I know it is probably a passing trend, but I find our concern, even obsession with exposed celebrity crotches both puzzling and fascinating. It is puzzling for obvious reasons. We have a fairly pornographic culture. What’s so shocking about a peek under a skirt? Shocking. For real. That’s what we’re supposedly thinking. Titillating? I can deal with that. But shocking is just odd – and I don’t buy that we’re a puritanical culture. Fascinating? Well, I think the fact that pantyless girl-junk has had “the best week ever” at some point signifies that such exposure is caught up in a wider national anxiety.
Now, I usually resist such totalizing notions as “signs of the times” and “zeitgeist”; I find the words plainly annoying. Yet in this case they are relevant, so I’ll say it: anxiety about crotch shots is a sign of the times. There, I said it. We’ve even gotten to the point of listing “best of 2006” for vaginal exposure (though asses are passing for crotches, in some cases…not to get too technical). What better clue that you’ve arrived than a blog’s best-of list, right?
Let’s be clear about the anxiety. On the one hand, sure, it’s just voyeurism and understandable at that. On the other hand, Britney Spears’ exposed crotch – which actually has its own website – was regularly listed alongside other problems she’d had: excessive drinking, smoking while pregnant, driving with her baby in her lap. I always found that strange. How could it be that a peek under her skirt (only there, really, because a photographer pointed a camera) ends up on a list of genuinely troubling behavior…if she were your friend…but she’s not. (Is it just that she wasn’t wearing underwear? C’mon, ya’ll!)
This whole crotch-peek anxiety is clearly a symptom of a wider something. I think it is part of a wider concern about borders – most prominent, of course, is the U.S. border with Mexico. There is this really important border, apparently, between the hot hemline and pornographic shots. It’s easy to say that we like all of those gradations as a culture, but we don’t. There are two countries here, the short skirt and Penthouse. The car-exiting crotch shot is like the illegal immigrant. We’re fine with two countries. We might even like both countries. In fact, some, if not many, might have significant nostalgic attachments to the other side. But that border-thing is very important. Unplanned and unauthorized border crossings? Very bad.
I wouldn’t call this attachment to the border – which in turn enables all sorts of other attachments to country, mini-skirt, porno, beach tourism – an ambivalence. It is actually quite sure of itself. It may in fact be the case that we love the border in order to not hate the Other, something Derrida has pointed out is the paradox of cosmopolitanism and welcoming. We have to police the border, exclude everyone on that other side over there, and criminalize its crossing in order to say yes to the very Other we police, exclude, and criminalize. A paradox, yes, but also a sad commentary on our inability to say yes without violence.
Anxiety about the border with Mexico often turns on this strange, almost unimaginable phenomenon of a xenophobia without racism. Now, let me be clear: I’m not saying there aren’t racist kooks all over the anti-immigrant (or anti-illegal-immigrant, as they would have it, though I have my doubts) movement. There are a ton. But I am saying that so much of the anxiety these days about immigration is also and independently an anxiety about borders, not firstly or maybe at all about race. These are two very different anxieties. Racism means, minimally, that one sees another person as inherently inferior because of racial make-up. Xenophobia means fear of those “over there,” on the other side. Xenophobia is about borders, which can also be about race, but not necessarily – obviously the case when Latinos in the U.S. take on the xenophobic rhetoric and persona. Rarely, if ever, do I think xenophobia and racism have been kept separate. And yet I think there is a lot of it these days. I think it’s our post millennial tension.
(Note: xenophobia is bad, in case you think I’m glossing over ugly stuff.)
So there are these crotches. Remarkably plain crotches, actually. It turns out that the celebrity culture hasn’t been able to do much with the vagina; they all kinda look the same. So it can’t be the case that we’re upset or scandalized at the plainness of it all – because, well, imagine if “she” had really fancy stuff. Celeb stuff. (I’m waiting for crotch shots to show up in US Weekly’s “Stars: They’re Just Like Us!”) The scandal of girl-junk on display is just that of the border. What’s on the other side is ugly. Can’t have it from her. Sure, we have plenty of it here, in our bedrooms or under our pants or in our pornography collections, but it just can’t be there, on display, across either the Rio Grande of the hemline or – that very last border – underwear.
And so we find our cultural world increasingly negotiated as a maze of borders. Some make sense, or at least a little sense, as when we draw lines between those who can and cannot use “the n-word.” Illegal immigrants in this case need to feel the repressive state apparatus. I’ve got no problem with that. Some are fuzzier (no pun intended) borders, as with these crotches. Some are really bad, of course. One need only think about how borders are prima facie oppressive for mixed-race, transsexual, or, frankly, immigrants seeking a different life – which may or may not mean assimilation.
After all, borders sustain the language of authenticity. Authentically sexy celebrities don’t flash their junk while exiting a car. But they ought to tease us with the borderline. Who doesn’t love the tease? Just don’t pose for Playboy, which would kind of be like immigrating, no? You lose your citizenship in the normal celebrity world – or at least you have to do a lot to get back home. Real epic shit. Again, it’s not that we hate the girl stuff. I really don’t think we do. We just compulsively need this border-thing to keep an increasingly de-bordered world stable. It’s no longer keep your pants on, girly; it’s suddenly keep underwear over that good stuff, please! Honestly, I think that shift is nothing but the shift from blunt racism to xenophobia, for better or worse. I’m betting it isn’t for the better, though not necessarily worse…
This border stuff is tricky. And not good for us, really. The anxieties throughout reveal, in the end, how we are all border crossers in the new millennium. Thus, our post-millennial tension.