV; male musicians promoting the idea that women were something other than bangable flesh trophies blew me away more than a RATT video’s pyrotechnics ever could.

In interviews, Cobain regularly supported and name-checked female musicians, from Shonen Knife to The Breeders, expanding the audience for these artists. In some cases, as with L7, these bands had been making music for longer than Nirvana, but unfortunately, it took a man championing them to bring the girls to the (fore)front. Cobain and Vedder also supported female musicians by bringing them on tour or joining them on the bill for benefits in support of a variety of causes, including Rock for Choice and Rock Against Rape. I remember a male friend praising Vedder for organizing Rock for Choice. He assumed the singer was responsible for it after he saw a picture in a music magazine of Vedder sporting a shirt for the benefit concerts. (He didn’t; that was L7 and Sue Cummings, a senior editor for LA Weekly.) Bands from Rage Against the Machine to Mudhoney played Rock for Choice concerts during the ’90s and while Vedder wearing the shirt helped to raise the cause’s profile, it also overshadowed the important work L7, and other female musicians did. 

What’s often overlooked, and important to remember, is that female musicians influenced Cobain’s feminist message — notably Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail — as did the the formative time Nirvana spent in Olympia. Cobain’s activism didn’t come from nowhere; it came from his proximity to, and association, with riot grrrl. “From the very beginning, he was aware of the gender issue,” said NPR music critic Ann Powers in a Daily Beast story about Nirvana’s legacy. Cobain may have promoted Bikini Kill and riot grrrl in interviews, but he wouldn’t have had his feminism without them.

This year marks the 28th anniversary of Cobain’s death. Each year the music media commemorates the occasion with tribute articles, think pieces, and reminders of all the conspiracy theories that still surround Cobain’s death. “10 Years After His Tragic Death: Why The Man And His Music Still Matter” reads the cover of an April 2004 issue of Spin. The “special collector’s issue” includes a history of grunge, a list of 30 essential Nirvana recordings and other media, and musicians from The Strokes to Soundgarden sharing their memories of Cobain. Similar tributes mark the anniversary of the deaths of Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, who died by suicide in May 2017, and Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley, who died of a drug overdose in April 2002. 

Sadly, the deaths of female musicians don’t receive nearly the same level of media attention. The anniversary of the death of Mia Zapata, lead singer of The Gits, who was murdered and brutally raped in July 1993, deserves more tributes. The deaths of Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff, who died two months after Cobain, or 7 Year Bitch lead guitarist Stefanie Sargent, who died in 1992, should also not be overshadowed by the deaths of male musicians.     

Deaths are not the only occasions that are marked. When Nevermind turned 30 last year, the anniversary was marked by special commemorative issues of Uncut and Mojo. There was a 30th anniversary reissue box set, online tributes, social media shoutouts, and an endless-seeming parade of dudes telling you where they were the first time they heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Similar tributes happened with the album’s 10- and 20-year anniversaries. When we think about nostalgia, it’s important to notice whose legacy is remembered, who gets the anniversary covers, whose cultural significance is celebrated — and whose isn’t.

* * *

Grunge is far from the only musical scene to marginalize women’s contributions. In a 2014 Guardian article about the punk scene’s misogyny, writer Charlotte Richardson Andrews argued that women had to fight for visibility in a scene where men held all the power. Women were too often excluded from an industry that only promoted “the lucky few to whom industry gatekeepers deign to give a platform.” The piece could just have easily been describing grunge. 

Or hip-hop, for that matter. Starting in the late ’80s, female hip-hop artists like Queen Latifah and MC Lyte achieved undeniable success. In 1988, Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” was one of the first hip-hop singles to be nominated for a Grammy. Latifah’s most successful album, 1993’s Black Reign, was certified gold, and its Grammy-winning single “U.N.I.T.Y.” explicitly celebrated women’s rights. Their music defined the genre as they spoke out against assault, discrimination, and misogyny. But like women in grunge, this perspective didn’t receive as much attention as it should have: Songs like “Ladies First” existed within a male-dominated genre and culture where, as Jeff Chang wrote in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, “scantily-clad dancers seemed in endless supply, while women rappers were scarce.” At least in grunge, Eddie Vedder wasn’t pulling a 2 Live Crew and singing about someone blowing him, as much as he may have wanted Ticketmaster to.

In 1999, Billboard named pop singer Mariah Carey the artist of the decade. For those who had grown up with grunge, it seemed a fate worse than whatever Y2K had planned. By then, grunge bands were long gone, replaced by mass-produced boy bands and pop princesses, as well as the burning (literally) mess that was Woodstock ’99. Riot grrrl’s girl-power message had been co-opted and commercialized to sell pencil cases and baby tees. Smelling like Teen Spirit had been replaced by actual teen spirit as preteen girls flocked to The Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, and The Spice Girls. 

But, thankfully, yesterday’s pioneers refuse to stay in the background. After six studio albums, L7 went on indefinite hiatus in 2001 — only to reform in 2014 and tour with its original lineup for the first time in 20 years. Later this year, they’ll tour again to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Bricks Are Heavy. Sleater-Kinney, who released their 10th studio album Path of Wellness in 2021, also returns to the stage this summer. Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon is back with This Women’s Work: Essays on Music, an anthology she edited with music journalist Sinead Gibson. “‘What’s it like to be a girl in a band?’ The often-repeated question throughout my career as a musician made me feel disrupted, a freak or that we are all the same,” wrote Gordon in an Instagram post promoting the book. “I once asked my boyfriend what it was like to have a penis? To me they are sort of equivalent questions. Hopefully, this book begins an unravelling of this myth that if you’re a female musician you are ready-made, easily digestible.”

It’s long overdue.

* * *

Lisa Whittington-Hill is the Publisher of This MagazineHer writing has appeared in LongreadsThe Walrus, Hazlitt, and more. She is currently writing a book for the 33 1/3 music series on Beauty and the Beat by The Go-Go’s to be published in 2023. Girls, Interrupted, her collection of essays on how pop culture is failing women, will be published by Montreal’s Vehicule Press in Fall 2023. You can find her on Twitter at @nerdygirly.

