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As much a sign of the current times as it is a witty satire of the early 2000s, “Young, Sexy & Dead” takes bold risks and pulls no punches. 

Young, Sexy & Dead

“I like that she’s dead, but she needs to be sexy dead.”

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After releasing her explosive autobiography, The Woman in Me, the incomparable Britney Spears has been back in the media cycle in a big way. As charmed as her life may have seemed from the outside looking in, Britney’s behind-the-scenes torment closely resembles the lyrics of her song “Lucky” about a popular Hollywood starlet who secretly suffers from loneliness and despair.

The revelations in her book are shocking but hardly surprising, given how many times we’ve seen the industry chew up and spit out young stars, especially young women — using and abusing them while cruelly scrutinizing every aspect of their lives and shaming them for every perceived misstep.

We overtly sexualize young women, even while they are still children, and then demonize and “slut shame” them when they try to embrace and own their own sexuality.

It would be ludicrous to assert that things have changed dramatically in recent years or that we’ve somehow developed a newfound respect for women in the spotlight.

However, compared to the rampant and socially acceptable misogyny of the ’90s and early 2000s, the more subtle sexism of today seems slightly less toxic in comparison.

Not only were young women mercilessly attacked during Spears’ rise to stardom, but their bodies were a constant topic of debate, and fat shaming was as pervasive as slut shaming. Of course, you didn’t have to be fat or even remotely overweight to be mocked and ridiculed.

In the horrific “heroin chic” era that is currently making a disturbing resurgence in modern fashion and beauty culture, the only acceptable body type was rail thin. Any weight gain at all would send tabloids and talk shows into a frenzy.

Women were called fat and disgusting for anything less than absolute body perfection (as it was defined at the time).

Even Spears referred to herself as a “fat pig” following her now-infamous VMA performance, which took place not long after the performer had given birth to two kids in short succession. Despite the heartbreak and mental stress the star had been facing leading up to the comeback performance, empathy was in short supply; more to the point, it was nonexistent.

(Looking back with more forgiving eyes, most of us would have described her body as perfectly normal, healthy-looking, even thin — just not as strictly sculpted as we were used to seeing from the sex symbol starlet.)

Set during the height of this exploitative era, Young, Sexy & Dead brilliantly skewers the world of high fashion and the “skinny or die” pursuit of physical perfection.

THE RIGHT FILM FOR THE RIGHT TIME

“If women want this to change, they should stop supporting it.”

Taking place in 2008, the film begins with a title screen that sets up the found footage premise.

The most expensive fashion advertising campaign in history became the most controversial. All the video footage was destroyed, or so they thought. This film was assembled from recovered digital sources.

We then meet a stunning eighteen-year-old model, Cynthia (played by the wildly talented singer, songwriter, model, and actress Ivy Levan, who starred as the usher in Fox’s live performance of Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again).

She lands a lucrative and extremely high-profile ad campaign with a star-making fashion designer, the despicable Claudio Vestiques (played to perfection by Steven Berkoff). Everyone wants a piece of her, including her skeevy agent, Robert (a still-delightful Jeremy London, Mallrats), and documentarian filmmaker Peter (Nicholas Irons) and his crew, who have chosen to follow Cynthia during the shoot.

While Cynthia at first believes she is living the dream, excited for her meteoric rise to stardom, it becomes clear that no one is really in her court or on her side.

Robert comments that Cynthia looks a little too healthy, reminding her that Claudio is hungry for “the look” — young, drugged-out, and emaciated.

Through interviews, including a former top model named Sabrina (Arielle Vandenberg), who is desperate to get back in the spotlight, and behind-the-scenes footage, we learn more about the seedy underbelly of the modeling world and the nightmarish perils that face young women coming up in the industry.

This includes everything from overt exploitation to prostitution to ageism and sexism to lecherous men and manipulative predators at every turn.

It’s all played for darkly comedic shock value, but there’s a voracity to the film’s throughline that centers this satire squarely in the realm of horror.

There are many laugh-out-loud moments and plenty of over-the-top personalities that elicit near-camp performances. However, there are also seething lines of smart dialogue that offer some poignant and pitch-perfect commentary on both the industry and society as a whole.

The film hits its sinister, cynical stride when Cynthia, desperate to maintain her vulnerable and damaged look, accidentally overdoses and dies in the middle of her photoshoot.

With a deadline looming, rather than canceling the expensive shoot, everyone decides to just keep shooting — making it clear that Cynthia is worth more dead than alive.

As things get darker and more disturbing, there’s plenty of blame to go around, with most of it centered around those victimized by an industry that sees them as commodities — little more than well-packaged meat.

As much as Young, Sexy & Dead lambasts the vultures and opportunistic predators, it also skewers the complacency of passive observers who stand by and watch the horror, enabling it to happen even if they don’t actively participate in it.

