An Exposure Thing

Here's what in an act of self-charity I'll call a think piece that's a bit about Glee, more about Taylor Momsen, and in a broader sense about American pop culture in general. I wrote the majority of it a year ago, at a time when publishing to the blog was about as frustrating as it's ever been; the unfinished essay languished on my hard drive until yesterday's post, the title of a post from earlier this month, and periodic noodging from my friend LK proved a perfect storm, or at least a sufficient one, in compelling me to dredge it up. Some of the particulars are dated, but whatever points it makes — and my internal jury is out on their significance, believe me — should still be valid.

Close-up shot — head, shoulders, and chest — of Taylor Momsen, a pale young woman in black jacket and lace bustier with significant décolletage, choker, dark-red lipstick, considerable black mascara around her eyes, and bleach-blonde hair with dark roots showing
Photo © 2010 Getty Images / Dave Hogan

LK is mildly fascinated by Momsen. She brings her up often enough that we have our own nickname for Momsen, which in a strange way helped me feel less pervy discussing her because it abstracted Momsen's image from her as a person (a dubious merit, I know).

Momsen was only 17 when I began this post, a fact reflected in the nickname itself. "She looks like a blond, underage Elvira," I said to LK one fine day.

"Yeah," LK responded, "Albino Elvira."

"Jailbait albino Elvira," I clarified.

"Jalbira!" we said at the same time, in one of the most questionable eureka moments known to humanity.

I mean no disrespect to real albinos, who cannot deal with their photosensitivity merely by blacking up their eye sockets like raccoon linebackers, nor to the actual Elvira (to be fair, herself not exactly the first pale, cleavage-bearing camp horror icon). Nor do I really even mean any disrespect to Taylor Momsen, and that isn't just me having a lack of conviction.

A few overdue catch-up paragraphs for the unaware:

Momsen was until this season a member of the cast of Gossip Girl, a CW series based on a run of young-adult novels set in Manhattan's Upper East Side. I almost gave it a try back when it launched purely to keep some Kristen Bell in my life after Veronica Mars ended — she narrates the show as its titular anonymous blogger — and because of the track record of WB/CW series featuring witty teenagers (Mars, Gilmore Girls, and of course Buffy). Either there were scheduling conflicts or it felt too strange to watch as a single man in his late 30s; I forget which, truly, but to date I've never actually seen an episode. The series has had its fair share of controversy over the sexualization of its characters, including racy ads with the tagline "OMFG" (not a CBGB's reference), a highly promoted three-way, and the fact that Momsen started to dress on the show like she does in real life.

Momsen is also the lead singer and co-songwriter of the band The Pretty Reckless, was a model for Madonna's Macy's-based fashion line Material Girl, and has been the subject of numerous skin-baring photos (both candid and professional).

Momsen's not yet — and may never be — a train wreck on the order of some cautionary tales from Young Hollywood, but she is a platinum-blond, goth shinkansen traveling beyond the recommended speed.

Frankly, I kind-of have a bigger problem with the GQ spread from last year that prompted the bloggerati to go all "OMFGlee" — very in-the-news when this was written — than I do with Momsen's habit of performing pantsless in garters. Glee has been risqué of plot and dialogue from the start, yes, and like most TV series set in high school its would-be student cast members are in their 20s, but that's part of the trouble. Even leaving aside the fact that the show itself has, to me, stepped over the line of propriety at times without being nearly funny enough to justify going so blue (case in point: the kid brought to bliss while watching New Directions perform "Toxic"), or the right of Glee actors to pose as provocatively as they like as themselves in adult settings, I take issue with its stars doing a suggestive photo shoot more-or-less in character (and I find it hard to believe that Fox doesn't too) — especially since the trappings of the show are there in the form of WMHS-branded gear but Lea Michele and Dianna Agron (who ended up posting some thoughtful remarks on the reaction to the GQ spread in her Tumblr feed, and whose pictures aren't nearly as tacky as Michele's) are otherwise literally stripping away their modest Glee personas. Cory Monteith wearing extra layers while pawing his leading ladies' tushes makes the fetishization undeniably sexist, and it's particularly funny that he's so bundled up when Glee itself has made a recurring motif of scenes with its guys in the locker-room shower.

