Published: Sept. 1, 2008 By

(part of a series in Special Issue #48: GOING CHEAP? Female Celebrity in Reality, Tabloid and Scandal Genres – Edited by DIANE NEGRA and SU HOLMES)

[1] 2007 was the year of the vagina. This word, which formerly maintained semi-taboo status—as either coldly clinical or uncomfortably explicit—circulated like never before, thanks, in large part, to the brief “flashing” fad among young Hollywood women. That year Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Kim Stewart, Kim Kardashian, and Britney Spears were all photographed without their underwear. These seemingly accidental exhibitions happened when the women, exiting cars or climbing stairs in short skirts, gave the paparazzi a brief but clear shot of their naked privates.

[2] For about six months in that year, it seemed like an “upskirt” or flashing photo was requisite for a particular subset of female celebrities. All were young and many (but not all) of them were members of that odd celebrity club that is comprised of reality TV stars, socialites, and tabloid regulars. Soon, even those celebrities with an apparently more “legitimate” base for their fame joined in, most notably, Britney Spears, whose enormous career as a pop star had only recently been eclipsed by her career as a tabloid queen. Although the phenomenon carried the question of intention—did these celebrities mean to go out without underwear? Didn’t they realize that their skirts were too short? It is also undeniable that the fad is causally related to the increasingly specular nature of today’s celebrity culture, produced in large part by paparazzi, who in turn sell images to online gossip sites. For the people who consume online gossip and tabloid magazines like Us Weekly, the paparazzi coverage and the online gossip culture that is its primary market made possible an explicit display—nay, barrage—of images of that most intimate and elusive of private parts: the “vagina.” Thus the fad was born, operating in a feedback loop of exposure-hungry celebrities and money-motivated paparazzi, each anxious to expose and to capture, respectively, what came to be known in slang terms as the “vajayjay.” And then, like all fads, it ended. It was too mainstream, it was played out, it was—how could it not be?—overexposed.

 A paparazzi member attempting to photograph up Paris Hilton's skirt

Figure 1

[3] Part of what ended the fad was Spears’ blatantly exuberant participation—she flashed six separate times in the course of one weekend. She thus demolished the necessary ambiguity between exhibitionism and voyeurism that the fad depended on, which made her flashes “uncool” to the editors and commentators of online gossip sites. The shots depended on a certain “unauthorized” quality, as though we might be catching a glimpse of the one thing most female celebrities still want to keep unexposed. Moreover, Spears’ fame allowed the fad to penetrate the mainstream media sphere, unleashing middle-class, middle-American approbation and outrage. Both kinds of approbation, however, centered around one particular flashing photo which revealed not only Spears’ “vajayjay,” but also her Caesarean scar.

[4] In the simplest sense, the scar reminded the public that Spears was not just a celebrity but also the mother of two small children. What had been sexy misbehavior for someone like Paris Hilton didn’t quite work for Spears the mother—who shortly thereafter was branded “Unfitney” by and other online gossip sites. Paris Hilton might be sleazy, and offensive in her privilege and willful ignorance, but Spears was a “trainwreck,” unstable, a walking corpse (she was literally depicted as such on the animated show South Park). In October of that year, Spears was stripped of custody over her young sons.

[5] Hypocritical as it may have been, moral outrage does not, however, fully explain the reaction to Spears’ flashings. What the fad and Spears’ role offer us is a particularly potent example of the deeplygendereddiscourses of fame and celebrity in an increasingly specularmediascape. In this essay, I argue that the image revealing Spears’ scar points to a gendered understanding of a particular type of celebrity: the celebrity whose fame is based on nothing. I use Luce Irigaray’s psychoanalytically-inflected feminism to ground the boundary-work of “vagina/vajayjay” in the cultural response to the physical appearance of the female genitalia. The work that “vagina/vajayjay” does to maintain the distinction between modern, postfeminist woman and tabloid trainwreck relies upon what Irigaray would call a phallocentric need to restrict the feminine to phallic logic focused on visuality.

[6] Therefore, calling what appears in Britney Spears’ upskirt photos a “vagina” amounts to an effacement of what is actually there to be seen, which is the vulva or labia. The labia are, in psychoanalytic theory, traditionally associated with a misogynist conception of “lack” and castration. The unseen organ, the vagina, is according to Freud the site of appropriately mature—i.e. procreative—orgasm. As the counterpart to the male organ, it is phallic, albeit negatively so. As an internal organ, it fits nicely into a seen/unseen dichotomy that supports seemingly ancient conceptions of femininity as a “dark continent.” Using the word “vagina” to refer to an upskirt photo therefore seeks to contain the intrusion into the masculine, visual sphere of something that, because its sensual economy is touch, disrupts this visual economy.

[7] I argue that the use of the world “vagina” or “vajayjay” is exposed as a discursive prosthesis in the photograph of Spears’ Caesarean scar. It is an anatomically-based reparation measure that exceeds the perceived “lack” for which it accounts and forever memorializes it. In so doing, it reveals the misogyny of the postfeminist celebrity landscape, unearthing an unconscious connection between female celebrity and male pleasure, emptiness, and trashiness. Although the use of “vagina” and “vajayjay” seems to indicate a certain loosening of traditional definitions of appropriate female behavior, I argue that these words are deployed in what can only be termed an anachronistic campaign to sanction the sexual exploitation of women.

