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4 November 2023

The horrors of the Upskirt Decade

In a new book on the vicious media misogyny of the Noughties, the recent past has never felt more remote.

By Ann Manov

“Sometimes, the register of progress is only in how utterly remote the past has become,” writes Sarah Ditum in Toxic: Women, Fame and the Noughties. In this case, the Noughties are a foreign country. The Girls Gone Wild TVseries preyed on drunk college students, who would later beg the company to delete nude footage of them; R Kelly married a teenager but kept his career; 30 Rock cracked jokes about Harvey Weinstein and no one blinked an eye. US gossip magazines such as People and US Weekly, and Heat in the UK, were major operations, with stars carefully brokering exclusive stories and coverage.

Celebrities needed the paparazzi but also hated the near-criminal behaviour that photographers would carry out for the startling shot: Emma Watson has described how on her 18th birthday, photographers flung themselves down on the pavement underneath her to take pictures up her dress. Even when the subjects were teenagers, seemingly nothing was off-limits. Had Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears had sex? Had Lindsay Lohan got implants? The same cruelty applied, with perhaps renewed force, as the objects of our obsession reached middle age.

“Fame has always been psychologically devastating to many of those it touches,” Ditum writes in her book, which reports on the mistreatment of nine famous women during the Noughties, “and the media has often been cruel to women. But thanks to a peculiar mixture of new technology and old misogyny, the women I write about experienced a kind of hypertrophied celebrity that had never existed before.” Gossip magazines were joined by blogs; and in the period before social media, celebrities were just as dependent on the gossip machine as they were at its mercy.

The increasing prevalence of mobile phones and digital cameras during the decade gave the public the ability to rapidly share content online, which generated ever-more scandalous “leaks” of ever-more salacious images of those celebrities – many of whom had been relentlessly exposed since they were children. Especially in the US – where, except for Amy Winehouse, all Ditum’s subjects lived – a vocal Christian majority had a major public role. But the media was far from prudish, and privacy proved impossible. It would be years before the backlash – wrought by the #MeToo movement – allowed for some course correction.

Ditum’s book, which was originally titled Upskirt Decade, dedicates each chapter to a different female celebrity: Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Aaliyah, Janet Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Kim Kardashian, Chyna and Jennifer Aniston. Yet it is just as much a history of new media, with the New York-based website Gawker and the blogger Perez Hilton playing particularly vile roles. Along the way, Ditum touches on a wide variety of topics: Paris’s sex tape 1 Night in Paris leads us to 9/11; Janet’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl progresses to the deregulation of the Federal Communications Commission; Kim’s plastic surgeries evoke the subprime mortgage crisis.

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Ditum is a journalist, and the germ of this book was a 2020 op-ed she wrote for UnHerd titled “The Tragedy of Britney Spears”. She writes as a fan, one who has loved Britney since the “Hit Me Baby One More Time” video, and was horrified by the long conservatorship under which she suffered. How, Ditum asks, can this woman be deemed unfit to run her own life even as she performs for thousands on wildly successful tours? “The most constricting part of celebrity isn’t the people who hate you,” she writes, “it’s the people who think they love you, and who think that love means they own you.”

Fans, then, are guilty too, and with the mega-fame attached to these stars of the Noughties, that probably means us. Just a few years younger than Ditum, I too remember the heights of Britney fame: I can’t think of elementary school without hearing the treacly chords of “Lucky”, a song I’d play over and over on my CD player, or hear from the speakers at the ice-skating rink, sipping chemical-tasting hot cocoa in a Styrofoam cup. Like Ditum, I recall watching the video to “Baby One More Time”, and pig tails, a plaid skirt, and a tied-up white button-down shirt became my lazy Halloween outfit of choice. I remember Britney’s purity ring, her vow to save herself for marriage, and that weird mixture of the conservative and tawdry that defined Y2K America and which, at the time, didn’t seem contradictory.

Britney, Ditum writes, “was simultaneously the next big thing and the last star of a dying age”. In 1999, the year the artist’s debut album was released, record sales reached nearly $15bn; the same year, two teenagers launched the file-sharing website Napster. By 2009 music sales were down by half. Like other musicians, Britney was forced to squeeze in a punishing number of concerts, but the worst was to come. In Ditum’s telling, her career is a story of exploitation and entrapment – even at its height. David LaChapelle, who directed Britney’s 2004 music video for her song “Everytime” (which followed the release of an attack song “Cry Me a River” by her ex-boyfriend Timberlake), said: “The only direction Britney gave me for the video was that she wanted to die, that she wanted to die in the video.”

