March 5, 2010

Jessica Simpson's fall from grace and The Price of Beauty

I was flipping through my weekly research in the form of People Magazine when I came across an article on Jessica Simpson and her latest project, exploring the “Price of Beauty,” a new VH1 reality show.

I used to hold up Jessica Simpson as the poster girl for good press because she “followed the rules.”  This was years ago, obviously. This was when she was “thin,” proclaimed her virginity until her marriage to Nick Lachey and played the stupid but sweet nice girl. While Christina Aguilera was getting all sorts of bad press during her Dirrty chaps phase and other wild, hot young things of the time were getting equally negative and judgemental coverage, Jessica was flying above the radar. To me, she represented the new young woman of the Bush Jr years, a sort of virginal throwback to the 1950s in the form of a nonthreatening and loyal (to her daddy and her husband) good girl. It was about this time, approximately 5 years ago, that I had begun to notice ever increasing mediated messages that focused on staying home, baking brownies and seeking marriage as the ultimate forms of female fulfillment. Yes, that’s always been a theme for women but I had begun to notice a ratcheting up of these values throughout the media culture and Jessica Simpson was the epitome of this new young female role model being offered to young women and men.

But then it happened. Divorce. Her sexuality was acceptable when it was reserved for her husband. But now this blond bombshell was single and this was a problem. She flirted. She dated. She has sex, sex with other men. The paparazzi  stalked at her at hotels and she was rumored to have had an affair (possibly during her marriage) with the lead singer of Maroon 5. (Note: around the same time the former “bad girl” party girls such as Aguilera and Nicole Richie got pregnant and “settled down” which changed the tone of the press to an altogether more positive one as Jessica’s coverage began to sour.)

Suddenly the press was not so kind. She was scrutinized for her relationships with men, her relationship with her sister (she’s jealous of Ashlee’s body, marriage, baby!) and, of course, her body. This is where my empathy grew for this woman. Jessica began to be and continues to be skewered by the media, then held up and apologized to before the next round begins.

Jessica Simpson was featured in the People Magazine article I came across last night for the interview she gave Oprah. She touched upon her relationship with on John Mayer, the mom jeans that got more press than the ravages of global capitalism and the ceaseless public commentary on her body. Feministing covered this in a post yesterday.

Jessica also discussed her motivation to examine global images of beauty after the incessant media hoopla on her own form. I’m not a fan of reality television and I have to question VH1’s influence on the outcome of this project but I respect her efforts to bring an important issue to young girls and women that may not receive this message in other areas of the media culture. My empathy and respect for Jessica grows because I have closely noted the public’s shifting feelings for her before, during and after her marriage.

Samhita, at Feministing, finished her post on The Price of Beauty with concern about the:

all too familiar trap of cultural relativism and Western desire to understand the “other,” not as a way to communicate across difference, but as way to understand yourself better, a fundamental problem historically with white women entering other cultures for inquiry and self exploration.

Samhita continues on a positive and hopeful note:

On the other hand, it is all about the framing and framing these moments as not different and weird, but as compared to the harmful things women do themselves in the US, well for Jessica Simpson and for VH1, that could be kind of cool. I don’t have VH1, so hopefully it will be streaming online so I can give it a more thorough look.

I have my concerns, too, and I mentioned several of them above. I’m also afraid that the message might get grossly twisted along the way similar to the way her sister’s pro-girl-love-yourself message in Marie Claire was trumped by her transformation via plastic surgery at the time the story was coming to print.

But, I am rooting for her. I want Jessica Simpson to come out on top. I want her to emerge as a new sheroe for young girls and women. I want her to be redeemed by her fall from tabloid grace and allow that experience to be a cautionary tale to young women that believe they can be rewarded by an intrinsically oppressive system that punishes girls and women for not living up to the cultural expectations of femininity. I hope Jessica Simpson does not get lost along the way.

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