Ladies, what the fuck. National female voices like Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren and Ruth Bader Ginsburg appear stronger than ever. At the same time, personality journalism appears to be gazing longingly backwards toward an era full of Playboy bunnies and Stepford wives.
Over the past few weeks, there have been a number of alarming profile pieces that appear centered on what a woman looks like and little else. Last month, L.A. Weekly published “Sky Ferreira’s Sex Appeal Is What Pop Music Needs Right Now,” a vile piece by Art Tavana that focused on Ferreira’s cleavage and how it related to Madonna’s. (Full disclosure: Tavana wrote a piece for The A.V. Club on Guns N’ Roses in April.) L.A. Weekly Music Editor Andy Hermann didn’t take the piece down, but followed it up with a fairly half-assed apology, saying that the author “wasn’t trying to objectify or degrade” Ferreira, even though that’s exactly what he wound up doing.
Ferreira herself responded in a series of tweets, stating, “I am not a thinkpiece. I am not a fucking example,” but “I’m glad that this is making people think & conversation is happening.”
Next, Owen Gleiberman, former Entertainment Weekly critic who’s now chief film critic at Variety, published a piece that did little more than discuss Renée Zellweger’s appearance in the Bridget Jones’s Baby trailer. He pondered, “If Renée Zellweger no longer looks like herself, has she become a different actress?” Because actors never look different from film to film? Despite rumors of “work” being done (a common Hollywood occurrence), Zellweger looks much like you’d expect Bridget Jones to look in the trailer, 15 years later. We doubt that Gleiberman resembles his ’00s figure much himself.
Finally, this week, Vinyl co-creator Rich Cohen’s profile puff piece about Margot Robbie was released for Vanity Fair’s latest cover. It so focuses on Robbie’s appearance, honestly it has to be read to be believed, bringing to mind a heroine’s depiction from a Danielle Steel novel: “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.”
All of these pieces add up to little more than fantasy fodder for the writers in question, and a disturbing trend for the rest of us. Except, unlike previous sexist and dismissive pieces—as former A.V. Club film editor Scott Tobias pointed out on Twitter, a 1998 profile of Jewel was similar in tone—these articles were all immediately and loudly decried on social media. Many on Twitter took these writers to task for effectively reducing these women to the sum of their appearances and almost nothing else. Rose McGowan, who has been a prolific feminist writer as of late, penned an enraged response piece to Gleiberman’s article, calling it “vile, damaging, stupid, and cruel.” Cohen has been met with a variety of pointed and hilarious Twitter responses, like this one:
We’ve been following these events in the media, obviously, but Cohen’s was the last straw. So we take it to you, A.V. Club writers: What is wrong with these journalists, as well as the editors who don’t stop these pieces before they run? Could these impassioned reactions on social media help stem the tide of this lingering sexism? If not, what would be enough to get these clueless types to wake up already?
Emily L. Stephens
What’s wrong with these writers, and with these profiles, is the assumption that women exist primarily to provoke and satisfy the sexual imaginations of men—specifically, of heterosexual men with tastes as narrow and unattainable as they are clichéd. They presuppose that the sexual objectification of working actors is not only unquestionably pertinent, but that an actor’s ability to arouse an interviewer is their defining characteristic.
Spy Magazine was making fun of these reductive, masturbatory profiles back in 1993, and not much has changed. The tweets cited in the introduction are nicely to the point, but for me, this one sums up the disparity:
Women are praised for living up to their interviewers’ sexual ideals or damned for failing to; men are treated as rounded, inherently interesting people, both as profile subjects and as the presumed audience whose (also presumed) tastes are catered to. Meanwhile, the sexual imaginations of the rest of the audience are at best ignored, and often scorned, just as the talents, interests, and work of the women profiled are.
But one thing has changed. The rest of us have a wider reach, a louder voice, and a taller soapbox. Mainstream media outlets are working, bit by bit, toward diverse hiring, and social media gives even the disenfranchised more of a voice than we had in 1993. When Vanity Fair or Variety publishes a profile like this, a catalog of the subject’s physical attributes as they intersect with the writer’s desires (a genre of interview I categorize as “Praise From The Author’s Boner”), the audience—not the imagined audience of straight white men yanking themselves silly over a star, but the actual audience—strikes back with criticism, complaints, and (maybe most effectively) well-deserved ridicule.