Editor: Peter Rubin

Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Fact checker: Sky Patterson

 

Judge a Book Not By its Gender

Illustration by Carolyn Wells

Lisa Whittington-Hill | Longreads | May, 2021 | 29 minutes (7,916 words)

I blame Drew Barrymore for two things: the amount of money I have spent on celebrity memoirs and an unfortunate attempt to dye my hair platinum blonde in 1993, inspired by Drew’s locks in a Seventeen magazine Guess Jeans ad.

Little Girl Lost, Barrymore’s 1990 account of growing up as a child star in Hollywood, was my first celebrity autobiography. It ignited my love of celebrity memoirs, especially those by women. My dog-eared copy has survived numerous book purges and cross-country moves. I am not alone in my appreciation for it. The coming-of-age tale was a New York Times bestseller and although the book is now out of print, it has achieved cult-like status. It was even the subject of a 2018 New York Times Magazine Letter of Recommendation.

Barrymore was just 11 months old when she got her start in a television commercial for Puppy Chow. At 7 she starred as Gertie in Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster 1982 film E.T. and that same year became the youngest person ever to host Saturday Night Live. Barrymore’s drug and alcohol use began shortly after E.T. phoned home. The first time she got drunk she was 9. Barrymore started smoking weed at 10 and by 12 had moved on to cocaine. The actress entered rehab at 13; during her second stint in rehab she completed Little Girl Lost, which was published when she was just 16.

Barrymore’s drug and alcohol use began shortly after E.T. phoned home.

Gossip and juicy stories about nightclubbing with Jack Nicholson definitely make for a good read, but what initially drew me to the book was that Barrymore wrote it to counter stories about herself in the National Enquirer. “[I]magining the godawful headlines — ‘Drew Barrymore Cocaine Addict at Twelve Years Old’ or ‘Barrymore Burns Out in Teens’ — and the impression people would get of me was all my worst possible fears come true. I would’ve been the last person on Earth to deny my problems, but I wanted to have the option of confessing them,” Barrymore writes in Little Girl Lost. She wanted to come clean on her own terms. Barrymore’s desire to control her own life story compelled me to read the book and has made me return to it over the years.

Barrymore wanted to redirect her life’s narrative and that’s a popular reason why celebrities embrace the genre, but it is not the only reason. Some stars write their book to revive a stalled career and return to the limelight. For others, memoirs extend their 15 minutes of fame. This is a popular motivation for reality show stars. (Will you accept this rose and this six-figure book deal?) Memoirs also settle old scores. In André Leon Talley’s The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir, the fashion journalist and former Vogue creative director works through his issues with Vogue editor Anna Wintour. Memoirs can also promote the brand a star has built around their celebrity. Reese Witherspoon’s Whiskey in a Teacup, which markets the star’s Southern Lifestyle to y’all, or any book from one of Queer Eye’s Fab Five are great examples.

For readers, celebrity memoir appeal lies in the juicy gossip and name dropping, and the chance to peek inside and live, if only for 500 pages, the glamorous lifestyles of the rich and famous. Social media, reality television, celebrity gossip blogs, and the popularity of TMZ-style tabloid journalism have created an insatiable desire to know more about our favorite celebrities. Celebrity memoirs help fulfill this desire. Sometimes, unfortunately, we learn a little too much about our favorite stars. After reading Carrie Fisher’s The Princess Diarist, her third memoir, I am unable to watch Star Wars without thinking about all the coke Fisher said was consumed on set. I imagine the film’s stars hollowing out lightsabers to use like giant straws to blow rails with. (That’s not how the force works!)

While it’s easy to dismiss celebrity memoirs as guilty pleasure reads or unworthy of serious literary consideration, you cannot deny the genre’s popularity. One of the bestselling celebrity memoirs of all time, former first lady Michelle Obama’s 2018 release, Becoming, is still on the The New York Times bestsellers list and has sold more than 10 million copies. Recent months have seen new books from everyone from singer Mariah Carey to actor Matthew McConaughey to soccer star Megan Rapinoe. Celebrity memoirs are big business and we have Rolling Stones co-founder and guitarist Keith Richards to thank for that. His bestselling memoir Life was published in October 2010 and more celebrity autobiographies were published in the four years that followed than had been in the previous 15.

Life, for which Richards received a $7 million dollar advance, sold over one million copies in its first year. Following the success of Life, memoirs by male musicians from Duff McKagan to Steven Tyler were all bestsellers and it is not just men penning the hits. Remember when we all got together and decided women were funny after Bossypants came out? Tina Fey’s 2011 bestselling memoir preceded an onslaught of popular memoirs by funny ladies, including Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) and Amy Poehler’s Yes Please.

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Since first reading Little Girl Lost at 20, I have devoured memoirs by female celebrities from punk singer Alice Bag’s Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage, A Chicana Punk Story to Jersey Shore star Snooki’s Confessions of a Guidette. I’m interested in how women write their stories, what they leave out, what they focus on, and how much of what they reveal is a reaction to the image of them we have from watching their movies or listening to their music or seeing them stumbling out of nightclubs in Us Weekly.

“How do we edit our life into a decent story? That’s the rub with an autobiography or memoir. What to reveal, what to keep hidden, what to embellish, what to downplay, and what to ignore? How much of the inner and how much of the outer?” says punk icon and Blondie lead singer Debbie Harry in her 2019 memoir, Face It, of a process that is scrutinized and critiqued much more if, like Harry, you’re a woman.

I’m interested in how women write their stories, what they leave out, what they focus on, and how much of what they reveal is a reaction to the image of them we have from watching their movies or listening to their music or seeing them stumbling out of nightclubs in “Us Weekly.”

And while there is no shortage of male celebrities spilling their guts all over my poorly constructed Ikea bookshelf, the fact that they share shelf space with celebrity memoirs written by women is about all they have in common. When it comes to celebrity memoirs there’s a distinct gender bias in everything from how the books are marketed to the type of topics female celebrities are expected to write about and the amount of themselves they are expected to expose to sell books.

