, celebrity culture Review of Toxic by Sarah Ditum – Examining Celebrity Skin and Culture
In 2006, a 16-year-old girl in Tulsa, Oklahoma was browsing greeting cards at a Target store when an unknown man took a photo up her skirt while crouching down with a camera. The incident was captured on CCTV and observed by a security guard who alerted the authorities. However, when the matter went to trial, the judge dismissed the charges because the victim was not in a location where she had a reasonable expectation of privacy.
According to journalist Sarah Ditum, the Tulsa incident exemplifies the particularly troubling misogyny of the early 21st century. The practice of “upskirting” was not feasible until the mid-2000s, when the use of small digital cameras became widespread. However, photographers in the press had been using this technique to capture images of famous women for some time. Actress Emma Watson recounted how, during her 18th birthday festivities, a photographer even went so far as to lie on the ground to get a photo of her crotch.
Ditum’s book centers on the plight of women in the public spotlight during the 2000s, particularly the unwanted intrusion and violation they faced. Through examining examples of female celebrities such as Britney Spears, Aaliyah, Janet Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Kim Kardashian, and Jennifer Aniston, it exposes a society that constantly invaded their privacy, took pleasure in their supposed embarrassments, and harshly judged them for not meeting unrealistic standards of perfection.
One challenge presented by this theme is how to avoid repeating the stories of women whose lives have already been extensively documented. The subjects discussed in this book are so famous that the author refers to them by their first names. However, the book “Toxic” goes beyond these well-known narratives and places them in a larger cultural, technological, and socio-political context. This includes events such as 9/11, the growth of internet usage, the rise of sex tapes, reality TV, the 2008 financial crisis, and the impact of social media. The book delves into the mass prurience and indifference towards these women, recognizing that this does not occur in isolation. It is not just focused on the “who,” but also the “how” and “why.”
Ditum coins the term “Upskirt Decade” to refer to the time period between 1998 and 2013. This era is marked by the release of Britney Spears’s music video for Baby One More Time, in which she dances in a school uniform with her shirt tied to expose her midriff. It concludes with the feminist backlash against Robin Thicke’s controversial single Blurred Lines, known for its coercive lyrics and objectifying music video featuring nearly naked models. During the early years of this decade, feminism was considered irrelevant. The 1990s had embraced a culture of sexualization, where women were encouraged to participate or risk being seen as prudish. As technology advanced with the rise of mobile phones, online messaging platforms, and blogging sites, a new group of content creators emerged, exemplified by Perez Hilton and Gawker (known for its Gawker Stalker feature that tracked celebrity sightings in real-time). They built their brands around salacious celebrity gossip. The traditional media soon followed suit with outlets like Heat magazine, the Daily Mirror’s 3AM Girls, and the Daily Mail’s “sidebar of shame,” all eagerly reporting on the lives of female celebrities with equal measures of voyeurism and cruelty.
This isn’t to say all the women in Ditum’s book emerge as tragic figures brought down by forces beyond their control – Kardashian especially was able to turn it to her advantage. “She absorbed the fundamental lesson of the noughties,” notes Ditum, “which was that value could be conjured out of pure will. By accepting the commodification of her private life, her relationships, even her body … Kim was the one who made it.” And despite the “poor Jen” narrative spun by the media following her divorce from Brad Pitt, and the relentless speculation over whether she would procreate, Jennifer Aniston remains one of the most successful actors of her generation – appearing on Forbes’s Highest-Earning Actresses list for 15 consecutive years.
Following the #MeToo movement, there have been numerous examinations of the treatment of celebrities such as Spears (explored in the documentary “Framing Britney Spears” and her memoir), Winehouse (featured in Asif Kapadia’s “Amy”), and Aaliyah (discussed in “Surviving R Kelly”). Recent accusations against comedian Russell Brand, which he denies, have only highlighted the rampant sexism and double standards of that time. However, there has been a lack of comprehensive analysis of this tumultuous period in 21st-century culture, which becomes increasingly perplexing as time goes on. In her thought-provoking and unsettling piece, “Toxic,” Ditum tackles this challenge head on.