In late November 2006, I was knee-deep in my daughter's toddlerhood, still getting used to the new body I'd found myself in. A little rounder in the middle, breasts still swollen from nursing. So, I don't remember seeing the "Bimbo Summit" headline when it ran, though I live in New York City and likely saw the New York Post at bodegas and in the hands of fellow subway riders. Elsewhere on the cover was a mention of Sean Bell a young, unarmed Black man killed by cops outside a strip club on the eve of his wedding day and, elsewhere in the world, the death-by-poisoning of Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko was under investigation, Al-Qaeda pronounced Pope Benedict a crusader for visiting Turkey, and the News of the World editor pled guilty to intercepting the voice mail messages of Princes Harry and William. Yet it was the Bimbo Summit that made the paper's top spot.

Shaming young women for how they look and behave was certainly not new in 2006, but that year found us freshly weaning ourselves off a period when jeans rested just above the pubis, a period when heiress and reality star Paris Hilton launched a career founded on feigned ditziness and the catchphrase "that's hot." The cover trio including Hilton, as well as actress Lindsay Lohan and singer Britney Spears captured America's attention not for their professional successes but because they offered a kind of holy trinity: representing what women could be, what men desired, and what we feared our daughters might become.

The year prior, when I was still pregnant with my daughter, I read Ariel Levy's Female Chauvinist Pigs in an effort to make sense of "raunch culture," of young women playacting at sexual freedom while making money by mining misogynistic archetypes for men's pleasure and profit. Here I think most specifically of the "Girls Gone Wild" video series, but that culture also included the execs living large on the money made by the Bimbo Summit trio, and the cascade of copycats it spawned. Levy's book didn't sit completely right with me, the way it seemed to damn sex workers and limit women's self-expression, but one sentence has stuck with me since I first read it: "Why is this the 'new feminism' and not what it looks like: the old objectification?"1 What does it mean for a woman to objectify herself? How did sexual liberation become merely making the male gaze our own, turning the telephoto lens on ourselves before a man did it for us?         

Here, as I do frequently as a scholar of all things Dolly Parton, I think of the iconic singer. From the start, Parton marched forward in her career wearing five-inch heels, a pound of makeup, and several more pounds of hair. She arrived on the scene a woman armed with both impeccable artistry and astonishing business acumen. Parton has done things her own way since she used the tip of a burnt match to fashion eyeliner in the backyard of her family's two-room cabin. From the beginning of her lifetime of being interviewed, Parton would tell anyone who asked that she modeled her look on the "town tramp," a sex worker Parton found exquisitely styled with her tight, cleavage-heavy outfits, long red nails, and face full of paint. But Parton doesn't say this as a gimmick or to judge the woman's profession. Hers has been a lifelong, career-long, homage. I can think of few artists who have been more accepting of sex workers than Parton and, more than six decades into her career, still fewer who understand what she has always known about self-expression.

In 1977, already accomplished as a country artist "Jolene" and "I Will Always Love You" were recorded several years earlier and on the precipice of her breakthrough to pop stardom with her Here You Come Again album, Parton sat down with Barbara Walters. As I quote in my book, I've Had to Think Up a Way to Survive: On Trauma, Persistence, and Dolly Parton, Walters asks: "You don't have to look like this, you're very beautiful, you don't have to wear the blonde wigs, you don't have to wear the extreme clothes, right?" Calmly, the singer-songwriter replies, "I don't like to be like everybody else. I would never stoop so low to be fashionable, that's the easiest thing in the world to do."2

Still, Walters wanted to know if Parton noticed all the snickers and rolled eyes. "Do you feel like you're a joke, that people make fun of you?" The question continuously shocks me, despite the extremely insulting questions I've received myself in interviews, despite always being prepared for misogyny. I try to imagine how I would answer such a question and I think I would deflect, laugh at myself, be coy and cute, neuter the attacker. But Parton, again calmly, says, "Oh I know they make fun of me, but all these years the people have thought the joke was on me, but it's actually on them. I am sure of myself as a person. I am sure of my talent. I'm sure of my love for life and that sort of thing. I am very content; I like the kind of person that I am. So, I can afford to piddle around and do-diddle around with makeup and clothes and stuff because I am secure with myself." In other words, she understood the rules for women just fine; she just rarely felt like playing by them.