The gender divide bias becomes even more problematic, and downright depressing, when you read the reviews and see how critics and the press receive female celebrity memoirs. Rather than celebrate women and their amazing stories, reviewers revert to stereotypes and tired clichés and, in the process, miss the actual story. Women can spend chapters talking about their accomplishments, their awards, and their accolades and reviewers will still only focus on the sex, the scandal, and the bombshell reveals that are expected from female-penned celebrity memoirs if they want to actually sell books. From memoir titles to book blurbs, when it comes to celebrity memoirs by women, sadly, we haven’t come a long way baby.

 

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Debbie Harry’s Face It was one of the most anticipated celebrity memoirs of the recent past. In the book, Harry chronicles everything from her adoption at only 3 months old, to her days in the hippie band Wind in the Willows and all-girl group the Stillettos, to forming both Blondie the band and Blondie the persona. For Harry, Blondie was very much a character she played, one inspired by the “Hey, Blondie!” catcalls she received from construction workers after bleaching her hair, as well as the 1930s Blondie comic strip character who was a “dumb blonde who turns out to be smarter than the rest of them.” Marilyn Monroe was also an inspiration; Harry describes Monroe as “the proverbial dumb blonde with the little-girl voice and big-girl body,” who despite her appearance has “a lot of smarts behind the act.”

Face It also covers Harry’s acting in films like Videodrome and Hairspray, her time training as a professional wrestler for a role in the Broadway play Teaneck Tanzi: The Venus Flytrap, as well as her activism and philanthropy work. (Fun fact: She was almost Pris in Blade Runner, but her record company made her turn it down.) There is certainly no shortage of great material for reviewers to discuss. Unfortunately, they responded with the same tired sexist tropes that greet memoirs written by women.

“In her memoir, Debbie Harry proves she’s more than just a pretty blonde in tight pants,” read the headline on The Washington Post’s review of Face It. The headline was later changed to, “In her memoir, Debbie Harry gives an unvarnished look at her life in the punk scene” after social media responded less than kindly to the sexist headline choice. The Washington Post admitted they botched the headline and appreciated the feedback, but the headline was not the review’s only problem.

The review opens with: “Even if Debbie Harry, of the band Blondie, isn’t to your taste—her voice too smooth, her sexiness too blatant, her music too smooth—you can’t dismiss certain truths about her.” While this sentence is a great example of disdain, it is not a great review opening. I read Bruce Springsteen’s 2016 memoir Born to Run at the same time as Harry’s and tried to imagine the Post opening a review of Springsteen’s book in the same way. To be fair I do find his sexiness far, far too blatant.

So how does the Post open Springsteen’s memoir review? “Why, one might ask, would Bruce Springsteen need to write an autobiography? Haven’t we been listening to it for the past half century? Hasn’t he been telling us his story all along?” says Joe Heim in the review’s first paragraph. Springsteen, a talented songwriter, has already shared so much through his music, what more could he be required to give us? It is okay if you want to sit this one out Bruce, I have heard Atlantic City, and do not require any further emoting from you at this time.

The Post’s review of Face It just goes from bad to worse, with criticism that Harry “sometimes comes across as self-interested” to a focus on the more sensationalist aspects of her story like sex and drugs. (This is an autobiography, right? I didn’t see them complaining about the 79 chapters in Springsteen’s book.) “She had a hookup with an Andy Warhol protégé in a phone booth in Max’s Kansas City and began what she blithely calls ‘chipping and dipping’ in heroin,” reads the review. The Post points out that “Harry is quite explicit in her descriptions of her drug use and sex life,” which they seem to interpret as permission to exploit the more sensationalistic aspects of her life and use them as a focal point in their review.

The review also offers a great example of how media likes to promote and celebrate the idea of women as trailblazers, praising Harry for being candid about the realities of being a female musician (an “unvarnished look”), while also painfully reinforcing the realities of being a female musician by using a sexist, stereotypical headline that focuses only on Harry’s appearance and sex appeal.

Control is a central theme of Harry’s book, whether it be of her image, her band, or her art. Early in the book Harry recounts a record company promoting Blondie’s first album using posters with an image of her in a see-through blouse, despite early reassurances that the posters would only feature headshots and would include all band members. She was not happy with the marketing decision, saying, “Sex sells, that’s what they say, and I’m not stupid, I know that. But on my terms, not some executive’s.” And while doing things on her own terms is a source of pride for Harry, reviewers have a serious problem with it.

For Harry control empowers, for memoir reviewers it threatens. “You can’t control other people’s fantasies or the illusion they’re buying or selling,” says Harry early in Face It when talking about people having posters of her on their bedroom walls. While Harry resigns herself to her lack of control, reviews of her work never want to relinquish theirs. Harry’s insistence on doing things on her own terms is panned by reviewers who call her guarded and closed off.

Reviewers want to read a book by a female celebrity and have her completely figured out by the last page. “[W]hat’s a memoir for, if not to pull back the curtain and check out the lady who is pushing the buttons?” asks Harry in Face It. But when the curtain doesn’t pull back as much as reviewers want, they become resentful, sullen, and offended, reacting with “how dare you?” to any resistance on the part of the woman to give them everything they want, every piece of her. The Atlantic’s review reads almost like it’s giving Harry permission to tell her story on her own terms, saying “holding back is an understandable maneuver for someone who’s been stared at so much.”

One way or another, the reviewers keep the sexist treatment coming when discussing Face It. The Guardian was also annoyed that Harry did not give enough of herself in the book. “It’s a shame that Harry passes up the chance to dig deeper into her experiences of objectification and the nature of fame, but more disappointing is that we learn so little about her interior life, and how she really thinks and feels.” I guess talking about being raped at knifepoint by a stranger is not enough for the reviewer. What’s with the heart of glass Debbie? Give us more of your pain! And on page five, not 105!

I guess talking about being raped at knifepoint by a stranger is not enough for the reviewer. What’s with the heart of glass Debbie? Give us more of your pain! And on page five, not 105!