[8] The flashing fad is a potent moment in what the editors of this issue call our “cultural script of femininity,” because it is here where we finely split the hairs between “edgy” and “slutty,” between “you go, girl!” and “trainwreck.” The scar photograph lays bare the tension normally glossed over by the popular use of “vagina” or “vajayjay” as a substitution for more vulgar words like “twat” or “cunt.” “Vajayjay” substitutes for the basely sexual, the violence of the “slit” or the bizarre zoomorphism of “beaver” or “pussy.” In its apparently clinical precision, it both passes and defines borders between the pornographic and the anatomical. In this way, it polices the border between good girls and bad girls—that archaic boundary that we thought discarded along with saving ourselves for marriage and back-alley abortions.

[9] To unpack the various ways in which the terms “vagina” and “vajayjay” are deployed is to get at fundamental ways in which cultural discourses deny women a range of expression beyond their own bodies. This analysis also points to problems in the postfeminist project, showing how the “vagina/vajayjay” boundary also marks those who are “liberated” women and who are, essentially, sluts. That this kind of approbation is still a meaningful option in a so-called postfeminist world indicates that, perhaps, we are living in anything but.

[10] I begin with a discussion of Luce Irigaray’s theory of phallocentrism, laying out certain psychoanalytically-inflected assumptions of my analysis. I then move into an illustration of the popular and academic elision of feminine sexuality and modern celebrity. From there, I talk about the popular use of the terms “vagina” and “vajayjay” both to caption the upskirt photographs and to distinguish liberated women from tabloid trash. I conclude with the argument that the words “vagina” and “vajayjay” operate as discursive prostheses, appending an organ that fits with the phallocentric logic of visuality and thus may fall under its moral approbation.

Luce Irigaray, Phallocentrism, and the “Scoptophilic Order”

[11] The association of the female sex organs with emptiness has a long and well-known history in feminist critiques of psychoanalysis. I invoke this history here to ground my claims about the vacuity associated with female celebrity and the ways in which the word “vagina/vajayajay” has come to function as its prosthesis, for several reasons. First, although I think that “anatomy is destiny” is going a bit far, I do think that the psychoanalytic grounding in the human body provides a detailed vocabulary for describing embodied and engendered cultural formations. Here, I make use of this vocabulary to do what postfeminism—particularly in its popular uptake—has been unable to do: address issues of exploitation of the female body (for a more detailed version of this critique, see Tasker and Negra). In the end, we are talking about pornographic images of (celebrity) female genitalia, and the ways in which such images are produced and distributed in the service of a particular kind of celebrity.

[12] Moreover, the “captioning” of these images with the word “vagina” or “vajayjay” indicates a policing of the line between “trashy” or “slutty” and a certain kind of postfeminist liberation, playfulness, or boldness. Postfeminism provides us with no adequate theory to describe this phenomenon other than an unproblemetized “embracing of female sexuality” or pleasure. Not every kind of exhibitionism or sexualized behavior “counts” as acceptable. In other words, postfeminism cannot account for the opposite pole of this embracing of sexuality—the trashy, trainwreck woman deemed a slut. Second-wave feminist Luce Irigaray provides an account of the logic behind this polarization, because her theory of feminine pleasure and subjectivity distinguishes meaningfully between self pleasure and pleasure for the consumption of others.

[13] In her 1985 book This Sex Which Is Not One Luce Irigaray defines phallocentricism as a discursive, historical, and philosophical suppression of sexual difference. Freud and later Lacan, with whom Irigaray broke with her Speculum of the Other Woman—stipulate anatomical sexual difference as the foundation of subjectivity. Lacan further analyzes the development of subjectivity as an entrance into the symbolic, that is, into language (cf. “The Mirror Stage” and many of the essays in the collection Feminine Sexuality). For Irigaray, women’s bodies and hence their subjectivities are already defined in relation to the phallus, making them strangers to their own pleasure and ventriloquists of a discourse that is not their own. That is, she accepts the Freudian emphasis on anatomy as the foundation of subjectivity, and the Lacanian development of the relationship of that subjectivity to language, but she radicalizes these concepts’ application to a particularly feminine subjectivity.

[14] For Irigaray, the suppression of sexual difference is the key to understanding phallocentrism. Thus sexual difference (here defined as having or not having a penis) is the root of human subjectivity, which in turn plays itself out in the discursive realm. As the name suggests, this suppression of difference happens via a privileging of all things phallic, starting with the famous Freudian definition of the female genitalia as lack or even “mutilation.” This suppression, for Irigaray, is principally discursive. That is, language itself is the tool by which phallocentrism asserts itself. Thus the use of the term “vagina” or “vajayjay” in popular discourse carries the mark of phallocentrism insofar as it “captions” what is essentially an external and dualorgan, the labia, as an internal, invisible, and singular organ, the vagina.

[15] Irigaray also identifies an optical logic in phallocentric discourse: the discourse of knowledge, analysis, philosophy and reason, its principle sense is sight, its concern the visible or the invisible. In contrast, the labia are the origin of a subjectivity whose principle logic is sensual: because the double lips are continually in contact, they provide the woman with the experience of touching herself without any intervention. Phallocentric discourse suppresses this experience by denying it entrance: touch is not intelligible to a logic based solely on seeing or not seeing. The key psychoanalytic example of this logic is Freud’s Oedipal drama, which begins with the little boy seeing female genitals for the first time and realizing that something is missing. It is this experience of knowledge and understanding based on sight that forms his assumptions about masculine power, the fear of castration, and the taboo on incest.

