'Kristen' at center of Spitzer scandal

THE CONVERSATION with a group of civilians the other day somehow turned to “Kristen,” the alleged call girl implicated in the prostitution scandal that prompted New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s resignation.

Consider it a sign of our cynical times that despite a downturn in the economy, the consensus was if she played her cards right and did so with relative alacrity, Kristen, also known as Ashley Alexandra Dupre, was going to be a very rich young lady.

Granted, the need for haste is paramount in situations such as these, before the media’s gaze turns elsewhere. Even before Spitzer’s exit, pundits began contemplating the value of an interview or book with his wife, Silda — much in demand as the aggrieved party literally forced to “stand by her man,” with visible discomfort; and Dupre, the still-mysterious escort. Sure, a few bikini photos have surfaced, but in terms of cashing in, speculation has ranged from Penthouse or Hustler photo spreads to paid-for TV chats to jumpstarting her career as an aspiring singer.

THE SPITZER AFFAIR has triggered a familiar debate about sexual politics, but relatively little discussion of the media’s role in helping young women reap tidy profits from nothing more or less than with whom they are (or have been) having sex. It once might have been dubbed the horizontal path to scaling the ladder of success, though such terminology exhibits a certain old-school lack of directional imagination.

Dupre is merely the latest woman to be catapulted to fame (or at least notoriety) based on her sexcapades. Indeed, E! Entertainment Television seems to have a development pool specifically devoted to that niche, having already given the world programs featuring homemade sex-tape stars Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton. MTV, meanwhile, is planning a series sequel showcasing bisexual reality TV personality Tila Tequila, who — in what might be a first even for pseudo-celebrities — had to deny a Page Six rumor that she was in fact (gasp) “stick-straight.”

Legal entanglements notwithstanding, the not-so-subtle message for Dupre and others is that tabloid infamy represents a perfectly logical and increasingly legitimized stepping stone to 15 minutes of fame, with each additional minute usually translating into extra dollar signs.

FASTER THAN YOU CAN SAY “Monica Lewinsky,” the Spitzer coverage brought to mind a recent conference at USC organized by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, discussing the way females are depicted in entertainment and the lessons those images convey to young girls.

Stacy Smith, a researcher at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, presented research about how men vastly outnumber women in movies, breaking down female characters into two brackets: “traditional” and “hypersexual” — a fancy way of saying “Madonna” and “whore.” The study also highlighted “problematic portrayals in television aimed at children,” where females are far more likely to be shown in “sexy attire” and adorned with exaggerated body types.

Although Smith’s findings should contribute to awareness about patterns that sexualize and diminish women, one has to wonder if the focus is misplaced. Because whatever the media’s shortcomings using such impressive-sounding numerical analysis, they pale next to the contextual record of women whose route to the limelight came via sleeping with a famous man — resulting in an inevitable caravan of news outlets and publishers beating paths to their doors, checkbooks in hand.

PUTTING QUESTIONS of morality aside, neither feminist scholarship nor well-intentioned animated programs — even those with normal-looking women in completely appropriate attire — has as yet conceived a way to defuse the seductive and disheartening power of that message, especially in a modern culture so besotted by fame.

ABC News is moving up its special “Prostitution in America” to capitalize on the Spitzer hubbub, but watching TV and surfing the Net demonstrates that when it comes to celebrity, the mainstream media almost uniformly take their cue from TMZ.com. By that measure, Dupre went from anonymity one day to buzz about her anticipated financial windfall the next, squeezed in on shows such as “Extra” and “The Insider” alongside Britney and Lindsay and “Dancing With the Stars,” albeit with hands strategically positioned over her own breasts.

Drink that in for awhile, and then ask who the real whores are.

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