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When Forbes released its annual list of Hollywood’s highest-paid women in October, it was no surprise that Oprah Winfrey passed everyone else by a mile. Her vast media empire, pulling in $165 million last year, swamped her nearest competitor, Britney Spears, whose earnings from music, TV and product endorsements totaled a distant second at $58 million. Spears’ career has made a spectacular recovery after what seemed like a squalid death spiral just a few short years ago — but she’s being given a run for her money by the new gals in town.
It’s staggering that 22-year-old Taylor Swift earned $57 million and Katy Perry $45 million. How is it possible that such monumental fortunes could be accumulated by performers whose songs have barely escaped the hackneyed teenybopper genre? But more important, what do the rise and triumph of Swift and Perry tell us about the current image of women in entertainment?
Despite the passage of time since second-wave feminism erupted in the late 1960s, we’ve somehow been thrown back to the demure girly-girl days of the white-bread 1950s. It feels positively nightmarish to survivors like me of that rigidly conformist and man-pleasing era, when girls had to be simple, peppy, cheerful and modest. Doris Day, Debbie Reynolds and Sandra Dee formed the national template — that trinity of blond oppressors!
As if flashed forward by some terrifying time machine, there’s Taylor Swift, America’s latest sweetheart, beaming beatifically in all her winsome 1950s glory from the cover of Parade magazine in the Thanksgiving weekend newspapers. In TV interviews, Swift affects a “golly, gee whiz” persona of cultivated blandness and self-deprecation, which is completely at odds with her shrewd glam dress sense. Indeed, without her mannequin posturing at industry events, it’s doubtful that Swift could have attained her high profile.
Beyond that, Swift has a monotonous vocal style, pitched in a characterless keening soprano and tarted up with snarky spin that is evidently taken for hip by vast multitudes of impressionable young women worldwide. Her themes are mainly complaints about boyfriends, faceless louts who blur in her mind as well as ours. Swift’s meandering, snippy songs make 16-year-old Lesley Gore’s 1963 hit “It’s My Party (And I’ll Cry if I Want to)” seem like a towering masterpiece of social commentary, psychological drama and shapely concision.
Although now 28, Katy Perry is still stuck in wide-eyed teen-queen mode. Especially after the train wreck of her brief marriage to epicene roué Russell Brand, her dazzling smiles are starting to look as artificial as those of the aging, hard-bitten Joan Crawford. Perry’s prolific hit songs, saturating mainstream radio, hammer and yammer mercilessly. She’s like a manic cyborg cheerleader, obliviously whooping it up while her team gets pounded into the mud.
Most striking about Perry, however, is the yawning chasm between her fresh, flawless 1950s girliness, bedecked in cartoonish floral colors, and the overt raunch of her lyrics, with their dissipated party scenes. Perry’s enormous commercial success actually reflects the tensions and anxieties that are afflicting her base audience: nice white girls from comfortable bourgeois homes. The sexual revolution launched by my baby-boom generation has been a mixed blessing for those who came after us. Katy Perry’s schizophrenia — good-girl mask over trash and flash — is a symptom of what has gone wrong.
As a glance at any suburban high school prom these days will show, there has been a vast increase in sexually revealing, super-adult clothing among middle-class girls. Yet most seem curiously unaware of the erotic charge of their racy regalia, which has become as standard issue as army fatigues. Sex is already routine in a hooking-up culture.
Whatever sex represents to this generation of affluent white girls, it doesn’t mean rebellion or leaving the protective umbrella of hovering parents. The messy party scenes where everyone boastingly goes crazy don’t have the debasement and ostracism of true decadence once projected by such avant-garde groups as The Velvet Underground and The Doors. No alienation here! On the contrary, the young revelers just pick themselves up, dust themselves off and go home zonked to doting Mom and Dad. Partying till you drop has gotten as harmless as a Rotary Club meeting.
Authentic sizzling eroticism does appear among the strata of high-earning female celebrities. Rihanna, who earned $53 million last year, was born and raised on Barbados, and her music — even with its chilly overuse of Auto-Tune — has an elemental erotic intensity, a sensuality inspired by the beauty of the Caribbean sun and sea. The stylish Rihanna’s enigmatic dominatrix pose has thrown some critics off. Anyone who follows tabloids like the Daily Mail online, however, has vicariously enjoyed Rihanna’s indolent vacations, where she lustily imbibes, gambols in the waves and lolls with friends of all available genders. She is the pleasure principle incarnate.
Among her varied achievements in music, movies, TV and marketing, Jennifer Lopez, born to Puerto Rican parents in New York, will go down in history for a revolutionary full-page photo in a 1998 Vanity Fair where she fetchingly turned her ample, lingerie-clad buttocks to the camera. It was the first time that the traditional eroticization by Latin and black culture of that bulbous part of the anatomy had ever received mainstream recognition in the U.S. The next step was taken by Destiny’s Child with their 2001 hit “Bootylicious” — a term (invented by rapper Snoop Dogg) that instantly became associated with the trio’s breakout star, Beyonce Knowles.
With her multicultural roots (a Bahamian father and a Louisiana Creole mother), Beyonce draws on the emotional depths of black gospel as well as the brazen street sass of hip-hop, which produced her formidable persona of Sasha Fierce. Urban rappers’ notorious sexism seems to have made black female performers stronger and more defiant. But middle-class white girls, told that every career is open to them and encouraged to excel at athletics, are faced with slacker white boys nagged by the PC thought police into suppressing their masculinity — which gets diverted instead into video games and the flourishing genre of online pornography.
The emotional deficiencies in sanitized middle-class life have led to the blockbuster success of the five Twilight films as well as this year’s The Hunger Games. Their stars are nice white girls thrust into extreme situations and looking for strength. But the movies are set in abnormal environments of supernatural vampirism or dystopian survivalism. Romance is peculiarly intertwined with bloody atrocities and the yearning fabrication of foster families.
The insipid, bleached-out personas of Taylor Swift and Katy Perry cannot be blamed on some eternal law of “bubblegum” music. Connie Francis, with her powerhouse blend of country music and operatic Italian belting, was between 19 and 21 when she made her mammoth hits like “Lipstick on Your Collar” and “Stupid Cupid.” Movie ingenues once had far more sophistication and complexity than they do today: Leslie Caron was 20 at her debut in An American in Paris; Elizabeth Taylor was 19 in A Place in the Sun; Kim Novak was 22 in Picnic; Natalie Wood was 17 in Rebel Without a Cause.
Paradoxically, a key problem with the current youth cult, which is devouring both entertainment and fashion, is that aging women have become progressively invisible. If girls are helplessly stalled at the ingenue phase, it’s partly because women in their 40s and 50s are, via Botox, fillers and cosmetic surgery, still trying to look like they’re 20. Few roles are being written these days for character actresses — parts once regularly taken by Marie Dressler, Marjorie Main, Thelma Ritter or Maureen Stapleton. But Hollywood is overflowing with fascinating, charismatic and outrageously underutilized career actresses from Raquel Welch to Theresa Russell. The field for top roles is even sparser, populated by barely more than Meryl Streep and Jane Fonda. Middle-class white girls will never escape the cookie-cutter tyranny of their airless ghettos until the entertainment industry looks into its soul and starts giving them powerful models of mature womanliness.
Paglia’s book Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars (Pantheon Books) was published in October.
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