Renee Zellweger, Margot Robbie, and Blake Lively Exposed to Hollywood’s Insidious Male Gaze
Over the past week-plus, three A-list actresses have been targeted by entertainment writers for their looks. They are so much more than that.
Renee’s face. Margot’s mystique. Blake’s Blake Livelyness. What do they have in common? They’re the only qualities a disparate group of male film journalists could find worthy of discussion in a recent roundup of professional writing on female movie stars. Hollywood’s leading ladies have had plenty of shallow, sexist journalism to roll their eyes at this summer thanks to the embarrassment of male gaze think pieces that have been unleashed in the pages of some of media’s most hallowed bibles—Variety, Vanity Fair, and The New York Times among them. And that is a problem worth womansplaining.
Sure, celebrity comes at its own peril, especially if you’re a woman in Hollywood already dealing with the industry’s raging woman problem. (Even moreso for a woman of color in Hollywood.) And so too, in the year 2016, do celebrity profiles, think pieces, and film reviews. This month alone we’ve seen several of these egregious offenses printed against female stars, the first and most embarrassing of them unfolding upon the most squinty of battlegrounds: Renee Zellweger’s face.
In a terribly insulting piece entitled “Renee Zellweger: If She No Longer Looks Like Herself, Has She Become A Different Actress?” longtime EW journalist Owen Gleiberman last week offered the opinion no one asked for from his plum perch as the new chief film critic of trade magazine Variety, after watching a trailer for the upcoming Bridget Jones’ Baby.
It was hardly the first trailer to be released for Bridget Jones’ Baby, but apparently the first one Gleiberman had noticed. And he was aghast. Not at the ridiculousness of the plot (Bridget gets pregnant—but doesn’t know who the father is!) but thoroughly disgusted by one irksome reality: Renee Zellweger, now 47, is older than she was when she was younger, and she looks different.
She has dared to age. Maybe she looks different because of plastic surgery—maybe not. Faces change. Bodies change. Perhaps she dared to alter her own body for reasons we, and certainly Gleiberman, have no knowledge of. Perhaps not. Maybe Hollywood’s institutionalized obsession with beauty and youth and lack of opportunity for aging actresses spurred her on to drastic measures.
It’s a question Zellweger has dodged since media outlets went insane after a 2014 red carpet appearance where she looked so different from her old self that she had to release a statement cheerily explaining, “I’m glad folks think I look different! I’m living a different, happy, more fulfilling life, and I’m thrilled that perhaps it shows.”
“Watching the trailer, I didn’t stare at the actress and think: She doesn’t look like Renée Zellweger. I thought: She doesn’t look like Bridget Jones,” wrote Gleiberman, who made no note of similar facial transformations that certain male stars and filmmakers have seemingly undergone, i.e. Mickey Rourke. “Oddly, that made it matter more. Celebrities, like anyone else, have the right to look however they want, but the characters they play become part of us. I suddenly felt like something had been taken away.”
I’ll quote that again: “Celebrities… have the right to look however they want,” he wrote. Except for one. The one who happened to be the subject of this horribly misguided, ageist, misogynistic rant. But he liked Zellweger and her “ordinary” beauty in Bridget Jones, he insisted, describing her modest beauty with phrases like “no flash in the pan,” “an extraordinary ordinary girl,” and my favorite: “this nobody.”
He paid Zellweger backhanded compliment after backhanded compliment in a piece that ought to have had his editors at Variety raising their eyebrows, and even compared her looks to two other super stunning movie star women. She “was beautiful, but not in the way that a Nicole Kidman or a Julia Roberts was,” he wrote, using the past tense to mourn the young Renee Zellweger of yore. “She was beautiful in the way an ordinary person is.”
Gleiberman went on to wax poetic over “the slightly slovenly doughy-cuddly perfection” of her face in the original Bridget Jones and the way her utterly average looks in Jerry Maguire taught utterly average-looking women everywhere that they could totally bag a Tom Cruise. (Clearly, seeing as he glossed over her bubbly-aggro performance in Empire Records, he was never a true appreciator of her peak ‘90s contributions to film.) Naturally, when he determined that her face no longer belonged to her at age 47, it was because he seemingly believed it had always belonged to him.
Twitter reactions to the Variety piece erupted in outrage, particularly from female journalists and filmmakers. Unlike a recent LA Weekly op-ed in which a writer literally celebrated the musician Sky Ferreira only for her sex appeal, Variety neither apologized nor seemed to consider retracting the piece from their star staff critic. Fellow actress, filmmaker, and activist Rose McGowan smartly took to Variety’s rival The Hollywood Reporter to wage war against Gleiberman on Zellweger’s behalf.
“How dare you bully a woman who has done nothing but try to entertain people like you,” she wrote to Gleiberman. “Her crime, according to you, is growing older in a way you don’t approve of. Who are you to approve of anything? What you are doing is vile, damaging, stupid and cruel. It also reeks of status quo white-male privilege.”
“Guess what? It is time to stop f—ing with women’s minds,” McGowan added later in the piece. “Do you know what my interests are, Owen?”
“My interests are bigger than pondering a stranger’s face. My interest is destroying the status quo. My interest as a card-carrying member of society is to STOP the brainwashing Hollywood and the media have for too long gotten away with. The brainwashing that you have long been a friend to and a supporter of.”
Critic Thelma Adams also took Gleiberman to task, offering a handy lesson in Tinseltown gender politics to point out that actresses who do alter their faces aren’t just doing it to piss off male critics who watch their films to scrutinize their looks—but precisely the opposite.
“This is not existential angst but systemic bias,” she wrote. “They are professional actresses, in some cases making millions. Like Zellweger, they are trying desperately to hold on to their careers as leading ladies carrying the narrative arc in an industry where male stars date younger and younger on screen while these beauties begin to play mothers of men only a few years younger than they are.”
