Barbara Lippert’s Critique

The year in media and pop culture started not with a bang but with a boob: Janet Jackson’s middle-aged breast, in full metal jacket, burst on screen (unscheduled!) for several seconds, startling millions of innocents watching the Super Bowl halftime show.

The fact that Justin Timberlake was singing “I want to rip your clothes off” at the moment of “malfunction” never seemed to matter. There was outrage, FCC investigations (and later fines) and widespread rewindings of TiVos. (And was that some sort of Mayan sun design on that freaky nipple clamp or what?)

The violent reveal of the warrior boob became the Internet film clip of the year, and the whole JJ jug imbroglio set the tone for the year to come: a period of manufactured scandal that even the most seasoned cynic couldn’t keep up with. Indeed, despite Bush’s conservative domestic agenda and the “moral values” that appeared to trump all others at the polls in November, 2004 was easily our sleaziest year ever.

Porn is now a $10 billion dollar industry in the U.S. alone and booming. Porn videos rake in more money than Hollywood films. What was newly evident last year was the effect that the mainstreaming of porn’s pole-dance/strip-club sensibility and aesthetic had on the culture. It became something for all to embrace, from the ubiquity of the apparently talent-free Paris Hilton to the best-selling success of Jenna Jameson’s How to Make Love Like a Porn Star (written with ex-New York Times critic Neil Strauss) and the triumphant ratings of Desperate Housewives, with its post-Sex and the City retro vibe of campy, naughty-girl burlesque. (Housewives has a delicate thread of absurdity; in trying to piggyback on its popularity for the NFL/Nicolette Sheridan towel-dropping promo, however, the writers at ABC were out of their league.)

At the opposite end of the spectrum, we saw the flowering of some highbrow, coffee-table porn, as Timothy Greenfield-Sanders published a book of porn-star portraits (Jameson included), with essays by eminent writers like Gore Vidal. The side-by-side, naked-and-clothed, large-format photos of the male and female stars were later exhibited at New York’s tony Mary Boone Gallery. In discussing his choice of subjects, Greenfield-Sanders said, “Whether that person is Madeleine Albright or George Bush or John Kerry or Briana Banks or Tera Patrick, it’s the same for me.”

He makes a good point. Twenty-five years ago, the porn-star aesthetic leaned toward the grotesque, especially when such stars appeared on local cable-access shows hosted by fat, naked white men. Today, when just about anyone can access a porn site or video, they look just like soap or pop stars—like Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera. Even that punk skater girl, Avril Lavigne, is now singing about a “Happy Ending.”

Britney, of course, has become the poster girl for sleaze. Early last year she had that ultra-classy 55-hour marriage. After the rehearsal dinner for her second wedding, to backup dancer Kevin Earl Federline, the guys and girls changed into robes with the words “pimp” and “slut” on the back. (A few years back, she used a porn director, Greg Dark, for a music video.) And although Christina seems to be cleaning up her look, she poses for the latest Skechers ad in an outfit that would make bondage- loving men at the Anvil proud.

Then there’s Jessica Simpson, who will soon appear in her daisy dukes for the remake of The Dukes of Hazzard. Her manager father, the former Baptist minister who also produces her reality show (a great idea for newlyweds—have the bride’s father around with a camera crew), recently crowed to GQ that Jessica doesn’t try to look sexy, she just is. “If you put her in a T-shirt or you put her in a bustier, she’s sexy in both. She’s got double D’s! You can’t cover those suckers up!” (Talk about father knows breast.)

The porn-lite aesthetic is everywhere—even in politics. For the first time, a sex joke took center stage at the Republican National Convention. In introducing their father, Jenna and Barbara Bush tried to emphasize the “generation gap” in the family—perhaps in an attempt to bond with young women and separate the blue hairs from the youngins in the red states. “We already know she doesn’t like some of our clothes, our music, or most of the TV shows we watch,” Jenna said, talking about their grandmother, the former first lady. “Gammie, we love you dearly, but you’re just not very hip. She thinks Sex and the City is something married people do but never talk about.” Later, Jenna announced that, if forced to, her parents could “shake it like a Polaroid picture.”

Ditzy? Vapid? Inappropriate? Sure. And right on trend. In prime time on network TV, that tough interlocutor Barbara Walters asked Paris Hilton, one of her Ten Most Fascinating People of the Year, straight out: “Are you ditzy?” “No, I’m very smart,” she replied. (Well, she did get an award from VH1 for catchphrase of the year—”That’s hot!”—which she uses to describe pretty much everyone and everything, from Hugh Hefner to a 2-year-old kid in the farm family she visited on The Simple Life.)

Bill Clinton might say it depends how you define the word “sleaze.” But if you broaden the term from the strictly visual to include such bad behavior as steroid use, lip-synching and publicly decrying the growth of porn only to get into an embarrassingly public scrape (or falafel) involving purported phone sex with your female producer (good times, Bill O’Reilly!), we really are experiencing a massive sleazification of culture.

Just how sleazy is it? It’s almost impossible to count the ways. Paris not only didn’t disappear after her porn tape appeared, she made a bundle and used it as a platform for building more licensing deals. Also in the no-shame, no-gain department: Ron Artest of the Indiana Pacers beating up a fan on a Friday night and showing up to sell his music on Good Morning America on Monday. And there was Martha Stewart, who, while allegedly stealing eggs at Camp Cupcake, saw her stock shoot up, restoring to her a chunk of wealth.

