The Celebrity Sex Tape, Where Porn Meets Reality TV
Michael Z. Newman / University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee
During the summer of 2007, between the second and third seasons of The Hills, a scandalous rumor spreads in the celebrity media. Lauren Conrad and Heidi Montag have been best friends, but when Heidi starts dating Spencer Pratt he predictably comes between them. The most believable reality is that Spencer, seeing a ticket to money and fame in his penchant for instigating conflict, feeds gossip outlets the lie that Lauren and her boyfriend Jason have a sex tape. When the cable television thread of the narrative picks up, Lauren confronts Heidi, who might even be innocent of these shenanigans: “You know what you did!”
There was no Lauren Conrad sex tape, but the very idea posed a grievous harm. And The Hills assumed that its viewers knew all about the summer’s true-life drama; Us had just splashed the characters on its cover along with the headline “THE PLOT TO DESTROY LAUREN.” Such drama relies, in the first place, on an understanding of celebrity sex tapes, what they are and what they mean. The audience for celebrity gossip can fill in for itself what one might look like. This imagined object is invested with volatile notions of propriety, privacy, and sexualized gender identity.
Like pornography, a sex tape consists of images forbidden in other media genres. Like reality TV, a sex tape publicizes the everyday lives of real people. Similar to both porn and reality TV, a sex tape offers a sense of heightened access to the real, a view of life we don’t see in mainstream entertainment. As amateur media, however, it is meant for the personal consumption of the creators, and lacks the style of commercial productions. The stolen or leaked sex tape appears to be a document of private passion rather than a product of the media industries.1
But a sex tape is not merely amateur porn, which also meets these criteria, and of which perhaps millions of hours exist. As a form in particular of celebrity culture, it at once intensifies and defies some of the characteristics of that ever-more-ubiquitous genre.
Intensifies: the celebrity sex tape offers intimate access to the personal life of the famous person, seemingly overcoming the filtering of publicity in ways similar to paparazzi photos, Instagram, and Twitter. Like much celebrity media now, the sex tape signals a loss of remoteness of public personages. In place of the mystique of privacy with calculated access through artifices of publicity, now we are offered the mystique of transparency and intimacy. Not only are stars just like us; they’re available to us in ordinary moments, the bread and butter of docusoaps. That the sex tape is generally represented as a forbidden entree into celebrity life makes it all the more fascinating as an inside view. When you watch a naked Paris Hilton grasping her boyfriend’s penis, you cannot help but marvel at the fact that this exists and you can look at it whenever you like. It’s reality TV without commercial constraints and contrivances.
And defies: unlike the typical celebrity media of supermarket tabloids and sites like I’m Not Obsessed, the sex tape is aimed at straight men (though not exclusively). Along with lad mags like Maxim and babe blogs like Egotastic!, the circulation of videos of celebrities having sex represents a flipside of the usual focus of celebrity culture on the ideology of unattainable female beauty and the fantasy of a glamorous good life. The straight male celeb consumer — and despite gender proscription, straight men are consumers — is a voyeur taking sexual pleasure in looking. This dudely consumption promotes an aroused connoisseurship of bodies, bangin’ bods, simultaneous with a contempt for female agency or intellect. As in the cliché about effective casting of female parts: women want to be her, men want to fuck her. Now you see it, not a simulation or suggestion, not foreplay, careful angles, obscured breasts and genitals, polite cutting away. And unlike most celebrity culture, sex tapes are also marketed as straight porn. 1 Night in Paris was the bestselling adult DVD of 2005. However exploitative, that movie helped Paris Hilton establish her brand as a celebrity well known by a wider audience than many others.
