Anthony Bourdain blew into our collective consciousness like a cranky, foul-mouthed, uncomfortably insightful hurricane: from his bestselling book Kitchen Confidential, which exposed the grimy underside of even the fanciest restaurants’ kitchen counters, to his beloved travel shows, where he never hesitated to turn that incisiveness on his own impact as a visitor, he didn’t shy away from harsh truths.
Scroll through Argento’s Twitter mentions now and you find a surreal split between messages of support and accusations of cheating, callousness and an almost supernatural degree of control over Bourdain and his mental state. For writer and psychologist William Todd Schultz, who has examined this phenomenon in the past, the response is unsurprising. “It’s taboo to be angry when someone kills themselves, but at the same time, a lot of people, fans and friends, are angry, and so the anger has to go somewhere,” Schultz explains. “It can’t attach to the lost person. The lost person must be held blameless at all costs. So what people do is locate other targets. And if there is a woman even remotely involved, a basic misogyny erupts, and all the blame gets directed at this imaginary evil harpy.”
It’s taboo to be angry when someone kills themselves, but at the same time, a lot of people, fans and friends, are angry, and so the anger has to go somewhere. It can’t attach to the lost person. The lost person must be held blameless at all costs.
When Heath Ledger overdosed in 2008, he was in the midst of a custody battle with actress Michelle Williams. At the time, Williams was said to be seeking sole custody of their young daughter, Matilda, due to Ledger’s alleged drug use. Headlines and comment sections across the internet were merciless in their judgment of Williams’s supposed decision. “Well she got sole custody now. Wish granted!” reads a typical response. Like Bourdain and Cobain, it seems that neither Ledger nor his addiction controlled his fate: a spiteful woman did.
These men are far from the only examples. Before the internet, it was people claiming that Nancy Spungen wanted Sid Vicious to kill her, thereby exonerating him from blame for her murder. There are entire blogs devoted to the theory that Elliott Smith, another openly depressed individual with previous suicide attempts, was in fact murdered by, of course, his girlfriend. As Schultz points out, no one has publicly blamed Kate Spade’s husband, from whom she was separated, for her death. In this version of the world, women are responsible for not only their own actions, but everyone else’s as well.
Interestingly, the hatred spewed at these women is not just coming from men. It is fairly common for women to express their own internalized misogyny in these situations, Schultz explains: It’s as if female fans especially are saying, “Asia, you did not save him from himself.” As if that were her job (it’s not). They’re saying, without directly saying it, “I would have loved him better, I would have been there, I would have erased his demons, I would have played the proper female role.” And I think it’s even worse for people like Courtney Love and Asia, because they are unapologetically contrarian, sexy, unconventional badasses. They are perceived all too often as “bitches.” So it’s a short step to say “the bitch basically murdered him.”
In the last few days, Rose McGowan, a friend of Argento’s and no stranger to sexist slings and arrows, has called out Bourdain’s most misogynistic fans in a letter reading in part, “Do NOT do the sexist thing and burn a woman on the pyre of misplaced blame. Anthony’s internal war was his war, but now she’s been left on the battlefield to take the bullets. It is in no way fair or acceptable to blame her or anyone else, not even Anthony.”
Unfortunate though it is, statistics tell us that Bourdain will not be the last well-known man we lose in such a painful way, so the question becomes: how do we combat the misogyny that manifests in these men’s wakes? The response must be two-pronged, because, as Schultz notes, it’s about both veiled sexism and suicide. “Better understanding of suicide would help,” he says. “Knowing the risk factors, knowing that sometimes there is no cause except wanting all THIS to stop. No one is to blame.” A more nuanced understanding of suicide and addiction, along with continuing the work done by movements like #MeToo and calling out sexism and misogyny in everyday situations, could help to prevent the next woman from being unfairly targeted.
Bourdain’s inimitable way with words makes it impossible to know exactly what he would have said to those who would hijack his death in a way so antithetical to everything he believed. But it’s not hard to guess which finger he’d be holding up while he said it.