Toxic: Women, Fame, and the Tabloid 2000s

Image of Toxic: Women, Fame, and the Tabloid 2000s
Release Date: 
January 23, 2024
Abrams Press
Reviewed by: 

Sarah Ditum’s book covers a period that she refers to as the “long aughts,” lasting roughly from Britney Spear’s famous 1998 song of “Baby One More Time,” until March 2013 with the release by Robin Thicke of the single “Blurred Lines,” which provoked a feminist backlash.

Ditum claims that her Dramatis Personae in Toxic are nine women well-known enough for us to be on a first-name basis with them—Britney, Paris, Lindsay, Aaliyah, Janet, Amy, Kim, Chyna, and Jen—though probably some are more famous than others, and their actual basis and claim to fame varies quite considerably, too. However, all of them sought celebrity through media exposure and were in different ways damaged by that exposure, and by the people handling and promoting them. As the author notes, citing Simone de Beauvoir, they were all “half victims, half accomplices.”

During this aughts period, and thanks in part to the success of feminism, many women were routinely declaring their intentions of “having it all” just like the men, but the old media habits of intrusion on privacy, such as paparazzi “upskirting” female celebrities, had not gone away. (And may still have not gone away?). The author sees the massive expansion of internet use during this period as critical in creating “Fame . . . the phenomenon of private individuals en masse developing one-sided personal relationships toward public figures, which makes it the place where public and private collide.”

The publication is intended not only to “establish a chronology of the Upskirt Decade, but to recreate the sensation of life in that hectic time” including recreating “our ignorance,” by which Ditum means the public tolerance and complicity in the assorted abuses meted out to these women.

Ditum who is a freelance writer and literary reviewer (Times, Guardian, Observer, Spectator, Mail on Sunday, UnHerd, etc.) acknowledges her own less than exalted participation as audience and commentator in the Upskirt Decade “whose underlying beliefs feel almost as foreign to me as those of the seventeenth-century witch trials.” Despite these belated insights however, she cannot totally avoid the trap inherent in covering in minute detail the varied abuses and degradations of her nine heroines. Her fastidious reporting creates another layer of voyeurism, about which we can now all be indignant!

Ditum sees that the decline of the Upskirting Decade to have been brought on by the #MeToo movement, and by the massive growth of social media that has put celebrities in charge of their own story. Quoting a 2015 Awl essay by John Herrman, Ditum writes, “The sudden glut of Instagram photos of celebrities and by celebrities, often with newsworthy text attached, destroys a set of common arrangements . . . the media’s dependence on celebrity was no longer reciprocated.” This, in Ditum’s view, means that celebrities such as Taylor Swift are no longer so vulnerable even though “the appetite for dirt” remains. “The way celebrity women were once treated feels unimaginable now,” though there are new agents of abuse, like AI, as Taylor Swift has already discovered.

Ditum makes a good point early on about all women’s special vulnerability in entering public life given they are still stereotypically expected to be private and domestic. Perhaps it would have been more interesting to show a range of women in public life, including but going beyond the “entertainment” industry, and the travails they all face for sticking their heads above the parapet, though this might have gone beyond her special brief.

She makes convincingly her case for the toxicity of the long aughts for many celebrity women; but her conviction that there has been a massive improvement of the toxic situation, consequent on the growth of social media and a few spectacular legal cases against some celebrity male abusers, seems premature.