Lena Dunham: Caroline Flacks death hit me with a sickening power

I adored the former Love Island host, and wish we could have shown her a more hopeful reality: that women who err and fail are worthy of love

My adoration for Caroline Flack bordered on teenage. As an American abroad in the UK last summer, managing the vague, inchoate loneliness of time spent in a country not my own, the hours I watched her, six nights a week from roughly 9pm to 10.30pm, became a benchmark of cosy normalcy, a point of connection in an often cruel and unfamiliar world. She was, in the way that is specific to pop figures we engage with daily, a friend, albeit one I had never met. That raspy voice, her surprised guffaw, her dresses (pretty, bordering on wacky, like early Cher) and the empathy she brought to a bloodless and occasionally unkind television format lent her an air of approachable glamour, a local-girl-done-good sheen, aspirational but earthy.

Not since I saw Sarah Jessica Parker on Broadway in 1996, belting her heart out with a childlike vibrato, had I hungered so deeply for information about a star. I pored over Flacks Instagram, over dailymail.co.uk images of her pink-doored flat (Im not proud of this), and histories of her love interests (most of whom were only figures of note to me because they had been pictured holding her hand outside a nightclub). I read her deceptively sunny memoir, Storm In A C Cup, and took comfort in her durable, bounce-back brand of vulnerability. Her quotes about heartbreak (I feel at my most calm, in control and happiest when Im single, so at the minute thats what Im doing) reassured me, yet still I cheered Good for her! when she was pictured on the beach in Ibiza with her latest athlete beau. Despite being on fairly intimate terms with the mechanics of celebrity, I felt sure we were connected. Caroline would like me. She would get it. I got her. I am clearly far from the only person who felt this way, which is why her every move, hairstyle and misstep were clocked and noted by the country at large.

This adoration, this childish sense of connection, is only a small part of why her death hit me with a sickening power. While I am not often at a loss for words, I felt that weighing in especially with a Twitter micro-tribute would be useless and borderline disrespectful. I am fairly allergic to the culture around celebrity death announcements. When the latest loss hits the timeline, we pile in with broken-heart emojis and prayers for the families, a kind of wan language of loss. And when a death is as tragic as Flacks, we stand even further on careful tippy-toes, offering soft-pedalled wishes that she had felt less alone, or footnoting our praise with terms like she had her demons. We remind our followers that theres always someone to reach out to, even if we privately have often believed there is not. In our efforts to avoid saying the wrong thing, we resort to vagaries. Im not suggesting I know of a better way.

But I do know of a better way to treat the living. And I am with both gratitude and some bitter aftertaste able to describe the inner state of a person who has placed their self-image in the hands of the public; a public that has made a sport of building up, then tearing down, the people we elect to entertain us. The deepest rage is reserved for women.

There are a few caveats to apply here: I do not claim to know what Caroline Flack felt when she took her own life. I know that obsessively following her holiday outfits and love rivals does not make me an authority on her inner life, which was as rich, varied and insular as anyones. I also do not claim to know why some people take their lives when their circumstances nosedive, and others do not.

What I can say, with the authority of someone who has been on a decade-long journey through the funhouse of public life, is that none of us benefit from a culture in which young women are told that being revered by people who do not really know them, in any forum from secondary school to the X Factor stage, is the answer to ancient feelings of low self-worth, or a salve for the pain and powerlessness that accompany so many forms of female identity. When we tell our daughters, both through what we value and what we imitate, that their truth lies in what others reflect back at them, we set a standard that no amount of self-love Instagram quotes can undo. And so young women continue to chase the holy trifecta of beauty, productivity and likability, hoping that hitting their marks and saying their lines will lift from their backs the load they have carried since birth. To quote Kate Bush: Oh, darling, make it go away.

It is in this quest for their own culturally specific version of perfection and adulation that nearly every woman Ive met, no matter their differences, is united. The equally evil twin of these desires is to simply coast and camouflage. To be adored for qualities that are not really yours is very close to disappearing. Caroline Flack was adored and attacked for many of the same reasons: her brassiness, her autonomy when it came to personal decision-making, a sense of fight that kept her from taking criticism lying down. At the same time, she spoke (in an unpublished Instagram post shared by her family) of having repressed the stresses of trying to go along to get along: Ive accepted shame and toxic opinions on my life for over 10 years and yet told myself its all part of my job. No complaining. The problem with brushing things under the carpet is… they are still there and one day someone is going to lift that carpet up and all you are going to feel is shame and embarrassment.