What drives me crazy about this kind of stuff is the way it’s couched in faux-intellectualism that serves as a “get out of jail free card” for the writer. Gleiberman isn’t poking fun at Renée Zellweger, he’s questioning the audience’s ownership of a fictional character; Art Tavana isn’t objectifying Sky Ferreira, he’s provocatively exploring the way she uses her “image and sexuality” as part of her “artistry”; Rich Cohen isn’t ogling Margot Robbie, he’s meditating on the sensuality of her public persona. Those defenses are thinly disguised bullshit, of course, but they speak to the insidious way sexism works in the 21st century: The overt misogyny of the Mad Men era has been replaced by subtle prejudices that are just as harmful but much harder to spot. To the point where many people refuse to see them at all. I’ve seen at least one respected film critic argue that Gleiberman’s Zellweger article is simply “challenging our comfort zones.”
That brings me to another idea I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: It’s really easy to intellectualize something when you don’t have a foot in the race. We all do it. For instance, I don’t personally know anyone in the military so it’s easy for me to discuss American military intervention in abstract concepts related to justice, freedom, and global politics. For those with a family member in the armed forces, however, I bet those conversations are a lot less abstract.
And that same idea applies to sexism too. Since men don’t experience sexism firsthand (and by sexism I mean systemic bias based on gender), it’s easier for them to intellectualize it. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve discussed sexism with men who insist on playing devil’s advocate, steering the conversation toward bizarre extenuating circumstances, or nit-picking tiny details that are irrelevant to my larger point. That immediately derails the conversation in ways they find intellectually stimulating and I find completely emotionally draining.
Now, believe me, I love insane intellectual debates as much as the next person (hell, I’m the person who tried to argue The Walking Dead is more optimistic than Game Of Thrones), but not when the debate becomes a roadblock to social progress. So here’s a piece of advice for those who find themselves in a conversation with someone who has more lived experience on the topic: Shut up and listen. And if a bunch of women tell you that a celebrity profile is skeevy and sexist, recognize that the world might not need you to defend it on intellectual grounds.
I think what Caroline says about men not experiencing systemic sexism, especially in the male-dominated media, is especially pertinent to this conversation. What frustrates me is how many women in the organization spoke up and said, “Hey, guys, these are dumb pieces and we should spike them,” and they were ignored because of the men they work with can only experience—and once again I really like what Caroline says here—the abstract concept of sexism. I’ve worked in enough newsrooms to have seen this happen on a regular basis. It’s not just with women, but any minority voice speaking up and being ignored because they are precisely that. There was a recent, high-profile example of this happening: SB Nation’s horrific story on serial rapist Daniel Holtzclaw, and the Deadspin investigation that found that senior editor Elena Bergeron “explicitly and repeatedly drew attention to the story’s flaws in the days leading to its publication—and was, somehow, ignored.” Somehow ignored? I know why she was ignored. While it’s speculation on my part that another woman at L.A. Weekly, Variety, or Vanity Fair read those pieces and went to their editors with objections, I know from experience that these situations constantly occur and will not be remedied until there is not only more diversity in the newsroom, but in the upper echelons of newsroom management. (Two of the four editors-in-chief of those publications are women. Where were they? Where are their voices of dissent?)
As a journalist, I think a lot about audience empathy, meeting the people who read me on their terms, and respecting their views and how those views are different from mine. So let’s have some empathy and think about sexism in the abstract, like these guys do. And yet, it still astounds me how little audience empathy these men have, or at least how misguided they are. These pieces are not meant for at least half of their readership, and from a journalistic standpoint, that blatant disregard for audience is why these pieces are so offensive. One of the great things about the internet, though, is that we as journalists can have more audience empathy than we ever had before. We know who reads us, when they read us, and how they read us. And it’s the audience’s job to tell us when we don’t do it right. These guys did it very, very wrong, and all they needed to do was to step outside their tiny worldview and look around for awhile.
Readers calling out lazy, sexist journalism such as this Vanity Fair piece through social media is a good, necessary action—one that draws more and more attention to the pervasive, incessant objectification of women in the media. If you see something, say something. However, such action is, of course, a prompt for change rather than the change itself. Which is why diversity in publishing (and all fields) matters so much. To Caroline’s and Molly’s points, it’s easier for those who’ve experienced this kind of sexism their entire lives to recognize it when they see it and tell their colleagues who’ve produced such writing to, Jesus Christ, cut it out already.
And most examples aren’t as obvious (and ridiculous) as this current one. No matter how subtle, however, each example of devaluing women, of reducing them to their bodies, supports a culture in which writers like Rich Cohen get paid to jizz in their pants by way of writing.
So perhaps when writing about a woman, writers should ask themselves a few questions: Am I paying more attention to her eyes, lips, tits, legs, etc. than her work? Why am I mentioning her eyes, lips, tits, legs, etc. to begin with? Would I write about a man this way? Did I just jizz on my story? If so, shouldn’t I, before submitting this story to my editor, wipe that jizz off the page?
