Friday, August 15, 2003

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A vexing question for our times

Why is it that some celebrities under the age of eighteen can be universally acknowledged as sexy, whereas if that adjective is assigned to other underage but physically mature stars, people start leveling accusations of perversion and lechery? Why was it so shocking for Britney Spears to start flaunting her sexuality, but everyone instantly accepted Anna Kournikova as a sex object? Spears is about six months younger that Kournikova, but a Lexis-Nexis search reveals that Kournikova entered the pop culture zeitgeist as a calender-worthy subject when she was younger than Spears. [Maybe this is because Spears started her career as a Mouseketeer, and it's more difficult for Americans to accept former child stars in risqué stiuations?--ed. Yeah, that explains the careers of Alyssa Milano and Drew Barrymore real well.]

I ask because of the Olsen Twins. They're on the cover of the Rolling Stone in September. Their ever-closer 18th birthday has prompted some, er, obsessive web sites as well.

The actual story suggests the diverse reactions the Olsens generate:

What's entertaining is to watch people's faces as the girls head to a favorite breakfast place, the annoyingly named but tasty Urth Caffe. They all do a triple take. What registers first is: Hmm, twins. Next: Pretty twins! And finally: Are they...?

As the two enter the cafe, a pair of college-age guys give them the up-and-down. "God, they are hot," one breathes.

"I'll take the one on the left, you take the other," says his pal. They stay rooted to the spot, of course. In the meantime, an eight-year-old girl, who has the stunned look of Wile E. Coyote after the anvil lands on his head, approaches for an autograph.

"Of course!" they say in chorus. As they chat with their trembling admirer, the two do not even notice their older fans, who watch them, mouths slightly open, hands dangling at their sides.

The wildly divergent reactions to the Olsens are on full display in the comments sections of posts by Matthew Yglesias , Atrios, and Tampa Tantrum -- though, to be fair, much of the vitriol is devoted to whether Rolling Stone is now officially lame (click here for more reaction). I fear that this issue could split the country.

Before this happens, I hope the blogosphere, using its collective, distributed nodes of intelligence, can determine why it's OK to admire the shapeliness of some 18-year olds but not others.

[You're a sick, sick man--ed. No, really, I'm just curious. After watching the video that accompanied the Rolling Stone story, I can honestly say the Olsen twins don't really bake my cake. On this issue, loyal blog readers should be fully aware of where my preferences lie -- and if those links aren't enough, click here, here, to see the kind of celebrities I admire in that way.

And besides, I'm not the one advertising for groupies!!]

UPDATE: The Onion provides some additional news and commentary on the Olsens.

posted by Dan on 08.15.03 at 03:40 PM


You're trolling for hits again!

I think a great deal of it has to do with target audience, and (relatedly) with the image that got promoted *before* the secualizing turn. Someone who traded on little-girl-cute, and who appealed to an audience of little-and-teenage girls, inspires parental worry when she starts flaunting it. Neither was true of Kournikova. (Ten year old girls aren't tennis' primary viewership.)

If someone's been in the public eye since she was a *very* little girl, then the creepiness associated with sexualization increases dramatically. Christina Ricci, Anna Paquin, and Jodie Foster all allowed a few transition years. Brooke Shields didn't, and as I recall she inspired some uneasiness.

But-- the Olsen twins... *shudder*. I look at them and I still see the sallow-faced little brat on Full House-- and the ever-increasing share of Blockbuster being given over to the kiddie flicks. The thought that they're almost 18 and ready to sexualize their image... brrr...

posted by: Jacob T. Levy on 08.15.03 at 03:40 PM [permalink]

Man, if I were still in school, I'd start a U of C tabloid dedicated to you two pervs - complete with photoshopped evidence. :)

posted by: George on 08.15.03 at 03:40 PM [permalink]

Ok. I saw links on various blogs excoriating Rolling Stone for putting the twins on the cover. Naturally, I assumed they were talking about George and Laura's spawn. Apparently, I assumed wrong.

Who the hell are the Olson twins? Clearly Mrs. Olson (of Folger Coffee Fame) is to old to breed, let alone have twins. Am I that old? Should I care?

posted by: uh_clem on 08.15.03 at 03:40 PM [permalink]

One difference between Britney and Anna K., if I may be so informal, is that Anna did not dress like a 16-year-old hooker. I mean, according to what I see of 16-year-old hookers on TV. Yeah. Anyway, a lot of it is class; the Olsens are dress-down sexy and so it's OK to notice their sexuality. Milano and Barrymore appeared in seriously R-rated films, so they're trashy.

Back to Britney and Anna: there's also a lot of self-satisfied resentment against a musical performer whose talent is in doubt, in that it's hard to know how much of her vocal performance is real, given modern studio techniques especially when it comes to synthesizer-based pop music. Note the anti-Anna backlash in the long run, when her tennis ended up not matching up to her celebrity. (Then again, a recent letter to Salon reminds us that in tennis, being "only" the 8th best in the world makes you a loser, so that backlash may not be fair.)

posted by: DonBoy on 08.15.03 at 03:40 PM [permalink]

You have forgotten the eleventh commandment (or
was that the 613th?): "thou shalt not covet the

posted by: David on 08.15.03 at 03:40 PM [permalink]

It was "shocking" for Britney but not Anna because Britney was marketed to 10-year old girls but Anna was not, so there was no worry that girls are going to start dressing like whores because they saw Anna playing tennis.

posted by: Hei Lun Chan on 08.15.03 at 03:40 PM [permalink]

Interesting questions, indeed!

I agree that much of it has to do with perceived trashiness. Kournikova is certainly overtly sexual in tight clothing, but she looks like a professional athlete rather than a streetwalker. Frankly, I've never thought Spears was as trashy as her detractors claim, but many who have emulated her look come out that way.

The Olsen twins are particularly strange, in that they have not gone away--we've literally watched them grow up with no gap period. (I mean, what did Barrymore do between her ET/Firestarter days and her re-emergence as a B movie attraction?) The Rolling Stone cover, to me, just showcases two really beautiful young girls, but doesn't strike me as sexual.

posted by: James Joyner on 08.15.03 at 03:40 PM [permalink]

"I mean, what did Barrymore do between her ET/Firestarter days and her re-emergence as a B movie attraction?"

Drugs and/or booze, I think. I don't remember that episode of "True Hollywood Story" very well...

As for the Britney/Anna thing, neither of them can hold a candle to the pure skank oozing from Christina Aguilera's career trajectory. Now I know why Disney Channel is now just showing cartoons...

posted by: Chris Lawrence on 08.15.03 at 03:40 PM [permalink]

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