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From “Chains or Whips? The Cruel Decade and its Aftermath,” which was published in February by The White Review.

The decade of cruelty started with low-rise jeans. Of course, no one looked good in them; they demanded a torso without space for vital organs. It was not fashion for life, but a peculiar new chicness that stunk of impossibility and thoughtlessness. What extremity, what decadence! Tiny gold charms dangling from Paris Hilton’s hip bone. John Galliano’s newspaper dress, inspired by homeless people, was one emblem of the era’s total amorality, a special detached elegance. Carrie wore it on Sex and the City. Carrie, a character who would never be punished for her selfishness and opportunism. I think we should leave her be. After all, what have we learned? We still believe in individuals, not in their genius but in the power of their image. Wars were fought with the image of individuals at their center: Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein.

the decade of ruthlessness might also have begun in the last years of the twentieth century, with Britney’s midriff in the “. . . Baby One More Time” video; simultaneous infantilization and sexualization became the era’s most successful business model. At every level of society, a childish freedom was in fashion, the world turned into a playground governed by the same rules as the financial markets: none. Perhaps Britney was the “Young-Girl” theorized by the French collective Tiqqun in 1999: someone who is at once ravished and empowered in exponential relation to her exposure. It is this vacuum of responsibility that brings me to my definition of that decade’s cruelty: a juvenile ruthlessness which required the strength of an adult to survive.

the decade of exposure was flooded with paparazzi hordes and humiliating dating game shows like Next and reality television such as House of Carters and Hogan Knows Best, which allowed Z-list celebrities to exchange their last shreds of fame and dignity for cash. MTV, once a music channel, was the center of youth culture one last splendid time, except the soundtrack was the incessant bleeping out of fucks and shits and cunts. It was not censorship so much as disdain, adding the chill-factor of Bush-era conservatism. Everyone involved—from the paparazzi to the lucky girl inside the SUV who cried cried cried—were just doing their jobs.

the decade of disorders touted anorexia as a sign not of weakness but of control, or weakness-as-control. This was rarely politicized along the lines of gendered oppression or depression. Rather, it was a kind of fashion, a dangerous and decadent flirtation flaunted in school cafeterias by pulling long sleeves down over one’s hands (to be cold was to be chic) while picking, bird-like, at a piece of bread, or even abstaining from food altogether. To be famished and frail offered the same ravaged glamour as being assaulted by paparazzi, but readily available to anyone. This was attended by a ghoulish obsession with being skinny. Countless TV shows chastised people for being large, old, or ugly, and pop music responded with desperately conscientious anthems such as Sugababes’ “Ugly” and Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful.”

the decade of cruelty may have faded at last with the withdrawal of NATO soldiers from Afghanistan in 2021. Or with the end of Britney’s conservatorship. Or when the Kardashians’ TV show gave Z-listers a pathway to the A-list, formalizing their dignity-for-cash trade into the respectable profession now known as “influencing.” Or with Paris Hilton saying she had been abused as a child, meaning her seemingly unfounded mode of celebrity, the unhinged bling of her stardom, so endemic to that decade, could in fact be understood as the triumph of a victim. It’s as if the decade before last is only now being tried, its witnesses called to the stand one by one. Gilmore Girls: feminist. Gossip Girl: not. George Bush: apparently moderate, by comparison. The contemporary is looping back to its mother, that first decade of the millennium, which for so long reverberated through the years, its ribbons fluttering in the wind.

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May 2023

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