In 2014 Parton was asked about her goddaughter Miley Cyrus who, almost a decade after the Bimbo Summit, was roundly vilified in the press over the video for her hit song "Wrecking Ball," which charted all over the world. In the video, Cyrus alternately swung naked on a wrecking ball and cried in close-up over a failed relationship. At this point my older daughter was 9 and her younger sister was 5. I was paying attention to pop culture again. In People I read Parton's response to Cyrus's apparently alarming behavior: "Back in the day, doing my own things my own way, and dressing sexy and showing my cleavage and all that, I got a lot of criticism. Lots of people thought I was making a mistake and that I was just trashy, which I was. So, I did go through that, but I don't give her advice. Everyone has to walk this journey according to their own rules. That's what she's doing . . . She's a smart girl. She had to go to extremes to get her point across. I think she got the point across." It is not a stretch to imagine that starlets like the Bimbo Summit icons might not have veered so far off the rails if they'd had an elder, like Miley had Dolly, to both support and guide them by example -- a woman whose superficially stereotypical makeup and wigs were worn like armor, allowing her to survive Hollywood's meat grinder, emerging on the other side not only intact, but fully human.

Sexuality as a tool for success isn't new to Cyrus or Parton, and isn't limited to women. But it is almost always women who are simultaneously punished and praised for it. Britney Spears likely wouldn't have the career she has if she hadn't played up her teenage sexiness for salivating grown-ups. Often, it's hard for a woman to be heard if she's not knocking down the door with a disarming ensemble. But she's cutting through the gates with a double-edged sword; sexuality designed for consumption by the male gaze might get you in the room, but it won't get you a seat at the table.

In 2006, Paris Hilton a shrewd businesswoman from a successful business family built an entire brand around herself, becoming a modern pioneer in the field of influencing that now brings us a steady stream of Kardashian copycats. Lindsay Lohan was a successful and much-praised actress coming off the success of Mean Girls, a movie still beloved for its exploration of the cruelty, longing, and occasional tenderness of coming of age alongside girls you aren't sure if you want to be or be near. Britney Spears was years into her career, topping the pop charts over and over. Sexualizing themselves may have gotten them in the door (or back in, as Spears and Lohan began their careers as children), but it is not why we know and remember their names. Because we punish women who are confidently sexy and mistrust women who attain success on their own terms, we've developed a knee-jerk impulse to knock women off the pedestals we put them on. Anyone who has ever been called a bimbo or a slut in middle or high school knows that name-calling succeeds in the work of diminishing our sense of ourselves, and altering how others feel about us. Words wound; words matter. The New York Post, of course, stakes its daily claim on just that.

This is not to say that the young women in question didn't live it up and party in 2006. But most of us partied in our youth. Cleaning out a bin of photos recently I found a photo of myself from graduate school I was around the age of the women at the summit holding a weed pipe in one hand and a Parliament cigarette in the other, and my eyelids are alarmingly heavy, heavier than those of any of the three women in that car in 2006. Which is to say, young people partying, having a fun night out with each other: it's not new.

As Spears mentions in her recent memoir, The Woman in Me, "Do you know what I did, that supposedly crazy night everyone made such a big deal about, when we went out with Lindsay Lohan? We got drunk. That's it! We were staying at a beach house and my mom was taking care of the kids, so I went out with Paris. We were hyped up, drinking and being silly. It felt good to be with friends and cut loose." Spears was doing what so many of us do. Yes, even mothers like to see their friends sometimes and have fun. The "wine mom" trope didn't grow out of nowhere. As hard as society is on young women embracing their sexuality and freedom of expression, it's even harder on mothers doing the same. And in 2006, before social media took over, the narrative was entirely controlled by the press and its informants, the paparazzi. In the US media, empathy imagining yourself or your loved ones in someone else's stilettos rarely matters more than money.

As Hilton writes of that famous photo in her fascinating memoir, Paris, "That blizzard of flashing lights created a dozen or so versions of a classic photo each with a slightly different perspective and those images have generated millions of dollars in licensing and royalties. Not for us, of course. Britney, Lindsay, and I get exactly zero of those dollars. But somebody else bought a house with one of those pictures. Somebody put his kid through college." Hilton lucidly outlines the way financial precarity and an impossible economy might lead someone to become a paparazzo and doesn't begrudge that man's child their college education. But the rest of us aren't so easily absolved. She continues, "I have a harder time understanding what motivated everyone who piled on to the headline with nothing to gain but the brittle satisfaction of a bully."

In 2003, in an interview eerily reminiscent of the Parton-Walters conversation, journalist Diane Sawyer interviews Britney Spears. Each question is laser-pointed at an insecurity; the interrogation overall feels designed to knock her down, to break her. At the time, pulling tears out of interview subjects was a television network news sport, Sawyer always lapping at Barbara Walters' spiky heels. Sawyer asks Spears about her love life, her vocal talent, her new, sexier image and the little girls it might be unduly harming. When Sawyer holds up a particularly revealing photo of Spears in the blatant, rabid hope that this one, finally, will be the one she admits to regretting, Spears gives her what she wants. "A little bit," Spears says, holding her thumb and forefinger a fraction of an inch apart. "Getting burned by the fire she lit herself," Sawyer's voiceover adjudges, without any sense of perspective or self-awareness.

