© 2024 KVNF Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Author discusses the 'toxic' coverage of female celebrities in the 2000s


Twenty years ago this month, a wardrobe malfunction in the Super Bowl halftime show caused a global meltdown. If you were alive in 2004, you probably know this moment. Justin Timberlake reached across Janet Jackson's chest, pulled off one of the cups of her top and exposed her breasts to millions of viewers. The incident and the furor that followed became known as nipplegate.


JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE AND JANET JACKSON: (Singing) Bet I'll have you naked by the end of this song.

DETROW: Jackson took almost all of the blame for what happened that night and the moral outrage that followed. Nipplegate is one of several moments, and Jackson is one of several famous women that author Sarah Ditum takes a critical look at in her new book called Toxic: Women, Fame, And The Tabloid 2000s. It's a reassessment of a time when popular culture policed, ridiculed and even destroyed a variety of women in the public eye, women like Janet Jackson and women like Britney Spears, the teenage pop princess who, when she first became a superstar, was in a serious relationship with the same guy who dodged the blame for nipplegate - Justin Timberlake.

SARAH DITUM: An extraordinary double standard in that case especially. I mean, you have, for example, Britney being grilled by Diane Sawyer about how many times she's had sex and who with and being reduced to tears and forced to apologize to America for having a perfectly ordinary sex life as a young woman, versus Justin Timberlake being, you know, encouraged to basically frat boy it up on talk radio and being celebrated for, I think, in the words of Details magazine cover line, getting into Britney's pants. This is really crass, unpleasant stuff.

DETROW: Yeah. Broadening it out, you focus on celebrity pop culture of the aughts with a little bit of the late '90s and early teens thrown in as well through the lens of nine different women. And you call this period of time the upskirt decade. Why did you do that?

DITUM: Because I think of the upskirt tabloid photo as - and this is a deservedly harsh judgment on that period - but as the kind of signature cultural product of that era. It's something that couldn't really exist before, because in order to have a market in upskirt pictures, you have to have the kind of camera technology that paparazzi were able to use, which is small, light, point-and-click digital cameras which can take lots of images where you can really get down in the gutter and point your camera directly up a woman's skirt to get that picture. And you also have to have a voracious, no-holds barred kind of gossip media which is willing to publish that material. And that was something that the internet made possible.

So you have to have those two things coming together. And at the same time, you have to have the absence of a legal framework that says this kind of material is intrusive and illegal and an invasion of privacy. And it was very shocking to revisit this period of time and realize how few guardrails there were, not just legally, but also in terms of, you know, basic behavioral standards around what was and wasn't considered publishable.

DETROW: And then there's one thing you didn't mention there, but it's a big theme of your book, and it's the tone of the coverage because paparazzi would take these pictures, websites would publish them, and then the tone of the coverage would - there's Britney again, showing herself for all to see, you know, framing these women as villains, basically, for seeking fame and seeking our attention. And whatever problem they were facing at that moment was often framed as, like, cosmic justice for them.

DITUM: Right. And the tenor of the commentary that went alongside these very intrusive pictures was very much they're doing it on purpose. They want to be looked at. They are, in fact - they're the ones who are inflicting this on us.

DETROW: They're out. They want to show off this way. And that framing, which was so pervasive, totally ignores the existence of the websites that make money by writing about these things and the people who are clicking on them because they want to read about and see these things.

DITUM: Absolutely.

DETROW: So a lot of the theme of this era was the rules of the internet being written in real time and people not fully understanding them until they were living in them. And toward the end of the book, you compare a lot of the women that it focuses on with Taylor Swift. You point out she's only a few years younger than some of the people in this book, but by the time she becomes famous, the rules of the internet are written, and she knew what they were, and she knew how to operate in them. How much of a difference does that make for Taylor Swift on era celebrities?

DITUM: It makes an enormous difference. I think there are two kind of dividing lines that I would draw among the women in my book in terms of, you know, how things turned out for them. One of them is how young they were when they became famous. And I think becoming famous when you're a child is awful and difficult, whoever it happens to and in whatever era it happens too.

DETROW: Lindsay Lohan having the most extreme version of those struggles as a child.

DITUM: Yeah, absolutely - brutal treatment of her. And if you look at the, you know, the kind of effectively live blogging of the size of her breasts that she was put through, it's indescribable. But the other one is where they were in relation to the internet. So, for example, Kim Kardashian, she is the same age pretty much as Paris Hilton. But when Kim starts to get famous, the internet has already been established. So she has a Myspace before she starts to get famous, the same as Taylor Swift actually had a Myspace early on, and that was part of the Taylor Swift story in the early part of her career that she was a Myspace musician.

And I think you look at these figures who have the ability to shape their own presence on the internet and who have the ability to craft their fame, rather than have it crafted for them. And that's an incredible shift in power in celebrity. And you look now at the way, you know, top-tier celebrities operate, and they are able to control everything. They have a direct line to their fans via social media. They don't have to, you know, deal with reporters if they don't want to, if they aren't going to get favorable coverage. You know, Taylor Swift is never going to have to sit down and do the excruciating equivalent of Britney talking to Diane Sawyer about her sex life. That's unthinkable.

DETROW: I want to end with this question because you have now reevaluated a period of time that you lived through, as I lived through, but is a long time ago now. And you're kind of thinking through ways that things didn't age that well at all. And I'm wondering if that's given you a different point of view on current events, current pop culture. Are there things that you're seeing play out and you're thinking, this is probably not going to look good 10 or 20 years down the line?

DITUM: Yeah, definitely. A lot of the misogyny I write about that was endemic in mainstream media, you don't see that in, you know, reputable, quote-unquote, "reputable" outlets anymore, but you do still find it online in social media. So if, for example, any listeners followed Megan Thee Stallion's testimony in the trial of Tory Lanez for shooting her in the foot, the mainstream coverage of that was correctly very sympathetic to her as a victim of violence. A lot of the social media reaction, though, was extremely hostile to her. You still have a massive problem with revenge porn. We don't have a celebrity sex tape economy anymore, but we do have the issue of largely men non-consensually sharing images, the intimate images of partners. And I think that's something that is probably going to look incredibly queasy in retrospect when when it's realized how endemic that actually was as a problem.

DETROW: That's Sarah Ditum, the author of "Toxic: Women, Fame, And The Tabloid 2000s." Thanks so much for talking to us.

DITUM: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.