[16] This visual primacy extends to entire cultural systems of representation. In his analysis of Hoffmann’s “The Sandman,” Freud asserts that the fear of having one’s eyes put out is linked by a logic of substitution to castration. For Irigaray:

within this logic…[woman’s] sexual organ represents the horror of nothing to see. A defect in this systematics of representation and desire. A ‘hole’ in its scoptophilic lens. It is already evident in Greek statuary that this horror of nothing to see has to be excluded, rejected, from such a scene of representation (26).

Here she is referring to statuary in which the vulva are represented as a smooth plane, undivided by what in anatomical reality are the two lips of the vulva. Thus, what Freud calls the “uncanny” quality of the female genitals stems from their understanding, within the economy of subjectivity formation established by psychoanalysis, as a “lack” or a castration. There exists no positive representation of what is there to see. The exclusion of the statuary closes over the “hole in the scoptophilic lens”—that is, by returning the appearance of the vulva to singularity, it is restored to a particular kind of intelligibility here understood as representability.

[17] For Irigaray, the labia elude a visual logic of signification because their primary sense is touch—as lips, they are always touching each other. As such, they represent “the horror of nothing to see,” not because they are invisible, but because they disrupt what she calls the “scoptophilic” order. A vagina, on the other hand, is simply not visible from the outside. It does not disrupt a visual logic, but rather supports it negatively by occupying the space of the unseen or invisible. What cannot be seen is understood as nonexistent or at best secondary: touch, because it cannot be seen, cannot be represented, and is thus disavowed. In this context, the vagina is a phallocentric organ: defined as sheath or receptacle, itself properly singular and decorously out of sight, it compensates for what Freud called the uncanny nature of the outer female genitalia. Site of what for Freud was the properly adult (viz. procreative) orgasm, the vagina is made visible only by the probings of “scoptophilic” science: the speculum, the mirror, the pelvic exam.

[18] When people say that Spears flashed her vagina, they are therefore participating in this disavowal, by calling the touching lips by the name of the unseen but phallic organ, the vagina. Simply put, the vagina is an internal organ that cannot really be seen, except perhaps with a speculum and mirror. Even with speculum inserted, what is seen is not so much the vagina as where the vagina leads—the cervix. As passage, communicating corridor, or conduit, the vagina is defined by negative space—by what it opens on to, or allows in. Nevertheless, this definition fits negatively into a visual logic: it is what is unseen, rather than what defies vision—that is, the labia whose primary sense is touch.

Yet what was represented in the photographs was precisely something that upsets and confounds visuality: an organ of touch, where appearance tells us very little about its function as an organ of pleasure. Thus the use of the word “vagina” or “vajayjay” to caption the images serves in part to contain this excess of representations of the unrepresentable. By calling the labia a vagina, therefore, I argue that a displacement is effected that moves the very visible but not visually coded labia into the sphere of invisibility, turning “the horror of nothing to see” into “there’s nothing to see here.”

Famous For Nothing: Popular and Scholarly Characterizations of Female Celebrity

[19] Irigaray’s theory of the “scoptophilic” nature of phallocentrism accounts for how the public image of the “vagina” is determined by a patriarchal ideology. It also works to underline the vacuity, artificiality, and nihilism of modern mediated celebrity. The editors of this issue observe that female celebrity is most often considered trashy, empty, expendable. They cite the comment “Heath before Britney?” made by an onlineUSA Today reader, when actor Heath Ledger was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment. Despite rumors of drug use and the presence of a heady cocktail of prescription medication at the scene, Ledger’s death has consistently been treated as accidental and untimely. This comment serves to reinforce the gendered contrast between a star whose death was perceived as tragic loss, and one whose shenanigans, though potentially deadly, wouldn’t result in the loss of that much talent or a meaningful contribution to entertainment, culture, or society—let alone to her sons or her family. This morbid and cruel example serves to illustrate the ways in which the separation of fame from talent or hard work is gendered feminine. In the first part of the following section, I explore the ways in which paparazzi culture and its market, the tabloids and online gossip sites participate in and perpetuate a gendered notion of meritless fame. I then go on to show that this misogyny is not merely a popular discourse, but that many scholarly treatments of modern celebrity mirror it as well.

I. The New Paparazzi

[20] The paparazzi are powerful agents in the building of celebrity, but the kind of celebrity they promulgate is largely the “famous for nothing” sort. In its most reductive formulation, this means that one may become famous by appearing in the tabloids, rather than appearing in the tabloids because one is famous. There are two ways in which this new marriage of paparazzi and celebrity is sexualized. First, there is the increasing desire to consume celebrity in “ordinary” situations, leading to a kind of banality of fame. Second, the language of the paparazzi as a production culture is itself highly sexualized. In this climate, therefore, the upskirt photograph represents a kind of limit case of the utterly sexual and the awfully banal.