The headline of Rolling Stone’s piece on Face It highlights how Harry’s book “looks back on what she learned from Andy Warhol and David Bowie.” The media loves to position women in relation to the men in their lives as if the only way we can understand work by women is in the context of the men who orbit them. Despite writing 368 pages about herself, according to Rolling Stone, the only interesting thing about Harry is the famous male company she kept.

The New York Times continues the tired pop culture gender bias with a review that manages to make it all the way to the fourth paragraph before it mentions her age. It also talks about the number of memoirs by female rockers being released at the same time as Harry’s book. (“[T]here’s a bit of a pileup of female rockers getting reflective this season.”) I smell a trend. Ladies, they be writing! The review mentions the fact that Harry’s “face is unlined” and talks about her “crisp red collared blouse with white polka dots and red leggings.” I think Bruce was wearing the exact same thing when they wrote their piece about him and Born to Run. How embarrassing.

Two weeks after Face It came out another musical icon released a memoir. Me by Elton John covers the singer’s childhood in the London suburb of Pinner, his early musical days in Los Angeles, his songwriting partnership with Bernie Taupin, successful solo career, and marriage and family with husband David Furnish. Keen celebrity memoir readers might also be quick to point out that the title of John’s memoir is the same as that of actress Katharine Hepburn’s. Is there anything men will not just unapologetically lay claim to?

The review mentions the fact that Harry’s “face is unlined” and talks about her “crisp red collared blouse with white polka dots and red leggings.” I think Bruce was wearing the exact same thing when they wrote their piece about him and “Born to Run.” How embarrassing.

While Rolling Stone’s book review name-checked Harry’s famous male friends in the headline, not surprisingly, John’s does not. “Elton John’s Me Is A Uniquely Revealing Pop Star Autobiography. The long-awaited book covers his hard childhood, struggles with addiction and road to recovery.” It ends with “Elton has never been one to hold back difficult truths, and Me — while a little skimpy on revelations about his brilliant, ground breaking music — is essential reading for anyone who wants to know the difficult road that he walked while creating it.”

Entertainment Weekly’s description of Me is also glowing: “While Me is as colorful as you’d expect from an artist famous for his outlandish stage costumes and outsize temper tantrums, it is also so much more than simply a dishy sex, drugs and, rock ‘n roll tell-all.” The Entertainment Weekly review shows that when it comes to male celebrity memoirs there may be sex and drugs, but no review should reduce their work to just these scandalous and juicy elements.

Can you feel the love tonight? Not yet? Never fear, here comes The Guardian to continue the praise. Their review opens with, “Choosing one’s favourite Elton John story – like choosing one’s favourite Elton song – can feel like limiting oneself to a mere single grape from the horn of plenty.” Reading reviews of the book you have to wonder if John is still standing because he is unable to sit down from all the ass kissing. The Daily Mail calls it “the rock memoir of the decade” while for The Washington Post it is an “unsparing, extravagantly funny new memoir” and “bracingly honest.” It’s hard to find criticism and scrutiny in the reviews of John’s work because there is not much negativity. John’s book is not better than Harry’s; in fact, I think Harry’s is much stronger. She’s more self-aware and can deconstruct the misconceptions and preconceptions that fans, the media, and other musicians have of her.

Can you feel the love tonight? Not yet? Never fear, here comes “The Guardian” to continue the praise.

“You think you’re being difficult, my little sausage? Have I ever told you about the time I drank eight vodka martinis, took all my clothes off in front of a film crew, and then broke my manager’s nose?” he writes of being a father reacting to his son’s temper tantrums. There are plenty of stories about famous friends like Stevie Wonder, Yoko Ono, John Lennon, Andy Warhol, and Neil Young. The anecdotes leave readers feeling like they never get to peek behind the shiny veneer of the celebrity that is Elton John. At times it’s all surface and that’s fine, but reviewers do not criticize him for it in the same way they would if he were a woman.

John’s book reviews do talk of his well-documented addiction to cocaine (“If you fancy living in a despondent world of unending, delusional bullshit, I really can’t recommend cocaine highly enough,” he writes), but they are quick to follow it up with redemption stories, which is a standard formula in memoirs written both by and about men.

“Now that he’s sober, there’s the more conservatively dressed, happily married elder statesman of British pop, a proper establishment figure,” writes The Guardian. Not only do they give him a redemption arc and treat his addiction very much like a phase, but they also give his addiction issues a free pass, writing “while his extraordinary talent justified his personal excesses, it is his self-awareness that has counterbalanced the narcissism and made him such a likable figure.”

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Redemption comes up often in male celebrity memoir coverage, but examine the media’s reaction to another celebrity memoir and it becomes painfully clear that this narrative is strictly for the boys.

Actress, producer, and director Demi Moore’s memoir Inside Out was released a few weeks before John’s. Moore and her book were soon all over the media and it was not for her redemption story. Like John, Moore struggled with addiction, but unlike John the media never lets her forget it, along with other parts of her story.

“Demi Moore drops shocking revelations about Ashton Kutcher, sexual assault and sobriety,” reads the headline of an L.A. Times piece about the memoir. The story proceeds to break down Moore’s childhood pain, her miscarriage, Ashton Kutcher cheating on her, and her struggles with alcohol and drugs.

Unlike In Touch Weekly, they skipped the “Ashton and Bruce Are in Good Places Too” sidebar because like with Debbie Harry, we cannot talk about Moore without mentioning the famous men in her life. More than one review talks about how Willis and Kutcher must feel about Demi airing their dirty laundry. Was Bruce mad? What does Ashton really think? Dude, where’s my sound bite?

Entertainment Weekly’s piece ran with the headline, “Celebrities react to Demi Moore’s revealing memoir Inside Out. From Jon Cryer’s affectionate follow-up to Ashton Kutcher’s cryptic non-response.” They forgot to add “male” in front of “celebrities” though as all the celebrities quoted in the piece were men. Also, if one more reviewer mentions how great Moore looks for her age, I will make them watch that awful scene in St. Elmo’s Fire where Rob Lowe’s character passionately details the origin story of St. Elmo’s Fire while performing pyrotechnics with a can of aerosol hairspray and a lighter on repeat until they beg me for mercy.

