The Horror of Something to See: Celebrity "Vaginas" as Prostheses

Article excerpt

[1] 2007 was the year of the vagina. This word, which formerly maintained semi-taboo status--as either coldly clinical or uncomfortably explicit--circulated like never before, thanks, in large part, to the brief "flashing" fad among young Hollywood women. That year Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Kim Stewart, Kim Kardashian, and Britney Spears were all photographed without their underwear. These seemingly accidental exhibitions happened when the women, exiting cars or climbing stairs in short skirts, gave the paparazzi a brief but clear shot of their naked privates.

[2] For about six months in that year, it seemed like an "upskirt" or flashing photo was requisite for a particular subset of female celebrities. All were young and many (but not all) of them were members of that odd celebrity club that is comprised of reality TV stars, socialites, and tabloid regulars. Soon, even those celebrities with an apparently more "legitimate" base for their fame joined in, most notably, Britney Spears, whose enormous career as a pop star had only recently been eclipsed by her career as a tabloid queen. Although the phenomenon carried the question of intention--did these celebrities mean to go out without underwear? Didn't they realize that their skirts were too short? It is also undeniable that the fad is causally related to the increasingly specular nature of today's celebrity culture, produced in large part by paparazzi, who in turn sell images to online gossip sites. For the people who consume online gossip and tabloid magazines like Us Weekly, the paparazzi coverage and the online gossip culture that is its primary market made possible an explicit display--nay, barrage--of images of that most intimate and elusive of private parts: the "vagina." Thus the fad was born, operating in a feedback loop of exposure-hungry celebrities and money-motivated paparazzi, each anxious to expose and to capture, respectively, what came to be known in slang terms as the "vajayjay." And then, like all fads, it ended. It was too mainstream, it was played out, it was--how could it not be?--overexposed.

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[3] Part of what ended the fad was Spears' blatantly exuberant participation--she flashed six separate times in the course of one weekend. She thus demolished the necessary ambiguity between exhibitionism and voyeurism that the fad depended on, which made her flashes "uncool" to the editors and commentators of online gossip sites. The shots depended on a certain "unauthorized" quality, as though we might be catching a glimpse of the one thing most female celebrities still want to keep unexposed. Moreover, Spears' fame allowed the fad to penetrate the mainstream media sphere, unleashing middle-class, middle-American approbation and outrage. Both kinds of approbation, however, centered around one particular flashing photo which revealed not only Spears' "vajayjay," but also her Caesarean scar.

[4] In the simplest sense, the scar reminded the public that Spears was not just a celebrity but also the mother of two small children. What had been sexy misbehavior for someone like Paris Hilton didn't quite work for Spears the mother--who shortly thereafter was branded "Unfitney" by perezhilton.com and other online gossip sites. Paris Hilton might be sleazy, and offensive in her privilege and willful ignorance, but Spears was a "trainwreck," unstable, a walking corpse (she was literally depicted as such on the animated show South Park). In October of that year, Spears was stripped of custody over her young sons.

[5] Hypocritical as it may have been, moral outrage does not, however, fully explain the reaction to Spears' flashings. What the fad and Spears' role offer us is a particularly potent example of the deeply gendered discourses of fame and celebrity in an increasingly specular mediascape. In this essay, I argue that the image revealing Spears' scar points to a gendered understanding of a particular type of celebrity: the celebrity whose fame is based on nothing. …