The naked truth

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Ridiculed, ravaged and left embarassingly exposed – when he claimed before last year’s general election that an ambitious spending plan could be funded because “the money is there” and just needs to be found — Prime Minister George Papandreou could not have expected that five months later, the only person in Greece who could truly sympathize with his predicament would be celebrity-turned-porn star Julia Alexandratou.

Like the premier, the 23-year-old former singer has found herself on the receiving end of the media’s harsh criticism and the public’s acerbic wit. Alexandratou’s porn film has been so popular that Greece must be the only country where James Cameron’s 3D epic “Avatar” has had competition from a local production. Julia’s has been the only story to rival the country’s economic worries for top billing on news programs, talk shows and in newspaper columns. Listening or reading some of the comments, a non-Greek would be forgiven for thinking that a long-legged, platinum-haired waif was responsible for all of Greece’s problems, everything from the economic collapse to society’s tumbling morals.

In fact, several non-Greeks have picked up on Alexandratou’s exploits and her story has appeared in media reports from China and Italy, to Britain and the Netherlands over the past few days. Whereas many Greeks have treated Alexandratou as a loose-limbed witch that should be burned at the stake, foreign reports have tended to approach the furor surrounding her X-rated DVD, which sold some 250,000 copies in two weeks, as a further indication of the wackiness of the Greeks, a people who would rather watch a young woman having sex than think about filling in their tax forms.

The truth, though, is that there is little new to be learned about Greece from the Alexandratou affair – we are neither the breezy bon viveurs that some foreigners like to think we are, nor has a gaping, public-deficit hole just appeared in our moral values, as some locals want to believe. In fact, the only thing we’ve learned is that, boringly and rather worryingly, we are plagued by the same ills of many other societies, even though we can’t comprehend it yet.

If you were to listen to any of the daytime talk shows that have gorged themselves on this story, then Alexandratou is the epitome of the self-centered celebrity who’s gone too far or, alternatively, she is a foolish girl that has been cruelly exploited by profit seekers. For these commentators, either scenario is confirmation of Greek society’s breakdown.

Greek society, though, is simply following a well-trodden and slippery slope. There are few western countries that could today claim not to have an Alexandratou equivalent. There are plenty of young women, and men, delirious from breathing in the vapors of their own self-importance only too willing to do whatever it takes to move up another rung on the ladder of short-term fame. In playing a starring role in a blue movie, Alexandratou was simply copying what others, like Paris Hilton, have done before her. There is nothing new or shocking about it all.

As for the “exploitation of young women” theory, this also is not a solely Greek phenomenon. Alexandratou will continue to be manipulated as long as she makes her living from the celebrity industry. Be it fashion, film or music, young women the world over have fallen prey to those, not always at the seedier edges of these industries, who want to use them for their own ends. Just last weekend, Danish model-turned-filmmaker Rie Rasmussen publicly accused top fashion photographer Terry Richardson, who shoots for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and the Pirelli Calendar among others, of exploiting vulnerable young girls. Richardson denies the allegations but it’s clear that those who believe, or more likely pretend to believe, that Alexandratou has single-handedly revealed the rotten core of Greek society are massively overstating the case. In fact, their mock shock is a neat move taken straight from the playbook of many foreign media – the British tabloid press for example, which this week is full of concern about the break-up of a pop star and her soccer playing husband – that substitute titillation for information.

The pundits may pass judgment on Alexandratou and joke about her antics but she’s the one having the last laugh, because much as her critics would like to think they’re standing on the moral high ground, they’re actually all in the same dirty and dank gutter. At least Alexandratou finally had the decency to admit her real motivation. “It only took me five minutes to agree once they told me what kind of money was involved,” she told a TV audience – mostly of young men — that whooped with approval. And with this blunt admission, she underlined the true lesson from this episode – not that the sight of some flesh will help sex-addled Greek minds forget that gas costs 30 cents more per liter than it did last month nor that the moral fiber of the country has been stripped away like a porn star’s underwear but that like so many societies and countries around us, we too are driven by money and beholden to many of the ills this brings.

Some believe the release of Alexandratou’s DVD was timed to coincide with the announcement of the government’s austerity measures because people would be looking to release their frustrations. The timing is certainly uncanny but for a different reason – both the X-rated film and the near collapse of Greece’s public finances are testament to a philosophy that has seen short-term desire for financial gratification and material satisfaction take precedent over any consideration of the long-term or wider good.

Historian Tony Judt captured the essence of this modern ailment in an article published in The Guardian last Saturday. “Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today,” he writes. “For over 30 years we have made a virtue of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth.”

This is something Greeks are only beginning to understand about themselves and which outsiders have yet to grasp about us. In fact, of all the foreign reports about Alexandratou’s exploits, an article in the Turkish daily Hurriyet stands out. How is it possible, wonders the author, that in the middle of the country’s worst economic crisis for decades, Greeks can find 5 million euros to spend on buying copies of a porn film? Maybe Papandreou was right after all: The money is there, it’s just a question of finding it. But while we’re looking, it might be a good idea to start searching for some of the other things we’ve also lost.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on March 26.

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