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beauty is pop culture // sex rules the world 

  • Manèle El Zoghlami

Redeeming Shunned Women of the 90s and 2000s for Profit and Entertainment

Updated: Jun 3

Exploring how the media's portrayal of once-shamed women reflects societal changes and reveals persistent issues in how we view female public figures.

In the past few years, a trend in media has been rising, and it isn’t slowing down: the redemption of women who were shunned, slut-shamed, or both, between the '90s and early 2000s. They appear in the latest Netflix documentaries, are displayed in the best-seller section of an airport bookshop, or presented as the new muse for a chic ready-to-wear brand. They once found themselves caught in sex scandals, were shamed for their bodies deemed too sensual, or criticised for behaviour's considered too problematic. Whatever the tabloids were prosecuting them for quickly became grounds for the press and public to justify relentless harassment.

But with the #MeToo movement came a collective reevaluation of how women had been treated in the public eye. Shaming famous women was never the work of a single group; it was always a public effort, whether through active participation or passive complicity.

Monica Lewinsky, arguably one of the most emblematic figures of this era, was an intern at the White House when she found herself at the heart of national outrage, following the exposure of her affair with President Bill Clinton. Only twenty-two at the time, she self- described as “patient zero of the internet’s power to hold public hangings by humiliation.”

Monica Lewinsky (1998) during Lewinsky-Clinton scandal
Image via Shutterstock

From the early 2000s until the mid 2010s, the public sentiment towards her remained largely unfavorable, as evidenced by polling data from that period. But in the #MeToo era, things started to change. In 2024, Monica is celebrated for her recent appearance in a campaign for Reformation, a sustainable, upscale women's clothing line that used her image for a "get out to vote" campaign. The triumph of the campaign in contrast to her previous reputation, acts as a symbolic end to Monica’s modern-day Scarlet Letter saga, and a glorious debut where she emerges as an Icon.

The same could be said of Pamela Anderson's numerous marketing campaigns; she's appeared barefaced for Proenza and was a muse for at the end of 2022. Such collaborations would have been unimaginable in the 2000s. Pamela Anderson was relentlessly shamed for the leak of her 1997 sex tape by both the general public and the media, to the extent that brands catering to "the modern woman" would not have considered associating their image with hers. But today, in a post-#MeToo era, the image of a redeemed public figure is seen as empowering and, therefore, marketable. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, there's a newfound appreciation for the resilience of women like Anderson and Lewinsky. After all, the public loves a good redemption story.

Pamela Anderson posing in  the iconic Jacquemus “Le Raphia" Raffia hat
Pamela Anderson at Jacquemus's 2022 Holiday Campaign

If marketing campaigns are one way to redeem them, the most common method has been unveiling the truth behind those scandals.

 Biopics, documentaries, limited-release TV shows - streaming platforms, and publishing houses alike have rushed to capture these sensational stories as soon as public opinion seemed favorable to them.

Britney Spears endured extensive public shaming and was bound by a strict and unethical conservatorship. In 2020, #FreeBritney soared and led to its termination. At the height of this momentum and after her liberation, the NYTimes released two documentaries; Framing Britney Spears and Controlling Britney Spears, while Netflix released its own version, Britney vs Spears. All those documentaries aimed at revealing the extent of Britney’s constraints over the years and her battle to get free. But the pop star did not participate in the making of any of them and even expressed feeling embarrassed by how she was depicted.

Britney Spears at The 1999 MTV Video Music Awards
Image via GettyImages

This was not an isolated issue in the entertainment industry. Paloma Anderson’s scandal also got a classic retelling. But when her story was told through the 2022 drama miniseries Pam&Tommy, it was without her consent. “‘Assholes’ she says when asked to describe the people behind the Hulu series. ‘Salt on the wound. … You still owe me a public apology.’” 

Arguably, those stories can be narrated ethically, as was the case with the 2017 biopic I, Tonya, where Tonya Harding was directly involved in shaping the movie to ensure it accurately depicted her side of the Harding-Kerrigan scandal

But telling someone else’s controversial story without their input can predictably leave a bad taste in the public’s mouth. A recent example is the anticipated Amy Winehouse biopic Back To Black, already deemed exploitative before its release. This movie joins the ranks of films like Blonde or Spencer, focusing on the traumatic aspects of deceased women’s lives. Without the subjects present to tell their stories, we're essentially left with a director’s — often a man’s — take on a woman’s trauma, a perspective they cannot understand.