So brilliant, Laura: Hard to follow after that mic drop, but I will try. Thank you, Molly, for pointing out the role of the editors, because that is what has really dumbfounded me about all of this. Vanity Fair’s editor Graydon Carter co-founded Spy, home of the masturbation fodder piece that Emily points to. And now his current publication is part of the problem.
Anyone at an A.V. Club pitch meeting will tell you that I have no shortage of bad ideas, but that’s why we have pitch meetings. In our A.V. Club conference room, we likely would tell Owen Gleiberman and Rich Cohen that there are more important and interesting things to discuss than what an actress looks like (Can we kill the word “actress” anyway? I barely agree with Gwyneth Paltrow about anything, but she’s right, it’s not “architectress.”)
Yes, I’m about to tie an onion onto my belt and start shouting at clouds, but I was freelancing and teaching for a while before I started working in the A.V. Club office about a year and a half ago. It had been years since I was in an office environment like this one. I am a lifelong liberal, and considered myself fairly progressive. And the women I now work with blow me away every day. They are extremely and politically mindful of the importance of every word we use (our copy desk is spearheading the gender non-specific “singular they”) and our edits on pieces, or even the strength just to tell someone, “You know, that’s not the best idea.” I’m also lucky enough to have editors like John Teti and Marah Eakin, who agreed to this piece almost before I finished my own pitch. There is a stronger, more empowered feminist mindset now, and if the menfolk at the top of journalistic heaps like Vanity Fair and Variety aren’t aware of it, they need to listen to the women working with and for them, who I’m sure are only too painfully aware of the sexism they’re perpetrating. We are now raising our daughters to become president, and there is no room, time, or space to be taken up by these demeaning puff pieces, reducing these awesome artists to a basic and damaging surface level.
Gwen makes an important point that should be obvious: The A.V. Club doesn’t run garbage sexist content because we have lots of women working here, an entirely female copy desk, and feminist men who listen to us when we provide a perspective on why something that might seem innocuous at first glance isn’t appropriate. Journalism and professional writing remain majority male professions, and that’s obviously part of the problem. I want to make the distinction between journalism and writing because I don’t consider the men who wrote these embarrassingly outdated and objectifying profiles about women to be practicing journalism. They are mouthing off because they have a platform, and apparently don’t have editors honing the content of their sites into anything resembling newsworthiness. Journalists aim to inform the public about important issues. Film critics write about film. Anyone can write about anything, but men masturbating to photos of Sky Ferreira is best left to the bowels of Reddit, where it belongs. Publications, storied and not, pay people for their content, so there’s really no excuse for allowing the kind of filth showcased here.
Coming three in a row highlights what function they serve. Women are told over and over again that they’re nothing but sexual objects to men, but those messages are easier to laugh off when it’s coming from 4Chan trolls and Twitter assholes. Coming from legitimate publications, though, hurts more. They’re hiding in the pages of respectable (or semi-respectable) news outlets that legitimize the message, again and again: You’re an object, you’re an object, you’re an object. It’s public, continuous confirmation of what all women know to be true: That no matter how hard we work, no matter our accomplishments or talent, we’ll always, unforgivably, be reduced to objects in the eyes of these men. It doesn’t matter that Margot Robbie is starring in one of the biggest blockbusters of the summer—more important is how sexy she is (and how coming from Australia somehow makes her a mystical foreign enigma—talk about forcing a metaphor). For Variety Chief Film Critic Owen Gleiberman, Renée Zellweger “won the lottery” because she starred alongside Tom Cruise and she wasn’t as hot as Nicole Kidman or Julia Roberts. It’s not her hard work or her talent that landed her that role, it was simple dumb luck. Art Tavana thinks that a female musician exists for his boner, criticizing Taylor Swift’s “candy-coated fakeness” in the same breath as, like Laura implied, jizzing all over Sky Ferreira’s album photo. He writes like he understands the female experience and that his opinions on these talented women is the correct one—it never even crosses his mind that they might be making music and putting forth a public image without him and his boner in mind.
So men, put away your boners. And editors, think about the standards of newsworthiness. “Fuckability” is not one of them.
While it’s often older actresses or those who’ve faced rumors of plastic surgery that face this type of coverage, there’s little focus on young women who have their childhoods sexualized and stolen because of this need to judge women on their physical merits. Take, for example, Ariel Winter from Modern Family. Just this year she was criticized for wearing a graduation dress that many called “too sexual”; at the same time, she was criticized when she decided to undergo breast-reduction surgery. These are criticisms she’s faced since coming of age on television and it doesn’t seem like anyone has stopped and thought, “Hm, maybe I shouldn’t be critiquing the body of a teenager.” This rush to mature young girls only intensifies when you consider women of color—who can forget a reporter asking an 11-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis if she had watched Annie when she was a little girl? While Wallis was quick to reply “Well, I’m still a little girl,” it’s odd that the media needs to be reminded of this.
