Former child star Amanda Bynes is back in the news, in a return to the genre for which she’s become best known — the celebrity scandal.
For the uninitiated, Bynes was a standout on the 1990s Nickelodeon teen sketch-comedy show All That; she got her own spin-off vehicle, The Amanda Show, before transitioning to more mature roles on television and film. She was last seen onscreen in a supporting role in the Emma Stone comedy Easy A in 2010, but has spent the intervening time making news.
Following a series of arrests around reckless driving and DUI in 2012, Bynes became a public spectacle for her provocative pronouncements directed at other celebrities on Twitter and for ongoing legal troubles; last year, she was arrested for marijuana possession and for starting a fire in a stranger’s driveway, with the latter arrest getting her placed under a 5150 psychiatric hold. Through it all, Bynes provoked commentary and mockery for her outré appearance as much as for her misdeeds, sporting poorly-maintained wigs and new cheek piercings.
Then the story, for a time, died down. Following court-ordered treatment, Bynes had, until recently, been living with her parents and studying fashion; she stopped tweeting, and the culture largely moved on with little reference to Bynes’s turbulent past year.
Last month, Bynes was arrested for DUI in California once again, and she’s since left her parents’ home and arrived in New York. The volume and tone of coverage of Bynes’s week in New York has made Bynes’s time out of the spotlight seem, in retrospect, like a painful waiting game finally ended. Bynes has returned to her verified Twitter account, where she’s gone on a defensive, angry jag directed at the media; she’s recently been alleged to have done everything from shoplifting a hat to talking to herself in public.
It’s often said that celebrities ought to expect intrusive reporting on their lives and frank-to-the-point-of-cruelty criticism; this is the “deal” they made when pursuing a public life. But Bynes has been doubly restricted from signing this imaginary contract in good faith. She’s both a former child star, having entered the entertainment industry years before she could have known the consequences, and, as the courts have ruled and every piece of reporting has indicated, not of sound mind. Her legal travails have consistently made news, which is understandable. But the Bynes narrative isn’t evolving. With the recursive, zigzagging logiclessness of a nightmare, it’s barely a narrative at all.
What new information about Bynes are we going to learn at this point? Unlike the similar case of Britney Spears, who was a subject of tabloid fascination as she rampaged through Los Angeles post-divorce, there’s not even symbolic insight to be gained here. Spears was, at a time, the biggest pop star on Earth, and her struggles were both the subject of obvious fascination, given her exalted status, and educational about her specific sort of mega-fame. So, too, have Lindsay Lohan’s challenges with sobriety been informed by the degree to which she was, for a short period, the most in-demand actress in the game.
By contrast, as an entertainer, Bynes hasn’t worked in years and shows no signs of returning to acting. And even when she was a performer, her reach was limited: Nobody outside the millennial generation can be reasonably expected to have seen any of her output. Instead, Bynes is an individual whose news value is solely her evident struggles, a story that never develops or changes but gets new content every day. As a legally troubled woman who appears not to be in full control of her actions, Bynes is wildly more well-known than she was when she was just a winning young comedienne. Maybe the story is a not-particularly-shocking one: How badly a Hollywood scandal vacuum needed filling.