Fame and sex have always been presented as closely intertwined phenomena, especially with regards to popular culture. Celebrities appearing on media and adorning magazine covers are still widely accepted as the dominant social standard of beauty and desirability. In its most vernacular manifestation, the relationship between fame and sex constitutes the core of the gossip industry, itself a substantial economic and symbolic pillar of tabloid journalism and of the manifold power structures related to it.
Like any other aspect of contemporary society, the relationship between fame and sex has been strongly affected by the combined disruptive effects of social media and mobile communication devices; and, as in other fields, the emancipatory potential of these new technologies has been promptly questioned by the emergence of new hierarchies and power structures. For now, the form of the new world is still unclear and blurred, veiled by the dust slowly rising from the crumbling celebrity-temples of yore. Nonetheless, we can already start to appreciate the scale of the chaotic realignment of powers taking place. (READ MORE)
A proper assessment of the relationship between sex and fame seems impossible without taking into consideration the role of the gendered power structures underlying these phenomena. Grossly oversimplifying, we might say that men longly strived for fame as a gateway to satisfy their sexual desires. Paradoxically, the exposure and social prestige granted by fame can act as a shield from public judgement, granting impunity to sexual predators and allowing some of the worst cases of abuse to remain undisclosed for years, decades or even until the perpetrator’s death. Jimmy Savile, Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein are but a few examples of the enormous difficulties and the hostile ostracism victims must endure when trying to denounce abuses from a male celebrity. This blatant culture of impunity and widespread omertà is not only well known, but socially accepted, as the latest american elections have impressively shown.
Uncommon sexual freedom and impunity from public judgement is what many male actants expect from their status as celebrities; conversely, many female actants are lured into sexual intercourse by the promise of fame. At worst, they are tricked into an exchange which brings them no gain and locks them in a cycle of abuse and sexual exploitation, be it in prostitution or the porn industry. For countless others, such transactions and the power imbalance characterizing them remain cloaked under the false pretence of consent.
The “sex scandal”, besides showcasing the impressive extent to which social hierarchies have been built on gender, well represents the disruptive power of negative forms of fame. Western societies have mostly tried to shield men - unless they were accused of homosexuality - from the worst consequences of such scandals, and for centuries they could easily succeed in doing so by blaming the female victims as the real culprits. No longer so. Viral social media campaigns against sexism and harassment are only the latest episodes highlighting a possible realignment of powers and should be viewed in the frame of the larger culture wars which are currently raging both on new and traditional media.
Technology isn’t neutral in this fight. Far from actively sustaining efforts towards emancipation and diversity, as the dominant silicon valley narrative would like the public to believe, misogyny and sexism are deeply rooted in large parts of tech culture. The naked female body, especially if not adapted to dominant standards of beauty, still has to fight for its right to be seen, and censorship on social media platforms is structuring social views of gender no less than it did on traditional media.
Still, it may well be that, as in other crucial moments in history, artists are signaling and possibly even spearheading a shift in powers. The new relationship between author and audience enabled by social media is allowing a new generation of female artists to use their sexuality and the staged intimacy of their bodies as a powerful means to build an innovative public discourse around the relationship between sex(uality) and fame, which bears enormous potential for social change.
We shouldn’t be overtly optimistic. The combined effect of normalization efforts on the neoliberal side, which are fastly incorporating some of these young female artists into mainstream symbolic codes of value production, and the widespread adverse reaction signaled by the rise of right-wing populism across the western world, shows that the female body and female sexuality (and, probably even more so, the queer body and queer sexuality) still represent an everlasting menace to dominant power structures, a menace these structure are determined to contain, redirect and, if necessary, openly fight.
Moreover, what becomes visible between the exposed surfaces of naked skin and vulnerable bodies showcased on contemporary social media, is the even more fragile psyche of a generation that is constituting its whole emotional life through and around technology, in a way that is both unprecedented and still largely misunderstood, by its observers and actors alike. The libidinal power of the (technological) commodity is such, that it seems capable of subsuming the emotional life and personality of its users, leaving us only with dystopian reminiscences of gnostic disembodiment: the smartphone contemplating its own image in a mirror as the most faithful representation of the contemporary self.
The display of intimacy allowed by livecasting technologies is not a new topic in net-art, and has been thoroughly explored for decades now. Yet, the scale of its use in the age of social media forces us to frame old questions in new ways, and it begs for the development of new concepts and a new language. Artistic practice seems like the perfect place to start.