The new Sky Atlantic series I Hate Suzie opens with the lead character Suzie Pickles, played by Billie Piper, receiving a phone call from her agent. The actress has just landed a high-profile role in a Disney project and is punching the air with joy and elation. Her young son Frank asks why she is so happy and she replies, “Mummy is going to be a princess!”
Beaming, she goes inside and proceeds to pop open a celebratory bottle of champagne. Little does she know that things are about to unravel.
Shortly afterwards, she glances at her phone and sees a stream of missed calls and concerned texts. Not thinking much of it, she starts to mindlessly scroll through a tabloid news site. There, she sees a headline. “Suzie Pickles among latest female celebs to have photos hacked,” it reads. With that, she sits bolt upright and flings her phone across the room. The photos show her with a man who is not her husband. She senses what is about to come and she is, understandably, terrified.
Over the course of eight episodes, viewers watch as Suzie Pickles attempts to navigate the ensuing blowback. Destabilised, she engages in self-sabotage and dabbles in self-destruction. Her professional reputation is destroyed while her personal life is left in tatters. She becomes a tabloid fixture and endures a public breakdown. Meanwhile, the man in the photos with her gets off scot-free. “He lost nothing,” she remarks at one point, acutely aware of the fact that she has lost everything.
The show, created by Lucy Prebble and Billie Piper, is dark, devastating and very, very funny. It is loosely inspired by the mass leak of celebrity photos in 2014. Celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence, Kirsten Dunst, Kate Upton and Kaley Cuoco were among those targeted in the illegal hack, which resulted in hundreds of intimate photos being stolen from iCloud accounts and shared online. Many of the women were castigated by commentators and punters for taking the photos in the first place.
For her part, Lawrence later told Vanity Fair that she viewed the incident not as a “scandal,” but as a “sex crime”. “Just because I’m a public figure, just because I’m an actress, does not mean that I asked for this,” she said.
But all too often there is this idea that female celebrities are asking for it. Paparazzi photos, tabloid splashes and online trolling are seen as fair game because, hey, they’re rich and famous. Where I Hate Suzie excels is in how it portrays both the pressures of being a female celebrity and the ways in which we, the public, delight in their missteps and revel in their downfalls.
Indeed, there are striking parallels to be drawn between how Suzie Pickles is treated in I Hate Suzie and how many contemporary pop stars, actresses and presenters over the years have been punished and vilified for even the most minor of transgressions.
Take Winona Ryder, for instance. In 2001, the actress was arrested for shoplifting and stealing $5,500 worth of clothes. She later said she was clinically depressed and on a cocktail of prescription painkillers. Nonetheless, she was viewed as damaged goods and found herself ostracised from Hollywood.
Or how about Britney Spears? In 2007, the then 25-year-old had a very public breakdown, which led to her shaving her head and being forced to complete multiple stints in rehab. Rather than treat her with kindness and compassion, the tabloids made light of her struggles and continued to violate her privacy and relentlessly document her every move. In 2008, she ended up being placed under an involuntary psychiatric hold in hospital. “Britney Wheeled Out On A Gurney!!” read the TMZ headline.
Then there was Caroline Flack. The late Love Island presenter died by suicide in February while awaiting trial for the alleged assault of her boyfriend. Prior to her death, graphic photos from the scene of the alleged assault were published. At her inquest, her twin sister Jody later said that sections of the tabloid media “hounded” her sister in her final months. The coroner told the inquest that “[Flack’s] trauma was played out in the national press and that was incredibly distressing for her.”
And that’s not to even mention the likes of Sinead O’Connor or Miley Cyrus or Amanda Bynes or Lindsay Lohan, each of whom have endured their fair share of media scrutiny.
In each of these episodes, the women in question were clearly going through difficult periods in their lives. They may not have been perfect but the degree to which they were stalked, hounded or sidelined was undoubtedly disproportionate and unjust.
In I Hate Suzie, one of the ways in which Suzie Pickles attempts to salvage her floundering career is by auditioning for a musical about Monica Lewinsky. Lewinsky, of course, rose to notoriety in the 1990s for having an affair with President Bill Clinton. Despite being an intern, she was scapegoated and painted as a femme fatale who had used her wily charms to seduce the president. Talk about double standards, eh?
Lewinsky has since said that the attention and judgement she received was “unprecedented”.
“I was branded as a tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo and, of course, ‘that woman,'” she said in a Ted Talk. “I was known by many, but actually known by few. I get it. It was easy to forget ‘that woman’ was dimensional and had a soul.”
In I Hate Suzie, we get a glimpse at a woman in the eye of the storm and the turmoil that comes with being at the centre of a tabloid feeding frenzy. The anguish, the paranoia, the shame, the guilt, the distress.
It’s a reminder that behind every scandal is a person. And perhaps that’s something many of us would do well to remember the next time our cursor hovers over an article demonising or sneering at a female celebrity.