Also, if one more reviewer mentions how great Moore looks for her age, I will make them watch that awful scene in “St. Elmo’s Fire” where Rob Lowe’s character passionately details the origin story of St. Elmo’s Fire while performing pyrotechnics with a can of aerosol hairspray and a lighter on repeat until they beg me for mercy.

Most of Moore’s memoir coverage focused on the tabloid aspects of it. Read the headlines to see if you can spot a trend and how many you can read before you want to just set shit on fire (you can borrow Rob’s aerosol can).

“7 Biggest Bombshells From Demi Moore’s Explosive Memoir” (accessonline.com)

“Demi Moore: 8 Biggest Bombshells From Her Memoir Inside Out” (popculture.com, also, take that accessonline.com)

“Demi Moore’s raw Inside Out reveals rape, why marriage to Ashton Kutcher crumbled” (USA Today)

“Demi Moore Gets Real About Her Painful Childhood, Drugs, Ashton Kutcher and Other Exes in New Book ‘Inside Out‘” (Stay classy, Us Weekly)

“Why Demi Moore Fulfilled Ashton Kutcher’s Threesome Fantasies” (E! Online)

The unfortunate thing about these headlines, which would be vastly different if they were referencing a man’s memoir, is that, like Harry, they reduce Moore’s story to only its most scandalous and juicy elements. Moore got her acting start in 1981 as Jackie Templeton on General Hospital (Luke and Laura forever!), the number one show on daytime television at the time. She followed that up with roles in films like the Brat Pack bonanzas St. Elmo’s Fire and About Last Night.

Then she got what many, including Moore, consider to be a turning point in her career. “This could be either an absolute disaster, or it could be amazing,” she writes of reading the script for Ghost, which ended up being a big hit in 1990, grossing over $500 million. It was nominated for five Oscars and four Golden Globes, including a Golden Globes best actress nomination for Moore.

Moore followed the success of Ghost with A Few Good Men, Indecent Proposal, and Striptease, a film for which she was offered over $12 million, an amount no other woman in Hollywood had ever received. Moore became the highest paid actress in Hollywood. “But instead of people seeing my big payday as a step in the right direction for women or calling me an inspiration, they came up with something else to call me: Gimmie Moore.” It is worth noting that at the time her husband Bruce Willis had just been paid $20 million for the third Die Hard movie. (Yippee ki yay indeed!)

“She became a movie star in this time where women didn’t naturally fit into the system,” said Gwyneth Paltrow, a friend of Moore’s, in the The New York Times piece on Inside Out. “She was really the first person who fought for pay equality and got it, and really suffered a backlash from it. We all certainly benefited from her,” says Paltrow.

And while it pains me greatly to side with someone who talks a lot about vagina steaming, Paltrow’s right. Moore is an inspiration and fighting for equal pay in Hollywood should be one of the things the media focuses on when they talk about Inside Out, but, sadly, it is not. It is unfortunate that when Moore is discussed it is in the context of Ashton Kutcher and threesomes, at the expense of the many other empowering and interesting parts of her life.

And while it pains me greatly to side with someone who talks a lot about vagina steaming, Paltrow’s right. Moore is an inspiration and fighting for equal pay in Hollywood should be one of the things the media focuses on when they talk about “Inside Out,” but, sadly, it is not.

Remember her iconic Vanity Fair cover? Shot in 1991 by Annie Leibovitz when Moore was seven months pregnant with her second daughter Scout, it’s considered one of the most influential magazine covers of all time. Legendary Esquire art director George Lois describes it as, “A brave image on the cover of a great magazine — a stunning work of art that conveyed a potent message that challenged a repressed society.” Let’s talk about that!

Or her intense training for her role in G.I. Jane, a 1997 film Moore both starred in and produced. “I was emotionally invested in the story, the message and the provocative questions it raised,” she says of the film. The film was panned by critics and Moore talks at length in Inside Out about her disappointment at the reception to a project that meant so much to her.

The parts of the book where Moore talks about Hollywood’s double standard, whether it be the pay gap or reactions to the age difference between her and Kutcher, are some of the best parts of the book. Unfortunately, they are the parts covered least.

The last line of Inside Out is, “we all suffer, and we all triumph, and we all get to choose how we hold both.” It is a great line for a memoir to end on, but in Moore’s case, while she may get to choose how she holds both, the media will only ever focus on the suffer part.

There is the emphasis on opening up, on fighting, on bravery, on revealing — “Demi Moore Lets Her Guard Down,” reads The New York Times headline. This is the way memoirs by women are positioned and even if it isn’t explicitly spelled out, it has become the expectation so much so that when female celebrities don’t expose themselves completely they are resented for it. The reception to Harry’ book Face It offers proof.

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Jessica Simpson released her memoir Open Book in February 2020. It reached number one on The New York Times bestseller list, but like Moore’s, Simpson’s book soon became tabloid fodder. “Jessica’s Shocking Confessions,” reads the headline on Star’s piece on the book, which focuses on Simpson’s struggles with drug and alcohol abuse and her famous exes from Nick Lachey to John Mayer. Like Moore, Simpson is now sober.

Simpson was signed to Columbia Records in 1997 at 17 as the label’s answer to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera and went on to release six bestselling records. She also starred in the MTV reality show Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, which featured Simpson and then husband and 98 Degrees singer Nick Lachey, who at the time was the more successful of the two. If you don’t remember Lachey from MTV you might know him from his recent gig hosting Netflix’s Love is Blind where he greets contestants with “Obviously, I’m Nick Lachey,” which seems to overestimate his place in both pop culture’s canon and our general consciousness.