I also think it’s amazing that Twitter came out against many of the articles originally mentioned, but can we really rely on social media to lead the charge on these call-outs? There’s a clear bias as to whom Twitter deems worthy of defense, and while many came out to support Rose McGowan, this is still a platform where Serena Williams was shamed for having “distracting nipples” as she won her 300th Grand Slam match win at Wimbledon. While there were tweets in support of Williams, an interview or featured article never seems necessary when her body is brought into the conversation. The sexualization of black female athletes and singers is rooted in a long history of “Jezebel” stereotypes surrounding hypersexualization, yet their plight is often ignored when conversations surrounding the female body and male gaze come up. It’s difficult terrain to navigate when black female artists/athletes’ bodies aren’t just sexualized by men, but are also seen as accessories by a number of women who think our hair and lips can be freely appropriated. It’s certainly harder to get people to speak out against the latter, but it’s still an issue that erases black female agency and reduces our bodies to parts available for consumption.
We’ve seen a flurry of these pieces in recent weeks, but they’re certainly not new. Noisey got in some feminist hot water earlier this year for its series of articles where its mostly male reporters went on “dates” with the musicians they had crushes on, a concept so steeped in 2016 blog journalism that it’s almost alarming. And while that Robbie thing ran in Vanity Fair (see also: Kim Kardashian’s recent GQ cover story, which, while written by a woman, opens with a tidbit about how soft her breasts are), I think at least some of this “hot take” sexism comes from the fact that, as mostly web-based journalists now, we’re constantly tasked with coming up with quick stories, interesting stories, and stories that are almost inherently personal. That’s where the Sky Ferreira story came from, if I had to guess. (In addition to a place of deep-seated sexism, of course.) It’s not interesting for some hits-crazed editor to have a lady talk about music and her life, so instead he asked some dude to, as Laura A. put it, jizz on the page and then he published it. And because of how we’re working now, I doubt that thing went through more than one copy editor before it went on the page, if that.
All of this being said, that kind of immediacy is a double-edged sword, because just as fast as something goes up, it can get passed around and reacted to. That insensitive writer can get their ass handed to them, and rightfully so. And so if we are loud, and we are proud, and we are angry, maybe it can make a difference. I’d also like to hope that applies to the newsrooms where these things are coming from. As women, some of us have been taught to have sheepish opinions. We might know something is wrong, but we might not say something, too afraid of making noise. If we do say something, we might be told we are wrong, and though we know we are not, we will back down, again, afraid of losing our jobs or of being labeled a bitch. If we can get more women in newsrooms—and, specifically, more women in positions of power in newsrooms—we can change the dynamics of power there. We can let ourselves become freer in our criticisms and more adamant when we know we’re right. And, hopefully, we can start writing and supporting the kinds of stories we want to write. It might be a long slog ahead of us, but every day, with every hire and with every gripe about these kinds of shitty, masturbatory stories, we can move things forward.
There’s so much great stuff above that it’s hard to imagine what I could possibly add. I’m lucky to work for several publications who go out of their way to make sure that women’s voices are heard and that our perspectives, even when they make men feel guilty or uncomfortable, are valued. (Cheers to you, A.V. Club, Consequence Of Sound, Comic Book Resources, et al.) And still, I find myself couching those opinions at nearly every turn.
“Now, I want to be clear, I’m not saying this is sexist. I’m saying it could be perceived as sexist, and that’s something it’s incredible important to avoid.”
“I’d never say that this is misogynist, but I do think it’s sorely lacking any acknowledgment of why women are upset, and nor does it make a point of saying that those feelings are warranted or acknowledge the larger problem.”
Again and again, I say things like that. Why? To what end? Diplomacy is a lovely thing, but surely, at some point, those pieces went past a woman’s desk. How did that happen?
Hiring matters, of course, and this is a great place to mention how well Samantha Bee’s commitment to diverse hiring at Full Frontal has served her (and thus all of us fortunate enough to watch the show). But once we’re in the room where it happens, so to speak, how can we make sure we’re being forthright enough? I’m tired of being diplomatic. I’m not sure any of us have a responsibility to be polite about the systemic sexism, the boner profiles, the dismissive attitude toward female anger, and so on. I’m not a good girl, damnit! Why do I keep acting like one?
If nothing else, this conversation with you brilliant women has been a great reminder that we do, at least, have strength in numbers, and there’s always someone ready to lend an ear, have your back, or just get mad—sometimes over a beer or two—when that’s what’s warranted. So cheers, Twitter, and cheers to you all.