[21] The Atlantic Monthly’s April 2008 cover article, “The Britney Show: Days and Nights with the New Paparazzi” is an ethnography by journalist David Samuels (Samuels) documenting several days with a team of Brazilian paparazzi who work for X17, one of the largest photo agencies in Los Angeles. It was an X17 photographer who captured the now iconic images of Britney Spears shaving her head, and later attacking a car with an umbrella. X17 employs teams of photographers with cars and a variety of digital cameras to camp outside of a celebrity’s house or outside a popular nightclub, waiting for shots of the hopelessly mundane or the tantalizingly shameful (see also Fairclough in this issue). While the paparazzi have always been a force in modern celebrity, the distinctive element of what Samuels calls the “new” paparazzi is that it operates in a pop culture environment in which even the most mundane shots are in demand.

[22] Current popular culture now supports a notion of “entertainment” that may simply mean witnessing the consumption activities of other, preferably wealthy and/or famous people. For example, MTV’s popular reality show My Super Sweet Sixteen (2005-) features wealthy teenagers shopping, primping, and otherwise prepping for their “sweet sixteen” birthday bashes. There is no other plot besides this consumption activity—drama arises when the featured teen is denied an expensive gift, or something goes wrong with the caterer, hairdresser, or guest list. Similarly, Bravo’s series The Real Housewives of Orange County/New York City (2006/2008) represent wealthy women on both coasts engaging in social activities, shopping, and having catfights largely grounded in the same. These series are the reality counterparts of fiction fantasies of wealth and consumption like The O.C. and Gossip Girl, both of which are premised on inviting viewers into the “exclusive” world of California’s Orange County or Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

[23] The online gossip sites and tabloids like Us Weekly are the still-image equivalent of reality TV like My Super Sweet Sixteen. A quick glance at the most popular gossip sites (,,, reveals mostly photographs of stars shopping on Robertson Boulevard, drinking Starbucks, or even pumping gas—not exclusive shots from premieres or other glamorous events, nor even scandalous shots taken with telephoto of secluded vacation spots or trysts. Of course, the shots that are the most valuable do portray some kind of scandal, which is why the photographs of Spears shaving her head, for example, are so iconic. But the economy of the new paparazzi is that a thousand shots of Spears drinking frappuccinos will eventually yield one head-shaving shot.

[24] Samuels attributes the rise of the “new” paparazzi to Us Weekly’spopular segment “Stars– They’re Just Like US!” This segment created a new market for the formerly tabloid-dependent Hollywood paparazzi, allowing this kind of photography to evolve “from a marginal nuisance to one of the most powerful and lucrative forces driving the American news-gathering industry” (Samuels, 38). The segment focuses precisely on the sorts of banal, un-fabulous activities that celebrities, “like us,” also engage in. An average issue might feature Jennifer Garner going to Whole Foods, or Jennifer Aniston curbing her dog. And, the segment also favors moments of everyday embarrassment: a piece of gum stuck to Paris Hilton’s Juicy Couture sweats, Eva Longoria without makeup, Mischa Barton with perspiration staining her underarms. You see, says Us Weekly, stars are human, too!

[25] Of course, the blatant falsehood of this statement helps to fuel the much less playful, more spiteful commentary online. Paris Hilton is obviously not “like US!” because she is extraordinarily wealthy. That makes it fair game to talk about the gum stuck to her butt, or cackle over Mischa Barton’s cellulite. The “like us” conceit also fuels the consumption of celebrities in a variety of different contexts, maintaining the long-standing notion that there is a “real” person behind the public image (see Dyer, but also Gamson and Esch and Mayer). What the new paparazzi culture does is move this “intimate, everyday” knowledge out of the interview or magazine space, and circulate it widely online and via multiple shots of what are otherwise extraordinarily banal activities. This notion of intimate access is also behind so called “celebreality” television shows like Rock of Love with Bret Michaels (2007) or The Surreal Life (2003) or even The Hills(2006), whose stars were previously interesting only for their wealthy, privileged lifestyle but are now becoming celebrities themselves (see also Leppert and Wilson in this issue).

[26] The upskirt photograph serves, then, as a kind of limit case to what “overexposure” can mean. It appears as emblematic of a culture of visibility, where the most ordinary and off-screen moments are the most coveted. Here, women are both the perpetrators and the victims, both the “attention whores” we love to hate (Paris Hilton) and the “trainwrecks” who become the butt of our dark humor and schaudenfreude, like Spears. In the examples cited above, almost all are also women: online commentators snigger over cellulite and sweat stains, problems for which men are rarely called to task. During the flashing fad, public commentary even turned to such specialized topics as pubic hair grooming and the size and shape of the labia. This is objectification at its most intimately cruel, yet, much in the spirit of the new openness about pubic hair waxing ushered in a few years earlier by Sex and the City (1998-2004) the tone of the comments often suggested that this was hip, modern, liberated behavior. Nevertheless, the effect is to label the bad girls and lay out for everyone else the standards of proper female behavior.

[27] Britney Spears’ story over the past two years has made her one of the most photographed and visible celebrities of our time. According to Samuels, sales of Spears photos account for a full 25% of X17’s gross profit (Samuels, 38). Her “trainwreck” story—and, perhaps, eventual “comeback”—is therefore a kind of avatar of the genre. Take, for example, Samuels’ musing on the photographs of Spears shaving her head:

Her look was at once vulnerable and wildly alienated, the expression one might expect to see on the face of a young cult member who had just set fire to her birth certificate on the sidewalk…America’s sweetheart had dramatically and publicly unedited herself, removing the customary trappings and protections of celebrity to reveal the damaged psyche of a fractured person who was no longer able or willing to regulate her public behavior (40).

