In October of 1999, The New Yorker magazine ran a picture of two pretty teenagers dressed in really snaky dresses. They sort of loosely held onto pillows in which they were not even vaguely interested; they looked at the camera with a sultry teenage confidence as if to say, ah, you’ve interrupted us in the middle of our girlish pillow fight but we all know this pillow fight thing is really sham, a wry set up cooked up by this photographer to give some sort of narrative to a picture which is actually merely being taken because we’re young and pretty and rich. It is a sensational picture. The two girls are Paris and Nicky Hilton, and they were 18- and 16-years-old at the time.
They were also — we are told by the column of copy accompanying the photo — New York’s new “It” Girls. It’s a charming little piece about how their great-grandfather was Conrad Hilton, and how they would swan around New York and stay at the Waldorf and go to parties. The issue which presented this fabulous picture of these two at the time completely unknown teenage girls was titled The Next Generation. The premise being, that in the waning months of the 20th Century, The New Yorker would tell us which rising stars we should take note of, as they were going to be Big in the New Millennium.
Other folk who were featured in this issue were David Howell (an eight-year-old chess champion), Sergio Garcia (some golfer), Zadie Smith (babelicious young novelist), Haley Joel Osment (11-year-old movie star), Vincenzo Sarno (11-year-old soccer star) and McSweeney’s, a literary quarterly begun by ultrahip lit guru David Eggers.
To date, of all those people-and-things-to-watch, the one we’ve heard the most from is Paris Hilton, hands down. Those New Yorker editors were definitely right about her. The question does remain, however: Why would The New Yorker run a picture of Paris Hilton in the first place? Isn’t The New Yorker supposed to be about culture and art and literature? Why on earth is The New Yorker publishing puff pieces about pretty girls who go to parties?
So, naturally I started obsessing about that picture and I got it in my head to write a novel about It Girls, and what it would be like if cultural lightning hit a relatively normal family and relatively normal girls got abducted, more or less, by the media machine, and transformed into It Girls. So then I started reading alllll the magazines that obsess about those girls. I also looked at the pictures. Mostly I conducted my research at the gym, where a lot of people tended to leave these magazines lying around. So I would go through the leftover magazine rack, and find old copies of OK and Celebrity Life and Style and Us, and try to get a sense of what the appeal was.
My friend Julie calls these magazines “crack,” and she knows of what she speaks. Within no time, I had opinions about a lot of things I know nothing about. I could hold long discussions with near strangers about who I liked better, Angelina or Jen. I developed a preference for issues that covered the awards shows because it was so much fun to look at everyone wearing those long pretty dresses. I found some It Girls boring (Britney, sorry, couldn’t care less) and some fascinating (Lindsay Lohan, seems like a nightmare but I used to like her red hair). Before I started conducting my “research” I spent my time at the gym listening to books on tape, or sometimes I even listened to lectures on tape, say, about the Fall of the Roman Empire. But bettering my mind was no longer on the agenda: All I wanted to know was who Cameron Diaz was dating.
My husband, meanwhile, had no interest in these magazines, nor did my son, a healthy 13-year-old boy who thinks that Jessica Alba is a really good actress, especially when she’s wearing her superhero spandex. While both of them seem to be red-blooded heterosexuals (my son once Googled “Lindsay Lohan naked” on my computer) they could not be less interested in the It Girl narrative of glamour and destruction. When I bring these magazines home, they couldn’t care less. They don’t look at the pictures of pretty girls in fabulous clothing; they don’t read about Brad and Angelina; they don’t even check out Rihanna on the red carpet.
Not so long ago my feminist education taught me to ask the question “Is the Gaze Male?” The answer, apparently, is yes, which is why so many movies and television shows are about men, and not women. Our distorted media culture sees men as subjects and women as objects; Woody Allen gets older and older and still dates 20-year-old babes; movies about women are called “chick flicks” and men make fun of them. Because women’s stories are about women and men don’t want to understand women; they want to look at women, as long as they’re young and beautiful. Because the gaze is male.
But if the gaze is male, then why don’t guys want to look at endless pictures of gorgeous It Girls, doing crazy things? Trust me, Britney Spears isn’t dressing like a slut because she’s trying to get the attention of a bunch of ladies at the gym. But it’s the ladies at the gym who are buying. Why? Because Us magazine, and Ok, and Star, are chick flicks. It Girls, apparently, are the objects of male desire who have found themselves in a chick flick.
So we’ve created a culture that celebrates girls as sex objects, turned that into a cultural ideal, and moved it to the center of a bunch of addictive narratives for women. It’s not a brilliant equation, frankly; it’s like turning athletes into meth heads and sending them out to play the Superbowl. Whatever. In any case, I’m done with it. All these gorgeous young girls getting drunk and partying and sleeping around and ending up in rehab, or jail, or the morgue? Come on; there’s a better equation out there; there has to be. Maybe somebody should buy Lindsay some books on tape. I recommend Our Mutual Friend.