In 2006, social media was just coming out of its chrysalis, not nearly the behemoth we know it as today in terms of mainstream reach, ad dollars, and what any creative will tell you it is crucial for: self-promotion. "People say I invented the selfie," Hilton says in her memoir, before demurring and shouting out the Grand Duchess Anastasia as patient zero of the influencer epidemic. But Hilton will admit to "strapping a jetpack on the idea." "Since women like me and Kim [Kardashian] made Instagram our bitch," she writes, "the kind of paparazzi insanity that killed Princess Diana has all but disappeared." She's not wrong.

In her memoir, Spears observes sharply, "I know a lot of people don't understand why I love taking pictures of myself naked or in new dresses. But I think if they'd been photographed by other people thousands of times, prodded and posed for other people's approval, they'd understand that I get a lot of joy from posing the way I feel sexy and taking my own picture, doing whatever I want with it." And it's hard to argue against Spears embracing her ability to sexualize herself after so many years of having it done to her, often without her consent. But, to bring us back to Ariel Levy's Female Chauvinist Pigs and the notion that objectification is being obscured beneath the label of empowerment, it becomes more and more clear that self-objectification when rooted in the male gaze is not a path to liberation but instead a defensive move that has collateral damage, a form of self-harm masquerading as feminism.

One could argue that the voyeuristic cruelty of tabloids and newspapers merely moved from the mainstream media to each celebrity's individual Instagram page allowing average, anonymous people to play bully without the byline. The recent mockery of the size of Hilton's baby's head is an example of this, and one could also argue that today's starlets might be inviting the meanness closer by posting photos that invite anyone into their homes, and that includes intimate spaces: bedrooms, bathrooms, mirrored walk-in closets. One could also argue that Spears finally free of a thirteen-year conservatorship that kept her in her father's control posting semi-nude photos is a simple example of the new feminism costumed as the "old objectification." When my daughter became a teenager and began to post on Instagram, we must have had dozens of talks about body image, objectification, and self-objectification. In tenth grade, her English teacher commented on the way she always dressed up for Zoom class, implying that she was more interested in her appearance than her studies a twenty-first-century update of Walters's "Do you feel like you're a joke?" What went unsaid echoes in my mind: "Because I do."

Earlier this week in the New York Post, an article on Paris Hilton and the "heartbreaking reasons she opted for surrogacy" was listed on the paper's home page directly above a headline that read: "Britney Spears dances [in her own Instagram post] in lingerie and heels after news of dad Jamie's leg amputation." Which left me wondering: when does the new empowerment look like the old pile-on? Quite frequently, it turns out. In a remarkably un-self-aware article written by Kristen Fleming and published in the New York Post in 2021, the Bimbo Summit is revisited, opening with: "If a news cycle could smell, today it would offer a strong hint of 2006 with undertones of bad behavior and crotch shots.3 She continues, rewriting a bit of the misogynist framing in the hopes that people could return to how they were back then, in the halcyon days of paparazzi stalking and slut-shaming, when "they were unabashedly out for a good time and numero uno: people you could really get behind."

So, the press has learned nothing, but have we learned anything?

Maybe not much, but any influencer, athlete, sex worker, or middle-aged mom (like me) will tell you, choosing for yourself how the world sees you is its own form of power, an intellectual independence that a cutting remark can't entirely undo. After all, women might be caught in a catch-22 with regard to our appearances and our public-facing sexuality, but our double-edged blade is a sword nonetheless, a sharp one, which we can wield ourselves if we're brave enough. Dolly Parton is still at it, recently igniting the tiniest of controversies, and a far greater outpouring of exultation, by donning the famously sexy Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader outfit to sing at a football halftime show at the age of seventy-seven.      

But judging the New York Post and its Bimbo Summit enthusiasts entirely according to our more modern moral code might be ungenerous, and overly individualistic misogyny is a systemic issue and the Bimbo Summit's reception was structural: culture really does sink its teeth into us, teaching us to ogle women and then tear them down. True, Parton has often softened the perceived threat of her sexuality with a good dose of homespun self-deprecation and an outspoken belief in God and country, but that doesn't mean the outsize sexuality isn't still there. So, if Parton never pivoted from her flamboyant display of sexuality and yet also never pivoted from birthing astonishing hit after hit, then it's possible to see women as whole people, worthy of their own self-expression. It was always possible we were just having too much fun with cruelty.

Lynn Melnick is the author of the memoir I've Had to Think Up a Way to Survive: On Trauma, Persistence, and Dolly Parton. She is also the author of three collections of poetry.


  1. Ariel Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, 2005, 75.[]
  2. Lynn Melnick, I've Had to Think Up a Way to Survive: On Trauma, Persistence, and Dolly Parton (University of Texas Press, 2022), 14-15.[]
  3. Fleming, Kirsten. "Britney, Paris & Lindsay Again: 'Bimbo Summit' Looks a Lot Different 15 Years Later." New York Post, November 13, 2021.[]