Why do we turn extraordinary women into tragic figures?

Amy Winehouse performing in 2008.

Amy Winehouse performing in 2008. Photo: Carlos Alvarez

There's a scene in Amy, the critically acclaimed new documentary by filmmaker Asif Kapadia, that's guaranteed to give you chills.

It shows Amy Winehouse, the doomed North London jazz queen whose unravelling helped a blooming online news cycle come face-to-face with its own bottomless appetite, horsing around producer Mark Ronson's studio while recording the song 'Back To Black'. Her voice – that voice! – plucks out lyrics from nowhere and snakes around the sound booth like velvet cigarette smoke, the raspy sound of heartbreak somehow plumbing your own. "We have this stereotype of young Mozart. Lightning strikes his head and then he furiously scribbles for two hours and has a concerto. She's the only person I saw who was actually like that," said Ronson in a July 2015 interview with Billboard.

Winehouse joined the '27 club' - a group of rock 'n' roll martyrs ruled by Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix - when she died of alcohol poisoning in 2011, but Amy couldn't care less about cursed artists or their drug-fuelled tailspins. Instead, it splices together footage of award shows, performances and personal video shot by friends and family to reverse the tabloid narrative that cast her as cartoon junkie intent on squandering her genius, beehive permanently askew. We see a fresh-faced teenager playing a demo to record executives with the swagger of someone much older, a plucky starlet rolling her eyes at a reporter, a rail-thin addict limping around Camden and an inebriated singer frozen on a stage in Belgrade - yet, the more extremes she embodies, the more she's punished. "Can somebody wake her up around 6 this afternoon and tell her?" quipped US comedian George Lopez when he announced her six Grammy nominations in 2008.


Molly Beauchemin has a theory about why we condemn self-destructiveness in extraordinary women when the same qualities are a marker of artistic credibility in talented men. "The way pop culture suggests an aversion to Courtney Love's drug-addled mythology while espousing Cobain's martyrdom, the way some communities s--t on Lana Del Rey's 'aesthetic sadness' while simultaneously espousing emo bands fronted by men - it's not to say that any of these genres, digressions, or affinities necessarily deserve respect, but there is a schism and a definite, unfair gender binary that favors troubled men over troubled women - and their right to be troubled," she writes in a June 2015 article in Pitchfork.

Frida Kahlo's magical self-portraits have never distracted us from her disastrous love affairs (or from exhibitions that also feature her tormentor Diego Riviera); The New York Times glazed over the power of Janis Joplin's freewheeling folk songs, labeling her a "misfit" who "drank from bottles" when she overdosed in 1970; and we're likely to remember Whitney Houston not as an '80s diva known for soul-lifting vocals, but as an incoherent drunk who thwarted her legacy and died alone. In male artists, self-destructiveness is evidence of power and artistry. In female artists, it's proof that this artistry is somehow fake.

But although our culture rewards troubled men at the expense of troubled women, there's also something more sinister at play. Our treatment of male artists points to the ways in which men are allowed to be complex figures defined by their contradictions, while women are treated as cardboard cut-outs. Russell Brand summed up our anxieties about complicated women in a 2011 Guardian essay that recalls the first time he heard Winehouse sing. "Winehouse Winehouse. Winehouse? Winehouse! That twerp, all eyeliner and lager dithering up Chalk Farm Road under a back-combed barnet, the lips that I'd only seen clenching a fishwife fag and dribbling curses now a portal for this holy sound," he writes. Male complexity is something to aspire to, but complexity in women must be quashed at all costs. It's no accident that Kurt Cobain hooked a generation on flannel shirts, but Winehouse's famous winged eyeliner is limited to Halloween.

In her brilliant This Recording story, 'How To Be A Woman In Any Boy's Club', Molly Lambert makes a powerful case for why female complexity is considered subversive and why women are cast as victims for suggesting that they may be led by their talent or interior lives. "If you dig too deep with some people, it will come out that they genuinely do believe that women are less interested in things than men are. That women who have interests are outliers or unusual cases. This is part of a larger heterosexual male narcissism wherein it is assumed that all of women's interests are related to men: that if a woman is a record nerd, it is because she learned about it from a guy or she hopes to meet men through it rather than because she just genuinely enjoys music," she writes.

Winehouse, who grew up memorising the music of jazz greats like Tony Bennett and Sarah Vaughn, might possess a voice that sounds like velvet cigarette smoke - but to undermine her artistry, we made self-destructiveness her myth. She might have dabbled in crack cocaine, but she became a tragic heroine because she dared to contain different things.