The image of a cult member setting fire to her birth certificate works to summon an era in which youth culture was widely perceived to be politically activist and therefore meaningful, if misguided. The irony here is that all Spears did was shave her head—that is, remove one of the signifiers of her gender and sexuality, in front of the camera. Without this signifier, Spears is “unedited,” but the raw, uncut Spears is nothing but a “damaged psyche,” a “fractured person who was no longer able or willing to regulate her public behavior” (Samuels, 40). That is, the “real” Spears is shattered, and this lack of coherence makes her transgressive, unregulated. There is no sense of any agency or craft to the act or even to the larger trends for which this behavior (and its unregulated nature) is meant to stand.

II. Giving it Up: The Feminized Banality of Celebrity

[28] Consider that much of the “nothing” that “famous for nothing” entails is in fact comprised of photographs of this sort. It is absolutely true that Mischa Barton has not had a significant professional acting job since The OC (2003), yet I see her week after week and day after day in the pages of the gossip tabloids and online. These photographs are captioned by comments almost exclusively about her sexuality: her clothes, her cellulite, her hair color, who she’s dating. And while it’s true that her ex-boyfriend, Cisco Adler, did allow a photograph of his naked penis to circulate on the internet, this sort of display is rare, and much differently coded, for men, even “famous for nothing” men, for whom “going commando” is often considered more sexy than trashy.

[29] Thus the online and tabloid gossip and the paparazzi culture that feeds it contribute to a feminized notion of what it means to be “famous for nothing.” This feminized and sexualized understanding can be read off the common paparazzi exhortation, “to give it up.” According to Samuels, “giving it up” is when celebrities agree to stage shots for paparazzi:

Some stars hate the paparazzi. Others use them to reinvent themselves or increase their fame. Working with the paparazzi to create memorable shots is called “giving it up,” a sexualized metaphor that neatly captures the masculine-feminine romantic dynamic of need and reluctance that characterizes the relationship between celebrity photographers and their subjects (42).

This is the context in which the upskirt phenomenon arose. It brings the banal and the obscene dangerously close together: the everyday girl’s problem getting out of a car becomes a “They’re Just Like US!” moment as soon as it’s photographed, the same instant in which it becomes, in terms of raw content, indistinguishable from a beaver shot in Hustler.

[30] Modern celebrity culture is enough of a phenomenon that higher register popular press like The Huffington Post or The Atlantic Monthlydevote commentary to it. It is also the subject of academic discourse, but very little of this discourse is devoted to exploring the intersection of gender and celebrity. An exception is Jeffrey Sconce’s essay “A Vacancy at the Paris Hilton,” which makes the association between female celebrity and the vacuousness of modern culture utterly explicit – although with all of the pernicious value judgments this implies.

[31] Sconce insists that Paris Hilton’s vacancy is a “metonymy (but not a symptom)” of the larger “triumph of hyperreality” that is no more evident than in the culture industry. The term “hyperreality” is actually Baudrillard’s, and in invoking him, Sconce allies himself with the later Baudrillard’s “refusal to advocate on behalf of any illusory remnant of subjectivity, his concretization of evil in the encroaching logic of the object” (328). Of course, the particular “concretization of evil” at issue here is Paris Hilton, herself only an object, and an empty one at that. Sconce’s use of Hilton as the object, and his conviction that subjectivity is illusory, is intended to be general and diagnostic. As such, it indicates the ways in which discussion of fame and media is gendered from the outset.

[32] Sconce details Hilton’s status as object, as his title neatly suggests. “A Vacancy at the Paris Hilton” is not only a clever pun. It’s one entry in a genre of more or less obscene epithets that associate Hilton with emptiness, stupidity, shallowness, or egotism. Hilton is not merely famous for nothing, she is famous for being famous for nothing, she is “meta/meta-famous” (Sconce, 331), pure and obscene surface. The main conflict, as Sconce sees it, is class-based: how long will the masses tolerate the entitlement and leisure of the few? It is in this context that Hilton becomes the girl we love to hate: for Sconce, her function is rather that of a safety valve that siphons off mass anger at the wealthy and famous.

[32] Sconce mentions Hilton’s sex tape in association with the changing face of celebrity from an earned quality to an inherited or inherent fabulousness unconnected to talent or hard work. Therefore, rather than harm her “legitimate” status as a reality television star (the tape scandal broke immediately before Hilton’s reality show The Simple Life (2003) debuted on Fox), the sex tape actually underwrote Hilton’s career, which “never would have flourished without this shadow porn text” (333). The sex tape, therefore, is for Sconce the ur-text in this study in how the meta/meta-famous are cockroaches that “convert all forms of exposure into continued hype” (332). Hilton’s ability to profit from the tape, both professionally and financially, is evidence of the growing association between the mere fact of visibility(“exposure”) and modern celebrity.

[33] Sconce goes on almost immediately to claim that despite appearances, Hilton’s particular brand of performance of her meta/meta-fame is not limited to her “gender, age, and class” (334). Nevertheless, counter-examples, such as Kevin Federline and The Hills star Talan Torriero restrict themselves to merely “reflecting leisure…inexorably rewriting Aaron Spelling’s camp horseshit out of the 1980s as the new social reality of teen California, and by cathode extension, the nation at large” (338). This reflection of leisure is not sexualized for these men, whose bodies are not the literal emblems of their fame. Leaving aside Torriero, who was a bad choice for Sconce since he has failed to attain even “meta/meta” fame, Federline has certainly fared better than his ex-wife. He has established a certain credibility as a “hardworking dad,” and perhaps most significantly, has been awarded full custody of the children he fathered with Spears.

