"We now live in an age," averred novelist Philip Roth in 1961, "in which the imagination of the novelist lies helpless before what he knows he will read in tomorrow morning's newspaper."
The decades that have passed since the enunciation of what became known in literary circles as "the Roth Effect" have only proven the author of Portnoy's Complaint a master of understatement. (That's no small accomplishment for a writer whose most famous novel features a protagonist who masturbates with a piece of liver.)
Consider two top news stories of the moment that, had they been conceived as fiction, would never have passed the smell test in a freshman-level creative writing class. The first concerns the one certified celebrity hero of Gulf War 2, Jessica Lynch. The second concerns socialite hotel-chain heiress (and soon-to-be reality TV show star) Paris Hilton. Both involve ample doses of nudity and speak to sea changes in American attitudes towards sex and the body—especially the female body—since Roth picked up his pen in despair.
Almost since it first came to public notice, the story of Jessica Lynch has been a tale that constantly collapsed in on itself, a news story as penned by Edgar Allan Poe, with rock-hard facts and assertions quickly dissolving into a joke played on hapless, credulous readers (all too much of the coverage of Gulf War 2 has been reminiscent of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, one of the most elaborate and intriguing hoaxes ever foisted upon the reading public). The victim of a March 23 ambush that left 11 soldiers dead and nine wounded, supply clerk Lynch was originally hailed as a gun-slinging, Iraqi-killing heroine who fought valiantly before being wounded, taken captive, and brutalized. Footage of her dramatic "rescue" was widely shown on American TV. Only later—in part due to Lynch's own statements—did it become widely known that she never fired her weapon in battle and that her rescue came only after Iraqi forces had already abandoned the hospital from which she was liberated. She was, in short, a hero largely created by the Pentagon press department and an often-complicit news media. The fabulist dimensions of her tale are only compounded by the fact that her just-released "authorized biography," I Am a Solider, Too, is penned by disgraced Pulitzer Prize winner Rick "I Am a Plagiarist, Too" Bragg. He's the fellow who quit The New York Times earlier this year following disclosures that he had routinely used other journalists' material to suggest he had witnessed events at which he wasn't present.
Along with the release of her biography came rumors of nude shots of a pre-war Pvt. Lynch cavorting on a Gulf Coast beach with fellow G.I.s. Porn magnate Larry Flynt had reportedly purchased the shots and was ready to publish them. Now Flynt—a man who once offered Jackie O, Gloria Steinem, and other high-profile women $1 million to pose nude for Hustler—says that he will not run the pictures. "I purchased [the photos], at first with the intention of publishing them," he said in a prepared statement. "However, I quickly changed my mind and decided simply to keep them out of circulation. If Jessica Lynch wants to join the army and see the world, and if she wants to have a good time while she's at it, I'm not here to judge her."
Flynt is an outspoken critic of the war, of (George W.) Bush, and Republicans in general (in an earlier episode that also underscored the reality of the Roth Effect, he engineered the resignation of short-lived Speaker of the House Bob Livingston after outing the Louisiana representative as a dyed-in-the-wool phone-sex freak). Flynt is also a businessman, one who makes his money in porn. So why isn't he publishing the shots, whose authenticity has not been questioned by Lynch's lawyer? (He has referred to them only as "unauthorized.")
No one but Flynt can say for certain, but part of the answer is surely the fact that such photos no longer shock, much less titillate, the public in the way they once did. Ironically, this is partly due to previous efforts of people such as Flynt—and Philip Roth, too, in his own way—who have helped to almost thoroughly demystify sex and the body and to remove virtually all taboos related to same. Celebrity skin, it seems, just doesn't pack the wallop it once did.
The result is something approaching a ho-hum attitude toward the sorts of displays that were simply unimaginable 40 years ago. As Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen has written, Lynch is "precisely who a lot of younger people assumed she is—a rambunctious young women who does not have either pre-feminist or feminist hang-ups. She could…pose for some fun pictures, not thinking that she was either surrendering her dignity or her power. She may be wrong about one or the other, but so what?"
So what is a proper and understandable response to celebrity skin in a post-Girls Gone Wild world. While the porn industry flourishes, the terms of exchange have been radically altered and simply revealing a well-known woman in the nude is not necessarily going to move merchandise. Certainly it is not the career-ender or embarrassment that it once might have been.
If anything, it is a massive career booster (ask dethroned Miss America Vanessa Williams, the only winner of that beauty contest in the past quarter century to have anything resembling a successful show-biz career). The Paris Hilton saga fleshes out this point. Hilton, a twentysomething party girl previously best known as North America's answer to Eurotrash, is one of the stars of the upcoming Fox reality series, The Simple Life, which follows her and fellow glam-kid Nicole Richie (daughter of pop star Lionel) as they move to Altus, Arkansas (population 817) for a month. Set to air in December, The Simple Life's premiere has been upstaged by news of a tape of then-19-year-old Hilton having sex with then-boyfriend Rick Solomon. Solomon is hoping to sell the tape via the Internet, which, judging from stills posted at Adult Video News is somewhat less compelling than nighttime sequences on Survivor: Pearl Islands.
Whether the Hilton tape ever does go on sale—and for what it's worth, Pamela Anderson, something of an expert in such matters, gives it "two thumbs up"—there's no question that the entire "scandal" has brought far more attention to and interest in The Simple Life. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the story is one that has gone uncommented upon: There's been no hint from the suits at Fox that the tape—or other revealing skin shots of Hilton out there on the Web—will lead to the show's being pulled or the star's being canned.
Indeed, in a savvy bit of corporate synergy, Fox News Channel's resident rageaholic Bill O'Reilly (the last angry man since Bill Bennett found peace through slot machines and threw in the perpetual outrage towel during the Clinton years) is touting the Hilton story not as a sex scandal that illustrates immoral youth but as one about invasions against "privacy."
Once upon a time in a not-too-distant past, both of these cases would have destroyed the careers of the women involved and occasioned long, windy sermons about the demise of morals in this once-great nation. Now they elicit instead a pornographer's self-restraint (who knew such a thing existed!) on the one hand and a bevy of ratings-building buzz on the other. This represents social progress of no small measure. Who knows? Given the Islamists' insane attempts to mask, manage, and regulate female sexuality, the way the Jessica Lynch and Paris Hilton stories are playing out in these United States may well suggest the best rationale for waging war against Al Qaeda and its allies.