When John Dillinger was gunned down by FBI agents in an alleyway close to the Biograph Theatre, Chicago, it was reported that ghoulish souvenir hunters dipped handkerchiefs, newspapers and even hems of dresses into the gangster’s blood, such was the thirst for morbid mementos of the newsworthy occasion. With the blood on people’s clothing and possessions eventually rusting and fading over time like an Instagram filter taking years to render, I guess it was the 1934 equivalent of snapping a quick photo of the macabre scene with an iPhone.
Eighty years on, I think it’s reasonably safe to assume that no one in their right mind would think to dip an object into a crimson pool of congealing blood at a crime scene in order to document the moment (unless Kay Burley had left her Thermos mug unattended while she slithered under the door of the victim’s home to graphically inform the family about the death, in which case, that’s just asking to be dunked). But in our coldly efficient modern world, we don’t need to resort to such hands-on measures. Our innate urge to opportunistically capture moments for posterity – from the morbid to the mundane, the magnificent to the morally questionable – is facilitated by a wealth of accessible technology, which makes things a lot easier…and a lot less icky.
Today, practically everything is photographed, captured, screen-grabbed and recorded. And unlike the scraps of newspaper and cuts of fabric stained with Dillinger’s blood – perhaps consigned to unmarked boxes in dusty attics across the Windy City, remaining strictly in the locality in which they had originated – anything and everything can be shared across the world in a matter of seconds. There’s no longer anything physical to hold onto; no photo, letter or keepsake to place under a pillow or slot between the pages of a book, or secrete somewhere safe, away from prying eyes. There is only endless replication and digital permanence.
So if you use Twitter to call for a revolution following the re-election of President Barack Obama, for instance, it’s impossible to disassociate yourself from that mind-bendingly idiotic moment. Even if you hastily delete the offending tweet – fearing sedition charges and 20 years in prison, with your increasingly sweat-sodden toupee sitting on your head like a clump of dewy turf – it’s too late. It exists forever.
And if you post photos of yourself on Facebook, posing seductively like a sexy Grim Reaper amid New York’s Hurricane-ravaged landscape, those images are lost to you the second you hit ‘upload’. They don’t belong to you anymore. They belong to the Internet.
Similarly, when 15-year-old Amanda Todd made a fleeting error of judgement as a naive 12-year-old, lifting up her top to flash a stranger who’d delivered disarming compliments down the grainy lens of a webcam, that momentary lapse was frozen in time before she’d even lowered her shirt. It was pixels and data, captured and saved. It was a moment that would haunt her throughout the remainder of her troubled young life, with her tormentor sending the image of her breasts to her friends and family and eventually posting the image to Facebook as his profile pic. In Amanda’s own words, which she penned on flash cards in a YouTube video she posted about her experience: “I can never get that photo back. It’s out there forever.”
It was out there when she succumbed to drugs, alcohol, anxiety and depression; it was out there when she started to self-harm; it was out there when she drank bleach during a failed suicide attempt; and it was still out there when she hanged herself at her home last month.
Tragically only a couple of weeks after the death of Amanda Todd, 15-year-old Felicia Garcia from Staten Island, New York, took her own life, when she threw herself under a train. After reportedly having consensual sex with four footballers on the high school football team after a party, she was later humiliated when a sex tape was leaked online and passed around her classmates. The subsequent bullying, not least from two of the boys directly involved in the video, ultimately led to her suicide. “Finally, it’s here,” one witness reported her as saying, before she fell backwards from the Huguenot station platform.
But how can these tragic events have occurred in this day and age, I hear you ask? In our celebrity-obsessed culture, sex tapes are de rigueur. Remember when Rob Lowe became a virtual pariah in Hollywood when his sex tape surfaced in 1988? Well, nowadays, the media love them! And there’s no stigma attached anymore. Celebrities are queuing round the block to either talk about them or plot the making of one. Robbie Williams recently revealed that the biggest regret of his career was not making a proper sex tape. (Surprisingly, it wasn’t his decision to release Rudebox.) And during this year’s Celebrity Big Brother even Coleen Nolan said that she and former husband Shane Ritchie had once made a sex tape, which was subsequently destroyed. Although if the Mayans were right, that tape will no doubt resurface on December 21st and bring about the End of Days.
