Saturday, June 01, 2013

Thoughts on Amanda Bynes



As a child comedic actress, Amanda Bynes was an energetic standout talent, an impeccable, wholesome role model, and the sweetheart of her generation. She was regularly characterized as exceptionally mature, grounded, and kind. Basically, Bynes was the millenials' Shirley Temple. Like Temple, Bynes grew up into a lovely young woman, but the qualities that made her a star as a child didn't carry over to her adult appeal, and her career stalled. Unlike Temple, who matured well away from Hollywood, Bynes has struggled since retiring, and her troubles have crescendoed over the past year.

What's happened to her? What is she doing? It's cruel but expected that the tabloid media would exploit Bynes to feed the public's appetite for lurid news of a debased pop cultural icon.

My first guess is her tabloid-fodder behavior is due either to burning out and rejecting her managed life as an actress or immersing in extreme performance art, like Joaquin Phoenix's year-long project but deeper. It also reminds me of Charlie Sheen's meltdown, which was both real and exploited by Sheen in ways that presaged Bynes. She has the acting chops to pull it off - after all, retirement didn't remove her talent - and once upon a time, she seemed ambitious enough to try it. Given Bynes's altered appearance in the tabloids and on her Twitter account, it's jarring that in the video of her recent NY criminal court appearance, she still sounds and looks (at least the part of her face that's exposed) like America's sweetheart Amanda Bynes, which gives some credence to the possibility that all of this is an act. Altering appearance and playing a character is acting. And the role she apparently has chosen is ratchet. Or maybe Delirium.

Bynes said she no longer loved acting because she was only playing other people's characters when she announced her retirement in June 2010. If she is radically reinventing her performing career, she's using social media as her canvas to draw with new rules where she once colored carefully within the lines. Add the drug arrest, crude defiance, and growing notoriety to her new style, and she should have the street cred to jumpstart a singing career.

Her current persona is so over the top and such a departure from her once wholesome persona, and because she is generating much of the attention with her tweets and antics in public, I also can't discount the possibility that Bynes is a creative genius who has totally committed to exploring the artistic frontier of 21st century social media, pop culture celebrity. Improv is in Bynes's skillset, and the actress who grew up in the eye of pop culture could be doing a vicious Andy Kaufman-esque epic troll on pop culture. (I mean, this tweet, which uses this photo of Rihanna and Bynes from the 2007 American Music Awards that Bynes calls a "mocked up image", which she may have copied from this article, has to be a troll testing the limit of the public's credulity, right?)

Another indicator this might be performance art is her August exit from social media and then November reemergence with a startlingly different persona. Was she preparing the role during her break from Twitter?

Except Bynes has left and returned to Twitter before - @AmandaBynes is her 3rd Twitter account after @chicky (her nickname) and @MsAmandaBynes. A partial archive. In addition, she has accounts at several multi-media hosting sites. The simple explanation for Bynes's August exit and November return to social media is she's compulsive. With her past Twitter accounts, Bynes also would impulsively share overly personal or odd thoughts and similarly posed selfie photos, delete some tweets on second thought, eventually delete the account, then start a new account.

If she's playing a role, it's a role she prepared long before publicizing it in NYC. Her NYC tweets differ from her LA tweets more in degree, albeit a large degree, than in kind. Her current look - flamboyant, body hugging, long straggly hair, wigs, bold colored nails, large dark glasses, piercings, thick make-up, street-style jewelry and clothes - was evident in her selfies 2-3 years ago. The look was just less developed then. The softer, even pensive, look in her eyes was in her older selfies, too. Apparently, Bynes's style preference has been evolving away from her polished Hollywood image for several years, and she simply dropped her Hollywood look for a more urban look when she moved to NYC.

Judging by the tweets from her current Twitter account, social media has taken on an outsized importance for Bynes. Twitter is her castle where she is in control. It's where she is standing her ground to fight the tabloids for her image. Twitter is her self-managed publicist, set, and stage. If she intended to seek attention - and she does seem to relish her new fame, intentional or not - she's succeeding. Bynes has become a pop culture phenomenon with a cult following of over 1.6 million Twitter followers (and rapidly growing) who validate her every provocative act by cheering on their "queen". I didn't follow Bynes's career as a child star and Hollywood starlet, but I'm paying attention to her now.

