Writing by Paula Lacey. Illustration by Iz Gius.
I have a confession. Every day of January, the first thing I did after waking up was open Twitter and search the words “armie hammer”. I’m completely obsessed. Watching this man’s life crumble before my eyes became one of the few things keeping me going in the bleakest month of my life so far, but the longer it goes on the less I’m inclined to laugh. Over the course of the last month, the Call Me By Your Name star’s dirty laundry has been aired out online for the world to see, most notably the leaking of sexts detailing violent fantasies of rape and cannibalism. There are countless think pieces that could come out of this mess, and seeing as the situation is ongoing I’m reluctant to comment on the content of Hammer’s clumsy sexts, but it has become increasingly clear throughout the time of writing that Hammer’s behaviour is more than harmless kink. Dominatrix Empress Wu is right in saying that whilst the desires expressed in the messages are not inherently harmful, a clear consent violation has occurred and the extent of Hammer’s abuse is probably yet to be revealed.
However, the unveiling of Hammer’s abusive behaviour has taken place in front of a backdrop, a damning addition to a slow burning spiral. And although this spiral has many facets outside of the sexts, from affairs with castmates to erratic behaviour on social media, one in particular has been playing on my mind. On January 15th, screenshots were leaked from his private instagram, the elegantly named “el_destructo_86”. The posts included selfies of Hammer clearly out of his mind, with captions such as “When you realise they don’t test for DMT on drug tests”, or “Divorce is so fun. Not as fun as drugs. But what is.”. There’s even a photo of a home drug test kit with the caption “All negative, b***hes. My body is a finely tuned toxicant processing unit. To be fair I had THC and benzos in my piss. But who doesn't”. A video has also been released to the Daily Mail showing Hammer driving under the influence, drinking and snorting a substance. Jokes aside about how ludicrous it is for a celebrity to have a finsta, there’s something that doesn’t sit right with me in the way this aspect of Hammer’s unravelling has been reported in tandem with the abuse. What we’re clearly seeing here is a man whose drug use is, at least in part, destroying his life. Speaking to the Sun, a friend speculated that Hammer won’t go to rehab to deal with his drug issues, stating that he “truly doesn’t believe he has a problem”. But framing Hammer’s drug use as just another drop in the deluge of his cancellation is problematic and only contributes to harmful narratives around drugs and their users.
How we understand drug use and drug addiction is largely socially constructed. The universally accepted notions of which drugs are bad and who is bad for taking them fluctuate over time; it’s inconsistent, often discriminatory and has serious consequences. The moral panic of the propaganda-laden War on Drugs criminalises their users by extension, and the demonised image of the “junkie” lingers today. This stigma is compounded when a user is person of colour, queer, or has additional mental health problems. Drug addiction is a disease, but the media reinforces narratives of shame and self-infliction, preventing people from getting the help they need for a healthy recovery. Working in a shelter over summer, I was part of a team that distributed supplies to the houseless community of Montreal, including harm reduction materials such as sterilised needles and clean pipes. Of all of the services provided, the participants were the most reluctant to ask for vital drug supplies so they could use safely, just one example of the potentially deadly outcomes of shame and stigma. Above all, the level of stigma attached to drug use is undeniably class-based; there is a stark contrast in how we view a poor, houseless person struggling with addiction, compared to a fabulously wealthy celebrity with a coke habit. Poor drug users are ostracised, blamed, and ignored, whilst drug use amongst rich people is normalised, even glamourised. From 90’s “heroin chic” to soundcloud rappers popping prescription tranquilisers, drug references and motifs are endemic in popular media, whilst 450,000 people, mostly poor and racialised, are incarcerated in the US for non-violent drug offences on any given day. But whilst it’s no hot take to say that celebrity culture is dehumanising, there certainly is a sinister side to how we view celebrity drug use.
There seems to be a threshold; when a celebrity is a casual drug user, it’s a natural part of a hedonistic lifestyle, but once a public figure surpasses what can no longer be minimised to a “habit”, it becomes a spectacle. In the late 00’s tabloid covers would show paparazzi photos of celebrities at rock bottom every other week, accompanied by speculative and invasive headlines. When Amanda Bynes struggled with an addiction to Adderall, her public decline was the butt of jokes that would plague the rest of her career. The reality TV show Celebrity Rehab, which aired from 2008 to 2011, aimed to satisfy the public’s morbid curiosity with what goes on behind the doors of fancy treatment centers, spilling the harrowing details of the lives and struggles of deeply troubled celebrities. Unsurprisingly, the show has been widely criticised for reinforcing myths about addiction and presenting an inaccurate picture of addiction treatment, as the most entertaining “recoveries” are often the most exploitative to patients. Yet it’s so watchable, so entertaining, allowing the viewer a voyeuristic glimpse into the darker side of lifestyles that are idolised elsewhere. At the root of this is the construction of drug addiction as self-inflicted; it’s a lot easier to live with yourself finding entertainment in someone’s suffering if you believe they somehow deserve it. We develop these strange parasocial relationships with public figures, a combination of admiration and envy. Then when they fall from grace we eagerly discuss the salacious details, relishing that they’re not perfect; it was their own fault. It’s all too easy to cite drugs to avoid having to feel sorry for someone clearly in pain, but this line of thinking treats mental illness as a symptom of drug abuse rather than the other way around.
That said, the narratives around drug use and mental health are changing. Marijuana use, both medical and recreational, has become a booming industry in the US, and although there are still huge steps to be taken in getting justice for the victims of aggressive anti-drug policy, the stigma around weed is lowering as its legal use becomes normalised. There is far more understanding about the systemic issues that lead to drug abuse among marginalised communities, and the narratives of self-infliction seem to be being broken down as frank, open discussions of mental illness are becoming more commonplace in mainstream media. The way the public treated Amy Winehouse during the worst of the addiction that would eventually kill her is different to how she is remembered now. Images of her under the influence were circulated by tabloids, inviting ridicule with weak jokes about “should have said yes to rehab”. After her death, and particularly after the release of the 2015 documentary Amy, public opinion shifted as people saw how her illness had crept up on her, then overtaken her - that she was a victim, not a perpetrator. In contrast, when comedian John Mulaney, who had been open about being an ex-user, checked into rehab in December 2020 there was an outpouring of support and well-wishes online, rather than the vitriolic mocking of the 00’s. These shifts in the narrative point to a more hopeful future, one in which addiction is understood as the affliction it is rather than something to be hidden until it can’t be concealed.
Now, there are countless reasons to think that Armie Hammer is a piece of shit, and I am by no means calling for sympathy towards him. My point is that it’s easy to forget that celebrities are real, human people rather than avatars in the elaborate world-building we watch every day on our phones, and as a result it’s easy to engage with gossip uncritically. But when media outlets frame Hammer’s addiction as the latest in a slew of PR crises, they subtly equate them, further drawing false equivalences between drug use and other aspects of criminality. As his career is gradually stifled and his name added to a growing list of disgraced public figures, I doubt that many will question whether his behaviour warrants this punishment. But I would exercise caution in reducing all aspects of his downfall as entirely self-inflicted or deserving. The reality is that Armie Hammer’s drug addiction is neither on par with or even related to his abhorrent abuse of women, and framing them as part of the same problem asks us to condemn them equally.