New flashers, as sad as the old kind

The celebrity women who have taken to exposing themselves

With the party season upon us, it is always prudent to swot up on the signs that you might be overdoing it. One, of course, is a generalised liver ache, which, through the course of December, turns into a throb, until you're sure you can hear faint rupturing sounds coming from your mid riff. It would be practical, at this point, to refuse that seventh vodka.

Another sign is waking up beside a hairy, naked, snoring stranger. This sign should not (and really, let's face it, can never) be ignored.

The most terrifying sign of all, though, is if that noted virgin, teetotaller and conservative - yep, you guessed it - the rock star Courtney Love pops up in the papers opining that you should really stay at home more and look after your kids. If it comes to this, you know that you've been not so much pushing the envelope as tearing it into shreds, fashioning it into a spitball and aiming it right into society's eye. Few of us venture so far.

Since giving birth to her second child and ending her second marriage in quick succession, however, the 25-year-old singer Britney Spears has become a one-woman party whirlwind, wild enough to attract even Courtney Love's ire. I say "one-woman"; in fact, Spears has formed a triumvirate with the socialite Paris Hilton and the actress Lindsay Lohan. And their behaviour has gone way beyond the odd glass of limoncello too many. Over the past few months, Spears and Lohan have repeatedly been pictured flashing their genitals (apparently deliberately - Spears was caught by photographers three times in one week), leading the press to dub them "the new flashers".

Certainly, there are celebrities who have been wearing skimpy dresses for years, often "accidentally" flashing their boobs. There was even a study recently (clearly by some very serious researchers) which found that celebrities show 20 per cent more flesh on the red carpet than they did a decade ago.

Spears, Lohan and Hilton (the last of whom has also gone commando very publicly in the past) have taken all this to a new level, tempting out some forceful and unlikely critics. Last week, for instance, Bette Midler, a woman not known for her moralistic tone, called them "wild and woolly sluts".

Then there's Camille Paglia, who has been raging that "these girls are lowering themselves to the level of backstreet floozies".

And, on the other side, the columnist Barbara Ellen has argued valiantly that this behaviour can be construed as feminist: ". . . it is heartening," she wrote in the Observer, "that, out there, there is a new breed of young women . . . who feel totally in charge of their sexual destiny and are happy to let people know it".

I can see where Ellen is coming from, and her argument is much more attractive than all the abuse that has been aimed at these women - often by other women, such as Midler, who admit that they were wild in their own day. I don't think Spears and Lohan are sluts or whores or any of the other things they've been called in the papers and across the internet. They might not be great role models, but I have never understood why we would expect women in their early twenties - women who are still negotiating the culture, as much as any of their contemporaries - to be great role models anyway.

However, I think it is really difficult to stand up the argument that this new flashing denotes genuine sexual confidence. Ellen compares it to the moment in the film Basic Instinct when Sharon Stone's character flashed "on her own terms, namely as a form of assertion rather than submission".

This is true, but then Stone was playing a coolly controlled serial killer who attacked people during sex. That character couldn't possibly be seen as submissive, but I'm not sure that her behaviour finds much of a reflection, if any, in that of the drunken new female flashers.

In fact (let's be honest), as with male flashers, this all seems a bit sad, doesn't it? In the case of male flashers, a few anatomical facts can make their behaviour frightening to the women they target, but countering this is a sense that they're lonely people, desperate for attention.

The behaviour of Spears and Lohan isn't entirely similar to that of their male equivalents - again, basic anatomy has a part to play and takes all the aggression, if not the assertion, out of their action. But in their sadness and desperation, they seem quite similar. I've tried to imagine how I would feel if I saw a girl at any of this season's Christmas parties flashing her genitals at passing guests, and the truth is that I would be extremely worried about her state of mind.

That we don't feel this way about Spears, Lohan and Hilton underlines one important fact - we have objectified them to the extent that they don't really seem human to us any more. Perhaps it's not surprising that they respond by objectifying themselves.

This Christmas, I hope they all get some quality time with their families and close friends - and perhaps a few bumper packs of knickers beneath the tree.

Kira Cochrane is women's editor of the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 18 December 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year Special 2006