While the argument that Bynes is acting is intriguing, I suspect the once shining star burned out and is going her own way. As a child comedienne, Bynes was high energy and off beat. Yet in interviews during her early 20s, a subdued, self-possessed, sleekly composed Bynes was conscientiously committed to a disciplined transition to Hollywood starlet. She talked about avoiding the trouble plaguing her peers because she had invested too much into her career. Perhaps ratcheted too tight, the line snapped under too much strain. It was obvious in the interviews that the back-and-forth rhythm of interviewing didn't come naturally to her, as though she was a manic girl struggling to act calm or an introvert struggling to project a sociable vibe. Some reports imply she adjusted poorly to young-adult Hollywood celebrity and felt alienated. Perhaps she was repressing a lot in her transition to Hollywood starlet and finally rebelled against conforming to a constrictive artificial image. (See the insight from former child actress Mara Wilson.) The pay-off to her career for conforming also fell short. The first rumors of erratic behavior by Bynes on the set of Hall Pass coincided with her career stalling. It's hard to know what precipitated which, although it's telling that Bynes never acted again despite praise for her turn in Easy A. Until Hall Pass, her reputation had been she was a reliable professional and dream client. Since then, Bynes has broken away from her original career path, sunk into herself, and now is a woman going her own way.

Rather than exploring social media and pop culture, Bynes may be exploring herself and experimenting with her lifestyle. Bynes's current persona is diametrically different from the persona painted by the personal quotes on her IMDB biography page. Since leaving LA for NYC in September 2012, she has disconnected from friends and family. If she was trapped in a false identity and felt stifled by disingenuous relationships, then I can appreciate Bynes purging her old life and starting a new truer life while filtering for people she trusts. It's possible the persona she has cultivated since leaving LA reflects the real, unconstrained Amanda Bynes. The conspicuous tattoos especially strike me as an overt rejection of her Hollywood starlet image. As much as her old fans prefer the glamorous role model, Bynes looks happy with the changes she's made. Whatever help she needs, I hope she isn't forced to pretend to be someone she doesn't want to be in the process.

Who knows? If more Hollywood starlets are dissatisfied as Hollywood starlets, maybe Amanda Bynes is the harbinger of a new trend. Revolutions are not always begun by the perfectly rational. Radical changes have swept the pop cultural landscape before with breathtaking speed. Image in the entertainment industry is artificial and only as resilient as the underlying machinery that generates it and the organic consensus that sustains it. Bynes's aggressive use of social media may change the machinery and her ostentatious rejection of the Hollywood norm may lead to an unraveling of the organic consensus. It's possible that within a few years the new normal for actresses will be more like post-Hollywood Amanda Bynes than Hollywood starlet Amanda Bynes.

Her transformation may also have been precipitated by a trauma, such as a romantic failure. In her January 2009 Cosmopolitan feature, Bynes mentions being hurt badly enough by a cheating boyfriend that she moved back in with her parents. In her January 2010 Cosmopolitan feature, she places a serious relationship on par, perhaps for the first time, with her career as competing interests. (She also takes a psychic seriously, which may be an indicator in hindsight of a changing state of mind.) The first reports of behavioral changes and her career stalling coincide with a 2009-2010 love affair with rapper Scott Mescudi, aka Kid Cudi. Her lifestyle and priorities seemed to change dramatically with her love affair with Mescudi. Before her relationship with Mescudi, Bynes spoke often of her sheltered lifestyle within the protective bubble of her work and family. She has been vulnerably compulsive about her attraction to black men, especially rappers. This past winter and early spring, yearning for love was a dominant theme in Bynes's social media, perhaps referring obliquely to a man she felt she needed to ground her. (This instagram hit home with me.) While she has mentioned singing and photo shoots in NYC, her tweets have conveyed more raw sexual need than career ambition.

Or Amanda Bynes is undergoing what it looks like: a manic break. Hypersexuality is a symptom of the manic phase of bipolar disorder. Bynes's drastic changes in her look, attitude, and behavior recall both Sandy Olsson's makeover for Danny Zuko in Grease because she "needs a man" and Delirium (formerly Delight) from Neil Gaiman's Sandman. The jarringly hateful, angry vulgarity from the one-time feminine paragon reminds me of Melinda Moores in The Green Mile before John Coffey sucked out her brain tumor. Bynes may seem like she's playing an Andy Kaufman-esque character because her reality has distorted.

If the start of the manic break is pegged at her reportedly "paranoid and fearful" behavior on her last movie job, Hall Pass, which she left in early March 2010, the trend has stretched to over 3 years. (Although her last movie in theaters, Easy A, was released in September 2010, it was filmed in June 2009.) Bynes reportedly rejected an intervention attempt in 2010 and this candid photo from July 25, 2010 may be the first recorded instance of her awkwardly covering her face from paparazzi. There are rumors that, in private, she showed signs of incipient paranoid schizophrenia as a teenager. Whereas Bynes seemed uncomfortable in interviews in her 20s, she appeared at ease and natural in interviews as a teenager, which may indicate a changing state of mind. She's comfortable and calm in these late-night talk-show interviews from 2003 and 2005. Yet in this 2006 promotional interview with Channing Tatum for She's The Man, Bynes is clearly fidgeting and struggling to gather her thoughts.

