By Amelia Joy
I’d only been marginally aware of the rise of 2000s nostalgia when the YouTube algorithm served me Mila Tequila. Nothing about the production of this channel was particularly spectacular: a girl in bed with wine talking into her phone as she deep dives into the widely publicised ups and downs of noughties celebrities like Amanda Bynes and Lindsay Lohan. Yet the channel grew rapidly, from zero to 100k subscribers in less than four weeks. Something clearly resonated.
I was struck by the tone in which she told stories of the women I’d heard growing up. In her passionate retellings, sidestepping the usual trashy voyeurism, Mila’s videos offer examinations of the way women were treated in the golden age of tabloids—a neat, albeit messed up, reflection of how women were treated by society.
I turned thirteen in the year 2005 and felt the world was at my fingertips. I dreamed of being a famous singer/dancer, so my girl gang, with our low-riding Face Off flares and pink Motorola E380 flip phones, formed a dance troupe, practicing our routines every lunch. When the school principal refused our performance to ‘Boom Boom’ for being too risqué, it was the first time I ever felt that how I chose to present myself as a girl wasn’t acceptable. Suddenly, I felt everything that Linsday Lohan sang about in ‘Rumors’: Why couldn’t they back up off me? Why couldn’t they just let us live? We were burgeoning women, dammit, and that bald, old man was keeping us down. I refused to apologise for what Paris Hilton asserted to us as wide-eyed twelve-year-olds in magenta padded bras: Some girls are just born with glitter in their veins.
These women were my idols. But outside the bubble I lived in, paparazzi and tabloids reigned supreme, and celebrity gossip culture was rife with toxicity. Mental health crises constituted headlines. Sex tapes and upskirt shots were fair game, even for a 17-year-old Miley Cyrus. We sneered at Paris Hilton and laughed at Lindsay Lohan while Britney Spears’s suffering was served to the public as cheap, melodramatic entertainment.
While their appearance on billboards and television elevated them to God-like status, perpetuating a distance between us and them, tabloids and paparazzi took gleeful pleasure in their “bad” behaviour. And in their portrayal of the women I loved, the media made it clear: women were not allowed to be complex. We couldn’t be both intelligent and beautiful. We could party, but not too hard. If we were successful, the world owned us. If we were sexual, we were objects. If we struggled, we were crazy. If we were victims, it was our own fault. We were stripped of agency and respect. It was sexism dressed up in a Juicy Couture tracksuit.
We might be unsure how much things have actually changed, but at least the conversation is changing. In February this year, Framing Britney Spears aired, a documentary profiling the singer’s career, conservatorship, and the #FreeBritney movement. Samantha Stark, the director, recently told The Independent that both the conversations around mental health and #MeToo have offered us a new lens through which to see the treatment of women by paparazzi and tabloids of the time. And it marked a shift. In This Is Paris, we heard Paris Hilton, in her real voice, as she discussed the effects of being a victim of revenge porn and victim blaming. In the most meta throwback I’ve ever seen, Mischa Barton, in the reboot of The Hills, confronted blogger Perez Hilton for his slander. More recently, stars like Demi Lovato have been scrupulously honest about their mental health and struggles with addiction and the media seems to have responded with respect.
It’s not revelatory to say that nostalgia romanticises a past far more complex and brutal than we want to remember. We put our memories in a box under our bed and decorate it with magazine cut-outs of Seth Cohen and douse it in Impulse body spray. But as an adult, I relate to my tween idols now more than ever: the slut-shaming and victim blaming didn’t happen on the scale it did for Paris. The mental health struggles didn’t make headlines like Britney, but people talked. Photos and videos weren’t circulated around the world, but they made their rounds. These stories echo. And these women, like us, were and are complicated and layered and deserved better. Celebrities: they’re just like us! But really, though, they are.
The impact of 2000s pop culture has often been reduced to nostalgic throwbacks, worn-out memes and Depop stock, but reaching back into the zeitgeist can offer us more than just aesthetic inspiration. There was something great in what Hannah Lux Davis, the director of Ariana Grande’s 2019 ‘thank u, next’ music video said about this nostalgia, “Just like how a meme is super shareable… I feel like nostalgia has that same effect. It makes people feel like they’re in on something together.” Looking back on the 2000s, on my experiences and the women I grew up admiring, I see new generations are joining the conversation and I am hopeful. Maybe we are in on something together, and maybe we are changing things: one bedazzled flip phone in the air at a time.
Amelia Joy is a fiction and memoir writer based in Melbourne. She just heard that skinny jeans are over. Her novella All Summer Long is out in winter. Follow her at @lorexlunar.
Cover image provided by Amelia Joy.