There are two different Paris Hiltons: the Gen Y Paris Hilton, and the Gen Z Paris Hilton. For Gen Y, the Hilton burnished in our minds is someone who is “famous for being famous,” a sloe-eyed, coltish heiress who does little more than pose for paparazzi photos and drunkenly stumble out of Bungalow 8. For those born after 1995, however, Paris Hilton is an icon, a prototype for the self-made businesswoman (her branded products, including a line of fragrances, are worth billions of dollars); a fashion icon whose early-aughts aesthetic — slinky chainmail dresses, rhinestone-encrusted chokers, fingerless gloves — are venerated in countless Instagram posts and TikToks, an artist with a (possibly underrated) music career; and above all else, a proto-influencer who was far ahead of the Kylie Jenners and Hailey Baldwins and other savvy young Hollywood women who build giant brands off of their extensive connections and family names.
The YouTube Originals documentary This Is Paris, directed by filmmaker Alexandra Dean, attempts to capture the Gen Z version of Paris Hilton: the self-made woman, the hardscrabble entrepreneur, the #girlboss who, while everyone was mocking her Simple Life bon mots and panty-flashing Coachella appearances in the press, managed to quietly build a multibillion-dollar empire. It also attempts to remake Hilton’s image in another way, by building to her new role as a survivor and advocate.
This Is Paris is the latest entry in the genre of reframings of vilified figures, particularly female ones, of the 1990s and early 2000s, including Anita Hill, Lorena Bobbit, and Tonya Harding. The goal of these projects to encourage audiences to revisit their perceptions of such women, acknowledge how strongly those perceptions were infused with misogyny, and provide them with renewed understanding and sympathy. But unlike any of those women, Hilton is not a marginalized person; she is a white, wealthy, beautiful woman who has built a brand on being wealthy and beautiful.
The film does not interrogate that fact, nor does it interrogate Hilton’s history of making victim-blaming or slut-shaming comments, such as her infamous claim that only “ugly girls” perform oral sex, or her 2017 dismissal of family friend Donald Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” comment, or her assertion that the women who accused Trump of sexual assault “are just trying to get attention and get fame.” (Hilton now claims to be disillusioned with Trump’s presidency and supported Pete Buttigieg during the primaries.) It does not address Hilton’s history of racism, such as her saying the n-word on camera. It does not address how she has benefitted from her privilege in insidious ways, such as her early release from prison on reckless drunk driving charges, despite nonfamous people accused of similar crimes serving much more extensive sentences. (It’s worth pointing out here that Hilton herself is one of the producers on the film.)
— Paris Hilton (@ParisHilton) September 16, 2020
It is true that, during her heyday, Hilton was unfairly maligned in the press; This Is Paris correctly points out that coverage of her sex tape, which was released without her consent, was outrageously priggish and misogynistic. “They made me the bad person, like I did something bad,” a visibly emotional Hilton says of the media coverage at the time, saying the release of the tape felt like being “electronically raped.” Hilton’s family members and friends also take umbrage with the media’s promotion of her dumb blonde persona, one that she suggests she fully capitalized on during the airing of The Simple Life. It is true that Hilton does not come off at all as unintelligent. What she comes off as is starkly self-interested. She is open about her goals, which are to make money and very little else; at one point, she earnestly proclaims that she won’t be happy unless she becomes a billionaire, which would come off as deadpan and even kind of funny were This Is Paris not released in the context of a global pandemic, a plummeting stock market, and an eight percent unemployment rate.
Then there are the abuse allegations, which are the moral center of This Is Paris and have served as the focal point of much of its coverage. The gist of them is basically this: to curb her out-of-control partying, Hilton’s parents sent her to various high-end boarding schools and programs for troubled teens, including Provo Canyon School in Utah. She alleges she was dragged out of bed in the middle of the night and taken to the school, where she was beaten, placed in solitary confinement for up to 20 hours, and given pills of unknown origin. (On its website, Provo Canyon School has posted a statement that it was sold by its previous owners in 2000, and “we therefore cannot comment on the operations or patient experience prior to that time. We are committed to providing high-quality care to youth with special, and often complex, emotional, behavioral and psychiatric needs.”)
In the documentary, Hilton appears visibly shaken when she recounts such events, about which she says she has recurring nightmares; at the end of the film, she meets with fellow Provo students, who join her to shoot a #BreakCodeSilence anti-abuse campaign. Her conversations with her fellow survivors at the end of the film, as well as her admission of how the experience led her into relationships with five abusive men (she does not name them), provide a glimpse of what This Is Paris could have been: a film about schools for troubled teens, the myriad abuses she says she suffered at one, and the impact it had on her life and the lives of other survivors. “I’ve worked so hard to build this brand, and it was a part of this perfect, happy life,” she says. “[The abuse] story was never part of this brand.” The film would’ve benefitted from telling more of that story and focusing less on the brand, as it does through present-day shots of Hilton swanning around in a Mykonos infinity pool, or rummaging through her free designer clothes and openly musing about how she only has gowns to wear on an international flight.
Our misogynistic culture demands that all female survivors of abuse behave like “perfect” victims. Hilton does not fall into that category, nor does she need to. But This Is Paris appears to cynically posit that Hilton’s suffering can serve as a springboard for her to remake herself as professional advocate, and one wonders whether she is the best person to serve in that role.
In recent years, the archetype of the #girlboss, or the self-made female entrepreneur, has risen to prominence, with female CEOs like Nasty Gal’s Sophia Amoroso and celebrities like Kim Kardashian being hailed in the media as millennial female-empowerment icons simply by virtue of their financial success. #Girlbosses tend to be white women who cloak themselves in the mantle of fighting the patriarchy while simultaneously benefiting from its trappings; their success is often cited as a byproduct of work ethic when it is often the result of immense privilege. (I was reminded of this when, at one point, Hilton casually mentioned the difficulties of being female in the hypermasculine world of international DJs, which was kind of difficult to take seriously considering that Hilton can earn up to $1 million for a single set.) The argument for #girlboss feminism seems to be that accumulated wealth in the hands of women is, by itself, a feminist triumph; that the ultimate endgame of the suffragette movement, women’s liberation in the 1970s, and the Take Back the Night rallies was to come out with your own contouring line.
Since its release, This Is Paris has been hailed as a raw, behind-the-scenes look at the real Paris Hilton, not the dumb blonde from the tabloids but the unfairly maligned philanthropist and businesswoman turned advocate and trauma survivor. What it actually is is the apotheosis of #girlboss feminism, what happens when female empowerment is synonymous not with character or persistence in the face of struggle, but with heightened self-awareness and capitalistic know-how. What This Is Paris actually shows is that neither the Gen X nor the Gen Z version of Paris Hilton is correct: Hilton is neither a dumb blonde nor an icon of feminist self-invention. She is both a woman who suffered a terrible trauma, and a woman with a great deal of money who would like to make more of it. Both of those things can be true.