The celebrity trap

Women are punished for becoming the objects they are required to be


This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In 2013, Robin Thicke released “Blurred Lines”, a song that would swiftly become infamous for its “rapey” lyrics and objectifying video. Progressive think-pieces denounced it, student unions banned it, and Thicke’s career never recovered. Like many a feminist at the time, I told myself he deserved it.

An unexpected effect of reading Toxic, Sarah Ditum’s blistering account of noughties celebrity culture, is that I now feel sorry for Thicke. The period Ditum dubs the “Upskirt Decade” — actually spanning 1998, when Britney Spears released “ … Baby One More Time”, to Thicke’s downfall 15 years later — was dominated by blurred lines thinking. If Thicke was considered more worthy of punishment than others, it was only for his unfortunate timing.

Toxic: Women, Fame and The Noughties, Sarah Ditum (Fleet, £22)

Following the lives of nine of the noughties’ most famous women, Toxic traces how the internet transformed not just celebrity, but the unwritten rules of sexism. If women’s entitlement to public space has, as Ditum suggests, “always been fraught”, the early Wild West days of gossip blogging and sex tape sharing made it even more so. More than a straightforward account of patriarchy and victimhood, this is a story of change and adaptation. Some people (Kim Kardashian, Jennifer Aniston, Paris Hilton) were more successful at adapting than others (Spears, Amy Winehouse and ultimately Thicke).

It did not go unnoticed at the time that the era was viciously misogynistic, at least not if you were a young(ish) woman. I have particular memories of the “size zero” obsession and Heat magazine’s “Circle of Shame”, expressing horror at female bodies that continued to sweat, grow hair or acquire fat in places so bizarre a new name was required (“cankles”, “muffin tops”).

What was less noticeable whilst it was happening, and what Ditum makes startlingly clear, was how rapidly the rules for hyper-observation kept changing as different women adapted to them.

The idea of famous women as public property who are, in effect, “asking for it” is not a new one (“all sought recognition,” writes Ditum of her subjects, “therefore, they had forfeited all boundaries”). What was different was the way in which online spaces transformed concepts of accessibility and ownership.

The art critic John Berger describes how the social presence of women developed as a result of their “ingenuity” in living under conditions of constant scrutiny. Women are punished for becoming the objects they are required to be — and doubly punished should they show any responsiveness to their predicament.

This process took on a particular flavour throughout the noughties. Everyone was struggling to learn the new etiquette, but famous women needed to be one step ahead whilst also maintaining an aura of oblivion.

These women learned to reflect their own objectification back on the viewer

Such feminism as existed did not always show these women much sympathy. From established artists such as Janet Jackson to the “famous for being famous” Kardashians, they were offered two narratives: either their exploitation was freely chosen, hence a demonstration of their much-vaunted agency; or they were complicit in their own, and indeed all women’s, victimhood. (Let us not forget that Caitlin Moran’s 2011 bestseller How to Be a Woman proclaimed that “women who, in a sexist world, pander to sexism to make their fortune are Vichy France with tits”.)

What Ditum offers here is a more nuanced, compassionate reading of “humans who were forced to make imperfect choices within horrifyingly imperfect conditions”. Toxic is respectful of the talents of its subjects, but also of their skills at reading their own restrictive environments. This is, you start to sense, one of the things that most enraged those who hounded noughties women: that these women were constantly learning to reflect their own objectification back on the viewer.

Ditum has produced an extremely compelling narrative. There are moments when it feels as though one is being permitted to re-immerse oneself in the hounding whilst having the excuse to feel virtuous (you are not a hounder, but a judger of hounders!). Yet the overall impression is one of genuine admiration for women all too often dismissed as weak (if they are destroyed) or superficial (if they have the temerity to appear unscathed).

It’s an admiration that offers a more fitting tribute to noughties women than the woke puritanism that began with the “Blurred Lines” debacle. As we now know, those who came for Robin Thicke would eventually come for the likes of Chrissy Teigen and Taylor Swift, too. “In the Upskirt Decade,” notes Ditum, “a female celebrity’s reputation was predicated on viciously policed sexual purity; in the 2020s, the purity test had become a moral one.” Now, as then, did any of us really ask for this?

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