Words by Katie Walsh
Illustration by Vanessa Crook
In the past few months, the internet-at-large has been frothed into a lather on the topic of Amanda Bynes and her erratic behavior and possible mental breakdown. The sheer amount of stories posted on Huff Po’s Amanda Bynes tag and Gawker’s Caity Weaver’s reenactment of Bynes’ locking herself in a cupcake shop bathroom is enough to prove the media’s collective crush on Amanda’s crazy, and with reason enough, in the fact that for without her crazy, what else would they have? As much speculation as there is about Amanda’s hair and appearance, about which Canadian rapper she wants to do what to her vagina, about whether or not it’s drugs, or mental illness, the person who actually seems to be pulling the strings here is Amanda herself. Enabled by technology and social media, Amanda is empowered as the producer of her own images, a luxury not afforded to the Lindsay Lohans and Britney Spears of the world, who were subjugated to the exploitative, invasive and aggressive lenses of the paparazzi during their own meltdowns. Amanda’s production of her own meltdown text could be an example of selfie-culture gone horribly awry, but can we find something potentially empowering in her insistence on her occupation of the role of producer?
In direct addresses via her Twitter account, Bynes has insisted to media outlets like Us Weekly, Huffington Post and Complex that they use the pictures of her that she produces and makes available via her social media accounts. She has also made the effort to designate which paparazzi photos she approves of for use in articles about her. Recently, Bynes publicly upbraided Us Weekly for using old photos, saying that she prefers her newer, self-produced photos post-plastic surgery, because she’s happier with her appearance now. For celebrities who are subject to constant external scrutiny and criticism of their appearance, it seems Amanda is trying to change the power hierarchy of production and reception, wresting control away from corporate media, or at least questioning their role in her own production.
One way to approach Amanda’s selfies is to examine the historical relationship of women and photography in visual culture. In Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s article “The Other Side of Venus,” she explores how in the 19th century technological advancements in print making and photography as well as economic and cultural changes from the Industrial Revolution led to the establishment of the female form as a spectacular object of consumption within a capitalist framework. Within this space, “femininity, display, and spectacle became visually collapsed into one another,” with the “distillation of the image of the feminine to a subject in and of itself.” In other words: the woman is her image and the image is the woman. Where is the split between individual and image? Especially within a celebrity culture so permuted with paparazzi photos eagerly gobbled up by grocery story gossip rag vultures, image takes presence over the individual. So what of the image produced by the individual, as opposed to the image produced of the individual? It is in this shift that we can begin to imagine Bynes’ revolutionary potential.
Breakdown starlets like Linsday Lohan or Britney Spears had specifically antagonistic relationships to the invading lens, which culminated in such iconic images as Lindsay passed out in the passenger side of an SUV and Britney, her bald head captured in the flash, attacking a photographer with an umbrella. A good cinematic rendering of this violent phallic photographic power can seen in Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom,” where a young photographer kills woman with his camera in order to capture their fear (is there anything more representative of the role of paparazzi than that?). Bynes has embraced the lens, technologically empowered to reconfigure her relationship to it. Now, she is both behind the lens and in front of it at the same time. She is the photographed and the photographer—re-appropriating the power of the lens and taking it on herself. And, since so many of her photos are mirror “selfies,” there is an additional layer of removal in the address to the lens. It is not the self that she is photographing, but the reflection of the self. She photographs the self that she creates in the mirror reflection, essentially creating the self twice. She also points the lens at us, the audience of such a text. As consumers of these celebrity images, we are finally forced to confront the fixed gaze of the lens. It is in this taking back (or at least complication) of photography’s power, inserting herself as photographer into the text, that is she able to find some neutralization of or agency within the historically fraught photographic text.
However empowering Bynes’ act of photographing may be, the content of her productions remains problematic for anyone seeking to find something revolutionary in her work. As Sarah Banet-Weiser states in her book Authentic: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture:
self-branding is fraught with tensions between empowering oneself as a producer and occupying this empowered position within the terms and definitions set up by broader brand and commercial culture.