Reports citing her former neighbors in LA say that in the same timeframe of her driving incidents last year, her behavior inside the gated community, such as poor maintenance of her house, no longer walking her dog, and over-all social isolation, changed months before she moved to NYC. Other reports from LA from around the time she moved paint a picture of a deteriorating mental state with increasingly severe breaks from reality played out in public. By then, she was regularly hiding her face from LA paparazzi in the same awkward way she's covered up in NYC. Based on her tweets and accounts of her behavior, her perception of the world has shrunk, simplified, and twisted, her memory is warped, her thought process is jagged, and she's become fixated on a few recurring themes, such as sex, romantic love, plastic surgery, and people's looks, most of all her own (eg, her nose, cheeks, hair, age, and weight). Her yo-yo tweets about Drake seem like a tic. This paparazzo's video of Bynes before she left LA shows traits that have grown in NYC: compulsiveness, erratic reactions, denial, fixation on her beauty image, petulance, and a mercurial mood swing from fearful pleading to an angry tantrum (granted, paparazzi are vile to her and deserve her anger). Tabloid articles and videos have consistently reported behavior indicating a progressive mental breakdown along with her unbelievable denials since 2010 - if Bynes's transformation has been an epic troll, it's an all-in, all-time performance.

An odd feature in many of Bynes's selfies is her right eye is shut. It looks like a wink, and she's presenting it as a signature expression, but it doesn't always seem intentional. Her notorious selfie video shows her right eye fluttering shut twice in what appears to be an involuntary movement. It's similar to her right eye closing momentarily while her left eye stays open in this animated GIF from She's The Man (filmed 2005). The same right eye twitch happens in the MTV Diary episode filmed in February 2006, soon after she filmed She's The Man, and the promotional interview with Channing Tatum. If her eye is shutting involuntarily, I wonder if it's related to a neurological condition. Bynes also seems hyperactive in the MTV Diary and poorly suppressed hyperactive in the interview with Channing Tatum in contrast to her calm demeanor in interviews during her teens.

Another odd thing is the way Bynes's face swelled in her 20s despite her body shape staying slim. In her last high-profile public appearance, at the 2011 MTV movie awards, her face looked bloated and overly made up. Some wags likened her appearance to Stifler's mom of American Pie fame. I grant it's reasonable to dismiss the difference as camera angles, make-up illusions, or Bynes physically maturing. However, in her last days in LA and since she's moved to NYC, Bynes has looked significantly younger than she did at the 2011 MTV movie awards. While she always has had full cheeks, her face now appears youthful, soft, and pretty with a pleasantly full oval rather than swollen round. At the same time, Bynes not only looks younger in NYC, she sounds younger in paparazzi videos, like a petulant young girl rather than an angry young woman. Candid photos sometimes show her eyes looking like buttons and strangely focused. Some videos show her with a jerky ungraceful shuffle while others show her with a pronounced feminine walk. The changes in her appearance, behavior, and demeanor may be due to a change in medication. Bynes is a girly girl and her looks have always been important to her. Perhaps Bynes's choice was either be medicated and lucid at a cost to her appearance or restore her natural beauty at a cost to her mental state. Maybe at some point, Bynes decided the damage to her appearance outweighed the mental benefit and the suspected marijuana use is her attempt to self-medicate with drugs that won't harm her appearance.

To recap, Bynes is masterfully playing an epic troll and reinventing her career, burned out and going her own way, traumatized, and/or suffering a genuine manic break.

Does she need an intervention? If she's trolling, then she's in control of herself and the situation and doesn't need help. If she's going her own way, then she may not be in control of the situation, but she's in control of herself and would be protective of her independence and personal space. If she's suffering a manic break, then she needs help.

The difficulty is how to approach her if it's a combination. Bynes seems to be going her own way and suffering a manic break. Protecting her independence and personal space while she constructs her self is reasonable, but her boundaries would also keep out help for her mental illness, especially if she's paranoid. Bynes appears unable to differentiate between healthy self-actualizing behavior and mentally ill compulsive behavior. She acts as though the swings in her behavior and communications are all normal.

Where's the line? Unless she becomes a danger to herself or others, Bynes has a right to her privacy.