Newlyweds, a ratings success, aired for two years and while it made the couple a household name, it was Simpson who stole the show with her ditzy, dumb blonde antics. Her confusion over whether Chicken of the Sea was chicken or tuna earned her a place in both reality television and pop culture history. The most interesting parts of Open Book are when Simpson talks about her reality television persona and the identity crisis it led to. “How was I supposed to live a real healthy life filtered through the lens of a reality show? If my personal life was my work, and my work required me to play a certain role, who even was I anymore?” she writes.

Open Book is Simpson’s attempt to distance herself from her Newlyweds role and change perceptions of her, a common reason people write memoirs. Some get it —“You Remember Jessica Simpson, Right? Wrong,” reads the headline on The New York Times piece about her memoir — but, unfortunately, most of the reviewers discussing her book don’t. Simpson has moved beyond her Newlyweds character. She’s built a billion-dollar fashion and licensing business and is a mom to three kids, but the media seem uncomfortable embracing Simpson in her new roles, preferring to keep her forever stuck in 2003, in her UGG boots and pink Juicy Couture tracksuit, confused about tuna.

Simpson has moved beyond her “Newlyweds” character. She’s built a billion-dollar fashion and licensing business and is a mom to three kids, but the media seem uncomfortable embracing Simpson in her new roles, preferring to keep her forever stuck in 2003, in her UGG Boots and pink Juicy Couture tracksuit, confused about tuna.

Simpson talks about the effect this identity crisis had on her and her struggles with her weight and body image, as well as her sexual abuse at age 6, and her addiction to alcohol and pills. She started to increasingly rely on alcohol during her relationship with Mayer in 2006, insecure that she wasn’t smart enough to date Mayer. My heart breaks when I think of Simpson wasting time worried about being the intellectual equal of the man who gave us the musical depth that is “Your Body is a Wonderland” and later referred to sex with Simpson as “sexual napalm.”

It is also troubling that after talking about how Mayer brought out her insecurities, the media thinks it is a good idea to focus on Mayer’s reaction to Open Book. I know you thought you were never good enough for this guy and that he was always judging you, so let’s get him to judge you some more by asking what he thought of your book!

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Simpson’s attempts to challenge the dumb blonde perception of her are not the only example of a female celebrity going off script or off brand in their memoir and failing to give the media, and readers, what they want or expect. Singer and songwriter Liz Phair’s Horror Stories says “a memoir” on the front cover, but the book is more a collection of essays and stories by Phair than a straightforward linear memoir. Reviewers did not respond well to Phair’s artistic license with the storytelling form.

“It’s hard to tell the truth about ourselves. It opens us up to being judged and rejected,” Phair writes in Horror Stories and that may be one reason she chose to tell her story the way she did. Through stories about blizzards, blackouts (from lack of electricity, not drinking), marital infidelity, giving birth to her son, and getting dressed up to go to Trader Joe’s, Phair reveals a lot about herself and about identity, insecurity, fame, and regret. “In the stories that make up this book, I am trusting you with my deepest self,” she writes in the book’s prologue. Her deepest self just might be a bit harder to find for those fuck and run readers who are too busy complaining about the book’s nontraditional memoir style to actually read it.

Horror Stories does not talk a lot about her music, including Phair’s critically acclaimed, influential 1993 album Exile in Guyville. A song-by-song reply to the 1972 Rolling Stones album Exile on Main St., it was the number one album in year-end lists from Spin and The Village Voice and was rated the fifth best album of the 1990s by Pitchfork. “At the time, it was a landmark of foul-mouthed, comprised intimacy, a tortured confessional, a workout in female braggadocio, and a wellspring of penetrating self-analysis and audacity,” reads The New Yorker’s piece on the 20th anniversary of Exile in Guyville’s release.

“Frankness is Liz Phair’s brand. Her 1993 breakthrough album, the brilliant and profane Exile in Guyville, chronicled her post-college experiences in Chicago’s male-dominated music scene. Phair’s new memoir Horror Stories makes little mention of the album or her artistic life,” reads The Washington Post’s review. Remember how the Post thought that Bruce Springsteen did not need to write Born to Run because he had already revealed so much in his songs already? Why doesn’t Phair get the same consideration?

“Though there are anecdotes about flopping on live television and scrapping a record after learning of a collaborator’s abuse, the absence of concrete stories about Exile in Guyville is palpable,” writes Pitchfork. Just give us the hits, Liz! “Her relationship to music seems to have been the longest and maybe the most demanding love of her life, the one for which she has been willing to get lost, to fail, and to try again over and over for decades. Call me a selfish fan, but I have to say that is one story in all its horror and passion I would love to hear,” reads the review in The New York Times.

Reviewers spend so much time focused on what’s missing from Horror Stories that they miss what’s there. Well, maybe not all of what’s there. In chapter 14 of Horror Stories, called “Hashtag,” Phair writes about waking up one morning to headlines about the rock star who was supposed to produce her next album. Multiple women had come forward to accuse him of sexual harassment and emotional abuse. The FBI was also investigating him for exchanging sexually explicit communications with an underage fan.

Phair never specifically names Ryan Adams, but, in February 2019, seven months before Horror Stories was released, The New York Times broke the story about multiple women, including his ex-wife Mandy Moore, coming forward to accuse Adams of manipulative behavior, sexual misconduct, emotional and verbal abuse, and harassment.

In the chapter, Phair talks about her own experiences with sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalkers, and the sexism she experienced in the music industry. She writes about being instructed by a record label president to let radio programmers “feel her up a little” because it would help boost her career or about being told that she would never work again if she didn’t go along with sexy photo shoots. But her personal stories are not what the press focused on when she was promoting Horror Stories.

Phair was frequently asked about Adams and her experience working with him. “I don’t want every headline about this book that is so important to me to be about Ryan Adams,” she tells Entertainment Weekly. She becomes understandably annoyed with a male reporter from New York Magazine who asks her several questions about Adams, including one about his process as a producer. (I know when I hear about a man accused of sexual misconduct the first thing I wonder about is his artistic process.) “Out of everything in the book, why is the Ryan Adams thing such an interesting topic?” Phair asks him. “You’re not the only one singling out Ryan Adams as a hot talking point, and it’s sad. It does need to be talked about, but so do the larger issues.”