The starlet meltdown has always been marked by corporeal chaos, and clearly Bynes is following that convention, with her tweeted topless photos, piercings, extreme hairstyles, proud disclosure of plastic surgery, and frank discussion of her eating disorders. This obsession with appearance and desire to attain happiness or empowerment through the body is a distinct feature of post-feminism, which complicates and problematizes the anarchic potential of Bynes’ actions. However, she remains a producer of self, attempting to assert her own productions over the potentially exploitative and invasive productions of the paparazzi, which is more than Britney and Lindsay were able to do. She also takes on the role of surveiller of self, thereby taking away that primary role from external media sources. That she is seeking and asserting power at all must be recognized as somewhat revolutionary for starlets who have been subjugated by and subject to the media and the public. If her public appearance is the only route through which she might wrest some power back, we must acknowledge where Amanda attains her moments of power and control, and realize that they are not purely radical necessarily, but possibly ambivalent, and thus a complication, a monkey wrench in the gears of the celebrity production/consumption machine.
For her entire life as a child and teenage star, Amanda has been configured as what Solomon-Godeau describes as a “commodity fetish,” a female figure collapsed within her own constructed image, which, because of its unique properties in enabling/inviting the gaze, has the “ability to conceal its constituent relations of production, thereby veiling its own structure of contradiction.” In a way, Amanda’s public struggle to present only the self that she produces can be seen as an attempt to tear down the commodity fetish veil, to reveal herself and to disrupt the power hierarchies imbued in productions of her. Bynes’ insistence on that self can be seen as a possibly revolutionary moment in the iconography and convention of the celebrity breakdown. Or maybe it’s just the example of how the corporate/capitalist, self-branding, social media producing self has gone horribly, horribly awry. This is also a distinct possibility, but in that anomaly, in that problematic text, is there something anarchic in that anomaly that we might embrace?
It might not be possible to discover “what is going on with” Amanda Bynes, but it may be more interesting to delve into how Amanda’s productions fit into both the model of celebrity image production, and how that has collided with social media productions of self-brands that advanced capitalism has demanded of its constituents. Despite the causes of Bynes’ erratic behavior and anomalous/problematic productions of her own celebrity self, her disruptions and questioning of media power hierarchies in this celebrity reception can be seen as an important cultural shift that may affect the breakdown starlet narrative and may even democratize the media/celebrity subject production/reception relationship. But maybe that’s too lofty a projection for Bynes’ productions. Nevertheless, clearly her grab for power within the space of her produced image can be noted for it’s relevance as a moment within the celebrity timeline when the starlet grabbed the camera and pointed its lens back at us.
Since this article was written, Amanda Bynes has done much more than simply upload bizarre selfies and take on mainstream media for using her old photos. Without even taking her arrest into account— reports are that she threw a bong out her window at NYPD; she claims once again these stories are fabricated and manipulated by the media— she has also taken to tweeting at celebrities (even this writer’s idol, RuPaul) that they are ugly, and has also tweeted about how happy she is with the nose job and plastic surgeries she believes will make her beautiful, and thus worthy. While it’s sad that someone would declare certain normal features of her face to be “deformities” (tell that to the people who really do have deformities), and an indicator of a troubled mind, it’s still relevant to see how Amanda uses the megaphone of social media to attempt to wrest away power from mainstream media and assert her own agency. But perhaps that’s too optimistic. It could be that, but the other side of the sword is that this extreme narcissism and seeming body dysmorphia is the unhappy byproduct of a selfie-obsessed culture mashed up with the harsh external criticism and discipline child stars and young starlets are subjugated to via the mainstream media. I never tried to argue Amanda was inherently radical, only to endeavor to seek something radical in her productions of self. She is certainly a problematic and unstable object of study, and an inherently ambivalent one too. ◥
 Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “The Other Side of Venus: The Visual Economy of Feminine Display,” in The Sex of Things: Gender and Consumption in Historical Perspective, ed. Victoria de Grazia et al. (Los Angeles and Berkley, UC Press, 1996), 117
 Solomon-Godeau, “The Other Side of Venus,” 131
 Banet-Weiser, Authentic, 70
 Solomon-Godeau, “The Other Side of Venus,” 133