Paris Hilton’s story is no brighter. In her 2020 documentary, This Is Paris, she alleged that she was physically and sexually abused at a youth residential treatment centre that her parents sent her to as a teenager. In the Noughties, it’s awkward to remember, we really did think Paris needed fixing: she was the rich-girl brat, gleefully punished on the reality show The Simple Life. Equally shocking is the truth about 1 Night in Paris: it was rumoured she’d leaked the tape, but Paris had actually pursued multiple lawsuits to block any further release of the video, recorded by her then-boyfriend Rick Salomon when she was 19 and Salomon – who she alleges abused her – was 32. She described its release as being “electronically raped”.

Ditum explains how few protections were given to victims of revenge porn in the Noughties, as well as students who attempted to have their appearances on Girls Gone Wild removed. One of the show’s production coordinator recalls, “If the girl was hot, and the footage was good, then [founder] Joe [Francis] was known to say, ‘Fuck her. Leave it in.’”

Death is centre-frame for Ditum. Of Lindsay Lohan, she writes that “part of the media’s fascination with Lindsay had consisted in the imminent possibility of her death”. The singer Aaliyah, who is suspected to have become pregnant by R Kelly when she was 15, died in 2001 aged 22: she’d refused to board an overloaded charter plane with an intoxicated pilot, so was drugged and reportedly carried on board unconscious. Amy Winehouse’s downwards spiral is well known; the story of the pro wrestler turned adult film actor Chyna – one in which the worlds of World Wrestling Entertainment and Donald Trump collide – is less familiar, though, culminating in addiction and despair, no less chilling.

Ditum’s discussion of the interaction between racism and misogyny is illuminating, especially in describing the unfair treatment of Janet Jackson. Her career was destroyed when Timberlake, during a joint Super Bowl performance, ripped off her costume, exposing her nipple on live television. Yet he escaped unscathed.

Ditum’s final chapter, on Jennifer Aniston, is a thrilling conclusion. “At the start of 1999, she was 29 years old and probably the most bankable star on definitely the biggest TV show in the world.” By the end of the year she was “cast, against her will this time, in the second greatest role of her career: as Sad Jen, the tragic third point in a love triangle with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.” This saga leads Ditum into a rich discussion of gender, drawing on Susan Faludi’s Stiffed: The Betrayal of the Modern Man for a virtuosic analysis of Office Space, Fight Club, and the issue of “30-year-old boys”.

If men in the Noughties were troubled, women were tragic: when Brad divorced Jen, married Angelina, and had children, Jen became a pathetic exemplar of the career woman who thought she could “have it all”. She may have had happy relationships and a brilliant career but in the public’s eyes she was Sad Jen: “There was nothing she could say, and no example of her personal accomplishment or happiness she could show, that would convince the world it was mistaken.”

The crisis of masculinity, which found political expression in the election of Trump, has not been resolved. The #MeToo movement, Ditum writes, “was essentially the backlash to the backlash: out of the betrayed promise of a female future came a moment of consciousness raising in which women not only acknowledged for the first time the harms done to them by men in positions of power but also realised… how near universal such encounters with predators were.” Gawker was dissolved in 2016, following the success of a privacy lawsuit by Hulk Hogan, funded by the billionaire Peter Thiel. Buzzfeed adopted the slogan “no haters”.

But is today’s media a better place for women? “A world where celebrity coverage is directed by the twin forces of social media outrage and overweening star power is just as hollow… as the Upskirt Decade,” Ditum argues, “and the shift from regarding famous women with contempt to regarding them with pity could sometimes be infantilising.” She is careful to acknowledge these women’s agency, when they had it – how they went along with the paparazzi and played up their own vulnerability. And when dealing with the present, she identifies the fractures already forming in this post-#MeToo decade. One wonders what she might call it.

Toxic: Women, Fame and the Noughties
Sarah Ditum
Fleet, 352pp, £22

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This article appears in the 08 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Fury