It’s unfortunate that Phair shares intimate details about herself, and her own experiences with sexual harassment and assault, and the media takeaway from that is that they don’t like the format of her book and would rather talk about the famous man in her life. Congrats on your book Liz, did Ryan ever send you inappropriate texts?

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While Phair is criticized for not talking about what is expected of her in her memoir, men who follow the same course do not hear “how dare you?” The reaction to Acid for the Children, the 2019 memoir by Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea (aka Michael Balzary), proves that.

Acid for the Children details Flea’s childhood growing up in Australia, his relationship with his older sister Karyn, his family’s move to the U.S. when he was 4, his first crush, how Kurt Vonnegut Jr. changed his life, and his love of basketball and the Sony Walkman. He talks about meeting Red Hot Chili Peppers lead singer Anthony Kiedis in 1976 at Fairfax High School, about learning to play bass, about his first band Anthym, about shooting coke and taking speed, his time in the California punk band FEAR, and about acting in the 1983 movie Suburbia. There are also lists of the concerts that changed his life, books that blew his mind, and movies that grew him. Lots of great material, right? You know what’s missing? Anything about the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the bestselling, Grammy-winning, Rock-and-Roll-Hall-of-Fame-inducted band he founded, plays bass in, and is most strongly associated with.

Flea’s book ends just as Tony Flow and the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem, what would later become the Red Hot Chili Peppers, play their first show at the Grandia Room in Los Angeles to 27 people in February 1983. This performance comes up on page 375 of the 385-page book. There’s no mention of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, his movie roles beyond Suburbia (My Own Private Idaho being one of his most famous), his role as a father of two girls, how he founded the Silverlake Conservatory of Music, or his work with other musicians from Thom Yorke’s Atoms for Peace to Alanis Morissette. (Flea played bass on “You Oughta Know,” her hit single from 1995’s Jagged Little Pill.)

The book is about Flea’s journey to the band, rather than with it. Surely, reviewers were as outraged by this omission, as they were when Phair failed to talk about Exile in Guyville in Horror Stories. It will not surprise you to know they were not bothered at all. Rather than focus on what was missing from Acid for the Children, the coverage focuses on what’s there and praise for it. Reviews focus on Flea’s gift and skill as a writer and fail to mention that if you want to dream of Californication, you will have to do that somewhere else. Reviewers can see, and appreciate, Flea as something other than just the bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. There is a very distinct set of rules female celebrities writing their memoirs must follow. The more tell all, the more trauma and the more tabloid, the better. They are not free to write about what they want. They must bare it all, page after page. Men like Flea have the freedom to operate by a very different set of rules. He can leave his scar tissue out and reviewers have no problem with it. Book coverage focuses on Flea the writer, rather than Flea the bassist. This same courtesy, and basic level of respect, is never extended to women telling their stories. Female celebrities like Debbie and Demi are never just human beings writing about their lives. Reviewers are unable to abandon their preconceived notions, their ideas of who these women are, their celebrity personas and just see them as people who should be allowed to tell their stories their way.

“[H]e’s actually a lovely writer, with a particular gift for the free-floating and reverberant. He writes in Beat Generation bursts and epiphanies, lifting toward the kind of virtuosic vulnerability and self-exposure associated with the great jazz players,” reads the review in The Atlantic.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly Flea said that his goal with Acid for the Children was that “it could be a book that could live beyond being a celebrity book or a rock star book and just stand on its own as a piece of literature.” I can only imagine the outrage if Debbie Harry wrote Face It and the book ended with, “And then I started this band Blondie. See you later!” Or if Demi Moore ended Inside Out with, “Then I got the part in this movie St. Elmo’s Fire. The end.” Or if Courtney Love wrote her memoir (please do this, Courtney) and the last page read, “And then I met this guy Kurt, but I have to go be the girl with the most cake now. Peace out.” The fact that Love and her accomplishments are forever tied to her husband is a whole other gender bias problem all together.

The book is about Flea’s journey to the band, rather than with it. Surely, reviewers were as outraged by this omission, as they were when Phair failed to talk about “Exile in Guyville” in “Horror Stories.” It will not surprise you to know they were not bothered at all.

Of course, Flea is not the first Red Hot Chili Pepper to give it away in a celebrity memoir. In 2004, lead singer Anthony Kiedis wrote Scar Tissue, a New York Times bestseller about his life, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and his time in and out of rehab, as well as in and out of various women. If you have ever thought, “I bet Anthony Kiedis does well with the ladies but would really like to get a better sense of his success rate,” then this is the book for you. In his memoir Kiedis gets away with writing about debauchery, depravity, and drug abuse in a way that reads like a Behind the Music episode on steroids. (See any book by a current or past member of Mötley Crüe or Guns N’ Roses for a further look at this style.) A woman would never get away with writing about drugs like Kiedis does.

When women write about their addiction there’s an apologetic, self-aware tone male memoirs don’t have: “I know I am a drug addict, and I keep messing up, but I’m really sorry, and please stick with me cause I am gonna sort this out.” (See How To Murder Your Life by fashion and beauty journalist Cat Marnell and More, Now, Again: A Memoir of Addiction from Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel, who passed away in 2020, for great examples of this.) Also, I would like to point out the blurbs on the backs of Scar Tissue by Kiedis and How To Murder Your Life by Marnell in case you still doubt there’s a gender bias when it comes to how celebrity memoirs are received.

“Hot Bukowski” —Rolling Stone on Marnell

“A frank, unsparing, meticulous account of a life lived entirely on impulse, for pleasure, and for kicks” —Time on Kiedis

Oh, and, if you’re reading this and in charge of greenlighting Red Hot Chili Pepper memoirs can you please get John Frusciante working on his? Frusciante is known for talking at length about both his connection to spirits (he might already have a ghostwriter!) and different dimensions and worlds. If there’s a book by a band member to be written this is the one.