Indeed, a massive recent survey by the website Polygraph found that women between the ages of 22 and 31 spoke 38 percent of all female dialogue. The figure dropped to 31 percent for women actors aged 32 to 41 and a meager 20 percent for those aged 42 to 65. Men, on the other hand, received more dialogue as they got older, with those aged 42 to 65 speaking 39 percent of all male lines, compared to 32 percent for those aged 32 to 41, and 20 percent for fellas 22 to 31.
In her seminal essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey coined the term “male gaze” for the effect that occurs in film when the audience is subjected to the default perspective of a heterosexual man through which women are reduced to objects.
“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female,” she posited. “The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.”
That precise kind of fantasizing, objectifying male gaze is what writer and Vinyl co-creator Rich Cohen glues his mind-boggling Vanity Fair cover profile of actress Margot Robbie together with under the headline “Welcome to the Summer of Margot Robbie,” more an opportunity to justify a photo editorial of the Australian actress in bikinis on the beach than contextualize any accidental insights Cohen makes in his piece.
“America is so far gone, we have to go to Australia to find a girl next door,” he begins, misdiagnosing Robbie off the bat. “In case you’ve missed it, her name is Margot Robbie. She is 26 and beautiful, not in that otherworldly, catwalk way but in a minor knock-around key, a blue mood, a slow dance. She is blonde but dark at the roots. She is tall but only with the help of certain shoes. She can be sexy and composed even while naked but only in character. As I said, she is from Australia. To understand her, you should think about what that means.”
Yes, Rich: What does that mean? All those irate Australians would like to know, too. “Cohen’s profile of Robbie is the latest in a long list of articles by male journalists examining an attractive female celebrity in a way that suggests the woman in question should probably inquire about a restraining order on their way home from the interview,” wrote Australian news site news.com.au.
The piece ignores the notion that Robbie might have worked her ass off to get where she is, starring in two summer studio films—Legend of Tarzan and Suicide Squad—after landing a breakout role in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, no less. Instead it paints a picture of a hot young Aussie actress who just rode in on the surf, metaphorically speaking, right into a Hollywood career.
Cohen describes Robbie’s physical attributes in full, gushing detail before he even gets around to asking about her career. He is enthralled by her beauty before he hears her speak a single word. “I don’t remember what she was wearing,” he writes of their sit-down meeting in a Manhattan hotel restaurant, “but it was simple, her hair combed around those painfully blue eyes. We sat in the corner. She looked at me and smiled.”
He imagines her as a “second-semester freshman” and a “famous woman who does not want to be famous,” variations on the demure siren fantasy. “It’s [true] to an extent, but it’s not the thesis of me as a person,” she answers. “When you put it as a thesis, it seems like it’s the only question on my mind. But it’s just one of the questions, one of the things I wonder. How would things be different if I’d made different choices?”
Now, these glam rag celebu-profiles tend toward the ridiculous (extra points for detail). But Cohen fails to treat Robbie as a fully human person. He fails to ask Robbie about her views on her art and craft, the shrewd career strategy that got her here at the age of 26, how selective she had to be to leapfrog her way to stardom and parlay her career-making Scorsese debut into a string of studio films and a Harley Quinn role already so popular with fans she’s getting her own Suicide Squad spin-off.
If there’s anything deeper to be found behind Robbie’s “painfully blue eyes,” as I suspect there might be much of, Cohen didn’t seem to bother to look for it. He didn’t seem all that interested in those matters… but he did make sure to ask about that two-year-old graphic sex scene.
Meanwhile, as if women in Hollywood don’t have enough spiked walls to scale—backwards and in heels, to extend Ginger Rogers’s pointedly perfect metaphor—they sometimes have to suffer the added indignity of spending an entire movie floating on the ocean half-naked while being menaced by sharks.
Blake Lively, who is plenty problematic in her own right, nonetheless doesn’t deserve the treatment she got in her latest notice in The New York Times, a film review of The Shallows entitled “How I Learned to Tolerate Blake Lively.” In it, critic Wesley Morris speeds through four paragraphs before revealing that he thought The Shallows was a Kate Hudson vehicle and was summarily disappointed by said misunderstanding. Imagine being Blake Lively and reading a review for a movie that literally stars just you, a CG shark, and a trained seagull—only to have half your NYT review dedicated to someone else.
“But, as it turns out, I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed the movie about Kate Hudson and the shark because, less than four minutes into ‘The Shallows,’ I realized that Kate Hudson wasn’t in it. Really, it’s worse than that. It’s a Kate Hudson movie that actually stars Blake Lively.”
“[Her] acting hasn’t yet caught up to her algorithm-generated beauty,” Morris continues, with a superficiality reminiscent of Stephen Marche’s infamous 2013 Megan Fox Esquire cover. “Alas, there may be no algorithmic solution for that.”
One glaring (and fixable!) factor in this trend of vaguely lecherous, sketchy filmbro culture: Hire more women writers and editors to represent a more accurate diversity of opinions, analysis, context. It’s a problem on the other side of the coin that Meryl Streep illuminated last fall after launching her own private probe into the film critics who contribute to review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.
“There are 168 women,” Streep said then. “And I thought that’s absolutely fantastic, and if there were 168 men it would be balanced. If there were 268 men it would be unfair but I would be used to it, if there were 360, if there were 4... actually there are 760 men who weigh in on the Tomatometer.”
Entertainment journalism, like the movie industry it writes about, has been male-dominated for basically as long as it’s existed. So Hollywood’s lady problem isn’t just limited to the disadvantages women face in front of and behind the camera—weeks like this, it bleeds into our own pages and websites, daring us to do better for the Renees, the Margots, and yes, the Blakes out there.