The rise of sex tapes represents one kind of broadening of celebrity culture’s audience. It also stands as an example of the mainstreaming of a highly sexualized media culture at the meeting point of pornography and reality television. Some of the biggest sex tapes have starred women who maximize the intertextual appeal of reality TV and tabloids: particularly Paris Hilton (The Simple Life) and Kim Kardashian (Keeping Up with the Kardashians). These are women walking a thin line between glitzy Hollywood and trashy Vegas, quintessentially “famous for being famous.” But this insult never quite fits, as their fame comes from being hot and rich and connected — from being “celebutantes.” At least Pamela Anderson, one template for babe celebs, had a showbiz career before unintentionally becoming a porn star. The sex tape celebutantes are essentially bodies for sale, and are generally thought to be vapid — at least as star personae. That they have leveraged their bodies into good brands speaks not only of entrepreneurial savvy, but also of postfeminist culture that makes possible a media enterprise in which women sell their own sexualized image and identity to both female and male consumers. They maximize publicity not just in the sense of publicizing themselves, but of making public what is ordinarily private.
A sex tape made public by a woman’s ex-boyfriend violates her privacy. Ethically it appears to be black and white, and we take Paris and Kim at their word that this attention is humiliating. But at the same time, they might gain in esteem from being poised victims of betrayal, and also gain brand awareness. They make a show of consternation and regret, but have also been boosted into new levels of recognition. If their public identities are fashioned as bodies men want to get with, their images can be bolstered by representations of what it’s like. In the modern configuration of celebrity, women are selling porny images of themselves quite eagerly. The differences between erotic pictures in mainstream media, like David LaChapelle’s 2000 Vanity Fair photo of Paris Hilton, and explicit sex tapes might be a matter of degree.2 What sex tapes want in polish and modesty they make up for in authenticity, and celebrities are selling that all the time.
Thus the flipped nature of sex tapes post-Paris: a wannabe star can actively embrace a kind of attention that was not long ago out of bounds, turning a sex tape into a product rather than by-product of self-sexualized celebrity branding. This has been the fictional conceit of some film and television representations, as on The L.A. Complex. Alicia, a struggling young dancer, takes a job making a sex tape produced to revive the career of a former child actor. It leads to an opportunity in porn, though she gives it up when offered a more legitimate job dancing. It is also the real-life story of Farrah Abraham, the reality TV/tabloid celebrity who comically denied having shot a porn video on purpose.
The negotiation of positive and negative values is more productively ambiguous with Kim Kardashian. In s1e1 of Keeping Up with the Kardashians (2007), Kim and her family talk about the need to respond to questions about the sex tape when Kim goes on Tyra in her first major media appearance. At first mention, the Kardashians speak in sober tones of regret. Kim is loathe to answer the questions, and her mom Kris conveys anger and frustration. But Kim and her sisters also joke about it. She says she made it “because I was horny and I felt like it,” and they giggle. Making a video recording of sex is hard to represent as a moral failure. Keeping Up exploits the notoriety that the sex tape brings its characters, and assumes the audience’s familiarity in ways quite similar to The Hills. While Kim performs her regret, she also works the advantage presented by any kind of fame. The sexualized celebrity of Kim Kardashian, the “princess” of her family, is at the heart of this series from the start.
The sex tape’s status as both taboo and a magnet for attention is essential to its role in the commercial exploitation of female celeb brands. Calling it a tape, even as digital video is now stored on microchips, speaks to the residual low cultural status of amateur porn associated with analog video, with its cheap connotations.3 Sex tapes are dirty but true, shameful but lucrative. They humiliate their subjects while promoting them as desirable sex objects. They offer a deeper fantasy than the tabloids and reality series, and even of ordinary porn: ultimate access to the commodified celebrity body.
1. A May 2008 Cover of Us Weekly
2. A 2009 E! Promo for Keeping Up With the Kardashians
3. David LaChapelle’s 2000 Vanity Fair photo of Paris Hilton
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- Minette Hilyer, “Sex in the Suburban: Porn, Home Movies, and the Live Action Performance of Love in Pam and Tommy Lee: Hardcore and Uncensored,” in Porn Studies, edited by Linda Williams (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2004), 50-76. [↩]
- Thomas Fahy, “One Night in Paris (Hilton): Wealth, Celebrity, and the Politics of Humiliation,” in Pop-Porn: Pornography in American Culture, edited by Ann C. Hall and Mardia J. Bishop (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007), 75-98. [↩]
- On the enduring associations of high and low status with film and video in the digital age, see Michael Z. Newman, Video Revolutions: On the History of a Medium (New York: Columbia UP, 2014), 95-97. [↩]