It is also impossible to talk about Flea’s book without mentioning the title, which comes from the song by a band called Too Free Stooges. A man can get away with calling his memoir Acid for the Children, while a woman certainly cannot. I would like to see Demi Moore title her memoir Whippets for the Wee Ones and see how far she gets. If I look at memoir titles by women on my bookshelves there is Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, by Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein, The Girl in the Back by 1970s drummer Laura Davis-Chanin, Girl in a Band by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, and Not That Kind of Girl by actress and Girls creator Lena Dunham.

A man can get away with calling his memoir “Acid for the Children,” while a woman certainly cannot. I would like to see Demi Moore title her memoir “Whippets for the Wee Ones” and see how far she gets.

All the titles mention “girl” as if there is a need to announce that early on and get it out of the way, before the book has even been opened. Let us compare these with titles of the celebrity memoirs by dudes that I own. There’s Life by Keith Richards, Slash by Slash, The Heroin Diaries by Nikki Sixx, and In the Pleasure Groove by John Taylor. I do not know what the pleasure groove is, but I do hope it is also the name of the kick-ass yacht in Duran Duran’s “Rio” video.

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Acid for the Children is not the only recent celebrity memoir by a man to resist the traditional memoir style and not receive criticism for it, although in the case of singer and songwriter Prince’s The Beautiful Ones, named for the song from Purple Rain, it’s understandable why it lacks the typical style of a life story given that its subject died just one month after the book’s publication was announced.

“He wanted to write the biggest music book in the world, one that would serve as a how-to-guide for creatives, a primer on African American entrepreneurship and a ‘handbook for the brilliant community,’” he told Dan Piepenbring, an editor at The Paris Review, who was writing the book with Prince. Notoriously private, to the point that reporters were not allowed to record their interviews, many were surprised Prince would want to write his life story at all. He wanted his book contract to state he could pull it from shelves if he felt the work no longer reflected him, which just seems like a very Prince thing to do.

Prince had completed just 30 handwritten pages before he died of an accidental fentanyl overdose on April 21, 2016. The pages detailed his childhood and his early days as a musician. Piepenbring returned to Prince’s Paisley Park compound months after the singer’s death to find additional material that could be used in the book. This material includes personal photos, drawings, song lyrics, and a handwritten synopsis of Purple Rain, Prince’s 1984 film that marked his acting debut. The addition of personal artifacts to round out the story means The Beautiful Ones is more scrapbook than memoir. “The Beautiful Ones does not offer a clear-eyed view of who Prince really was — he would have hated that, but it illuminates more than it conceals,” reads The Washington Post’s piece on the memoir.

Reading reviews of The Beautiful Ones, I wondered if the book would have even been finished and released if Prince were a woman or would it have been indefinitely shelved because of the death of its star. Maybe it would have focused on the singer’s drug use, final days, death, and the reaction to his death. The media has a way of making a female celebrity’s story about her death, not her life, which was noticeably lacking when the media talked about Prince and The Beautiful Ones.“It’s up to us to take what’s there and make something out of it for ourselves, creating, just as Prince wanted,” said NPR in their piece on the memoir. Prince’s life ended with respect and a beautiful tribute in book form, and glowing reviews for it. This respect is definitely missing when we pay tribute to female celebrities who have died. Their deaths provide another opportunity for the media to pick them apart and let their scandals overshadow their contributions. Following Prince’s death there were no pieces like the gossip-heavy Vanity Fair piece from 2012 on the late singer and actress Whitney Houston, “The Devils in the Diva,” which “investigates Houston’s final days: the prayers and the parties, the Hollywood con artist on the scene, and the message she left behind.” Or the, at times, less-than-respectful movies made about female celebrities after their deaths that focus more on their personal lives and troubles than they do on their art. Even in death, women like Houston and Amy Winehouse are still expected to bare all even though they are no longer with us.

This year will give us new memoirs from actresses Sharon Stone, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, and Julianna Margulies, as well as singers Brandi Carlile and Billie Eilish. We are also getting a Stanley Tucci memoir and I think we can all agree he is the sexiest bald man (sorry, Prince William). Women are not just turning to books to tell their truths, with recent documentaries from the likes of Paris Hilton and Demi Lovato giving female celebrities the opportunity to tell their truths, clear up misconceptions, and control the narratives around their lives. We can only hope the way these stories are received starts to change, and that women can be free to tell their stories the way they want to (embrace your inner Flea, ladies!) without fear of negative reviews, sexist reviews, or questions about Ryan Adams’ artistic process. And please, no one ask John Mayer for his opinion.

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Lisa Whittington-Hill is the publisher of This Magazine. Her writing about arts, pop culture, feminism, mental health, and why we should all be nicer to Lindsay Lohan has appeared in a variety of magazines.

Editor: Krista Stevens
Fact-checker: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Copy editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Live Through This: Courtney Love at 55

Mick Hudson / Getty, istock / Getty Images Plus, Michael Ochs Archive / Getty, Vinnie Zuffante / Getty, pidjoe / Getty, Illustration by Homestead

Lisa Whittington-Hill | Longreads | July 9th, 2019 | 24 minutes (6,539 words)

It’s hard to tell whether Thurston Moore is being sarcastic or sincere. It’s probably a bit of both. “The biggest star in this room is Courtney Love,” says the Sonic Youth singer and guitarist in a scene from 1991: The Year Punk Broke. The documentary follows Sonic Youth’s summer 1991 European tour and features performances and backstage antics from their tourmates, including a pre-Nevermind Nirvana, Babes in Toyland, and Dinosaur Jr.

Moore comments during an interview with 120 Minutes, an MTV program that spotlighted alternative music in the days before the music channel became the home of teen moms and spoiled Laguna Beach brats. As Moore declares his love of English food to the host — most definitely sarcasm — Love is behind him trying to get the camera’s attention. She waves and appears to stand on something to make herself taller. Her efforts pay off and soon she is in front of the host, all brazen, blond, and sporting blue baby doll barrettes.

Tongue-in-cheek or not, Moore was right. Love’s band Hole wasn’t on the European tour bill that summer and their debut album Pretty on the Inside hadn’t even been released yet, but Love was already on MTV.

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