There's a clear difference between minors pushing the envelope as they mature (or at least get older) and grown women sexing it up dressed as schoolgirls; the latter might be seen as social commentary or just playfulness absent other context, but when the grown women are best known for portraying teenagers on television, well, a level of inappropriateness is added. Miley Cyrus may catch grief for getting racier in her song lyrics, videos, and personal life — as well as for coming off like a spoiled brat or generally being grating as all heck — but at her age, in her position, I don't have to appreciate what she does to admit that she's entitled to feel her oats within the bounds of the law as long as she ain't wearing the Hannah Montana wig while doing it. Growing up in public, especially during this era of media saturation, can't be easy, making those who do so with poise, humility, or plain old privacy all the more impressive. Which brings us back to Taylor Momsen, who doesn't have Cyrus's image or tween fan base to grapple with and, from the TV-review snippets I've read, apparently couldn't reflect poorly on her increasingly skanky Gossip Girl character if she tried. As long as Momsen remains professional and isn't selling her look or attitude as a desirable lifestyle to impressionable adolescents, it's not for me to judge. Or so LK has convinced me, although her argument of "Jalbira's hot enough to do whatever she wants!" is pretty reductive.

Would I be proud if I were Momsen's father or brother that she's talked about her vibrator in interviews, posed for a magazine wearing arguably more guns than clothes, writhed on a table in one video, disrobed to her underwear in another, and well before turning 18 kicked her sex-'n'-death outsider waif persona up a notch by regularly lifting her shirt to flash her bare chest on stage (nipples X'd out with black tape, suggesting that she either planned the peekaboo moves or wears electrical tape on her bosom as a matter of course)?

I'm not sure. Would pride be relevant? Hopefully I'd be supportive of her desire to make, perform, and share music that means something to her. I'd be more upset with her smoking and most concerned that the rest of her band, all older fellas who look awfully skeevy assembled around her, weren't just opportunists taking advantage of her relative fame and/or the younger female demographic she must attract. Momsen cites solid influences from Led Zeppelin to Nirvana to The White Stripes; that's a far cry from Avril Lavigne (who's more of a "product" maybe, but, I'm not afraid to say, certainly a purveyor of some catchy pop songs) infamously mispronouncing David Bowie's name when reading Grammy nominees, whether out of ignorance or in some misguided attempt to appear so hip that she didn't know about anyone that ancient.

Other than the dudes in the band, who might not seem as skeevy if they were wearing as much facepaint as Momsen (take note, guys: Gene Simmons, weirdly, looks considerably less lecherous in makeup), there's not much to disrespect in Momsen's résumé beyond "model for Madonna's Macy's-based fashion line Material Girl". Even at 17 — which if not the age of majority in the USA is not 15, certainly not 13, and so on — she was old enough to have some grasp of, and probably enjoy, whatever self-exploitation she enacted, although at least statutorily there's a point at which that call is not hers to make until she's an adult. The bottom line is that I wouldn't write about any of this if it made me feel depraved as opposed to mightily ambivalent; fetishizing grown women as schoolgirls or, for that matter, toddlers as beauty queens is way ickier than almost-18 Jalbira following in the footsteps of rock chicks like The Runaways, especially if there's no svengali involved and Momsen is pouring her envelope-pushing impulses into creative pursuits rather than 'round-the-clock partying.

And I say all this knowing full well that, given Showbiz Babylon, a Taylor Momsen train wreck of some sort is still not necessarily unlikely.

So there's my take on that, one of many posts gathering virtual cobwebs. I regret not having shared it when the material was more of the moment, although Jalbira herself is according to LK still courting attention by flaunting her flesh and inviting audience members onstage with her to strip at concerts. And if you happened to hop around the Interwebs for some visual evidence of Momsen's escapades, I'd like to apologize and offer the opportunity to scrub your brain by checking out my link to the far more demure SNL monologue of Taylor Swift.

Kindred Posts: Nooner in SongMiley at TwerkStars and Gripes


El Qué said...
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Arben said...

I know I'm always pushing for more comics reviews, but it's also lots of fun seeing you go off on the pop culture of the moment. Nice post!

As a father I have to shudder and wonder what kind of parenting she's rebelling against or is indulging her. As a man I'm thankful that she's not my daughter (or any relation) for a whole different reason. "Jalbira" played Cindy Lou Who in the live-action How the Grinch Stole Christmas movie back in 2000, so for me it's like watching Christina Ricci in Black Snake Moan: "No! Mermaids! The Addams Family! My eyes! My eyyyyes!!!"

Arben said...

ain't wearing the Hannah Montana wig while doing it

I'm afraid to think of how many hits the blog will get from searches for the terms "Hannah Montana" and "doing it".

Joan Crawford said...

This poor little **** is going to be horribly embarrassed by all this "I'm so hardcore and yet am disaffected with it all. Which is how you can tell I really am hardcore" shtick. Well, at least we can hope she'll one day have the decency to be ashamed anyway...