Historys habit of erecting monuments to women, and then dismantling them just as quickly, is well known to us: from Cleopatra to Hillary Clinton, Queen Esther to Whitney Houston. I used to think women got it worse if they didnt conform to the current standard of beauty, but being pretty is no picnic, either. (It seems we must always destroy our fantasy women; no wonder Farrah Fawcett took a side turn into the art world later in life, where at least some fun and identity play are permitted.) Any woman engaged in public life is used to a kind of constant temperature check, trying to gauge whether or not there is blood in the water around them that day but then again, so are women in abusive relationships, or girls at dog-eat-dog middle schools. As is often the case, female celebrities represent a sort of canary in the coal mine for wider attitudes towards women.

Since Flacks death, there has been a lot of finger-pointing, as well as meta-discussions about the impact of both social and tabloid media on mental health. One of her final Instagram posts has been much quoted: In a world where you can be absolutely anything, be kind. And, of course, kindness is a worthy, and necessary, goal. But I would ask that we also consider our ability to accept contradiction, complexity and grey areas in the women we idolise, and consider the violence of suspending them in mid-air above us and then cutting the harness. Our ability to forgive men in power, to celebrate their contradictory aspects, is well-documented. But the people who have lately been speaking to Flacks inner beauty, work ethic and vivaciously engaging presence were mostly too afraid to do so in the weeks after her arrest in December. Their willingness to say, A woman I admire may have done something that I dont, could have gone a long way to lessen her shame and expand her sense of possibility.

Her every move, hairstyle and misstep were clocked and noted by the country at large. Photograph: Reuters

I am not dismissing the seriousness of the charges against her. But nor do I want my own attempts to stay on the right side of peoples opinion to prevent me from saying what I really mean which is that public vilification, especially as it follows public celebration, is almost too painful to bear for most, and a trauma like any other.

I know what it feels like to be adored to be hailed as refreshing, delightful, necessary, approachably stylish and fun. I also know what it feels like to be cast out and away, for some valid reasons and other arbitrary ones; or, more accurately, for valid reasons that then make the arbitrary ones seem pretty damn good, too. I know what it feels like to be so dependent on an influx of praise that the loss of it feels like the removal of a vital organ. I know what it feels like to fully believe the hatred that is being directed at you by strangers, and to stop believing the people who love you when they tell you there is more to your story. I know what it feels like to be sure youve failed your family, and to be isolated from them because you cannot forgive yourself that failure.

It was a long and lonely process, searching for another set of metrics by which to measure my own worth, to see myself as a human divorced from the echo chamber of fickle fandom and female perfection. It didnt change until I started asking myself: was I kind today? Was I honest? Did I do my best to be accountable to the people I love, and when I was wrong did I promptly admit it? These are the truths about a person that cannot be determined by a Reddit thread or a Sun article. And these are the units of measurement we so often forget to remind our daughters of not because we have bad values, but because we have inherited a culture that does not believe in our essential right to be as messy and confounding as the men it celebrates. For me, getting to this place involved a combination of factors, an enormous amount of therapy and personal reflection, and, most of all, time. Time I wish Caroline had. There is no simple way to explain why she doesnt.

I imagine with the stress on imagine that Flack was reeling from several kinds of heartbreak, not least that which comes from being cast out of the golden circle of validation that celebrity has come to imply. I wish I could have told her that it changes. That it may not go back to the way it was, to life before you received death threats. Or dissections of your appearance by people who refuse to reveal their own. Or wittily constructed puns about what a total waste of lungs and a heart you are. But it can, with the right support and reconstruction, become something better more self-reliant and therefore more peaceful, no matter how the boat may rock. I wish I could have told her all of this, but I also wish we could have shown her a more hopeful reality: that women who err and fail are just as worthy of love as the men who do the same.

To honour her complexity, to name and celebrate it, will go a long way toward changing the narrative for the women who watched her. After all, she was an example. She still is.

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2020/feb/29/lena-dunham-on-caroline-flack

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