Tragic indeed are those whip-it rumors about Demi Moore, for the allure of nitrous oxide is hardly a mystery to me. But in my ideal world, a celeb of Demi's magnitude has access to a dentist with a tank, so my immediate reaction was: "Grocery-store nitrous?!"
Irresponsible, I know. We're supposed to wring our hands. Pray for recovery. But let's not confuse a show of pious compassion with real empathy. (If you want the former, call Ashton Kutcher.) Women who have struggled with their own hedonism, not to mention ambition and vanity, will appreciate the distinction.
Before Moore lost the plot and went into rehab, we thought of her as a hard-headed actress who had also evolved into a dealmaker. Fans of her recent performance in Margin Call, as Wall Street senior exec Sarah Robertson, will agree that her energy in recent months would have been better spent campaigning for a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. On screen, Moore plays a compromised adult forced to deal with the consequences of her decisions. In real life she’s been acting a different part—as scripted by TMZ and the gossip press, she’s a drug-addled, anorexic pseudo-teenager oblivious to consequences. Rumors about Demi’s substance use, partying, and immature diet quirks (her frail appearance attributed to her proclivity for living on Red Bull) complement her reported appetite for youthful companionship.
So ... which part of that penis-shaped cake did 19-year-old Miley Cyrus offer Demi at Liam Hemsworth's birthday bash? We don’t know whether Demi was really pursuing Zac Efron, her 23-year-old daughter’s peer, but we do know his current duties include promoting the upcoming Dr. Seuss film, The Lorax, in which he plays a 12-year-old. Does that viral video of Moore getting amorous with childlike Philip Tanzini really prove a pattern going back to her teen years?
Moore's alleged antics have turned her into a kind of negative cover girl, shining a light on the strange array of choices now facing affluent modern women. Is this an empowerment thing? A tragedy? Perhaps a bit of both.
I don't think it's inherently tragic when a mother of three young adults goes chasing after some illicit euphoria. (Nitrous can't be dirtier than a few martinis!) But I will concede that store-bought canisters are for disenfranchised kids—real (as opposed to kidult-size) teens. The whip-it is to medical-grade nitrous oxide as Purple Jesus is to an icy Tanqueray martini. A woman once celebrated as Hollywood's highest-paid actress—and an accomplished producer, too—is now being stigmatized as a quasi-huffer. How crazy is that?
But we wouldn't be so shocked or concerned if a male celeb behaved like this. Think Elvis or Charlie Sheen—I'm just talking about the drugs, mind you.
As for sex, we're accustomed to snickering at Hugh Hefner and his male wannabes for their frequent visits to the fountain of youth. When we see a woman in this situation, we're forced to reconsider. Is vulnerability really so hilarious? Maybe we need to be more generous, less cynical, with everyone who goes through this—the guys as well.
Demi Moore, we're told, is a private person, but her conduct suggests otherwise. Still, her recent behavior can't be dismissed as bad style. It speaks to something more deeply problematic, not only in her life but in yours and mine.
Now that we're faced with choices our grandmothers didn't have (or perhaps even want), Demi seems to embody that feminine predicament. We can spend our free time campaigning against sex trafficking, or be a drug-soaked party girl aping the lap dancers. Or—and this is where it gets dangerous—we can do both. When it was just good sober girls saving bad girls from vice, everything was simpler, but now those lines are blurred and our choices can appear quite incoherent. Demi is a product of that transitional morality, and this, too, has played a role in her identity crisis.
Today we can raise kids under many kinds of circumstances, or live child-free. You can have a spontaneous, varied sex life without experiencing pregnancy. Or you can be a righteous mom with a husband 15 years your junior. These are just a few specials on the menu.
If any wisdom emerges from Moore's crisis, it's this: pointing the finger at male midlife transgression is not only lazy, it's passé. We can behave as foolishly as the guys do and suffer the consequences—which they also do, more often than we realize. Moore isn't alone. She's merely the most high-profile.
Nor is this female behavior entirely new to us. Remember Mrs. Robinson? A more attractive comparison would be Cheri, the Colette novel adapted as a 2009 film starring Michelle Pfeiffer as Lea, the former courtesan in love with a much younger man.
"This is my last hurrah," a woman in her 40s told me last year. "I won't be able to do this forever"—"this" being her adventures (and misadventures) with a collection of younger guys, all vying for her sexual attention. "I'm making up for lost time," she said, echoing a number of good-looking, accomplished women. I've yet to meet one who doesn't feel she missed out on something during her teens. Some women tell me they had too much responsibility, not enough freedom, or they grew up too fast. Others (like my passionate, reckless girlfriend) think they started too late. Apparently there's a perfect teenage life that eludes us. How you handle this disappointment depends on whether you are driven by unconscious demons, or more driven to examine those demons.
It's intoxicating to discover that you, with the income and sophistication of a grown woman, can recapture your teenage years. (Well, sort of. Just stay away from the whip-its.) Women who aren't famous or rich may, in fact, get away with more carefree behavior when doing so. Ladies of a certain age have told me that any of the following may occur: A blow job in a back room. Flashy nail art bestowed upon a 60-something English friend who looks and sounds like Princess Anne. Making a close-up video on your cellphone while self-pleasuring, then watching said video on the phone while walking down the street ("because it feels deliciously transgressive. Yes, the video's in a very safe place. I'm not 12!").
A woman's confused nostalgia can start as early as 19. In that 1982 video, a coltish, inebriated Demi smooches with 15-year-old birthday boy Philip Tanzini, whose party with other General Hospital cast members (such as Demi) prompted Entertainment Tonight cameras to be there. Catty analysis about Moore's, um, groundbreaking pedophilia seems inevitable because Tanzini appears disproportionately childish and prepubescent.
But I see something else. The teen years can be something of a freak show. We may sound older than we look—and that's the case with Tanzini, who looks 11 and sounds 20. At 19, Demi herself had been married for about a year to Freddy Moore, who was 12 years older than she. Before we judge her as a natural-born cougar, consider what it's like to be experiencing an adult rite of passage at 18, when many others still live with their parents. A feature of growing up fast is that your child self is often competing with your adult self for the steering wheel, and this definitely appears to be the case in this video.
Moore has been less of a hard-core cougar and more of an experimenter. Four years with an older first husband were followed by a longer marriage to a (slightly older than Demi) Bruce Willis. Why do the media (no, the entire blogosphere and world) focus on the younger guys in her life?
The 1982 video offers a poignant clue. It's hard not to think about how her third husband’s face resembles her own, especially when she was 19. Sometimes we fail to distinguish between authentic attraction to another personality (which can happen at any age) and a more narcissistic love, driven by loss, insecurity, or identity confusion. Ashton Kutcher’s soft cheeks, dark hair, and effeminate qualities tell a story many women should be able to understand.