Many people understand that celebrities are not health experts, yet the media persist on giving them a public forum to share their health and lifestyle advice. Journalists insist on printing celebrity musings without critical insight. This is dangerous. We see this in the anti-vaccine movement, but it’s pervasive in other ways. Over the next couple of days I’ll present a couple of case studies focusing on why it’s especially damaging to present celebrity ideas about women’s health without consideration to the social impact.
First up, I show the problems of presenting scientifically invalid ideas about vaginal health. A popular young American actress, Shailene Woodley, has reportedly suggested that genital yeast infection and other genital conditions can be cured by exposing vaginas to sunlight. She says she read this advice in an article by “an herbalist.” The media has repeated this advice and even recommended it with relish.
Young women who have limited access to sexual health education and who may not understand their bodies do not need to be exposed to pseudoscience. The individual musings of celebrities can be ignored at the individual level. At the social level, however, the media have cultural authority and a responsibility to inform readers about health issues. This is done by drawing on expert advice, not egging on damaging celebrity endorsements.
This story is engrossing: Maud Allan was a Canada-born dancer who found fame in Germany in the early 1900s. She performed in the Oscar Wilde play, Vision of Salome, famous for “the dance of the seven veils.” When Allan was in her 20s, her brother was executed for killing two girls. She changed her name to escape this notoriety but later found herself the subject of infamy, drawn into a litigation case defending her name against charges of “sexual perversion.” Allan’s artistic sensuality and the fact that she was a lesbian were weaved into a conspiracy plot involving the highest office of British parliament. The Daily Mail recently reported on Allan’s life as a new play is being produced in San Francisco which is based on this salacious court case.
Allan’s story makes an excellent historical case study of the criminalisation of femininity and homosexuality in Britain at the end of World War I. I discuss the contradictory meanings of Allan’s dancing and her embodiment of the character Salome, a figure that has come to represent the dangerous qualities of female heterosexuality. The cultural significance of Allan’s dancing and her court case takes on multiple meanings in light of Allan’s reality as a lesbian woman in the 1920s.