[34] Sconce is absolutely correct in identifying a tendency to dramatize the banal as an ever-expanding display of consumption—and to sell it back to audiences and readers as desirable, pleasurable, enviable fascination. The mere fact of mass exposure is enough to sustain enormous and ever-growing niches of the culture industry. Here again, however, women are consistently better fodder for this kind of exposure, since their fashion and consumption choices are so much broader, even in an age where men’s fashion and grooming has gained visibility.

[35] Gender therefore matters in this instance, and quite specifically. It is impossible to ignore when one is talking sex scandal—and sex scandal has ever accompanied celebrity (see Cook and McLean).Moreover, we are talking sex and values: whether it is “good” or “bad” to have one’s sex tape leaked, for example, or to be photographed without underwear. However, the banal quality of modern celebrity extends even to these moments of scandal, softening the blow of moral outrage in a climate where Hilton’s ability to bounce back, even flourish in its wake, becomes a sort of postfeminist gesture. With what Owens et. al have carefully characterized as the thinnest veneer of irony, postfeminists embrace all the trappings of textbook female exploitation from catfights to stripping. In this cultural climate, it is hard to find a tenable position from which to critique the feminization of celebrity “trashiness,” for example. This celebrity culture’s reliance on the most obvious equations between vacuousness, stupidity, femininity and sexual exploitation therefore seem ambiguous, possibly ironic reappropriations of a less-enlightened era’s vices.

[36] The upskirt phenomenon thus operates in an ironic and banal celebrity culture that is unwilling or unable to distinguish between exploitation and empowerment in the wake of the popular uptake of postfeminism. In this context, the work that the words “vagina” and “vajayjay” do is twofold. First, they contain the tactile labia’s disruption of the phallocentric, “scoptophilic” order of paparazzi celebrity culture by operating, as I argue below, as discursive prostheses. Secondly, the circulation of “vagina” and “vajayjay” polices this ambiguity between exploitation and empowerment, but not by speaking up for the exploited. Rather, it works to distinguish the “trashy” women from the modern, liberated women, and in so doing relies on very outdated ideas about what is acceptable feminine behavior.

Vajapocalypse: Popular Use of “Vagina” and “Vajayjay”

[37] If being “famous for nothing” or “meta/meta famous” and modern celebrity in general are becoming synonymous, the “vagina” is the banner of their solidarity. The words “vagina” and “vajayjay” are used in two different contexts in popular culture of late. On the one hand, the ability to “say that word” has become a badge of a certain hip, postfeminist sexual liberation. On the other hand, it is often deployed to label someone as trashy or slutty. Those who can say it are hip; those who show it are trash.

[38] Comedian Sarah Silverman took advantage of the changed value of the term during her opening monologue at the 2007 MTV Movie Awards, commenting that there were “a lot of famous vaginas in the house tonight”—meaning that women like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears were there. Here the joke is established by a metonymy with the genitals, and the dig consists in the ambiguity between the anatomical term and its pornographic connotations. Moreover, although Silverman was broadcast live, her use of “vagina” would not incur the censorship bleep-out that something like “cunt” or “pussy” would have done. Thus, she was able to pretend that she was merely stating an obvious, even clinical fact, while essentially calling these women (media) whores.

[39] Elsewhere, also, the shorthand for “famous-for-nothing” was “vagina” or its more obscene counterparts. This March 28, 2008 post from is a particularly brutal example (Hilton’s quote is taken from OK Weekly, another celebrity tabloid of the Us Weeklyvariety). It leads off: “Parasite Hilton held a press conference in Turkey to talk about what a skank slut she is. Paris defended herself against the “media lies” and thinks she’s a good role model to little girls.” The post continues:

She said, “I don’t pay attention to lies because I am a good person. I work very hard and I’ve built this empire on my own. I think this is an inspiration for a lot of girls out there.”

Hold up! Who answered this question? Paris or her vagina? Paris’ vagina is the only thing that’s working hard for the money. Come on Paris! Give your pussy a little credit (Michael K).

Michael K, the “editor” of Dlisted, sets the tone by dubbing his subject “Parasite” Hilton. The name establishes her as a leech with nothing of her own to contribute. The only thing she does have to contribute is her “vagina,” that is, her sex, her nothing. The fact is that Hilton is here referring to her “legitimate” career—forging “Paris Hilton” into a brand that sells perfumes, clothes, and books worldwide. Despite these easily verifiable facts, the post takes it as obvious and undeniable that Hilton has no right to her millions, and that her only working part is her “vagina.” Of course, Michael K starts off by calling Hilton a “skank slut,” but the force of the post is in how this name-calling plays out in the image of her personified “vagina,” the “only thing that’s working hard for the money.” It confers an odd, postmodern dignity upon that organ, thus elevating the post beyond simple slander—taking calling Hilton a whore to a whole new level.

