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Sex Sells, and so Does Slut-Shaming A brief history of the media’s demonization of women

Josephine Ross

Staff Writer



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Women have been demonized, blamed, and vilified in just about every sphere of life. Patriarchal rules have dictated our way of life for thousands of years, from defining which clothes are acceptable to wear, to the extent of our bodily autonomy, to how dating should work. In a patriarchal society, any power or recognition that women may obtain is curated and dictated by men. The most visible, public, and influential example of the patriarchy in action is the media. Early newspapers served as a public platform to gossip about, defame and slander women of high society in the late 19th century. During The Golden Age of Hollywood, newspapers sexualized and demonized Hollywood stars. In the advent of tabloid culture, the media slandered women, from politicians to child stars in the “meltdown era”, a period where misrepresenting these young women as crazy and erratic was a common occurrence. Today, with more reach than ever before, online news outlets continue to hyperfixate on women in the public eye. American model Emily Ratajkowski in My Body writes: “the women who gained their power from beauty were indebted to the men whose desire granted them that power in the first place. Those men were the ones in control, not the women the world fawned over…[a woman’s power is limited] when she survives and even succeeds in the world as a thing to be looked at”.

Marilyn Monroe is an early victim of the entertainment industry, being marketed as a sexual commodity and not as the serious actress she aspired to be. Monroe was forced to weaponize her beauty and sexuality to avoid being denied the serious roles she desired, which resulted in her being typecast as a ditzy blonde. This invoked unjust comparisons between Monroe and her peers in the industry, such as Audrey Hepburn. This led to Monroe further pushing for a chance at a role that would allow her to show her true range. After many years, she eventually succeeded in convincing 20th Century studios that she could go beyond being the sexy supporting actress. Despite this, the media jumped at any opportunity to villainize, libel and slut-shame Monroe as she attained a new level of fame, an example of which being when nude photographs she had taken at the beginning of her career resurfaced. Nonetheless, while filming The Seven Year Itch, the iconic picture of Monroe, her standing over a subway grate with her silky white dress being blown up by a gust of wind, was widely used for publicity. Monroe’s beauty and sexuality pushed her to the top of the Hollywood elite and propelled her acting career, but was also the cause of the endless slut-shaming backlash she received from the media. Monroe was ultimately at the mercy of male-influenced media, which dictated whether her sexuality was to be leveraged or shunned in the public eye.

Another young woman affected by the media’s framing of women was former White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. Her name grew to become synonymous with infidelity and sexual deviance. Lewinsky was portrayed as a slut and a homewrecker by various tabloids. Meanwhile, Bill Clinton, who was twenty-seven years older than Lewinsky at the time, in addition to being her superior, faced relatively less critique. This double-standard is rooted in misogyny; Lewinsky’s image was destroyed, and she struggled to find a new job due to the infamy clouding her name, while Clinton continued to have a successful career. Lewinsky’s sexual history could be used against her because her image was at the mercy of the media, while Clinton’s, at least from a sexual perspective, was not to the same degree.


Britney Spears is one of many celebrities of the 2000s who fell victim to the child-star-to-tabloid-cover pipeline. Following the release of “…Baby One More Time” in 1998, when Spears was only sixteen, she received critique from parents, media outlets and even politicians for her “sexual and provocative” clothing, lyrics, and attitude. The press asked her about her sex life from the very beginning of her career, her virginity (or lack thereof) being a hot topic of speculation. In the aftermath of her breakup with fellow popstar Justin Timberlake, Spears was depicted as a heartbreaker, a cheater, and a ruthless bitch, while the public sympathized with Timberlake. New York Times critic Wesley Morris describes the situation as Britney being “the school slut” and Timberlake “the school quarterback”. The public continued to side with Timberlake after the release of his music video for “Cry Me A River”, in which the singer runs after a Britney lookalike. The vicious, but all too common, double-standard was inflicted upon Spears after the split with Timberlake. While only twenty-two, her breakup was publicized and she was slandered, Timberlake escaping unscathed.


This is a far from exhaustive telling of the various women who have been victims of the media’s unjust treatment over the years. In a male-gaze-dominated culture, women are most marketable if they are portrayed as sexy or beautiful. With the rise of tabloid culture, this sexualisation can be milked further by becoming the topic of gossip. In essence, many female celebrities have been built up to be beaten down for the sake of sales and views. The long history of women being victims of the media is far from over. I am desperately hoping that the media today will be kinder towards young women like Charli D’Amelio, Olivia Rodrigo and Millie Bobby Brown, but early hints point to a repeat of the same cycle.


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