WHY IT MATTERS

“After they’ve trampled your garden and raped your privacy, there’d be the whole, ‘Did the media do the wrong thing again?'”

It’s only very recently — since Spears’ public court battle to end her painful court-sanctioned conservatorship and the release of the 2021 eye-opening New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears — that we’ve begun to acknowledge the brutal way the media treated Spears and the soul-crushing misogynistic abuse heaped on her that we either participated in or willingly turned a blind eye to.

While we now attempt to hold public figures and powerful people more accountable for the way they treat women — especially young, vulnerable women — the rise of social media has created a new, insidious playground for verbal abuse, bullying, and the pressure for perfection that is amplified by the deceptive nature of the platform.

There are positives. Social media has given rise to the “body positivity” movement that seeks to celebrate all bodies and counter the harmful narrative that there is only one ideal we should all strive for. Meanwhile, brands, fashion labels, and retailers are discovering the lucrative buying power of a population desperate to see themselves reflected in advertisements and to buy clothes tailored for their bigger bodies. However, calling it a mixed message would be a significant understatement.

The body positivity movement often seems to be more about exploitation than a genuine paradigm shift (in much the same way that many businesses pretend to support gay rights during Pride Month when there are profits to be made while refusing to take a controversial stand when it doesn’t seem to benefit their bottom line).

It’s why celebrity weight gain or significant weight loss is big news, dominating the headlines and inundating social media platforms.

It’s why the use of the drug intended to help diabetes patients, Ozempic, has skyrocketed (making it difficult for people who actually need the drug to get access to it) after celebrities discovered extreme weight loss was a “happy” side effect of taking the drug and made it the new must-have diet fad.

The queen of heroin chic, 90s supermodel Kate Moss, once made headlines for quipping during an interview, “Nothing tastes as good as being thin feels.”

She was immediately criticized for the statement, which she has since apologized for while expressing her gratitude that the industry has changed significantly since she was a star model.

But have we really shifted the cultural landscape that much in the past few decades?

It remains a culture that equates thin with desirable, calls skinny women healthy and heavy women lazy, and heaps praise on women who lose weight while mocking and ridiculing women who gain weight — for any reason.

It’s a culture that gave rise to an entire industry designed to help women alter their appearance on social media to look more “acceptable” by society’s standards.

And that body positivity movement? It’s often little more than an excuse for “mid-sized” women (a term used to describe any woman who is not ultra-thin; it really reflects an average body type) to tell truly bigger, plus-size women, “If I can love my body, so can you.”

What that message really does is reinforce to these bigger women that we consider average to be “big” and overweight to be grotesque.

Perhaps this is best illustrated by some old clips from America’s Next Top Model that have recently gone viral on TikTok, where the judges mercilessly mock a “plus-size” model with a knockout figure.

When we call a size 6 model plus size, we’re creating a toxic battleground for healthy body image.

Young, Sexy & Dead may be an exercise in nostalgia — satirizing a time when beauty standards for women were obscene, extreme, and dangerously difficult to attain for most.

But part of what makes it so damn entertaining and shiver-inducing is just how relevant it still feels.  

WATCH YOUNG, SEXY & DEAD NOW

“If I were dropped in the middle of a genocide, I’d document it.”

Writer-director-producer Philip Alderton’s twisted mockumentary is as delicious as it is demented.

It will make you feel guilty for how funny you’ll find it, knowing that it’s a disturbingly accurate portrayal of fashion, beauty culture, and the media. Sure, it’s exaggerated for a dark, comedic effect, but it remains horrifically on the money with its societal critique.

In this witty exploration of the exploitation of beauty and youth (“dead before it blooms”), the ensemble cast of kooky characters truly shines. They are as fun to watch as they are offputting — from Cynthia’s fame-obsessed mom, who grants Claudio permission to take advantage of her dead daughter, to the misogynistic and sexually aggressive photographer (Josh Coxx), his criminally wanton assistant, and the documentary crew’s smarmy cameraman (Vernon Wells).

The two most prominently featured monstrous men are played to appalling excellence by London and Berkoff.

Levan is extraordinary as the ill-fated model, fully committing to the role and making a damn convincing corpse. She’s an utterly compelling blend of grace, beauty, vulnerability, and tragedy.

The film’s macabre sense of humor and nastiness won’t be for everyone, but Young, Sexy & Dead is a smart and incisive satire that gets to the heart of our cultural obsession with unattainable beauty and the pursuit of fame at any price.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 3.5
Young, Sexy & Dead is currently available to stream on Tubi. 

2 Comments

2 Records

  1. on October 29, 2023 at 11:02 pm
    Scott Jones wrote:
    Reading is Fun-damental Very insightful stuff, and a good read!