[40] Around the same time as the flashing fad, “vagina” and “vajayjay” also began to circulate as a kind of badge of postfeminist liberation, providing an interesting counterpoint to the metonymy of “vagina” and “famous for nothing.” Women who flash their “vaginas” are part of the problem, either spoiled or unstable or both; women who can sayvagina are hip, in control, and sexually liberated. This dichotomy emphasizes the love of postfeminist and celebrity gossip culture alike for female rivalry and polarization. Pitting “Team Aniston” against “Team Jolie” is read as merely the right of women to compete as equals—never mind that they are always competing for attention, either the literal attentions of a particular man or the masculinized gaze of public exposure. It can also be read as an ironic redeployment of pre-feminist relations (see Shugart et. al for more on third-wave feminist appropriation).

[41] The slang term “vajayajay” first appeared in the February 12, 2006 episode of ABC’s hit medical soapGray’s Anatomy (2005-). Miranda Bailey, an African-American physician who is in labor herself yells at her intern to “stop looking at my vajayjay.” Series writers, looking for a way around censored words like “beaver” on the one hand and the clinical, non-conversational “vagina” on the other used this somewhat obscure slang term to enhance the ongoing presentation of Miranda Bailey as a woman of verve and self-respect. Moreover, the fact that the character who used the term was a sassy black woman gave it a certain underground hipness so typical of mainstream culture’s appropriations of black culture.

[42] Tee shirts emblazoned with the phrase became popular items in the Gray’s Anatomy online store. Oprah Winfrey—another sassy black woman—then popularized the term, saying “I think vajayjay’s a nice word, don’t you?” while the ladies on The View discussed the word at length in what the satiric clip showThe Soup termed the “Vajapocalypse” (Rosenbloom). Oprah and the members of The Viewpanel were discussing the word as a sign of liberation: that is, as a word that is often taboo or uncomfortable for people, particularly men, to say. They underlined their own use of the words “vagina” and “vajayjay” as marks of a feminism understood as sexual liberation, as comfort in talking about their bodies. Barbara Walters, a woman of the Betty Friedan generation, complained that the viewing public seemed shocked by her use of the term and objected that she certainly was not the prude they thought she was.

[43] The slang term vajayjay, then, carries the veneer of a certain liberation: still raunchy, but stripped of the feminist shock value it carried when The Vagina Monologues debuted in 1996. TheMonologues were originally a one-woman show where, much in the spirit of the book Cunt, the word operates as a reclamation on feminist grounds of a body part either cloaked in euphemism or stained with shame. In 2007, “vagina” and “vajayjay” were no longer the province of feminist provocateurs operating on the fringes. In what is perhaps the ultimate mainstream quasi-feminist gesture, the March, 2008Cosmopolitan previews an article titled: “Your Va-jay-jay: Fascinating New Facts About Your Lovely Lady Parts.” That pop singer Rhianna, the issue’s cover girl, is lifting her short skirt over her parted legs in an apparent invitation to examine her lovely lady parts underlines the unresolved tension of the word: somewhere between liberation and exhibitionism is that mythical organ, the vajayjay.

[44] These competing connotations of “vagina/vajayjay” echo the polarization of the current celebrity landscape with regard to feminine sexuality. On the “bad” or “transgressive” end of the spectrum, women’s “vaginas” are the basis of their fame—that is, nothing. On the “good” or “appropriate” end, “vagina” is, crucially, not a body part, but a bit of discourse: a word that is used to indicate a certain attitude about the female body and sexuality.

Conclusion: The Horror of Something To See

[45] How is it, then, that Britney Spears’ epic upskirt weekend was able to put the brakes on the flashing fad? Why, after her participation, did the phenomenon die down? Isn’t it just the final apotheosis of an already explicit relationship between celebrity, sex, and the image? If it is true, as so many have observed, that pornography is essentially banal, why don’t these photographs represent a quintessence of porn in their banal, icky, and artificial intimacy? What is it about the scar photograph, in particular, that disrupts the fantasy and ends the fad?

[46] Barthes (Barthes) called the photograph a “that-has-been” and a “noeme,” a document that makes an absence present. At the same time, it preserves a moment only posthumously, thus also capturing the passage of time and the fact of absence. Barthes called this phenomenon the “photographic effect.” In hisVisible FictionsJohn Ellis uses Barthes’s notion of the “photographic effect” to identify what he calls cinema’s “historical mode” (59). The present/absent of the photograph (and by extension the cinema) creates the illusion of the viewer’s utter independence from its creation, as though “reality itself is telling itself, almost unaware that it is being watched” (60). This mode of story telling is dependent upon what Ellis calls our “poignant” trust in the photograph. The photograph effect indexes reality, points towards the absence of something that is nevertheless indisputably real.

[47] In reading Spears’ scar as an index, then, I am arguing for a connection between its designation of her uterus and vagina asinternal organs and the entire economy of paparazzi, online gossip sites, and the association of female celebrity with emptiness, surface. The scar is like a photograph itself, in many ways. It reveals a different kind of “reality.” The scar marks the effacement of the female body as anything other than sexual object of consumption. It is a monument to the “something” lost in the process whereby the photographs were captioned as “nothing.” One might think of the scar like Magritte’s famous painting, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” The scar is the painting that comments on a nonverbal, unconsciously negotiated moment of cognitive dissonance.

