In a terrific piece in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, Kay Hymowitz writes of the recent fashion for exhibitionism in women — not only girls gone very calculatedly wild like Britney Spears or Paris Hilton but also older women like Jane Juksa (A Round-Heeled Woman) or Toni Bentley (The Surrender) or Kathryn Harrison (The Kiss) who have in recent years found that there’s money to be made and fame to be won from translating their more or less exotic sexual experiences from between the sheets to between hard covers. She might also have mentioned the photographers, artists, and so on who have adopted a similar strategy for career advancement. Last summer the London Sunday Times ballyhooed “what one woman photographer has described as ‘the new trend for the enlightened, liberated woman of today…to be proudly naked on the internet'” — all in the interests of her art, of course. A less high-minded view was taken by Jessica, of California, who sourly noted that “unfortunately there are more and more people trying to get attention via their nipples.”
Well, it’s an easy thing for women to do! Miss Hymowitz notes that “flashing is hardly limited to celebrities. The girls-next-door who migrate to Florida during spring break happily lift their blouses and snap their thongs for the producers of ‘Girls Gone Wild,’ who sell their DVDs to an eager public.” It is true enough that the latter are not celebrities. But they belong to the celebrity culture as much as celebrities themselves — who really are nothing without their fans. For nowadays, fandom doesn’t just mean reading movie magazines or writing fan letters. There is also an almost inevitable urge to emulation in modern celebrity-worship. Fame, detached from any great public virtue that might once have been thought to make a person worthy of it, has never seemed easier of attainment than it does now, and the easiest way of all — for women, at least — is to abandon modesty.
Sometimes it actually works, too. Pamela Anderson and Paris Hilton might be forgotten today if it weren’t for those sex tapes. Ordinary women who have a tenuous claim on public attention can get their fifteen minutes by stripping off for Playboy, which has for years been exploiting the willingness of some women, from minor soap stars to Patty Reagan, to try to parlay a brush with fame into something approaching celebrity. A few years ago the magazine even did a feature titled: “Women of Enron Uncover Their Hidden Assets.”
Tommie Lee and whoever was the guy in the Paris Hilton video notwithstanding, however, public nudity only confers its dubious blessing of faux celebrity on women. “Why men have become more discreet than women, assuming they have, is one of those cultural mysteries that is yet to be solved,” writes Kay Hymowitz. Well, I think I can offer her a solution to the mystery. The answer has to do with that same old double standard I wrote about last week in this space. Whether we like it or not — or fulminate against its ideological and political incorrectness or not — women are and always have been, and presumably always will be, defined by their sexuality in a way that men simply are not. And that means that women are always in a position to get far more attention than men by displaying sexual behavior in public. It also means that Monica Lewinsky will always be known for that blue dress, whatever else she may do or accomplish in life, just as Sharon Stone, though she has acted in many serious films — or as serious as Hollywood gets, anyway — will forever be known as the woman who flashed her private parts in Basic Instinct.
It’s all very unfair, perhaps, but it is the way of the world — the obverse or correlate of the fact that a woman’s honor is her chastity. Such “fame” as these women have achieved would once have been known as notoriety or shame. But now that we’ve done away with those things — in the name of equality and justice and compassion of course — all fame (like all publicity) is good fame. The expectation of female modesty and chastity remains, however, in our vestigial sense of honor, and for that reason it is still news when women outrage that expectation. That’s why it’s all the better for publicity’s sake if the women, like those of Calendar Girls or Hanif Kureishi’s The Mother, are of a certain age — an age when, as Hamlet tells his mother, “the hectic in the blood is tame.”
But that kind of outrage and the fame it generates must eventually become a wasting asset when we’ve seen it all before. According to a report in the Daily Telegraph last month, in the land of the Yorkshire Calendar Girls, “the number of individuals willing to pose stark blooming naked for 2007 charity calendars has reached plague-like proportions.” Also of course — and again on account of the double standard — men have a much harder time being “transgressive,” as the literary theorists say. It’s already no surprise when men behave as old goats — which is why there is no equivalent term for women. Unlike men, they become more interesting when they give us a flash of flesh — or of the flushed aftermath of sexual naughtiness. Men are not more discreet, they’re just uncomfortably aware — most of them, anyway, thank God — that they don’t become more interesting and thus more famous by such behavior. They become merely disgusting.