It was also the year when posing in one’s dainties became the quickest path to B-list celebrity. On The Swan, we were told that “swans build a true sense of self-respect”—and then watched them flaunt their new fake hair, lips, noses and breasts in bras and garters on a runway. (The explosion of plastic surgery in general—and its widespread availability—means anyone with a credit card and a few weeks to heal can now look like a porn star … er, a swan. The Apprentice women modeled for Maxim, as did Lizzie Grubman’s “Power Girls.” (“It’s all about fun and great promotion,” one of the power girls told me, while pitching one of her media clients.)

So, how did we get from Pimp My Ride to Pimp My Everything?

Several trends converge at the Hilton—she of the perfume, the briefly best-selling book (Paris is to literature what the Happy Meal is to food), the jewelry line, the two music albums, the two movies and, of course, The Simple Life, readying its third season.

Her Guess? spread was shot by photographer Ellen von Unwerth, whose latest book presents a series of sexually charged S&M scenes involving a baroness, her chauffeur, a stable boy and three young women who arrive at the estate for a weekend. There is no story in the Guess? campaign—apparently the feeling is that Paris is enough. And in the shot where Tinkerbell is sitting between her legs, the dog is the one doing the talking.

But if all roads lead to Paris, where do they lead from? First of all, the Net has changed everything, especially as a purveyor of porn. These days it’s the rare 15-year-old who hasn’t visited (even by mistake!) at least one online sex site. Seeing this stuff is no big deal, the kids claim. But it has already changed the landscape of their relationships. As a piece in The New York Times Magazine revealed, many teens are avoiding messy emotional entanglements, opting instead for “friends with benefits.”

There’s also the explosion of entertainment journalism, selling “celebrity lifestyle” through cable, magazines, syndicated programming and endless Web sites. All of these create the hungry maw for photos of preening celebs at red-carpet events. And the industry that caters to them—hair and makeup artists, stylists, designers who let stars “borrow” their clothes—has sprouted in the last few years like goody bags at the Oscars. The fantasy of many little girls has finally come true: When you grow up, your job can be to dress up and go to parties and pose for paparazzi. (Joan Rivers, who started the whole red-carpet head-to-toe “Who are you wearing?” thing, recently said, “I want everyone to look pretty, but I’m always praying for at least one tramp.”)

Which brings us to yet another famous breast reveal. When Tara Reid happily posed on the red carpet on her way to P. Diddy’s birthday party, she apparently had no idea that one side of her dress had fallen down, uncovering half of her recently surgically enhanced chest, purple welts and all. (Perhaps that’s why she couldn’t feel the breeze.) Her competitive juices going, Paris instantly lifted the bottom of her own micro-mini skirt up.

And then there’s the boom in reality TV shows—and cable outlets to see them on. Of course, Americans turn to reality to escape from reality. Producers choose people who look like the pick of the strip club and place them in a fishbowl atmosphere with a hot tub and plenty of liquor to heighten the conflict (and the amount of bikini time). All the contestants have a driving need for attention; and the more cheating, stealing, yelling and enjoying sex on camera they do, the more they earn a place on the roster of future C-listers.

What’s more, sleaze simply seems to mutate into more sleaze. “I thought I was so over,” Paris told Barbara Walters about the sex tape. But no. It cemented her success. When she was photographed buying her own sex tape at a video store, she broke through to new heights of media narcissism. How’s that for an endless loop of self-love?

Why do we have a seemingly unending appetite for this stuff? Partly, it’s like what Bill Clinton said about his affair with Monica: “Because we can.” Plastic surgery allows for a fantasy appearance, which allows for exhibitionism, which has a host of new supporting outlets for immediate gratification. Real work in the real world is extremely wearying, as Paris and Nicole discover on their Fox show. Everything is easier if you can live on camera—or sit back and watch the antics on all sorts of screens and delivery systems.

Still, there is some hope.

The Star, never previously shy about cashing in on lavish Paris coverage, recently voted her the most annoying person of the year (tied with Britney). New York Daily News gossip scribe Lloyd Grove said he won’t write about Paris anymore until she “discovers a cure for cancer, wins the Nobel Peace Prize, launches herself into outer space—or even gets her high-school diploma.” And Trey Parker and Matt Stone finished off their special Paris episode of South Park—in which she opens a “Stupid Spoiled Whore” store and sells her signature fragrance, “Skanque”—with this lesson: “Parents, if you don’t teach your children that people like Paris Hilton are supposed to be despised, where are they going to learn it?”

Even Paris herself told Barbara Walters that she’s thinking of hanging up her party shoes and being a “young mom.” (Britney has said the same thing, citing as a role model her own mother, who would “go to church, come home and put on her short shorts to wash the car.”)

More broadly, reality shows are losing their ratings, although the new nanny shows seem to be part of the correction. And for its next promo, the NFL hired Dr. Phil, who has indeed become the new national nanny.

As a culture, we will move on, too. With porn, of course, the genie—and the technology—is out of the bottle, and the delivery systems will only get more sophisticated. We will never get sexed out, but we will start to tune out—and there will have to be a return to some subtlety of style or intelligence in order to evoke a response. (Even Jenna Jameson might admit as much, having given her book, How to Make Love Like a Porn Star, the subtitle “A Cautionary Tale.”)

When the outré and edgy become mainstream, eventually the culture has to find a new edge. But what do we move on to? We’ve just about glutted the post-porn market. To paraphrase Full Metal Jacket, what’s our next major malfunction?