[48] The scar is an indexical sign that points to both the action of intercourse as procreation and the function of the vagina as birth canal. The scar cannot but indicate the internal location of the vagina: if it weren’t inside, there would be no need to cut into the flesh to get at it. The scar thus lays bare a more or less unconscious misrecognition, and forces the recognition of the labia as somethingother than the birth canal or phallic sheath. It exposes the labia asnothing to see. Perhaps this is Baudrillard’s “disastrous real.” It is also a remarkable instance of a reversion to very old gender politics to contain this eruption of a reality that does not conform to the phallocentrism of visual culture. In this context of behavioral boundaries, the word “vagina” operates as a discursive prosthesis, a supplement whose invisibility depends on the phallocentric fear of the female genitals. To name what is seen in the photographs is to give symbolic power to the uncanny referent, the anatomical “dark continent,” the lips that defy the subject/object split so necessary for phallocentric reasoning to function. In order to maintain its hegemony, therefore, the word “vagina” was grafted on to the images and proudly circulated as a badge of new liberation—after Our Bodies, Ourselvesgave us the clitoris, Oprah, the ladies at The View, and Sarah Silverman are returning us to the vaginal.

[49] With the flashing fad, what the Greeks had tidily “sewn back back up inside its crack” is on full, inescapable display. The upskirt photos are precisely not tidily corralled in the pornographic enclosure, not moments of desperation but, on the surface, moments of carelessness so intense that they generate their own system of value (they may, however, be part of a general “pornification” of mainstream culture—see Levy, Paul, and Paasonen et al). The obvious question—who leaves the house without underwear in a miniskirt?—is itself in on the fun, as its answer is the intentional exhibitionism of the women, made manifest in the photograph as document. Thus these images, unfettered by social norms restricting the consumption of pornography, made it impossible to turn away from the horror of nothing to see—they constituted, rather, the horror of something to see.

[50] In the absence of a visual curative, a discursive prosthesis developed instead, to render invisible what was so unsettlingly apparent: the vagina, the willing counterpart of the phallus, the invisible “hole” whose appearance in public is not only impossible but unthinkable. Here, where the images were nearly unavoidable and certainly undeniable, the “nothingness” that the vagina connotes grafted absence and invisibility onto the spectacularly visual. It also served to police the boundary between female celebrities “gone wild” and their opposite pole, postfeminist women. Yet the nature of the prosthesis is ambiguous: as both supplement and substitute, extension and replacement, it constitutes a relation rather than a repression (see Dworkin). In this sense, the prosthesis may always be said to be supplementary, in excess, while at the same time extending or supporting a text. David Wills (Wills) points to this supplementarity in its embodied context: the prosthesis both replaces an absent limb and exceeds it. In other words, a prosthesis always points out an absence in the very act of replacement. Moreover, the prosthetic limb has a life of its own: more durable than flesh, impervious to pain and articulated, literally and figuratively, to the technological and communicative structures that exceed the purely physical. The prosthesis therefore simultaneously indexes and effaces absence, and thus “treats of whatever arises out of that relation, and of the relation itself, of the sense and functioning of articulations between matters of two putatively distinct orders” (Wills, 10).

[51] What relation is implied by the tension between anatomical correctness (the actual organ being the labia) and sexual fantasy (the dream of penetration exceeding the literal anatomy of the photograph)? And in what ways does this relation arise from the intensely spectacular nature of the images—that is, from the excess of vision produced by their ubiquity and explicitness? I would argue that the relation is between a (famous) woman’s body as the source of her subjectivity and the way that body is consumed as an object. Where it is not possible to purely objectify—that is, where a non-visual economy such as the labia threatens to disrupt the visual—words step in as prostheses to re-objectify this body, reinsert it into a visual and moral economy that is essentially patriarchal. In the world of female celebrity, a cultural catchphrase has served to mark important behavioral boundaries in a culture seemingly bereft of such standards.

[52] Sarah Silverman’s crack about “famous vaginas,” for example, obviously drew its humor from the vulgar synecdoche, however clinical, while Cosmopolitan‘s cover metonymically connects the words to “lovely lady parts.” Using vagina in this way references phallic penetration insofar as it reinforces the notion of the vagina as sheath and receptacle for the penis, and thus the primary sexual organ in terms of male pleasure (as opposed, for example, to the polymorphous clitoris). That, for example, porn star Jenna Jameson sells a plastic mould of her own vagina as a sex toy only underlines the prosthetic nature of the word in this context: as detachable hole, the vagina indexes male pleasure alone. Jenna Jameson may be a celebrity, but her power as such stems not from her talent and not even from her allure, but from the availability of her anatomy, separate from her subjectivity, to masculine desire. Because they operate much like this detachable object, the words “vagina” and “vajayjay” thus become powerful weapons in the policing of feminine behavior: Silverman’s use of the term designates the whore, Cosmopolitan‘s use designates the virgin, lovely and intact, but also modern and (seemingly) self-aware.

[53] “Vagina” and “vajayjay” give postfeminist women license to call other women sluts and whores—all the more so if they are in the public eye. When Oprah says that it is a “nice” word, she’s implying that by extension “nice” women may use it. Let us not make the price of our own empowerment the condemnation of others: let us not measure the strides that women have made in terms of who among us we can comfortably condemn.

[54] What Spears’ scar shows is that the vagina is not the labia. It exposes the prosthesis and the cultural work that it does to maintain sexist distinctions between women who have gotten postfeminist liberation “right” and those who have gotten it “wrong.” It unveils a prosthetic relation between celebrity visibility and feminine sexuality, converting the horror of something to see into the old, familiar nothing.

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