Review of “Toxic” by Sarah Ditum – 10 Years of Misogyny, from Britney to Paris Hilton.
Ritney, Paris, and Kim were prominent figures in the 2000s, while Jen struggled and Lindsay was known for being disorganized. Amy, who possessed great talent, also faced tragic struggles. For many young women during this time, these celebrities’ first names alone bring back memories. They were symbols of our culture, shaped and sometimes shattered by the media. As journalist Sarah Ditum notes, we would search for guidance on how a woman should behave through them. They needed to be attractive, but not overly so, strong, yet not intimidating.
Rewording: Ditum’s highly anticipated book expertly captures the current feeling among millennials of rejecting nostalgia and instead viewing the past with shock and disgust. This specifically applies to the time period between 1998 and 2013, which Ditum coins as the “Upskirt Decade” due to its prevalent misogynistic attitudes facilitated by technology. Despite having lived through this era, read blogs, and laughed at jokes, writing this book has felt like entering a completely unfamiliar landscape. The nine modern feminist stories included in the book are perfectly timed for readers still coming to terms with the recent public remarks made by Russell Brand about women. Ditum argues that this reckoning can be traced back to the #MeToo movement, which prompted many women to reexamine their own personal histories. Her main point is that toxic celebrity culture not only harms celebrities themselves, but also influences ordinary women who are encouraged to define their own lives based on these manufactured narratives. As a result, I was eager to read her thesis on this topic.
The first essay, discussing Britney Spears, effectively combines two ideas. At the time of the release of her debut single “…Baby One More Time,” Ditum was 17 and Spears was 16. The author was a big fan and even had a poster of her on her bedroom wall. However, it slowly became apparent that Britney had very little control over her own life. Ditum points out how her private act of losing her virginity was turned into a public spectacle, where she was expected to apologize to the nation. Meanwhile, her boyfriend Justin Timberlake was praised for being able to remove her underwear. This glaring double standard, where women are devalued for their sexuality while men are praised, served as a harsh lesson for young girls like Ditum who idolized Britney through her posters.
The tale of Paris Hilton, the socialite who was consumed by online gossip writers, cleverly parallels the rise of pornography in popular culture. In 2004, a sex video featuring 19-year-old Hilton and her boyfriend was leaked online, causing widespread amusement. Despite her lack of consent to the public exposure of her naked body, Hilton was labeled a “spoiled brat” and became a target for hate, even from other women. It wasn’t until much later, after she revealed her past experience of sexual abuse as a teenager, that Hilton gained some sympathy. However, as noted by Ditum, the idea of encouraging women to share their traumatic experiences for the entertainment of others may not be as progressive as it seems.
She’s terrific, too, on the way Jennifer Aniston’s battles with infertility were held over singletons as a scare story about successful women supposedly missing out on love and babies. And beneath all this runs an interesting backstory about how structural changes in the media industry – from the rise of blogging to the way reality TV ate pop music (somewhat awkwardly weaved into Amy Winehouse’s chapter) – shaped female lives. Unfortunately, when reaching for deeper cultural relevance, some of these essays begin tripping over themselves.
The author of a chapter about Lindsay Lohan’s struggles with alcoholism makes a questionable connection to the 9/11 terrorist attack. The argument suggests that Lohan’s 2006 romantic comedy set in New York, which did not reference the attack, was a commercial failure and somehow represents the United States’ struggle to cope with 9/11. Similarly, the writer mentions Kim Kardashian’s reality TV show gaining popularity after the banking crash, but does not expand on this economic aspect. It is also noted that the impact of professional wrestler Chyna on women in the 2000s is difficult to define.
The book ends on a positive note, discussing the controversy surrounding Robin Thicke’s song Blurred Lines and the increasing popularity of Taylor Swift as signs of the end of a negative time period. The author, Ditum, argues that platforms like Instagram have allowed female artists like Swift to bypass traditional media and connect directly with fans, leading to a decrease in the “casual cruelty” of past decades. However, Swift’s recent relationship choice has sparked backlash from some fans, suggesting that this cruelty may have simply evolved. The author questions whether fame was easier when tabloids like Heat would mock celebrities for their flaws or now, when anyone can criticize them directly on social media. Ultimately, the message may be that each generation creates something that the next will view with disgust. The book should not be seen as perfect but it still presents a strong argument.