No one's been hurt so far. Bynes identified Nadia as her assistant. Assuming Nadia really is her assistant, then she has help. (I'm surprised no tabloid reporter has tracked down Nadia's story. That Nadia wasn't with Bynes here nor has been recorded elsewhere with Bynes brings Nadia's role into question.) Reports say Bynes has been isolated in NYC, but if she's making new friends, then we should be concerned about their intentions if her judgement is impaired. Nonetheless, while considering her condition, it's relevant that despite a supposedly debilitated mental state, the run-ins with law enforcement, and worrisome hearsay and circumstantial evidence, Bynes has taken care of herself and yet to enter into any serious trouble. For example, despite the rumors of heavy drug use, various reports say the police did not find drug evidence in her apartment, she passed her post-arrest psychiatric exam, which included drug testing, and Bynes has been lucid in court. Her attorney in LA says their interactions have been normal. If Bynes actually is out of her mind and engaging in risky behavior, especially living without handlers (besides possibly Nadia), it would stand to reason that Bynes would have been harmed, harmed others, or fallen into serious financial, criminal, or other legal trouble already. Yet, to my knowledge, Bynes's affairs are in order and she has not crossed the line from eccentric, erratic, off-putting, and perhaps risky behavior to actually harmful behavior. She's kept busy, maintained her daily living activities, and managed complex activities such as her legal cases in LA, moving across the country, plastic surgery, going out of town, and multiple changes of residence in a short span. Which implies she is in control or exceptionally functional for a woman who's supposedly out of her mind.

Indeed, the tabloid reports of worrisome behavior are mixed with contradictory reports of normal behavior. The 'new' Amanda Bynes disconcertingly shares habits with the 'old' Amanda Bynes (eg, Diet Coke addict, the way she holds her dog, patting her hair). Her Twitter history, with its cyclical bursts of compulsive odd and/or angry tweets, then deleting, retracting, or denying them, indicates a turbulent, shifting state of mind. The deteriorating parts of her mind may join seamlessly with the healthy parts - paranoid schizophrenic delusions or hallucinations seem as normal as anything else. She is a talented actress who may be able to focus and pretend normalcy even when her mind has slipped. Her condition may be episodic or triggered rather than constant. According to the Mayo Clinic, “With paranoid schizophrenia, your ability to think and function in daily life may be better than with other types of schizophrenia.” Or maybe intervention isn't necessary because Bynes is fully in control and not sick, and this is all a master act or extreme makeover.

However her real-life drama plays out, I believe, sadly, the glamorous Hollywood starlet, conscientious, impeccable, wholesome, grounded, luscious good girl, America's sweetheart Amanda Bynes is gone. Amanda Bynes brought her to New York City to kill her, and maybe that's for the best. Whatever is driving her and however distasteful her choices, she is determining for herself the woman she wants to be. I hope she finds her self and her peace. She says she wants to be married with children and she's 27 already; I hope she finds the man she needs to love and care for her. I hope she doesn't hurt herself. If she needs help, I hope she takes it.



Postscripts:

Former child stars weigh in maturely with a variety of insights.
Some people suspect this is really Amanda Bynes. Several of the tweets are alarming.
Petition by Amanda Bynes's parents for conservatorship. Insight from a mom who is her schizophrenic adult son's conservator.
On August 8th, a judge granted an emergency request by Bynes's doctors to extend her involuntary psychiatric hold for an additional 30 days, which California law only allows for detainees with "grave disability" due to mental illness.
On August 9th, Bynes's mother, Lynn Bynes, was granted a temporary conservatorship of Bynes's person and estate which is in effect until a hearing on September 30th, at which time her parents can petition the probate court for a long-term conservatorship to be renewed annually. Bynes was not allowed by her doctors to leave the hospital for the Friday hearing. Judge Glen Reiser determined based on the court's investigation that Bynes is incapable of providing informed consent for her medical treatment.
On August 15th 30th, Bynes transferred from Ventura County's Hillmont psychiatric center to UCLA's renowned psychiatric center for a higher level of long-term in-patient treatment.
On December 5th, Bynes returned home from the private treatment center to which she had transferred from UCLA in September. She is now receiving outpatient treatment.

October 10, 2014 update: Amanda Bynes briefly came back to New York City, but today returned to Los Angeles and checked into a treatment center on a 5150 psychiatric hold.

Eric

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2 Comments:

Blogger diviner21 said...

This is the most insightful and sensitive analysis of Amanda Bynes' fascinating and complex transformation I have read. You captured the twists and turns of her journey without the sensationalism and melodrama present in other accounts. It is her legitimate struggle for individuation despite the mental illness that makes Amanda's story so poignant. Your essay shined some light on this.

8/12/2013 12:33 PM  
Blogger Eric said...

diviner21,

Thanks. I'm glad you got something out of it. "Some light" is a good way to put it - there's a lot we don't know about her situation and history to speculate about.

8/12/2013 8:23 PM  

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