Of course, for the likes of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian a sex tape was merely the launch pad for global fame, with reality shows, fragrances, fashion collections, magazine front covers, and tearful, soul-searching chats with Oprah about their humiliation and faux regret about how it all began.
After 1 Night in Paris was conveniently ‘leaked’ around the time Paris Hilton’s reality series The Simple Life premiered, she rose from relative obscurity to global superstar almost overnight. The sex video was made with her ex-boyfriend Rick Salomon in 2001 and was shot almost entirely through the grey-green hue of a night vision camera, which made it feel a bit like a raunchy deleted scene from Bravo Two Zero. This stage of Paris’s life is covered on her Wikipedia entry under the somewhat depressing heading: “2003-05: Career Breakthrough”. And sadly, it really was. It’s only in the last couple of years that her star, mercifully, has faded.
Her former best friend, Kim Kardashian, who is her slightly more curvaceous, brunette replacement on the world stage, also achieved fame following the ‘leak’ of a sex tape in 2007 (coincidentally recorded in 2003, the same year she witnessed Paris Hilton’s meteoric rise to fame off the back of one). With the premonitory title Kim Kardashian Superstar (“featuring Hip Hop star Ray J”, who was clearly desperate to crowbar his apparent musical credentials into the title, when he could just as easily have been described as “narrator and stunt dick”) the clumsy visuals could have been achieved by filming an extreme close-up of a bowl of chicken breasts on a car’s parcel shelf while driving down a cobbled street.
Still, artistic merit aside, the video didn’t do her any harm. After dropping her lawsuit against Vivid Entertainment for invasion of privacy – originally claiming that selling the video was “despicable” and “malicious” – she settled for a cool $5m). She’s now the highest earning reality star in the world, a multi-millionairess and the darling of the Mail Online – that steadfast moral guardian of the world and tireless crusader against Internet porn. The Mail despises pornography, but forget about that for a second and look at this HILARIOUS video of three grandmothers watching Kim Kardashian’s “famous sex tape”! Ha-ha! Priceless! You’re right, Mail Online, she really is a “star”.
The media treats Kim Kardashian’s sex tape as a mere saucy anecdote. In 2009, she smiled out from the cover of Cosmopolitan, which carried the headline: “The mistake that still haunts her (no, not the sex tape)”. And let’s face it, why would she regret the thing that’s made her richer and more famous than she could possibly ever have imagined?
It was recently reported that Nadya Suleman – aka ‘Octomom’ (a media nickname, which sounds like a human exhibit from a Victorian museum of living curiosities) – made a sex tape and was “hoping to become famous and make tons of money”. One insider said: “She really, truly thought she was going to end up as successful as Kim Kardashian.”
And why wouldn’t she? The Kim Kardashians and Paris Hiltons of this world are the new gods; infallible, untouchable and supremely vacuous beings, with vast wealth, highly visible public profiles, an adoring press and media at their beck and call, and close to 26 million Twitter followers between them. And all off the back of their respective sex tapes.
Amanda Todd and Felicia Garcia, on the other hand, experienced nothing but despair and anguish, and probably would’ve given anything to erase their mistakes from the face of the earth. And for them, social media wasn’t a source of followers, friends and support, but simply another conduit through which their tormentors could continue their unrelenting persecution of them.
It’s rumoured that Kris Jenner – the Kardashians’ unscrupulous ‘momager’ (a risible portmanteau word, similar to ‘celebritwat’) – is keen to “sex up” Kim Kardashian’s 17-year-old half-sister Kendall Jenner, so we shouldn’t be surprised if a sex tape miraculously works its way into the mainstream in the near future. But is there not enough real news in the world for the media to stop fawning over sex tape stars and simply refuse them the publicity they crave? It’s a truly fucked up world when wealthy socialites and so-called celebrities can sell their souls and make millions, with the full blessing and support of the media, while their mortal counterparts make genuine mistakes and have their fragile souls eaten away.