This issue arises when the pursuit of profit capitalises on a moment where public opinion is more attentive and receptive to stories of women who were previously misunderstood, without a genuine interest in telling those stories accurately. This rush to pump out pieces of media that leverage their images echoes an Elite Capture of Redemption, where the narratives of the wronged parties are hijacked by those in positions of power, repackaged, and sold back to the public in order to capitalise on a cultural moment rather than to engage in actual thought-provoking work. 

What we're left with are stories of women who have achieved great things but are only defined by their traumatic experiences, condemned to be exploited for our own entertainment.

Yet, as the media landscape evolves, women are increasingly able to contribute their voices to their own stories, aligning with a public now more receptive to their truth. Documentaries and memoirs allowing previously shunned women to tell their side of the story have been on the rise. This is the intention behind the 2023 memoir The Woman in Me, in which Britney recounts her entire life story in her own words. It was created, in part, as a reaction to her story being previously taken from her. The same goes for Pamela Anderson, who published her own memoir, in January 2023 titled Love, Pamela marketed as her way of 'taking control of her narrative for the first time'. She also participated in the production of the documentary Pamela, a Love Story in 2023 where she tells her story, facing the camera.

And it doesn’t stop there! Courtney Love, once deemed a controversial figure in punk music appeared in a BBC docu-series telling her story in April 2024. Similarly, Amanda Knox, who has previously shared parts of her story in a Netflix documentary, is collaborating with Monica Lewinsky to produce a Hulu show about the scandal she was involved in.

But what really changed ?

Here's the thing: retelling these stories might look like progress when these women finally get to present their side of the story, but it also serves as an excuse to ignore everything that remains unchanged. The issue with redeeming shunned women from the 90s and early 2000s is that it creates a paradox where we're led to believe that the treatment they endured is a thing of the past, that all we need to do now is acknowledge how terrible it was that we collectively participated in their public shaming while patting each other on the back for how much progress we’ve made. But between those events and the present, not much appears to have changed.

In 2022, the public reaction to the Depp vs Heard trial was a disturbing spectacle to witness. The public's treatment of Heard was cruel, relentless, and particularly disappointing given it happened post - #MeToo—an era that had been loudly advocating for believing women or at the very least, hearing them out. Amber Heard was denied even the slightest benefit of the doubt, as the public and media voraciously picked her story apart, without pausing to consider whether a domestic abuse trial needed such public judgment and humiliation. This situation revealed that when public opinion is once again challenged to extend the benefit of the doubt to women deemed problematic, it reverts to its old ways, resorting to humiliation.

In our current supposedly progressive era, such occurrences are presumed never to happen again. Yet, they did, and they might continue happening. In a cultural commentary on the Depp vs. Heard trial, RFQ argues that one reason the violent backlash against Amber Heard was allowed to happen is because "the mainstream MeToo movement offered temporary catharsis in place of systemic change," lamenting the movement's aesthetic front, which "moved forward without bringing women's material conditions with it." It's a similar sentiment when it comes to the sudden abundant content criticizing the past treatment of women we used to shame; they are not so much redeemed as they are given a platform in a context where their likeness is currently profitable. Meanwhile, the societal change they're supposed to reflect is almost nonexistent. The vilification and objectification of women in the public eye still exists and remains mostly unquestioned. 

Sydney Sweeney in an editorial shoot, looking through a compact mirror
Image via @melissa.hernandez on Instagram

It's obvious in how Sydney Sweeney has been treated by the media and the public, accused of "leaning into the male gaze" by simply wearing low-cut necklines, her body becoming a new battleground for objectifying media discourse. The rapid rise and inevitable fall of beloved female celebrities like Zendaya or Jennifer Lopez, who can quickly be dragged by the public after it decides it's done idolising them, exemplifies this further. Or consider the instances when, uncomfortable with videos of Britney Spears dancing naked, people expressed a wish for her to remain under conservatorship in the comment sections.

Once upon a time, or so the narrative suggests, women were harshly shunned and sexually shamed for just about anything. Now we are redeeming them, giving them a voice, or telling their stories—sometimes on their behalf—because we as a society have evolved. 

Yet, the path from stories to reality remains puzzlingly unclear.

 Are you passionate about exploring the intricate worlds of beauty, sex, wellness, and culture? Do you belong to a marginalized community and have unique perspectives and stories to share? If so, Nightstand Service is eagerly seeking contributing writers like you! Get in touch:


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